Pain, Suffering and Second Arrows

By on Oct 1, 2014 in Pathways | 2 comments

My recent entries have been about the relationship between the Divine Feminine and Sacred Masculine. I am setting that focus aside for a while so that I can explore other themes. I will likely return to it in late December or early January. I’ll be using the time to reflect and mulch the issue more deeply. And I will very likely present other workshops on this topic after the first of the year.

Pain, Suffering and Second Arrows

I have recently encountered the Buddhist concept of second arrows. The concept arises from a sutra (teaching) of The Buddha which essentially explains that experience often involves pain and frequently this pain is unavoidable. That is the first arrow. What we do with this pain, our attitude toward it, is the second arrow. It is this arrow that involves the most pain and is the one we choose and thus can impact. Unfortunately, many times we repeatedly stab ourselves with it. Actually as I observe people they stab themselves multiple times creating the third, fourth, fifth, sixth……. hundredth arrow. For some people this can go on for years or a life time.

There are many examples of this:

First, a friend was going through a very difficult time and made two decisions that were unwise. The consequences were a very painful first arrow. Then he entered into a period of inordinately deep self-criticism for what he considered his many “failures” throughout his life. The consequences of his decisions were bad enough and once the poor choices were made were rather unavoidable. But the lengthy period of self-criticism compounded the pain. Each critique became another arrow.

Second, a father allowed a son to borrow the car who had a fatal accident. The pain of this first arrow was understandably excruciating. But then he entered into a period in which he continued to stab himself with hundreds of subsequent arrows blaming himself for permitting the use of the car while logically knowing that he could not have foreseen this tragedy.

Our attitude moves pain which is unavoidable to suffering which is avoidable. Second arrows involve repeatedly stabbing ourselves with blame, guilt, self-criticism and anger. After stubbing one’s toe the person goes from the pain to inner thoughts “How can I be so clumsy as to not see the table leg.” Or, after doing poorly on an exam moving to “How can I be so stupid.”

The second arrow is often a way to cover over the sense of powerlessness. If we feel guilt then there is someone to blame and we can prevent it from happening again. If we feel guilt for giving the keys there might be a way to undo it all.

The extent to which people verbally abuse themselves is amazing. Often people don’t need external enemies because they are their own biggest enemy constantly stabbing themselves with more arrows.

Traditional psychology refers to this as the “inner critic.” The Sufis refer to these processes with the wonderful phrase “The Evil Whisperer.”

As we grow in awareness and consciousness it is helpful to track these processes and work at increasing our self compassion.


  1. The ability to not throw the second (third, fourth…) arrow… What is the key?

    Can we acknowledge that there are a range of experiences with respect to the first arrow which may influence one’s success in avoiding the second?

    Take the case of the son’s fatal accident, for example. Consider that the father gave his keys to his son yet suspected he might be impaired in his ability to drive. The son then has a fatal accident. How does this scenario differ from the father you mention who loans his car to his son in the absence of any suspicion (“logically knowing that he could not have foreseen the tragedy”)?

    Oftentimes we are at the mercy of life’s first arrows and truly have no ability to prevent them. At other times we may have had an intuition or an ability to foresee danger, yet we got it wrong.

    Can you offer any tools for those who may have played a more active role in not preventing the first arrow (however unintentional)? These souls tend to have a steeper climb toward letting go of the second…

    Thank you!


    October 1, 2014

  2. Kerri
    You raise a very important issue. Life is more complex in many ways than my last entry implies. My next entry will focus on some thoughts about avoiding the arrows. Not that there are any easy answers or exact methods, but I’ll share some thoughts which will be put forward in a very gentle way. For the moment, what is clear to me is that compassion for self and others is crucial. More to come on this.

    C. Graham Campbell

    October 4, 2014

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