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The Two Arrows of Suffering

I recently got a new tattoo (tattoo therapy is definitely a thing! )

of a Frida Kahlo painting called The Wounded Deer (1946). There are lots of interpretations of her painting, but the one I love the most sees her representation of her female face on a male deer’s body as an exploration of her bisexuality (and possibly gender) and the pain of being a woman in a man’s world, as shown by the nine arrows piercing her side. For me, this tattoo reminds me of the Buddhist parable of the second arrow. This wounded deer has a lot more than two arrows and to me that represents my mental health challenges over the years.

photo of Shane's arm tattooed with a Frida Kahlo image of the The Wounded Deer
Tattoo by @NuclearCheerios

The Buddhist parable of the two arrows is a well-known story about the experience of suffering. It goes something like this: Imagine you are walking in a forest when suddenly a hunter’s arrow hits you. You may not have seen it coming, but even if you did, it was not you who loosed it. This is the first arrow of suffering – the things that happen to us that hurt deeply. You look down and see this wound and immediately shame and self-judgement rush in. Why didn’t I see it coming? I should never have been out here in the first place! Maybe I deserve this for being so vulnerable. This is the second arrow of suffering; hurt that is self-inflicted.

Humans have an incredible talent: meaning-making. We see patterns and attribute causes, we make inferences with the knowledge of past experience, and we need to make sense of why bad things happen. Often times, we blame ourselves for getting hurt because in a way, that means we can prevent it from happening – well I’ll never being doing THAT again! – but that path leads us to shame – I am a bad person, unlovable, undesirable, not good enough to dodge the arrow, I am so embarrassed I let it happen to me.

In therapy, we take the time and care to sort out what’s what. I see a lot of folks hurting from the first arrow: chaotic or neglectful upbringings, violence and danger living in a world that is hostile to marginalized people, relationships disappearing, the pain of being denied self-actualization, the effects of climate change. The second arrow of suffering is what we end up talking about the most… because again, that is within the realm of control (and reinforces hyper individualism. That’s part of a larger conversation I’ll take up later). Working with shame, self judgement, self-abandonment, avoidance, loosening the grip of historical trauma on present day experience and the anxiety that it all brings is a very large part of the work we do here.

Have a metaphor or story that has helped you understand things in a different, more compassionate way? Please share in the comments!

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