HMC Day 12: Pain vs. suffering — the two arrows

Holiday Meditation Challenge Day 12.png

In Buddhism there is a teaching known as The Two Arrows.

It goes something like this. If you are walking through the woods and get struck in the arm by an arrow, there is undeniable physical pain. (No argument there, right??)

But then, once the crisis has passed…

 what if you start obsessing about who did this to you, and needing to get revenge?

 what if you cling to the idea that this should never have happened in the first place — after all, you have every right to go for a walk in the woods!

 what if you agonize over the shape of the scar…

 or the fear that the pain will never subside…

 or the dread that it might happen to you again someday?

You’re getting hit with a second, figurative “arrow”: the arrow of suffering. You not only had to endure the pain of the first arrow, but now, you are faced with the emotional tumult created by a second arrow.

This is not about blaming yourself for your thoughts or feelings, but about paying attention to what stories your mind creates in the aftermath of a painful event. There is no judgment here: We ALL create stories in our minds. It’s actually GREAT news to realize that pain and suffering are not one and the same; that we have some degree of control over how much suffering we subject ourselves to.

The Two Arrows is about noticing our own role in creating suffering, owning it as our own creation, and be willing to let it go. I know — easier said than done 

Noticing suffering, accepting reality as-is and taking the next best step is a repetitive process that happens all throughout our lives, over and over and OVER again. You cannot perfect this. You can only practice it.

Sit for 10 minutes. Practice breath awareness until you begin to notice discomfort as it arises in your body, whether it’s major or minor. Notice the sensations of pain, numbness, throbbing, stinging, burning, and notice any thoughts or urges that go along with your objective observations. Notice the difference between observing/describing the sensations themselves and the thoughts that stem from the sensations (“what does it mean that my back always hurts when I sit this way?” “will I always have neck pain?” “why am I so stressed out all the time?”). Notice how the thoughts ABOUT the pain are what set off a chain of emotions like anxiety, sadness or frustration. Practice setting aside the suffering part (the second arrow), and staying with the sensations themselves (the first arrow).
>> If you’d rather do this in a guided format, check out Ron Siegel’s meditation #186 here (it’s about 20 minutes):

**If you missed the introductory post, welcome to the Holiday Meditation Challenge! To receive a summary of each week’s assignments in e-mail form so you can go back to them anytime, click here: