The Arrow — Buddhist attitudes to pleasure and pain

The sutta called “The Arrow” further explores the Buddhist teachings on the best way to relate to our feelings. When we encounter something that leads to pain (or even just dissatisfaction) we tend to then start up a whole bunch of mental processes that lead to more suffering — often adding more pain than there was originally. We experience aversion to the dissatisfaction, and then indulge in blaming, and criticism, and generally whine. So it’s as if our response to being shot by an arrow is to shoot ourselves with another arrow.

And often when we experience something pleasurable, we tend to cling to the supposed source of pleasure. Of course, since all sources of pleasure are impermanent, we again end up causing ourselves more pain.

A wiser course of action is to avoid that second arrow by simply experiencing discomfort without reacting to it. We do this by being mindful — cultivating a patient, non-reactive, curious, and welcoming attitude towards anything in our experience that seems unpleasant.

We can also adopt this attitude towards anything that’s pleasurable. We call this attitude equanimity. Equanimity isn’t a state of non-feeling, it’s a state of freedom from habitual patterns of thought and emotion that lead to further pain. When we experience this freedom we become happier.

5 Comments. Leave new

  • […] of my favorite Buddhist teaching stories is the one about the two arrows. For example, when we stub our foot, the first arrow is the actual pain of doing that. Ouch, this […]

  • […] so that when the time comes (far in the future, I hope) I have truly expunged myself of the “second arrow” – the feelings arising out of this situation – so that I can unselfishly […]

  • Pain and pleasure are inherent in the experience of humans. I see the tendency of which you speak, for people to deal with emotions unproductively sometimes. However, just because it’s often hard to figure out why bad things happened, doesn’t mean one will always be unproductive or think negatively. Also, since I am not focused exclusively on my own pleasure or pain (sensing the oneness of the universe), I continue to find that my unhappiness is with the miserable lot of many other people living in my world.

    • Hmmm. Yes. You are right Cynthia. Like you, I see and feel, the injustice, pain and suffering of innocent humans and other animals. Far too much!
      The awareness of the second arrow is …… a shield. Not a perfect shield. But a very useful shield. That is what I have found …… at some times.
      Reading your comment, I can feel your compassion for other beings.
      I send you my warmest wishes. Simply. Sincerely. Christine.

  • […] On my way back, I had somehow gotten more distance from the other thoughts to remember that what the Stoics suggest is to sit down and take things apart, break down the incident into its components and try to do that as objectively as possible. So what had happened? Someone had used the word delusional in a comment in response to one of my comments. My mind then added all the other stuff: The interpretation that she was calling me delusional (which, having stepped back, I had to admit wasn’t completely clear, she might’ve called someone else’s reaction that), conjuring up memories of all those past hurts, equating being by myself with not deserving love, etc etc etc. All the sudden it became clear that I had created most of the suffering. Yes, there had been a pinprick but my mind added all the other arrows. […]


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