One of the most profound Zen parables, “The Two Arrows“, tells the story of a samurai who was struck in the shoulder by a stray arrow in the heat of battle. The wounded samurai looked down at the arrow in his shoulder and was overcome by shock and disbelief. His sword dropped to the ground as his courage deserted him, and when the enemy soldiers saw this, they fell upon him and defeated him.

The parable continues by recounting the story of another samurai who was also struck in the shoulder by an arrow. His injury was equally severe, but when he looked down and saw the arrow in his shoulder, he did not lose courage. Instead, he became even more determined. He grabbed his sword with his other hand, tucked his wounded arm into his armor, and charged the enemy soldiers with a ferocity they had never seen before. In the end, despite his injury, the second samurai survived.

The narrative describes two very different reactions to the same misfortune, but a deeper insight is revealed when we understand the true meaning of the story’s title. Although “The Two Arrows” seems to refer to the arrows that struck the two samurai, the title in fact refers to the two arrows that struck the first samurai. The first arrow — the wooden one — was the one that injured his shoulder. The second arrow — the arrow of doubt and fear — did much worse damage…

The second arrow destroyed his spirit.

When we consider the story from this perspective, we realize that it was the second arrow that killed the samurai, not the first. After all, the other samurai was struck in the shoulder in the same manner, and he survived. There was no second arrow for him. Furthermore — and this is perhaps the most important part — the second arrow did not fall from the sky. It came from within the samurai himself.

We may not battle with swords and arrows anymore, but we all get struck by arrows of misfortune from time to time. Some are worse than others, but the first arrow is seldom lethal on its own.

It’s the second arrow — the negative ways in which we deal with these misfortunes — that can devastate us. The challenge for us is to avoid that second arrow.

Easier said than done, right? Perhaps, but we are certainly not without guidance in this area. There are several short-term and long-term strategies that we can use to manage ourselves during the more difficult times in our lives. Here are a few that I have found to be particularly effective…

Remember to Breathe

One of my family members suffers from dementia, and he is starting to experience some of the behavioral changes that often accompany that disease. The staff at his residence notify me whenever he gets into an altercation, so when I hear the beep of an incoming message from one of his caregivers, I immediately get a sinking feeling in my stomach. That’s when I know it’s time for an old, reliable countermeasure: slow and regular abdominal breathing.

Breathing may be automatic, but proper breathing isn’t necessarily so. During moments of nervousness or stress, our respiration naturally becomes shallow and erratic. This can cause us to become even more anxious, and in severe cases, may even trigger panic attacks.

Slow and regular abdominal breathing, on the other hand, has the opposite effect. It activates our parasympathetic nervous system – a division of our nervous system that calms us down and helps us control our emotions. With a little bit of focus, we can use this connection to our advantage.

The next time a co-worker becomes confrontational and you feel your lip starting to quiver, or the next time you are about to address a large audience and your knees get weak, take a moment to bring your breathing under control. This simple act has a remarkable effect, and is undoubtedly one of the most important life skills anyone can learn.

Recognize the Second Arrow

The story of the two arrows does more than just convey an important idea. It provides us with a contextual reference that can help us recognize and classify our behavior. Armed with this insight, we can reflect upon our actions and ask ourselves if we are reacting to a situation in a positive and constructive way or if we are suffering from a second arrow. When we perform this type of introspection, we can flag negativity early on and manage it more effectively.

Take Back Control of Your Thoughts

As a species, we are evolutionarily hard-wired to give priority to negative stimuli. This instinct gives us important survival advantages, but it also leaves us with a tendency to dwell on the negative. Although that tendency may be overwhelming at times, it is possible to overcome it and take back control of our thoughts.

When my daughter was ten years old, she suffered a stroke while on her way home from school. She eventually recovered (I’m glad to report!), but that first night in the critical care unit of the hospital was one of the worst nights of my life. As my wife and I were preparing a makeshift bed in the waiting room and wondering how we would ever make it through the night, one of the doctors who attended to my daughter dropped by to wish us the best. Afterwards, as I settled into bed, and all the worry and stress of the situation filled my head, I distinctly remember focusing my mind on nothing but a mental image of the doctor’s friendly face. That mental diversion — that one little act of changing my thoughts — helped me nod off and get some much-needed rest.

Worry and stress are inventions of the mind, and if the mind can cause these feelings, the mind can alleviate them.

It’s within our power to direct our thoughts away from the negative and towards, well, anything else. It might require a conscious effort, but it can be done. Evolutionary impulses may be strong, but that doesn’t mean we can’t override them from time to time!

Stay Active

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve finished work, gone home with the problems of the day still swirling around in my head, gone for a workout, and then wondered why I was so stressed. It may sound cliché, but sometimes there’s nothing like a bit of exercise to help us clear our minds. The effects of physical activity on mental health and overall quality of life have been well documented, and the feeling of general well-being that comes from being active cannot be overstated.

The more active we are, the stronger we feel, and the more positive and self-confident we become. It’s a powerful cycle!

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