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The parable of the Second Arrow

Just recently, I heard the Buddhist story of the Second Arrow.

It was something I have never heard before, but it is a very apt parable of how we can often make things worse for ourselves, and it is particularly relevant to anyone who suffers from any kind of health issue.

So, first of all, here’s the story:

Picture yourself walking through a forest. Suddenly you are hit by an arrow. This causes great pain. But this is not the end. There is a second arrow, which brings even greater pain and suffering. But the second arrow is a choice, and can be avoided.

The first arrow represents a bad event; something that we are not able to avoid. In our case, it is the diagnosis of having Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

The second arrow represents the reaction we have to the bad event, the way we choose to respond emotionally.

So, how do we avoid the second arrow?

Well, first of all we need to notice the first arrow and allow ourselves to feel it. Of course, having a health condition is never good news, so we must acknowledge that this is a painful event.

However, very often we increase our suffering by the emotional choices we make after this initial event. Anger at ourselves, anger at the medical profession for not having a cure, feeling guilty that we may have caused this. We might even go on to obsess about how our friends and family don’t understand how we feel, or we might even try to resist the reality, feeling that we shouldn’t be feeling like this, should be able to push through.

All of these responses are second arrow responses and will cause further unnecessary pain.

Do you recognise any of these responses in yourself?

If so, start noticing when your thoughts are in danger of shooting the second arrow at yourself, and instead do the following:

  • Let go of any resistance. You have this condition. Acknowledge it and feel it. Don’t judge any feelings you have about it.

  • Develop feelings of compassion for yourself – just as you would feel compassion for a loved one who was ill. Don’t allow yourself to get caught up in any negative mind-talk that is self-judging.

  • Rather than self-blame, or obsession about the lack of support, look at the things that you can do to help yourself. Don’t be a victim. Find out about CFS; find out about people who have recovered; find ways of easing your symptoms. Practise meditation and look at ways to improve your diet.

  • Whenever you start to feel down about this condition, remember that difficulties make you a stronger person. Yes, it is unpleasant and frustrating and painful, but these are the things that are necessary for personal growth.

So, as long as you acknowledge the first arrow, and don’t keep shooting the second arrow (or third and fourth…), you will grow as a person, and ease your suffering.

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