Podcast episode 2: The second arrow of suffering. Pain is inevitable, but suffering is not. Build resilience by reducing resistance.

Episode 2: The second arrow of suffering

Ryan D Thompson Ancient, Buddhism, Resilience, Skills

Key ideas

We all face pain and setbacks in our lives. However, we also tend to add another layer of unnecessary suffering to our pain — a mental resistance that drains our energy for more productive actions.

  • Life will inevitably involve pain in many forms, including physical, mental, and emotional. This is the “first arrow” described by the Buddha: being hit by painful circumstances.
  • Resistance to those painful circumstances produces suffering, a mental reaction to our pain. This is the “second arrow.” Pain is unavoidable; suffering is optional.
  • Suffering distracts us from taking the actions that would help us overcome the difficult situation. We often spend more energy fighting against the idea of our pain than on reducing the pain.
  • Instead, we can bring awareness to our thoughts and emotions as suffering arises. Doing so can help calm the mind, reducing the control our repetitive and unhelpful thoughts exert on our minds. As a result, we regain a sense of agency. We increase our capacity to take helpful actions.


Welcome to the Project Indra podcast, where we explore the best of ancient wisdom and modern knowledge to help leaders tackle humanity's wickedest problems. Each episode looks at practices, contemplations, or tools that help people live better lives and make a positive impact.

My name is Ryan Thompson. I started this podcast because we are faced with some of the most complex challenges in human history. I believe that no single approach can solve all problems. We need open-minded leaders with an integral mindset to lead the charge. With this in mind, this podcast looks at challenges through a multifaceted lens. I will share some of the things I've learned from Buddhism, Taoism, Greek and Roman philosophies, and other ancient traditions. I'll also explore some ideas from modern sciences like psychology, neuroscience, ecology, and conservation. Each of these perspectives has a lot to offer. So for all the impact leaders out there, both seasoned and aspiring, this podcast is for you. I hope that some of this will be of benefit.

This episode is the second in a series looking at resilience: how we can cultivate our capacity to bounce back when hit with adversity. This episode will explore a perspective from Buddhism that can help fortify our resilience.

In Tibetan Buddhism, there is a saying that "it's easy to be happy when the sun is shining, and your belly is full." I often think of this when things don't go my way. Life will throw us some curveballs at times — or even whack us in the face with the ball. Or to use a less sports-centric take: shit happens. So it doesn't really matter how calm and kind and joyful we are when things are going our way. That's the easy part. The true test involves being calm despite the shit storm raging around us.

Finding real and sustainable happiness regardless of external conditions is at the heart of the Buddhist path. This is a path well suited to building resilience.

The Buddha tells a story about a man walking through the woods who is suddenly struck by an arrow. Of course, this arrow hurts like hell. As the pain rises, he becomes enraged, shouting, “who shot me! You son of a _____, I can’t believe you did that. Mother_________, I’ll ______ you up!” 

And soon, the "second arrow" is lodged in the man's mind: an additional layer of suffering produced by his outrage. 

First, there was pain. And then came the suffering. He couldn't avoid the pain, as it came out of nowhere. But the suffering could be avoided.

That's not often the way it goes down, though, probably for most of us. The second arrow of mental suffering can endure even longer than the physical wound. We can end up holding onto resentment over this event for months or years. I'd bet any one of us can easily bring to mind an instance in which someone wronged us. The memory — and the resentment it produces — are fresh in our minds, no matter how many years go by.

Resentment is like kryptonite for resilience. 

We could define resilience as our ability to bounce back (perhaps even stronger) after being struck with some kind of adversity. Resentment, though, eats away at our strength, distracting us from actions that might actually help us to solve the problems in front of us. 

Resentment is a form of resistance to circumstances we don't want. Whether it's being forced to wear a mask when going in public, or losing our jobs, or being diagnosed with an illness, we often add a second arrow of suffering in our resistance. We expend considerable energy in fighting against the reality of our situation.

The Buddha described this tendency to lash out against the things we don't want as aversion. Aversion is one of the Three Poisons that prevent us from attaining true and lasting happiness.

What does he suggest for countering this aversion? When we bring awareness to our thoughts and see them for what they are — merely thoughts — we can gain a sense of mental calm. The suffering of the second arrow fades away, at least a bit.

It doesn't mean condoning negative actions. It doesn't even imply forgiving per se. 

This teaching merely asks us to look at what's happening in our minds. We can simply observe our thoughts and feelings without judgment. When we feel angry, resentful, or discouraged, we can pause, listen to the sounds around us for a few moments, and then notice the emotion. Is it in a particular part of the body? Does it have a shape or a color? How does it affect our posture or breathing? Or we could just label the thoughts or emotions as "anger" or "fear." Or simply "thinking."

Every time we do this, we add a slight gap between the experience and our reaction.

These kinds of practices can help us drop resistance and resentment like hot coals. And in turn, we can fortify ourselves to be mentally present and capable of dealing with setbacks, insults, or obstacles with a calm mind.

I'm not going to say this is easy, and it surely isn't a one-time deal. It requires persistence. But all good things require regular training, and training the mind is no different.

That's all for now. I hope this perspective from the Buddha might serve you next time you're hit with an arrow - hopefully, a symbolic one. If you find this interesting, be sure to subscribe to check out more episodes. And please share this podcast with a friend if you think it would be helpful to someone. 

Until the next time, be well!

Podcast soundtrack credit:

Our Story Begins Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License