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How to Deal With Pain: First & Second Darts

Last week I wrote about the Buddhist idea of The Two Minds, and how knowing the difference between your thinking mind and your observing mind is the first step in effectively dealing with emotional problems.

Since a lot of readers wrote back to me saying how helpful that article was, today I thought I’d to share a related Buddhist idea that I’ve found extremely helpful in my life. This concept is known as:

First & Second Darts

Physical and psychological pain are inevitable parts of life. It’s just the way we humans are designed. To survive physically, we need our body to let us know when it’s ill or injured. To work psychologically and socially, we need minds that send different signals of distress such as loneliness, anger, fear, rejection, threat and grief.

Losing these physical and psychological signals of pain is in fact very dangerous. We need to know that we’ve accidentally put our hand on the stove to do something about it. Or feel guilty when we’ve mistreated someone else. Pain is what lets us know.

In Buddhism, these unavoidable pains in life are known as ‘first darts.’ These are the darts life throws at us that we can’t do anything about.

But what we can do, is avoid throwing ‘second darts‘ at ourselves. These second darts are our judgments and reactions to the first darts.

For example, let’s say you get a sudden headache. This is the first dart. The second darts come in the form of your thoughts about the situation: ‘Why does this always happen to me?!’, ‘This headache is driving me crazy!!’, ‘I hate this pain!’ and so on.

Each time you buy into these thoughts you make the experience of the headache even worse. You’re putting logs on the fire. Now, it’s not just the pain from the first dart you’re experiencing; you’re also hitting yourself with a bunch of second darts that are causing you to suffer.

“Pain is Inevitable. Suffering is Optional.”

This Buddhist proverb simply and brilliantly sums up how this works. Pain is the first darts. Suffering is the second darts.

You’re always going to have to deal with pain because that’s how humans function in the world.

But whether or not you’ll SUFFER from that pain is completely up to you:

“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” – Epictetus

In my experience, I’ve found this to be very true. Over the last couple of months, I’ve had to deal with a persistent feeling of a lump in the throat (the clinical term is Globus sensation). This lump used to drive me crazy but over the last couple of weeks, I’ve tried keeping this idea of first and second darts in mind.

The Globus sensation is the first dart. My judgments about it make up the second darts. The more I’ve managed to be mindful of the lump in my throat without getting caught up in negative thoughts and feelings about it, the less I’ve suffered from it.

Pain x Resistance = Suffering

The next time you’re experiencing pain, keep this simple equation in mind. Experience the first dart without resisting it since this will only cause suffering. This is another aspect of life where mindfulness is extremely helpful:

Simply hold the painful sensation or emotion in present awareness. Imagine your mind as a clear blue sky. Know that the pain will pass through it like a storm cloud, never tainting or harming the mind itself.

Next, look for second darts. Pay attention to the thoughts and feelings your thinking mind is adding to the already painful experience. Try to disidentify from these as well. Remember that you are not your thoughts and do not buy into them.

Let the first dart do its thing without judging or resisting it. The more you practice this, the less unnecessary suffering you’ll have to deal with.

“I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” – Mark Twain

Footnotes

I learned about the concept of first and second darts in Rick Hanson’s awesome book Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom.