Amy Ward Brimmer

mother daughter wife teacher writer dreamer sister worker seeker activist minister healer student human


The Second Arrow

Because of the particle-like nature of consciousness, we can enter the space between instinct and action, between impulse and reaction. To do so we must learn to tolerate our pain and fear. This is not easy. . . .  We must learn the difference between reaction and response. . . .  When someone cuts us off in traffic, we can angrily retaliate by racing up to them shouting, trying to get back at them, or we can breathe and let it go. When we are criticized, when we are betrayed, we don’t have to reinforce the pain of the situation by adding to the pain by our reaction. -- Jack Kornfield, Responding With Love and Courage

Jack goes on to describe this personal reactivity as "the second arrow," a classic Buddhist description of what we do when in conflict or some other negative situation. Something painful happens, and it's like being shot with an arrow. Then we habitually, unconsciously pierce ourselves with another arrow, causing extra, unnecessary suffering.

"Unnecessary" is the key word here; we do not have to reinforce the pain. Alexander lessons, meditation practice, Qigong and other forms of mindful movement, all offer the opportunity to unhook from this automatic reaction, over and over again. At first, and always, it's necessary to see this happening. Like most habits, we become so used to judging ourselves and others that it feels normal, even unavoidable. You can't change what you don't know about, so waking up to the habit comes first.

When we look, we see that we do this quite consistently, so it's useful to recognize how reactivity operates, dominating our lived experience. As Jack points out, this requires the willingness to tolerate challenging emotions: pain, fear, disgust, loneliness, powerlessness, [insert your favorite unpleasant emotion here]. Our aversion to be with these feelings comes in many forms, but it needn't be acted upon. We can pause and attend to the space between the stimulus and response, the urge to react and the reaction itself.

The freedom to make new and better choices in response to whatever arises is a hallmark of the Alexander Technique. Those who study it soon discover that what seems like a little pause is actually quite spacious, that a momentary stop provides enough power to see, sense, and switch off harmful habits of thinking and moving. In meditation, as steady attention is cultivated, it becomes very easy to see how we add extra pain to painful situations (by pushing away or running away), or ruin pleasant experiences (by grasping and greed).

So what is the cumulative effect of practicing the pause, of finding the gap and waiting there? Sylvia Boorstein describes it this way: 

If I want to free myself from endless cycles of struggling..., I need to keep rediscovering that the pain of the struggle is greater than the pain of the desire. If I develop the habit of restraining myself, I'll enjoy the relief of feeling the desires pass, and I'll remember that desires are not the problem. Feeling pushed around by them is. I'll continue to have desires, of course, because I'm alive, but they'll be more modest in their demands. 

I don't know about you, but I often feel weary of being pushed around by my own reactivity; it wears me down. I have experienced the liberation that comes from turning toward my pain and pausing there, the freedom to notice that I'm wounding myself with the second arrow, and stop.