The Two Arrows of Pain and Suffering

In "Being with Dying", Joan Halifax writes about pain and how pain is like an arrow that strikes the body. It is often followed by a second arrow, which is the story or meaning that we assign the pain. The second arrow is the arrow of suffering. We may have little or no control over being struck by the first arrow, although there is always incidence of self-inflicted pain, but we do have some control over the second arrow, the story or meaning we assign to the pain, which is really the root of where suffering begins.

The story we tell ourselves about why we are in pain, whether that is physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual pain, does make a difference to whether or not we suffer even more than from the original pain. How often do I assign a negative meaning from some source of pain that causes me to suffer even more? Frequently! There is the original source of pain, something that arises from living on a fallen planet, and then there is the story I tell myself about why it happened and what it means. "I am not good enough. I am not loved. What I have to say is irrelevant. I am socially inept. I am not..." And on and on. Assigning a negative meaning to my pain always causes additional suffering.

Joan suggests as an antidote to this that we simply sit in witness to our pain without assigning a meaning to it or telling a story about it that will deepen our pain and in this way try to alleviate much of the suffering that we create through our negative stories. If we think that we are in pain because we are inherently flawed, then our suffering will increase.

I am coming to the conclusion that true compassion must first be practiced with one's self. It is learning to witness one's own pain without assigning a meaning to it. I wonder if I can do this with myself?  If I can learn to bear witness to whatever pain I experience in life without assigning a negative meaning to the experience--to be compassionate with myself? That would be truly healing. I suspect that the negative stories come from the ancestors. Perhaps pain is a way that allows these stories to come forward and be healed.