The Second Arrow


Before I started practising mindfulness, I thought that I reacted to situations almost exclusively through my thoughts. If I liked someone, I experienced positive thoughts about them. If I was worried about something, I had anxious thoughts. if I was angry with someone, I would think about how annoyed I was with them. What I didn’t do as much, was relate emotions with sensations in the body.

I now realise that there’s almost no where in the body where we don’t feel emotions. I often lead a mindfulness exercise in which I ask the group to call to mind a time when they felt a bit stressed or anxious about something. I then ask them to bring their attention to each part of their body in turn, to notice what sensations they can feel.

People feel tension everywhere from their toes to their forehead, the centre of their chest, their back and shoulder to their belly. They often feel that their whole body has become tight and heavy. They feel sensations in places they’d never noticed tension before.

One of the first times I really remember making the link between my emotions and sensations in my body, was after receiving an email which I thought was really unfair. My jaw was tight as a vice for a least a week afterwards.

With mindfulness you can train yourself to notice the emotional reactions that you’re having in ‘higher resolution’, that is to say noticing them appear, disappear and feeling the changing sensations in between. One of the advantages of this is choosing your response to that emotion more skilfully so that you can let go of unpleasant feelings more quickly.

An analogy that’s often used in mindfulness is the double arrow: first we’re hit with an unpleasant emotion, and that’s painful. Then we respond to it by beating ourselves up for feeling that way. That’s the second arrow, and it does more damage that the first.

Some advice I got recently was that it helps to take your emotions less seriously. Write down a critical thought you often have and then imagine a cartoon or film character saying the same thing. Apparently Yoda is a popular choice! Try putting it to a familiar tune. Maybe imagine Errol Flynn firing an arrow at you, and dodge out the way. By making light of it, it becomes less solid, less immovable and easier to see the absurdity of.

I’ll leave you with this quote from Victor Frankl:

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”


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