If you’ve ever listened to Buddhist teacher Tara Brach, you’ve likely heard her discuss the Buddha’s story of the second arrow.
The Buddha once asked a student "if a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful?" The student replied that it was. The Buddha then asked "if the person is struck by a second arrow, is that even more painful?" The student replied that it was. The teaching is that in life, we cannot always control the first arrow, however, our second arrow is our reaction to the first.
And if you're like me, you often shoot yourself with the second arrow. Over, and over, and over again.
It's just how I roll.
The first arrow is when something happens - whether it's something we do - hit the snooze button for 30 minutes instead of 10 (me, this morning), overeat at a party when we swore we wouldn’t, have five drinks instead of two; but it's also when something happens to us - treats us in a way that feels disrespectful. Brach describes the first arrow as the natural experiences that arise from the human animal that we are: fear, aggression, greed, craving.
But the second arrow is our reaction to what happens. In the Buddhist teaching, we are reminded that with the second arrow comes choice.
A few weeks ago I wrote a post talking about the phrase “I can’t get out of my own way.” The second part of that expression might be “and I can’t forgive myself for that.” I have talked openly about my struggles with depression - which is a first arrow for me. I'm not sure where or why I experience depression, but it's a complicated mix of genetics and life experience. So often the things we hate about ourselves are shaped by a plethora of forces - genetics - brain chemistry - experience - but as Brach reminds us, we didn’t choose any of this.
I didn't choose depression. In fact, I hate the way my depression makes me feel. Lazy, unproductive, sad, unfocused. I hate it. That hate is my second arrow. Hate is my reaction to how I feel. And it's often self-hate.
The fitness industry is as much about human behavior as the science of periodization, fat loss, and hypertrophy. And nowhere have I seen more self-blame and self-flagellation than in fitness. We set goals, for getting to the gym, for changing our eating habits, for more self-care, and those goals can often become clouded by those first arrows - a compulsion to overeat that we don't understand, fear that comes from a place that we can't reach.
We can't control what happens to us. Did you know that there's even research out there suggesting that we are predisposed to be morning or night people? Me neither, but I'm looking into it. Have you ever tried to make yourself a morning workout person and just couldn't make it happen? Instead of going with the grain however, you beat yourself up for not going to be earlier, not waking up sooner, and being too lazy to get to the gym. You hate yourself for not being a morning person.
I’m not saying we don’t need some accountability. But what else can we make room for if we stop the pattern of self-blame? If we replace the phrases “I suck at life, I suck at adulting, I hate myself for not trying harder” with something more positive? After I published this original post at work, a client reached out and offered this great phrase "thank you for the learning experience."
What if you substitute that approach for the self-flagellation? What other positive feelings might creep in? I don't know because I still spend 90% of the time with the second arrow. But like so many other habits, change is an evolving process and it begins with awareness.
We cannot control the action - but we have some choice about the reaction.