Laying Down the Second Arrow
Readings: Psalm 22:1-5, 22-25, Luke 6:37-42, Secrets of Heaven 8573:2 (see below)
See also on Youtube
I’m going to open today with a reading from Tara Brach’s Trusting the Gold, in which we hear the teaching of The Second Arrow:
“One day, it is said, the Buddha was talking to a group of his followers about our habit of being down on ourselves when something goes wrong, and how that only imprisons us in suffering. Noticing that one of the young men there looked puzzled, he invited him forward and asked, “If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful?” Probably thinking that was a pretty obvious question, the student responded, “Well, yes it is.”
Nodding, the Buddha went on. “And if that same person is then struck by a second arrow, would that be even more painful?” The student replied, "Yes, it would be.”
The Buddha then explained: In life, difficulty naturally arises—things don’t go as we wish, or we have an accident, or we get sick. We can’t always control that first painful arrow. However, he went on, we can add to our pain by the way we react to what’s happening. He added that we might feel victimized or angry about life being unfair, or we might blame ourselves for poor self-care. Our reaction is the second arrow, and it intensifies our suffering, said the Buddha…”
(Tara continues) It’s helpful to remember that the first arrow in this story is not only about that unpleasant feeling we experience when something goes wrong in our lives. The first arrow can also be the emotional pain we feel when we are afraid, or angry, when we feel grief or hatred. It can be the pain of depression or lust. And when we then respond by blaming ourselves for these already painful feelings, we are shooting the second arrow. As we awaken compassion for ourselves and release shame and self-judgment, we free ourselves from this suffering and heal our hearts.”(1)
We will all suffer at some point, at many points, in our lives, in various ways large and small. That suffering will cause us pain. This is a fact of life. This might especially happen in Lent, if we are spending time noticing and reflecting upon where we need to improve. And this is the first arrow in the Buddha’s story. We might even spend a lot of time investing in various kinds of metaphorical armor, various habits based in control and/or denial. But at some point an arrow will find a chink. This is inevitable. And it will hurt. We will feel the pain of loss, change, betrayal, surprise, and we will experience grief, anger, sadness and fear as a result.
But then sometimes a curious thing happens, we start having feelings about our painful feelings. Judgy feelings. Our self-talk might start sounding like: why aren’t you over this yet, why are you making this so hard, just buck up okay? you’re stronger than this, it must be so hard because I’m so broken and lazy, only a terrible person would feel such resentment or anger, stop being such a coward, or a ?? Or, it might just be as simple as a sense of anxiety, that we are feeling painful feelings at all. When we do this, we have shot ourselves with that second arrow. We have intensified our pain with pain of our own making.
Why do we do this? That’s a really good question that is probably answered best from inside each of our own contexts. But one possible answer is suggested in our gospel reading from Luke. It certainly is a famous one, a warning against the hypocrisy of judging others while being blind to our own faults. No one wants to be that hapless person with the enormous plank in their eye that they can’t seem to see. And while we might first feel that warning on the level of social embarrassment, I think we all sense how ultimately dangerous such an oblivious and unwilling mindset can be; we see from the news how it easily can lead to atrocities against our fellow human beings.
I wonder, perhaps, if the tendency to shoot the second arrow at ourselves comes from a deep and sincere assimilation of this warning against hypocrisy, against psychological obliviousness. When we have a deep investment in the spiritual path, or in just trying to be a “good” person, we understand that seeing and acknowledging our faults is the first step to overcoming them. And so we might naturally focus a lot of energy on this necessary first step - it is an important one! Over time though, we might find ourselves over-investing in this step; diagnosis is often easier than figuring out what to do or how to change in a complicated situation, and much much easier than patience and perseverance. And so we default to the second arrow, finding fault in ourselves again and again because it feels like we are doing something good. Aren’t we supposed to judge ourselves? Aren’t we supposed to take that splinter out of our eye? Yes, of course, we are, until we accidentally find our desire for control leading our good intentions, the blind leading the blind straight into the pit.
