The Two Arrows Teaching– How to Minimize Needless Suffering

It believed that through mindfulness, one can avoid the second arrow of suffering. Picture Source: Pixabay


I first became acquainted with the two arrows teaching through my husband. In his perusal of mindfulness literature, he inadvertently stumbled across this gem. From the moment he shared this teaching with me, I was hooked. Though I am not a Buddhist, I can not deny the brilliance of this teaching.

Indeed, in recent weeks, I had myself been toying with an analogy to describe needless suffering. Due to an argument with a close friend, I was tormented for many days with great pain and sadness. That pain gave me fresh insight on the phenomenon of self-inflicted suffering.

I wish to share both my self-thought analogy and the two arrows teaching with you in this article.

My Theory – The Stabbing Knife

When someone hurts us, he creates a knife and stabs us with it. Then, he hands the knife over to us. We can choose to take the knife and stab ourselves with it or we can drop the knife and walk away from it. Picture Source: Pixabay

When someone inflicts harm upon us (e.g. hurting us with callous criticism), we feel enormous pain. His actions have forged a stabbing knife. The perpetrator stabs the knife into our hearts and pulls it out. He then hands the knife over to us and walks away. At this point, we are given two choices. We can either drop the knife and walk away from the crime scene or we can take the knife and continue plunging it into our hearts.

Most people choose the latter. Through the act of constant recollection of the incident and the engaging in gossip and needless speculation of the sins of the perpetrator, we choose to take the knife and stab it into our hearts repeatedly.

As a result, the pain becomes more and more intense each time. Research has shown that when one retrieves a memory of suffering, one relives, to the same intensity, the pain that was felt at the moment of the event.

When we choose to engage in gossip and character assassination, we can never recover. Our wounds remain constantly fresh and we become increasingly bitter and angry.

Fortunately, there is another option. If we choose the former (i.e. to forgive and to love our enemy), we drop the knife and walk away from the crime scene. In time, our wounds are healed. In time, we will feel happy again.

The Two Arrows Teaching

This teaching is predicated on the presence of two kinds of suffering (i.e. two arrows) in this world. The first kind of suffering is unavoidable (e.g. disease, heartbreaks, old age, abuse). The second kind of suffering is avoidable (i.e needless rumination, presumption, gossiping, refusal to accept the first arrow).

The Buddha teaches that if one is able to be mindful of the first arrow, the second arrow can be avoided. In other words, after the first arrow is launched, the second arrow need not be released. We are able to stop ourselves from hurting ourselves further by engaging in self-destructive habits.

Knee Jerk Reactions

It is unfortunate but true that for most of us, the knee jerk reaction to the first arrow is to complain and engage in some form of needless gossip and presumption. We believe that in doing so, we would be exacting revenge on our perpetrators. We believe that when justice is meted, we would feel happy again.

Unfortunately, this is not true. If we continue to respond with these knee jerk reactions, peace and joy will always elude us.

A priest shared a poignant story of an 80 year old lady who could not forgive her father. On her death bed, she was still recollecting the pains of her childhood. This poor lady had been stabbing herself with the second arrow repeatedly over the past seven decades. In doing so, she has caused herself so much pain. Her soul had grown bitter and tired.

This story serves as a reminder to us all to stop engaging in needless practice of engaging in complain and gossip. The sins of others are between them and God, they are none of our business.

To Catholics: We cannot go to the confessional on behalf of others. Therefore, we need not engage in the unhealthy practice of speculation on their sins. Instead, let us always head to the confessional to confess our own sins, particularly that of unforgiveness. When we do so, we avail ourselves of the graces needed to stop stabbing ourselves with the second arrow (please forgive my merging of the two analogies in this statement).

When we forgive our brethren from the bottom of our hearts, true joy and peace will be given to us by God. Today, let us choose to walk away from the knife/second arrow and never look back.

I hope that you have found this article useful. I look forward to sharing more musings with you soon.



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Denise Thong

Denise Thong

Counsellor, Writer (Christianity, Children’s short stories)