The Second Arrow: The Nature of Suffering


All creatures suffer. Some of the pain we experience in life is unavoidable, such as sickness and death. However, much of the distress we feel arises from our own ignorance (not knowing), fear and unskillful actions.

There is a sutta (teaching) of the Buddha that illustrates this phenomena. The Salla Sutta (in English, the “Arrow” or “Dart”) is part of the Samyutta Nikaya from the the Sutta Pitaka (Basket of Discourses). It goes like this:

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.” – Sallatha Sutta as translated by Thanissaro Bikkhu

This means  that when something difficult happens and we have not trained our minds to see things as they truly are, we tend to pile an extra layer of suffering upon ourselves through the meaning we make of the experience, the associated afflictive emotions that arise from this narrative, and any unskillful actions we take as a result.

The Causes of Suffering

As a child, I asked my mom what dust was and she said it was little bits of everything falling apart. This might have been my first realization of impermanence. Looking back, I can see the stages of grief I went through in my journey toward acceptance of this basic truth. Everything falls apart, ends, changes, transforms into something else.

Very often, our instinct is to defend against such truths through denial and avoidance, to fight or struggle against them, or to resort to nihilism (telling ourselves it doesn’t matter anyway or we don’t care). We also cling to ideas and concepts that feel more acceptable or agreeable to us.  It is in this endless cycle of pushing away and clinging to that we cause ourselves and others additional suffering. This is the second arrow.

The Antidotes to Suffering

How do we prevent this additional layer of suffering that we heap upon ourselves? How might we leave the second arrow in its quiver? Chogyam Trungpa said, “We work on the projector rather than the projection. We turn inward, instead of trying to sort out external problems of A, B, and C.”

Making any number of external changes (which is often our first instinct when we feel bad) generally leads to, at most, some temporary relief rather than longer term peace or happiness. If the picture we are seeing on the screen is unsatisfactory, it makes more sense to examine the projector (the mind), rather than the picture because the picture is only a projection (an illusion) while the projector is the source.

This does not mean that we cease to feel or care. According to Frank Jude Boccio in his article for Yoga Magazine, Calm Within, “A balanced heart is not an unfeeling heart. The balanced heart feels pleasure without grasping and clinging at it, it feels pain without condemning or hating, and it stays open to neutral experiences with presence.”  He suggests the following meditation to cultivate equanimity:

  • All beings, including myself, are responsible for our own actions.
  • Suffering or happiness is created through one’s relationship to experience, not by experience itself.
  • Although I wish only the best for myself and others, I know that happiness or unhappiness depends on our own actions, not wishes.
  • May we not be caught in reactivity.

In order to bypass the second arrow, we have to be aware of the first arrow as well as our habitual reactions. Instead of futilely attempting to avoid inevitable pain, we closely observe body sensations, thoughts, feelings, and urges to action that accompany it with a sense of curiosity and openness as well as an attitude of self-compassion. With practice, we make space to relate to pain in a new way – one that does not create additional suffering for ourselves and others.

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