The Two Arrows: Pain & Suffering

A teaching from the Buddha. There are two arrows. The first arrow that hits us (an unexpected event,…

A teaching from the Buddha.

There are two arrows. The first arrow that hits us (an unexpected event, situation, illness etc) causes great pain and hardship. It hurts us.

The second arrow is our own reaction to this pain and hardship. This second arrow’s name is suffering.

 The teaching is that pain & hardship are unavoidable for us all, however, suffering is a choice.  Our relationship to pain and hardship are what to a great extent influences our suffering.

 I see this in my clients, friends, family and myself at times – that suffering by attaching to repeating the same thoughts, patterns and reactive behaviours can lead us to feeling stuck, hopeless, angry, anxious, overwhelmed and more. Experiencing pain and hardship – whatever it may be, feels often all-consuming. It can feel overwhelming and unending.  Although the pain and hardship may be unavoidable, our suffering rests on whether we choose to stay in the pain or look for a way out.

The Physiological Lifespan of an Emotion

Harvard Neuroscientist Jill Bolte-Taylor concluded that the physiological lifespan of emotion in the body and brain is 90 seconds: arise, peak and dissipate.

 Our relationship to pain and hardship however is what keeps the emotions going.  This causes the sympathetic system’s fight/flight/freeze/facade response to be activated.  The cause of this activation is often unconscious memories being triggered (memories between birth and 7 years, or a traumatic incident later in life), that is maybe not a real threat to life in the ‘now’, yet absolutely feels like a real threat.  So what to do?

The challenge here is to make the unconscious conscious.  

This involves taking time to learn and understand our minds (ego), thoughts and beliefs and what we do when things get hard.  Taking time to understand what our coping strategies are consciously and unconsciously.  And we need to find the right tools that support us.

Albert Einstein is famously quoted as saying “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

How Can We Lessen Our Suffering?

We literally need to think and act differently.  We need to create positive new patterns.   To do this we need to step outside of what’s comfortable – what we’ve always done before.  We need to shine a light on the pain that we hide.  We have to see that what triggers us out in the world as people, are a mirror of a part of ourselves that isn’t fully understood or seen. 

My Go-To tools for this are The Work by Byron Katie, Holistic Coaching & Transformational Breath. 

We need to understand our mind’s attachment to thoughts and see our conditioning and life story with a lot of.  It takes so much courage to sit with ourselves and even more to open up to others about our suffering and insecurities.  

I intentionally seek out a community of like-minded folk who are also doing this work. Asking my friends for support when I feel confused, out of balance and stuck is always a turning point.  Having a coaching session with my coach or giving myself a Transformational Breath breathwork self-session.

The essence of ‘shadow work’ could be said to be changing our relationship to pain by learning to feel it and be present with it, in order to heal it.  Seeking the support of professionals is so helpful. 

Maitri Meditation

Pema Chodron talks of ‘maitri’ saying that “It’s much more common for us to disapprove of ourselves or denigrate ourselves.  Maitri is a Sanskrit word, and is about beginning to make friends with oneself.  Not really thinking it’s going to come from outside of you.  And as you know we all look outside of ourselves, we look all over the place to try to make ourselves feel good about ourselves.  Not only is it the basis of compassion and the seed of happiness or well being, or being glad to be alive.  Where does this come from?  A lot of it has to do with our relationship to pain and difficulty.”

Try this Maitri Meditation yourself, taught by Spring Washam a great healer and teacher.  Do this anytime you feel disconnected from love and yourself:

Sit with hands across your heart, and very gently soothe yourself with your hands while repeating to yourself; “I care about your suffering, I care about your pain.”   Allow yourself to feel whatever you are feeling while offering yourself maitri.

Creating more suffering, getting in our own ways and self-sabotaging are completely normal and essential for our growth.  We need to feel our feelings.  We just need to remember, we can’t be enlightened and a victim at the same time.  Eventually, we have to choose…




Andy Nathan is a certified Yoga and Meditation teacher, Holistic Coach and in-training Transformational Breath Facilitator.  He leads kirtans and has a passion for djing organic dance music at yoga and wellness events.   Andy lives near Cambridge *UK with his two cats Connie & Mo and is a firm believer that miracles do happen!  A smile is rarely off Andy’s face, and human connection is his biggest inspiration. Andy teaches around the UK, Europe & SE Asia and also online.  All classes & appointments can be found here:

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