Out of the fear of blindness to our own faults, we fall into a pit of even greater blindness, where we forget the mercy of God. God doesn’t require that second arrow from us. It doesn’t get us any extra points (not that God has a point system, anyway). In our Swedenborg reading today we heard that God is constantly excusing, constantly forgiving, and constantly showing mercy. And this is because the judgment is never the point. Judgment is a means to an end. Perhaps a better word is discernment: it is a seeing with clarity, sorting things out, and then making a decision in order to move forward. And to move forward to what? Towards being a more loving person. This is God’s goal and God will give us as many chances as we are willing to sincerely take.
We might ask though, “what about those times when we really should be feeling blame?” Yeah, there are definitely those times, we all mess up, sometimes badly. The point of this whole second arrow exercise isn’t to avoid the notion of self-blame entirely. There are times, when we have done something wrong, something harmful to another, when we *should* feel blame, guilt and regret. These can be helpful emotions, even though they are painful, because they indicate an active conscience, they let us know when we have strayed off course. Sometimes pain can be useful; when we choose to engage with it it can allow us to grow. This promise is actually what Easter is all about. But that still doesn’t mean that we need to shoot that second arrow. It’s just not helpful. The pain of the first arrow goes something like this: Boy, did I ever mess up and I feel terrible about it. I really need to make amends, and I’m going to do so. The pain of the second arrow goes more like this: I am a terrible person. I can’t believe I did this. I will never be able to make this right. And by the way, why can’t I be more confident and just shake this off? (Hey. No one said our self-talk is always logical).
And the problem is that no matter how the first arrow came about, the second arrow paradoxically keeps us circling in place instead of moving forward. It’s an irony, because I think the second arrow, most of the time, comes from a misguided but genuine place. It just ends up doing the opposite of what we think it’s going to do. The first arrow gives us pain aplenty. We might think we need that second arrow to prove we are really serious, to prove that we are not asleep at the helm, to prove that we know the difference between right and wrong, to prove that we are strong. But we don’t need to prove any of this to God. And if God is willing to extend compassion towards us, then perhaps we should too.
From Psalm 22: To you they cried out and were saved; in you they trusted and were not put to shame. Amen.
(1) Tara Brach, Trusting the Gold: Uncovering Your Natural Goodness, p15-17
Psalm 22:1-5, 22-25
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? 2 My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest. 3 Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One; you are the one Israel praises. 4 In you our ancestors put their trust; they trusted and you delivered them. 5 To you they cried out and were saved; in you they trusted and were not put to shame.
22 I will declare your name to my people; in the assembly I will praise you. 23 You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you descendants of Jacob, honor him! Revere him, all you descendants of Israel! 24 For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help. 25 From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly; before those who revere you I will fulfill my vows.
37 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. 38 Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” 39 He also told them this parable: “Can the blind lead the blind? Will they not both fall into a pit? 40 The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher. 41 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 42 How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
Secrets of Heaven 8573:
As regards the nature of intercession, all love holds intercession within it, and so does all mercy since mercy is the characteristic of love. Anyone who has love or who has mercy is interceding constantly, as the following examples demonstrate: The husband who loves his wife wishes her to be well-received and well-treated by others. He does not express his wish in actual words, but it is constantly in his thinking, so that he is silently requesting it and interceding for her. Parents do the same thing for their children whom they love. It is likewise what a person governed by charity does for his neighbour, and what one moved by friendship does for a friend. These examples show that intercession is present unceasingly in all love. The same is true of the Lord's intercession for the human race, especially for those with whom the goodness and truth of faith are present; for towards them Divine - that is, infinite - love is shown, and Divine - that is, infinite - mercy. Not that the Lord prays to the Father for them and intercedes in that way; for then He would be acting in an entirely human manner. Rather He is constantly excusing and constantly forgiving, because He is constantly showing mercy; this the Lord Himself is doing since the Lord and the Father are one, John 14:8-12
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