Two Arrows

We are exposed to new experiences every day. Any experience we have evokes one of these three reactions: we either regard that experience as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. To pleasant happenings we tend to react with attachment: we usually want to hold on and have more, if possible. To unpleasant events we respond with aversion: we want it to stop, go away or try to avoid having to meet with that experience again. Finally, we look at neutral experiences with a lack of interest: we do not show any interest, could not care less or simply look for something else.

For a long time I’ve been meaning to write a blog article on a beautiful Buddhist metaphor which explains in a brilliant way how we tend to react to unpleasant or undesirable experiences, and how our reactions often end up making things worse.

Although this site is not about Buddhist teachings but the metaphor on the Two Arrows is so tangible and easy-to-remember that I like to use it as an analogy when explaining the subject of pain to kids.

„When touched with a feeling of pain, the untrained person sorrows, grieves and laments, beats their breast, becomes distraught. So they feel two pains. Just as if they were to shoot someone with an arrow and, right afterwards, were to shoot them with another one, so that they would feel the pains of the two arrows.”


In this metaphor arrows represent experiences – of course.

The first arrow is beyond control: nothing can prevent us from having unpleasant experiences. The first arrow causes us the pain but all other subsequent arrows add up to the suffering. Let us see how.

The first arrow can hit us in the form of physical pain, but just as often, it arrives in emotion(s) or mental anguish caused by thoughts we are having.

Whether or not we get shot by a second (or more) arrow(s) depends entirely on us: how we REACT to the first hit! We DO have control over how we respond to what causes us the pain.


How do you know that you have been hit by unnecessary arrows that could have been avoided?

Through bodily sensations (you tense up, start feeling hot or restless, get a lump in your throat, your heart skips a beat), through bad feelings and emotions (anxiety, stress, sadness, anger), troublesome thoughts (It is unfair! Why with me again?) and the second arrow can also manifest itself in inconvenient or awkward behavior.

Because feelings and body sensations are closely connected and often go hand in hand,  in the blink of an eye, the second arrow leads to a third arrow, and because this is also experienced as undesirable and avoidable we get shot again … and again. Here you go – a vicious circle is created which pulls you into a downward spiral of negative thoughts, unpleasant feelings and sensations. Making you feel distressed and overwhelmed.


Sometimes avoidance or distraction can be effective but only to a certain extent. Often by the time you start to distract yourself from something it has already escalated to the point where it is so strong that you cannot distract yourself any more.

If you try blocking, controlling or suppressing the undesirable thoughts or feelings soon you will find that this does not work. Because our thoughts and feelings are sparked spontaneously and we do not have the power to block them from happening – they arise outside of our control.

„The harder we struggle against our thoughts and feelings by trying to control or fight them, the harder they fight back and the stronger they grow”

A commonly cited example to demonstrate this is if you try not to think of a particular thing. Let us try: can you NOT think of a pink elephant for the next 30 seconds?

This explains why it seldom works if they tell us to not to be anxious and worry in a particular situation. You’ll end up thinking about those worst-case scenarios again and again.


Some people choose not to expose themselves to things that could be unpleasant or painful to them. To avoid such experiences altogether.

The downside of this is that they construct unnecessary walls in their lives. Plus they end up sacrificing a lot in return; risk missing out on things that can make life more enjoyable, meaningful and fulfilling.


If you want to prevent being shot by the second – and all subsequent – arrows, you’d better not get into the vicious cycle. This is where the power of mindful practices comes in. It teaches you how to come to a halt – just in time.

Here you’ll find a great video explaining to kids the concept of the Two Arrows briefly.

The article above was written on the basis of the video: The two arrows: Pain and suffering, primary and secondary emotions published by MBCT Online.