The weekend that my wife told me she wanted a divorce, she took our kids away so that she could spend a few days with a friend. The children, who were four and six years old at the time, had been at school all day and I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to them. My wife thought this was no big deal, but to me it was a hard blow at a difficult time, and it set me up for a lonely weekend in an empty home. As with many people, my first instinct was to stuff myself with unhealthy, fatty foods, and to open a bottle of wine.
I imagine that evolutionary biology would say that we’ve evolved the instinct to eat high calorie foods at times of crisis, to help us weather whatever trials are ahead of us. Experientially, fatty, salty, carb-laden food like burgers and fries just feel comforting in the short term. But they often leave us uncomfortable, bloated, sluggish, and unhealthy. I felt this urge, but since I’d been working on being self-compassionate, I decided that a Thai curry, full of fresh vegetables, would be healthier and more pleasurable in the long term. I also avoided the temptation to drink, since I knew that was likely to make me feel depressed and self-pitying. I touched base with a few friends in order to let them know what was going on, and to get some emotional support. I went for a walk. I meditated.
None of this made the emotional pain I was going through vanish. Nor could I expect it to. But I wasn’t hiding from my pain, and I wasn’t doing anything that was going to negatively affect my wellbeing in the long-term. In fact I was doing many things—from exercising to bonding with friends—that would make me more resilient in the future.
The Buddha gave a very well-known teaching on the “two arrows,” which pointed out that the mind reacts to pain with resistance, which then causes more pain. Our initial pain is like being shot by an arrow. The pain that comes from our reactions is like being shot by a second arrow. But there’s a third arrow as well! This third arrow is in the same teaching, but for some reason the Buddha didn’t offer an image to go with it. Here’s how it’s described:
Touched by that painful feeling, he delights in sensual pleasure. Why is that? Because the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person does not discern any escape from painful feeling aside from sensual pleasure.
It’s not so much pleasure that becomes our escape from pain, but its pursuit. Pursuing pleasure can distract us from pain, even if we never actually experience any pleasure. Emotional eating, trying to drink our sorrows away, compulsive Netflix binges, and so on — if they’re enjoyable at all, they usually end up making us feel worse in some way.
So what kind of arrow is the third arrow? Perhaps we could think of it as an arrow that’s been dipped in a narcotic drug. It numbs us for a while, but it leaves us with an emotional hangover.
The healthy alternative to the third arrow is practicing wise self-care. Wise self-care is any course of action that contributes to our long-term happiness and wellbeing and that helps us to cope better with our painful feelings.
Wise self-care is the opposite of the third arrow. Third arrow activity involves pursuing pleasure in an attempt to escape painful feelings; wise self-care starts with accepting those feelings. Third arrow actions have short-term pleasure as their aim; wise self-care takes into account our long-term happiness and wellbeing
Third arrow actions are reactive and unwise; wise self-care, as the name suggests, comes from a deeper, more mature perspective. Third arrow actions result in more suffering being created; wise self-care reduces our suffering, and in fact liberate us from suffering. Third arrow actions prevent us from growing and learning; wise self-care leads to growth. The third arrow is blind and habitual; wise self-care is aware and consciously chosen.
Wise self-care isn’t necessarily all about dealing with crises, though. It can be an ongoing effort to deal with the minor difficulties we experience in life.
If you keep trying to push away the jarring effect of being in messy surroundings, wise self-care might mean decluttering the house. If you worry about money and find looking at your bank balance to be stressful, it might mean creating a household budget. If you have low energy, wise self-care might mean getting eight hours of sleep, or taking a walk on your lunch break. It might involve making sure you see the doctor annually and the dentist twice a year, or taking a day off when you’re sick. It might mean setting up a daily meditation practice, or reading a book instead of watching TV. These are things that help us, and that also help us to help others. If we take care of and nourish ourselves, then we have more energy to help support others. In the long run, we need to take care of ourselves if we’re to be of service to others.
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