The Parable of the Two Arrows – reflections on pain, suffering and relief

How many of us live without knowing there is an alternative to only being in our heads? In a society that doesn’t raise us to feel, but to think, too many of us are at the mercy of the stories we tell ourselves about life. Wrapped in tales and self-fulfilling prophecies, some of us spend joyless years trying to fix things from the outside. And the outside never delivers.

My perspective is that we were all wounded growing up. Some of us were neglected or abused as children, some felt abandoned or rejected in loveless households, others didn’t get their emotional needs met. The pain is real. My reality as a child revolved around abuse and abandonment, and the self-rejection and powerlessness that came with that. As an adult, I dedicated years to working on myself. I went to workshops, enrolled on courses, and learned energy healing, only to realize down the road, that I hadn’t gotten far.

I later understood that I was dealing only with the stories I had made-up about the pain. I was in my head, whereas the wounds were in the physical and emotional bodies. It was like building a sand castle on the beach – the next day all I had built disappeared. Instead of working with the pain, I could never get out of suffering. Pain was what happened to me, suffering was my thoughts about what happened to me.

The Buddhist perspective

The Sallattha Sutta, or the Parable of the Two Arrows, teaches us how suffering accompanies pain:

When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, and laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical and mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows; in the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, and laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical and mental.”

The Buddhist call the restless and confused mind, the Monkey mind. I believe that without connection to the heart and body, all human mind is Monkey mind, an uninstructed system that creates stories that most times have nothing to do with the reality within and without. These stories are often the stories of our caregivers, and the fictions of our society. They are mind spectacles, but not knowings of the heart. It is said that the longest road we will have to walk is the sacred journey from the head to the heart.

The hurt

If an arrow scratches a man’s arm, the incident first creates disharmony in his energy field. Then the man feels the physical pain. On an emotional level, he might feel fear, betrayal or anger. As the man tends to the wound, the arm slowly heals. However, if he doesn’t process what happened, if he doesn’t observe his feelings and thoughts related to the wounding, the hurt will persist in his emotional and spiritual bodies. Even after the scratch healed from the flesh, something within the man remains wounded. That is trauma. The exceptional Gabor Maté M.D explains that trauma is not what happens to us, but what happens in us1, following a traumatic event. In this case, the arrow incident is traumatic, but the trauma is what changes within the man after he is hurt.

How suffering confines

For the man with a healed arm but unintegrated trauma, the arrow incident may lead to a change in beliefs. “I can never be careful enough”, “the world is a dangerous place”, “I left my guard down only for a second and look what happened”, “I will never forgive the one who hurt me”, “Eye for an eye”. These are just a few examples of thought patterns that may arise, as the mind tries to protect the man from ever being hurt. The problem with these thought models is that they close his perspective.

The wounding made the man feel vulnerable. Without acknowledging that vulnerability, without connecting to the emotions stirred by the incident, the man shields himself from the world. He chooses fear and contraction, instead of responsiveness and relief. It is my understanding that life lessons come in all shapes and forms. We can treat all kinds of wounds, physical ones included, like opportunities to learn and grow.

I know cases of adults who violently injured themselves as children, and whose recoveries took months. Decades later, as they work on themselves, they discover in their bodies residues from the initial wounding. Moreover, the energetic imprint of the old wound continues to fuel limiting beliefs and anger, fear, apathy, guilt and shame.

The way out

After the wounding, what happens at the mental level represents the second arrow – the suffering. If pain arises in the body, suffering is the story about the pain. Both suffering and pain demand recognition, but in two different ways. Pain requires acknowledgment and goes away. Suffering demands to be seen, only to create more suffering. Also, sometimes the suffering layer is so thick, that we don’t get the chance to connect with the body and ask ourselves: “What am I feeling?”.

Most of us who were physically and emotionally hurt in our childhoods, grow up with a sense that suffering is omnipresent. Without guidance, what we do is chase bits of suffering through the corridors of the mind, getting nowhere, except more tangled in confusion and exhaustion. With guidance, however, we learn to ask our bodies to show us where the blockages are, where the real hurt is. And as we untie one-by-one the knots of the mind, the body and emotions open up. We move through the contraction of the mind, into the expansion of the emotional knowing. We feel. And this is how we free our bodies from trauma, and make peace with the pain. That is the way I have found out of suffering.

About the author

Manuela Raiz fell in love with the world of plants more than 10 years ago. In 2015 she received the blessing from the plants and began her apprenticeship in the Shipibo tradition. Manuela answered the calling to learn from and work with our ever-loving plant teachers and allies. She created SoulCenteredMedicines, a space where plant wisdom meets our core need to feel whole and harmonious.

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