Put the Second Arrow Down: Making the Best of Uncertainty

By Yana Barysheva

This is not another article about working remotely, productivity hacks for a frazzled mind, or using technology to stop a pandemic. We are a tech company, but we are made up of human beings, locked in our homes with our canned beans and toilet paper, our unsettled families and happy pets. We are scared and isolated. We are finding ways to be together (bless you, Zoom) and grasping with enthusiasm at small moments of beauty, but there is a thrum of anxiety vibrating throughout the world and there will be for a while to come.

“We have been preparing for this,” psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach says in a recent podcast about dealing with uncertainty.

But most of us haven’t been preparing for this or any other of the many nightmares that will surely come to pass in our lifetimes.

Making the Best of Uncertainty

And it’s not only during pandemics and other global crises that we feel the pain of uncertainty. We feel it when our relationships go awry, when the train is late, any time things don’t go our way. We panic in the face of uncertainty because in the unknown and uncontrollable there is greater potential for things to go badly and for us to be hurt.

If we are to develop the skills to handle this state of fear (especially over a long period of time) with grace and minimal suffering, we need to take an entirely different approach to ourselves and our minds than many of us are used to.

There is a Buddhist parable about being shot with two arrows. The first arrow hurts, the second one hurts more. The first arrow is an undesired event — we can’t control it and it hurts when it happens. The second arrow is our reaction, where we double down on our suffering by focusing on it.

Fear is a natural response to a crisis, and to the ensuing uncertainty. But the powerlessness, panic, and grasping for agency that we feel are the second arrow and often cause additional, avoidable pain.

To avoid the second arrow, we should start by observing our minds with kindness and without judgment. Judgment is very subtle and can sneak in unnoticed, but it’s important to resist labeling our thoughts (and ourselves) as good or bad because doing so arrests any potential progress or evolution.

Instead of labeling our thoughts, we should examine them with curiosity in order to learn about ourselves. If we turn away from them because they are off-putting or distasteful, we won’t learn. Are we pitying ourselves because we crave comfort? Are we addicted to the feeling of panic because it’s familiar? Is there someone we dislike so much, we actually hope that they catch a virus that might kill them? If we turn away from these thoughts, we’ll never grow past them or the additional, unnecessary pain they cause.

Making the Best of Uncertainty

The key is to observe the thoughts without getting caught up in the story our mind is putting together. We can observe the fact of the thoughts’ existence without automatically accepting it as truth. It’s easy to get caught up in the story and to cling to it. We so habitually shoot ourselves with the second arrow and hardly notice when we’re doing it. Stay vigilant.

This is the process practiced in meditation, but we don’t need to sit and meditate to practice it. The key is to remember that this technique exists when we need it. When we are being overwhelmed with thoughts, we have to remember that we have the ability to observe them without judgment and without fighting. Every time we lose sight of this ability and remember it again — that is the practice.

This does not make the pandemic — or the divorce, or the late train, or any other problem — any less real. It does not replace the need for action. But it does give us the opportunity to be more mindful of our response, to perhaps change it and lessen our suffering. The less we suffer, the more room we have to think clearly, rationally, and to plan for a solution. This allows us to take the right action that will bring benefit, and not the panic-induced, thoughtless action that might bring further harm.

Nobody knows what comes next, but at least we can learn to deal with what is here now, and prepare ourselves for the uncertainty of the future.