Second Arrows II

By on Oct 19, 2014 in Pathways | 2 comments

My October 1st entry was an initial description of the Buddhist concept of Second Arrow. There was a quick response both on line and from friends in conversation. In essence the responses asked “How do we stop inflicting this on ourselves?” And, “How do we deal with difficult situations in which we feel we have played a part in a tragedy?” Many, many situations are surrounded with gray areas and muddy water not focused on in the first posting.

I am grateful for the opportunity to continue this topic and explore related questions.

The eight thoughts I am sharing are tentative and given in a spirit of compassion and care.

1. In this teaching, the Buddha does not make the distinction between situations in which we have played a part and those in which we supposedly were not directly involved. Suffering is suffering. And second arrows are second arrows no matter what the situation.

2. It is precisely in the tragic situations where we may have contributed in some unconscious or accidental way that we are most in need of compassion rather than self-criticism. This is where our broken heartedness is most powerful and our sorrow most deep.

3. When “mistakes” are made it is important to learn from them so that they aren’t repeated. At times we need to go through a period of deep self- inquiry about our role in any situation. Avoiding second arrows is not about avoiding accountability. But it is about keeping the self-inquiry compassionate. This period of inner questioning is focused on preparation for continuing our lives not penance for sins, mistakes and flaws.

4. Lengthy periods of self-blame and recrimination simply do not help. They undercut our strength and ability to learn from the problem. These things only serve to deepen the wound of loss and grief.

5. One of the ways to decrease inflicting this suffering on ourselves is (paradoxically) becoming an expert in the ways we do this to ourselves. We can spend lots of time tracking the process noting every time we engage in it. In this way we come to see the patterns clearly. The more clearly we see how it works the more we can change it. We can track every single whisper of unwarranted anger, blame and hurtful speech. Too often we flog ourselves with words in the same way that medieval monks flogged themselves with whips.

6. Often it helps to not only watch and think but write out the thoughts so that we can see them as well as think them. Begin by writing out every negative thought. Then write out the counter to the negative. So that, “How could I be so stupid?” transforms into “I wish I had responded differently and certainly next time I will.” The sentence, “I gave him the car keys. It is my fault.” Transforms into “I gave him the car keys because I did not see clearly and wanted to avoid conflict” becomes “I will learn how to see more clearly and handle conflict.” “I caused the death” transforms into “No one meant for this to happen.”

7. Much of this sort of self-abuse comes from our hidden, unconscious view of God. For many people, God has become the one who hurls lightning bolts at sinners, flawed people and assorted others who do not quite measure up. For them God spends most of his time plotting wrathful punishment of anyone who is less than perfect. People then often adopt this attitude toward themselves. Unfortunately most organized religions foster this. In reality the Divine Spirit is much more likely to say, “My child the loss of your son is suffering enough. There is no need to continue this inner whispering.”

8. In the Buddhist practice of loving kindness meditation a meditator brings to mind an image of several people and repeats the statements: May You know peace. May your body remain healthy. May you walk with equanimity. The process brings up loved ones, then friends, then people who seem difficult and finally people with whom we are in conflict. BUT the process begins with the self. May I know inner peace. May my body remain healthy. May I walk with equanimity. If one cannot love oneself, love for others is blunted. It is important to note also that Jesus, quoting from Leviticus, says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

In all of this, the process is to establish compassion in an encompassing circle. Compassion in 360 degrees. Compassion in a circle that includes ourselves. This circle involves taking total responsibility for all of our actions but does so in a loving context. Loving ourselves as well as our neighbor since really we are one and the same. The commitment to nonviolence includes the commitment to ending our inner war with ourselves. As the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says in his book Living Buddha, Living Christ, “If we create true harmony within ourselves we learn how to deal with family, friends and society.”


  1. These insights are very helpful and make avoiding Second Arrows seem more achievable.

    The notion of focusing on preparation to continue on our journey emphasizes the importance of striving to move forward v. anchoring down in guilt.

    “Compassion is a circle that includes ourselves” – we certainly can’t avoid Second Arrows if we are sitting outside this Circle!

    Thank you


    October 25, 2014

  2. Thank you for your comment Kerri. I like the image of guilt as an anchor. It certainly keeps many of us grounded, stuck and limited. It is hard to sail if the anchor of our boat is dragging along the bottom.


    C. Graham Campbell

    October 29, 2014

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