Painful Darts – A Practice
The Buddha once asked a student, “If you got struck with a dart* is it painful?”
“Yes,” answered the student. “And if you got struck with a second dart, is it more painful?” asked the Buddha. “Yes, it is,” answered the student. The Buddha went on to explain, “In life we cannot control the first dart. However, the second dart is our reaction to the first. With this second one comes the possibility of choice.”
When we become familiar with the neurobiology of pain (see here and here), it doesn’t take much imagination to see what the Buddha was offering to teach the student in this traditional parable. In the experience of pain, the ‘first dart’, could be labeled nociception. This is the warning signal coming from our tissues via our peripheral nerves as a means to communicate a potential threat to the tissues. After the signal is intercepted by a variety of regions and processed in the brain, we, as humans, with thoughts, emotions, and potentially long-ingrained beliefs and reactionary responses begin to add ‘second darts’ to the scenario. The wisdom shared by the Buddha shows, that it is here, in the addition of the second dart, where suffering occurs. In the scenario of pain some of these ‘second darts’ may have once been helpful and adaptive. However, as pain and associated patterns persist, we have an opportunity to become mindful or aware. We can explore what is it that continues to drive our suffering? Is it the injury, insult, or pathology in the tissue? Or is it all the other layers added to the experience? While some of these layers or darts are outside our control, not all of them are - some may still be within our control. With this awareness comes the choice. We get to choose if this second dart is helpful or if it is adding to our pain and suffering.
Many of our ‘second darts’ or thoughts, movements, emotions, and beliefs, occur outside our awareness. However, when we learn to pause and become aware, we can then choose to shift these darts or reactions. With practice, we may change our pain experience to be one of much less suffering.
I invite you to think of a scenario, movement or position, during which you experience pain or discomfort. If pain isn’t part of your picture, perhaps choose an activity that has become challenging to you.
Maybe now imagine this experience as if you are actually performing the movement or embodying the position. It is ok and not completely unusual if you feel some familiar, physical discomfort. Pause.
Try now to see if you can bring your awareness to what else is here.
At first, maybe, think about just one of the following prompts and really lean into it.
What thoughts do I have about this experience?
What beliefs do I hold?
Can I name an accompanying emotion or two?
Can I see how my posture or movement patterns have shifted due to this physical sensation?
Once you have an answer or an observation to one or more of these questions the only thing to do next is label it ‘second dart.’ See if you can simply hold it in your awareness without trying to analyze it, or dispel it, or grab on to it. The observation comes without judgement or scrutiny. This exercise is simply about first becoming aware.
You could repeat the practice with each question above individually. Name your observation each time as a second dart. And then see if you can go through the visualization with the ability to fairly clearly identify the ‘First Dart and the Second Dart.’
After some practice you could consider taking this experience into life and actually perform the activity or posture you were visualizing.
I encourage you to enter into this whole exercise with a sense of curiosity and kindness. You can’t perform it incorrectly and there is no big prize for finishing first. Be gentle with yourself and allow space for whatever may be revealed.
*in some writings the darts are referred to as arrows
Hanson, R.M., Richard, Buddha’s Brain. 2009, Oakland CA, United States: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Gifford, L., Pain, the Tissues and the Nervous System: A Conceptual Model. Physiotherapy, 1998. 84(1): p. 27-36.
Butler, D.S. and G.L. Moseley, Explain Pain. 2003, Adeliade: Noigroup Publications.
Moseley, G.L. and D.S. Butler, The Explain Pain Handbook: Protectometer. 2015, Adelaide, South Australia: Noigroup Publications.
Thompson & Neugebauer. Corticolimbic Pain Mechanisms. Neuroscience Letters, 2019. 702: 15-23
Lumley et al. Pain and Emotion: A biopsychosocial review of recent research. J Clinical Psychology 2011. 67(9):942-68
DeFelice & Ossipov , Cortical and sub-cortical modulation of pain. Pain Management 2016. 6(2): 111-20