Despite my love of the outdoors, I have to admit that at this time of year, I find the cold and dark mornings less than enticing! When I wake up, and see it is still dark outside, I feel an immediate aversion towards the day ahead. I am guessing I may not be the only one to feel this way!
What happens next? My mind starts to build on the feeling of aversion: “Oh, no I feel miserable “, “How many more months of dark mornings are ahead?”, “Why can’t I just cheer up? I’m supposedly a nature lover!”. And so it goes on…
These reactive thoughts are what the Buddha called “second darts”. Conversely, he called the unavoidable pains and frustrations of life “first darts”. You could have a headache (first dart), and worry it may indicate a serious illness (second dart). You could be asked by your boss to work more efficiently (first dart), and beat yourself up with self-critical thoughts about how you are not good enough (second dart).
What is worse is that quite often we throw unnecessary “second darts” and create pain for ourselves where there was none to start with. You may have anxious thoughts about getting stuck in a lift when it is working perfectly well. We even do this when we have experienced something pleasurable! You may have just successfully completed a significant piece of work leaving you with an enjoyable feeling of satisfaction, but then think that you should have done it more quickly, or immediately bring to mind all the things that remain on your to-do list!
“Second darts” are responsible for the majority of our day-to-day suffering. Thoughts of guilt, self-criticism, catastrophisation, grudges and worry about things we can’t control- these are all stories our minds seem to entertain all by themselves! Such thoughts can create increasingly painful states of mind as well as varying degrees of anxiety and depression.
Why create unnecessary suffering for ourselves?
“First darts” (physical and emotional pain) are part of life, the same way that pleasure is. Pain is nature’s signal which enables us to know what to avoid to protect our life and the lives of others. Physical pain ensures we don’t damage our bodies. We feel pain if we put our hand in boiling water. If we didn’t, we would not avoid the water and we would burn ourselves! Emotional pain ensures that we surround ourselves with caring people and flourish in relationship with others. Living in large groups in the African savannah, our human ancestors needed to avoid rejection by others. This made them better group members and more likely to survive. For this reason, they evolved to experience distress if there were alone or threatened.
But the real problem is that our brains are hard wired to spot and anticipate painful experiences more than pleasurable ones. If our ancestors wanted to survive in the savannah, it was best to be cautious, fearful, and ready to run – in case there was a leopard hiding in the forest ready to eat them! If they were relaxed, walking through the forest calmly enjoying their beautiful surroundings, then they would probably not have survived for very long!
Our minds have evolved to focus on bad news and in the natural environment we evolved in, it often saved our ancestors’ lives! But now, although we no longer find ourselves roaming the African plains in search of food, shelter and sexual partners, we retain a mind which naturally evolved with a bias towards looking out for and avoiding painful situations. In the modern world we live in, this is no longer needed for our survival.
Consequently, we can find ourselves predicting and dwelling on bad news when alot of the time, there is none! This is what happens when our minds throws those “second darts” and causes us alot of unnecessary suffering!
What can we do about it?
The very good news is that we experience a lot more second darts than first darts in our lives.
We can’t avoid the first darts. Life will make us sad, angry, hurt, and scared – in the same way that it can make us joyful, fulfilled, excited, contented and loving. But we can learn to throw less second darts at ourselves when painful experiences come along. How can we do this?
- Start by accepting that pain is inevitable. Pleasure and pain are the essence of being alive. One would not exist without the other and neither is permanent. Both will always pass. Our resistance to this reality – with expectations of permanent pleasure or fears of sustained pain – is at the heart of most of our suffering. So let’s learn to accept it – there is no point fighting it. Pain and pleasure will always be part of life’s beautifully rich tapestry!
- Notice and allow pain to arise when it does. This is the most challenging bit! Out of habit, we always want to get rid of painful emotions and sensations. Why wouldn’t we? But if we give our pain a little space and let it be without reacting to it or trying to get rid of it – we will suffer less than if we try to avoid it, rationalise or analyse it. In this way, pain will arise, take up the space and time it needs, and then dissipate. We can watch it pass in and out of our awareness. One way to do this is coming back to an awareness of our bodies. When you feel angry, where do you feel it? What does it feel like? Where do you experience tension? Give your pain a little bit of kindly attention, let go of your reactions to it, and let it be. It will pass when it is ready to.
- Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional: observe those second darts! Be mindful of your thoughts. Notice what stories you are telling yourself. If they are too overwhelming, bring your attention back to your breathing. When you notice your mind has wandered away from your breathing sensations, what thoughts are there? Are you feeling guilty about how you feel? Are you making up scenarios in your mind that have not yet happened? Are you being self-critical? Try labelling these as “judgement”, “criticism”, “worry”. Maybe write them down. Becoming aware of our thoughts through mindfulness is the first step towards choosing not to pursue them.
- Choose to look on the bright side. Give your fearful mind a helping hand and consciously notice a couple of things about a seemingly painful situation that are pleasurable, positive or even funny – either during, or afterwards! Just make a point of recognising them. Your partner may have annoyed you by saying that you drive too fast, but actually they were expressing concern for your safety, and now you may be more careful. You may have felt like you failed by quitting a job you didn’t like, but actually you learnt a lot about what you do and don’t enjoy doing by trying it!
- Practice, practice, practice. Happiness is a skill – just like playing the piano, or riding a bike. Most of us are very proficient at performing unhappiness and suffering (the art of throwing millions of second darts at ourselves!). And although some people may be naturally more gifted for the practice of happiness and positivity, we can all learn to be happier. We can all retrain our minds a little bit, every day.
You may initially start to notice the second darts, but continue to get caught up in them. You may then begin to notice the second darts, but not pursue them. Eventually, you may observe the second darts automatically dissolving, and your mind beginning to react in more positive ways all by itself!
Remain kind and patient with yourself. We all have set backs and learning a new skill takes time and is definitely not easy. It requires commitment and courage to change old habits and create new ones. The practice of happiness is the work of lifetime! But it is possible for us all, and there is lots to learn and explore along the way.
As the French Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard says, “the basic root of happiness lies in our minds, outer circumstances are nothing more than adverse or favourable”.
We all want to be happy above anything else, right? So surely watching out for those second darts is worth a go? And, every time you spot one, take time to congratulate yourself, you have just shown a moment of strength, and chosen happiness!