The first arrow: Think of a time someone said something hurtful to you, and let’s try to break down what happened. A comment was made, and you probably experienced actual physical pain, most likely in the solar plexus or heart. (When the hurt is particularly strong, we sometimes say it feels like we’ve been punched in the gut, don’t we?)
What went on was that some fast-acting part of your brain believed you were being criticized or marginalized, and so identified the comment as a threat to your wellbeing. That part of your brain then attempted to alert the rest of the mind to this threat by sending signals to pain receptors in the body. This all happens in a fraction of a second, and automatically. You don’t “decide” to feel hurt.
This kind of hurt is an example of what, in a well-known teaching, the Buddha called “the first arrow.” We can try not to get shot by arrows, but emotional pain like we’ve been discussing, along with purely physical pain — as when we’re sick or injured — is unavoidable. Even the Buddha experienced physical and emotional discomfort.
The second arrow: The existence of a first arrow of course implies a second! The Buddha explained the “second arrow” as the way that the mind reacts to physical or emotional discomfort in ways that create even more pain. We do this by things like indulging in self-pity, thinking about how unfair it is that we got hurt, blaming ourselves, being critical of the other person, or rehashing the hurtful event over and over again, thinking about how we could have handled things differently. The mind compulsively returns to the painful event we’ve experienced, and every time we do so we cause ourselves yet more pain, because in remembering the hurt, we re-experience it. So as the Buddha said, this is like someone being hit by an arrow, and then reacting in a way that causes a second arrow to be unleashed. You probably did something like this after hearing the hurtful comment.
So there are these two arrows — two forms of pain.
The third arrow: But wait, there’s more! In the teaching of the two arrows, the Buddha talked about a third kind of pain: pain that’s deferred because of clinging to pleasure. This is less often talked about, perhaps because he didn’t offer a colorful image to illustrate it. I call this third form of pain the “third arrow,” and I’m going to supply the missing simile.
The Buddha gave a detailed explanation of how the third arrow works. He pointed out that when someone experiences the first arrow of unavoidable pain, he or she can feel resistance to the pain, and then “seek delight in sensual pleasure.” This is because, not having learned to work with the mind, the person “does not know of any escape from painful feeling other than sensual pleasure.” When we act this way we create a pattern of avoidance and denial that leads to yet further pain in the future.
This third arrow is an important teaching regarding addictive behaviors. Who among us is not afflicted with compulsiveness? Drinking alcohol, eating “comfort food,” watching TV, endlessly reading posts on social media sites, browsing the web, checking our phones for new messages — these are all ways of getting hits of dopamine, a neurotransmitter central to the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. And each of these activities is an escape from a painful feeling that in all likelihood we barely acknowledged.
The “third arrow” of deferred suffering is like when a person has been hit by an arrow and sees yet another one coming, but chooses to ignore it. Pretending nothing’s wrong, he or she indulges in activities like eating, drinking, shopping, watching TV, and checking Facebook. It’s not that any of these things is necessarily very pleasurable in itself, by the way. The “pleasure” we feel is often more like the comfortable numbness of compulsive activity.
Of course we can ignore our pain for a while, but we can’t distract ourselves indefinitely. Eventually that airborne dart — the “third arrow” that we’ve been ignoring — finds its target.
Avoiding the third arrow
If we understand, as the Buddha put it, the “origin and passing away” of a painful feeling (the first arrow), then we can relate to it differently. We know it’s not permanent. We know that it will pass. We can simply experience it without aversion. And in the open space of mindfulness that we’ve created, a painful feeling arises and then passes away.
A recent study showed that painful feelings like shame, fear, and humiliation pass in mere minutes. The less we react with the second arrow of mental self-torment, the quicker painful feelings dissipate. Even if they last longer (the same study showed that sadness can be remarkably persistent), if we don’t respond with the third arrow of denial and distraction, we won’t simply be deferring the pain to some future time.
Putting this into practice
I can pretty much guarantee that within the next half hour you’re going to encounter some kind of dissatisfaction (boredom, hurt, confusion, frustration, etc.) and them immediately be tempted to pursue the next dopamine hit by indulging in some kind of escape activity.
See if you can be alert instead. See if you can stay with the discomfort. Tell yourself it’s OK to have this painful feeling. Recognize that it’s impermanent and that it’ll dissipate as we observe it mindfully. Stay with it long enough for it to dissolve. And when it does, the “third arrow” of deferred suffering will dissolve too, mid-flight.