The Tale of Two Arrows

Neither an archer nor a target be…

The Tale of Two Arrows from the Sallatha Sutta is an interesting representation of how humans experience physical and emotional pain.  When experiencing physical pain, the human body suffers a bodily sensation, discomfort or injury. In this depiction, this pain is referred to as the first arrow. The second arrow however, is the emotional response to the first arrow or the physical sense.  As humans, we may spend hours, days or even years lamenting, analysing, reliving the pain or the infliction of the first arrow. This second arrow, is the mental anguish associated with examining regrets, bemoaning or reprimanding our past actions or undergoing anxiety of the future that is associated with this pain. The moral of the tale is that while the first arrow is involuntary, we can be taught to avoid launching the self-inflicted second or any subsequent arrows.

One morning, preoccupied with getting to an appointment on time, I hastily picked up my then toddler while balancing a few bags in hand and rushed us both out the front door. I bolted up a flight of stairs and almost immediately, I tripped.  I winced in pain from a twisted ankle and realised my child had fallen out of my arms onto the concrete floor.  She did not sustain any injuries and in fact, I can still see her rather unperturbed facial expression staring back at me. This incident happened many years ago. While my ankle recovered within days, I have continued to suffer the effects of secondary arrows.  When I am in a hurry, it is not uncommon for me to be transported back in time and I relive the awful guilt for not being more careful and wave accusing fingers at myself for having dropped my toddler onto concrete. At times I even catch myself wondering if my child has secured any “yet to be discovered” injuries!

There are so many such incidents that have occurred during my parenting journey, that have involved physical injuries to myself or my children, as well as corresponding emotional wounds too. Some days when friends ask me “How are you?” I find myself replying with diminishing vitality “I feel tired”. While I am not physically tired, what I am expressing is more akin to emotional or mental exhaustion. It is likely that I am drained from nursing these wounds from secondary arrows which arise from unfounded fears, critical self-doubt, futile regret or even unreasonable expectations of myself.

Armed with realisations from this teaching, I will put my bow down and choose to attend to wounds of any first arrows with empathy, self-compassion and personal forgiveness.  I will no longer allow myself to be a target for arrows of mental anguish that are launched by my unconscious, uninstructed inner critic.

 

The Tale of Two Arrows (Translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu) “When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows; in the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental… 

Now, the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones, when touched with a feeling of pain, does not sorrow, grieve, or lament, does not beat his breast or become distraught. So he feels one pain: physical, but not mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, did not shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pain of only one arrow. In the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones does not sorrow, grieve, or lament, does not beat his breast or become distraught. He feels one pain: physical, but not mental.”

 

 

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