Avoiding the Second Arrow

This is a repost from before COVID-19 and the passing of my father. It still resonates for me and I hope it does for you.

I recently finished Dan Harris’ book, Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics, wherein the concept of the second arrow came up. This Buddhist parable is explained by Phillip Perry: “In the parable of the arrow, sometimes called the second arrow, you picture yourself walking through a forest. Suddenly, you’re hit by an arrow. This causes you great pain. But the archer isn’t done. Can you avoid the second one? That’s the arrow of emotional reaction. Dodge the second by consciously choosing contemplation. It will help you avoid a lot of suffering.” I’ve been struck by second arrows my whole life. Wow. Wouldn’t it be great to avoid all that suffering?

Here are some ideas on how to avoid that second arrow:

Own it

The first is to realize that it is within you to control the second arrow. You never need to even release the bow. It’s easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of should-haves and could-haves. I think of my friend Angie who experienced a horrific car accident several months back. I can imagine that if it was me, I would have beat myself up for not leaving 5 minutes earlier, or working from home that day, or driving in the right lane instead of the left. Acceptance that something bad has happened and not trying to recreate history is the first step. I think of regrets about my now two ex-husbands, all the what if I had never married them? I would, of course, be living in Paris right now writing poetry and living next to the Seine. These day dreams are merely fantasy and have no reality. Getting caught up in the pain of regret is something you can control. Own it and accept it.

Blame Game

The second arrow shows up as self-recrimination for most of us. Our self-talk is far worse than anyone would ever say to your face. What are you telling yourself? I get on the scale and beat myself up for that brownie yesterday and only walking one mile. Can you imagine telling your child, your friend, your co-worker, heck even your enemy, the same thing? “Hey fatso, why did you have the brownie yesterday and only walk a mile?” I didn’t think so. Stop blaming yourself for everything that befalls you. This suffering is not helping you in anyway. It’s not going to change the trajectory you are on. Beating yourself up for losing your job, getting a divorce or losing money on Bitcoin isn’t going to change a thing and it will engulf you in suffering. Get off of the blame game.


There are many ways to get to contemplation. I like the fact that Dan Harris espouses that even one minute of meditation can be helpful. Most people are so afraid they won’t achieve perfection with meditation, yoga, or prayer; that they give up before they even start. There is an expectation that you will be able to empty your mind and sit peacefully for hours without a care in the world. That is unreasonable. That is perfection. I’ve been meditating for years and my head has yet to be empty of thought. So why do it? Because I have been able to control my response. I can discern. When I endure pain of the first arrow, I can respond instead of reacting. Contemplation brings discernment.

Feel the feels

I have learned this in coaching. We need to feel the feeling. We must experience it. Essentially, we must feel the pain of that first arrow fully. Name it (such as rejection, anger, sadness, loneliness, etc.). Experience it fully (such as tightness in my throat, tension in my shoulders, upset stomach, etc.). Don’t numb it out (such as online shopping, drinking, gaming, etc.) or hope it goes away. Phone or grab coffee with a friend. Reflect on the emotion with someone you trust. When you try to go around the feeling, that second arrow takes over. The suffering takes over as you try and escape from the pain of the first arrow. You must go through and feel the feels, instead of trying to go around.


I wrote about my father’s recent medical issues and how he feels so fortunate because he is not as bad off as others. He told me to be grateful that I am in good health. This is the same take away from my friend Angie and her car crash that could have (and was so drastic, it should have) killed her. She is focused on the other driver and grateful that she was not in ICU. Counting your blessings helps you be grateful for what you have instead of looking and comparing what you don’t have (the second arrow). I might want a new car with Bluetooth and defrosting rearview mirrors, but I am grateful for not having a car payment and that my car is running just fine. I don’t need to suffer from the comparison I make with my co-worker and their brand-new ride. Gratitude stops the second arrow from launching.

The second arrow is a choice. I don’t have to experience the second arrow. Realizing that helps diminish the worry and catastrophizing, as I would have done years ago. I’m not perfect and I have been guilty of jumping ahead towards suffering, but it has subsided over time. How can you avoid the second arrow?

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