I have a Zen Buddhist teacher who talks about the 1st and 2nd arrows. He explains that when something disagreeable, unpleasant or bad happens to you, like having a flat tire or breaking your leg, that is the 1st arrow. The first arrow will hurt, or at least annoy you. But it is the 2nd arrow – your reaction to the circumstance of the 1st arrow that can really be the problem. For example, if you get a flat tire (the 1st arrow) and it makes you mad and you kick that tire and break your foot (2nd arrow) – it is the 2nd arrow that caused the real pain. Similarly, if you break your leg, this is a bigger 1st arrow than the tire, and it can be painful and debilitating. But if you rage against it or get depressed about it, then your attitude, the 2nd arrow, can make the situation worse. The 2nd arrow, the anger, worry, fear, aversion that follow, can be worse than the 1st arrow and can expand the pain and sometimes make it impossible to get beyond the situation.
This was very clearly demonstrated for me with a friend I have. I walked her dog twice a week for a several years and we would have long lively talks over coffee after those walks. I looked forward to visiting her and those talks. I was walking her dog because she could no longer walk her. Over the time I was walking her dog, due to several medical conditions, she was becoming more and more limited in her movement and independence. Eventually she had to move into an assisted living facility and she had to use an electric wheelchair. The loss of her mobility, her independence, her life as she knew it made her so unhappy. She had been a really vibrant active and caring person who did a lot for other people. But as she changed, I could see that she became more focused on herself and that she became consumed by anger about her situation and jealousy about other’s lives. It got so I didn’t want to go see her because she was so unhappy and negative about everything. Her situation was bad, there was no denying that, but the anger didn’t make it better. In fact, the anger pushed people away and made it worse for her in so many ways.
About 4 months ago, after several hospital stays, she was put on home hospice care. Hospice helped control her pain and ended the many doctor’s visits that she hated. The interesting thing is that now she is so much happier and serene. I mentioned this to her – that I had noticed that she seemed more content and comfortable now and happy to see visitors. She said it was true that the anxiety and worry she had before was gone. She has quit fighting her situation, she had quit worrying about things and her anger was gone. She has let go of that 2nd arrow. The first arrow is still there, but her attitude about herself and her life has changed drastically.
In thinking about this topic, I realize that people in our writing group are wonderful examples of letting go of the 2nd arrow. I see optimism and focusing outward—concern and caring for others, where there could be negativity and focusing inward. So I want to thank you for being such good life role models for me.