The first and the second arrow
Steven said something in a comment a week or so ago that I really wanted to delve into a bit, but I haven't felt inspired until now. A comment someone made on reddit opened this up for me, so hopefully I can now say something that will be of value.
When you look at any of the major successful philosophies, they all talk in some form or another about what Buddhism refers to as right action and right view. Right action is basically not engaging in self-defeating behavior. Right view is having, at first, a clear intellectual framework for understanding what behaviors are productive and what behaviors are self-defeating. Later on, right view can be a breakthrough that deeply and fundamentally shifts how we see the world, so that self-defeating behaviors simply aren't attractive anymore.
What Steven said that made me want to dig deeper is that pain is unavoidable while we are in the flesh. But he also mentioned a particular pattern of thinking that makes pain worse: "the minute I get calm I think about some painful situation someone else is in". How can you ever have a moment's peace if this is how your mind behaves?
I'm sure we've all had the experience of having our mind turn a happy moment into an unhappy one with a thought pattern like the one Steven describes. These are really fundamental human problems, and if there is a way to address them, it's worth doing so. My experience has been that it is possible to address them.
There are two aspects to this, and it's easy to think that they are one. If you can get good at practicing right action, the result of this should be that a lot less goes wrong. You have fewer regrets, people don't get upset at you as often, you don't get into stupid situations as much. The effect of this is to reduce the number of painful events that occur. Of course, painful events still occur: friends and loved ones get hurt or die, you suffer loss, you know you are going to die, and so on. My experience of this when I started practicing harmlessness and kindness was that things got a lot more pleasant. But I still had plenty of problems.
There's a metaphor that the Buddha used of being shot by an arrow. When you are shot by an arrow, it hurts. This is normal, not unexpected. But there's a tendency when we are shot by the first arrow to shoot ourselves with a second. This is a sort of meta-arrow: we experience pain, and then we spontaneously begin to tell ourselves a story about the pain, and how it affects us, and this turns into a struggle.
Before meditating, we tend to think that the first and the second arrows are just one event. The pain, and the story we tell ourselves about the pain, are one. The story is no different than the pain that triggered it. But as we practice, we can start to notice that they are two separate things: we experience the pain, and then we experience the story, and the story is painful. The way we tend to start noticing that this is happening is to see that we can, with some effort, let go of the story, and when we do, the pain of the story stops. If the pain behind the story was significant, it will still be there, but it will be much less, because the story won't be there reinforcing it.
Often, though, the struggle of the story becomes the entirety of the pain. In Steven's case, he just remembers or notices the pain someone else is in, and there he is, in pain too. Or when there's a real trigger, it's trivial. Someone cuts me off in traffic, which lasts just for a moment, and I become upset at them, and that lasts for a long time. Maybe I was in a good mood before this happened; afterwards, it's like there's a cloud over my head for the rest of the day, even once the story has petered out. A moment of frustration literally turns into a day of grey misery.
Just noticing that you are under one of these clouds can be enough to dispel it. Humor helps—I remember once in traffic I was grumbling about the driver in front of me who kept doing... whatever, who knows? Andrea said to me, in her playfully conspiratorial tone, "those fuckers! you should punch them!" This was so absurd that I just burst out laughing, and the story just went away, and didn't come back. But of course eventually the trigger happens again, and Andrea isn't always around to help. Even once I became mindful enough to notice when something like this was happening, it would still happen. The mindfulness definitely helped me to become better at noticing it and cutting it short, but it still created an immense amount of unpleasantness.
One way to address this problem is through right action. The more that people see us as harmless and beneficial, and the less we entertain the idea that it is ok to be upset at someone who has wronged us, the less of the first arrow we experience. But there's a limit to how much suffering we can get rid of this way—not every bad experience we have is because we did something bad previously that triggered it, and no amount of kindness toward others will prevent me from encountering someone so grumpy that my kindness just strikes them as an annoyance.
Then there's the second arrow, the one that causes us pain after the first arrow hits. No amount of intellectual understanding of this seems to really stop it. And because mental pain lasts so much longer than the physical or situational pain that triggers it, as long as we are suffering from the second arrow, we still spend a lot of time suffering. As practitioners, we may know that it's happening. But what can we do about it?
The thing to understand is that the second arrow, the story we tell ourselves about the pain, is just a habit. And habits can be broken. It might not be easy to break the habit, but it can be done. This is the ultimate goal of meditation practice: not to recognize the mistake we are so automatically making, but to find the root of the habit of making it, and eradicate it.
This originally came up in the context of my feelings about what happened with the ICE separating children from their parents. The feeling of needing to do something, when there was nothing I could see to do, was a story I was telling myself.
I was discussing this problem with some friends, and one of them said something I found profoundly helpful: when we see the world's pain but don't tell ourselves a story about it, then we can clearly see if there is something meaningful to do. If there is, we can do it. If there is nothing to do, then there is no need to react, because there is no second arrow. We can just wait, notice, pay attention, and when the time comes to act, we can act. This doesn't stop the pain of seeing what we are seeing; it just stops the pain of telling ourselves a story about how we should be in relation to what we are seeing.
So if I'm going to talk about having trouble recently, doesn't that mean that I haven't solved this problem? Is there no hope? The answer is complicated. As a result of my practice, I pretty much never get triggered in traffic anymore. It's unusual in my life to get caught up in one of these second-arrow stories. When it does happen, writing about it helps. But I've had enough success with this that it seems clear to me that it's possible to get to the point where the second arrow almost never hits. And my experience with this so far is that it's a lot easier to be of benefit to others when this is the case, and also a lot nicer to be in my own head.
The reason I blog about this is not to brag. It's that I think most people think this is something that's impossible to achieve, if they even imagine this as a possibility. Hearing someone talk about it as if it's a real work in progress helps with that. It definitely helped me.