Don't shoot the second arrow

Don't shoot the second arrow

[UPDATE (Oct 2018): I’m pulling from the archives this week. Thanks, archives! This is a favourite post from a few years ago (originally published on Nov. 4, 2015). The idea here is that, often, more suffering and internal conflict comes from our reactions to events than to the events themselves. Once we understand and can observe this tendency ourselves, we can work towards responding creatively to what’s actually in front of us rather than getting buried in an avalanche of reactivity. I have not changed the original post, but I did add some new resources in the “Go Deeper” section of the notes.]

Hello! If this is your first time here, I suggest checking out earlier posts that describe what mindfulness is, how mindfulness works, and how I got interested in mindfulness. If you're good to go, read on...

In this post, I'd like to introduce you to one of my favourite metaphors for unhelpful reactivity -- the second arrow. The concept of the second arrow comes from a Buddhist parable, the gist of which is this: If you got shot with an arrow, it would be bad. It would hurt a lot and could be life-threatening. There are certain actions you would likely want to take immediately such as get the arrow out, stop the bleeding, go to the hospital, etc. 

What would NOT be helpful would be to get, say, angry -- either with the person who shot you or with yourself for being stupid enough to get shot. If you did get angry, you would be in physical pain (and possibly mortal danger) AND, on top of that, you would be...well, angry, which generally doesn't feel good. So, not only would your discomfort have increased (pain of arrow + pain of being angry), but your anger would likely distract you from taking the actions that would be most helpful.

In effect, it would be like shooting yourself with a second arrow. 

Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson refers to second arrows (he calls them darts) as, "...the darts we throw at ourselves." He differentiates between first and second darts like this:

Some physical and mental pain is inevitable. ... To use a metaphor from the Buddha, the unavoidable pains of life are its "first darts." But then we add insult to injury with our reactions to those darts. (Hanson, 2011, p. 186-187)

In other words, life happens. Things go wrong, we screw up, we get sick and injured, sometimes people are mean to us, etc. There is a certain amount of suffering associated with each of these things. But we tend to make things much more difficult and unpleasant for ourselves by piling on all kinds of other stuff -- anger, judgement, shame, resentment, frustration...

The crazy thing is that when we learn to pay non-judgemental attention to our present moment experience, we are likely to discover that most of our day-to-day suffering is actually caused by second arrows. Check it out: Begin to notice what kinds of thoughts preoccupy you. I would bet that you are largely preoccupied with your reactions to events or circumstances rather than the events or circumstances themselves. [Just to be clear, I'm referring to your normal, everyday experience and not experiences of trauma or grief.]

Most of us have this sort of low-level hum of dissatisfaction and disgruntlement running in the background a lot of the time. This constant rumination on things that are not actually happening is not just unpleasant (at least to the extent that it is conscious...) but it also has all sorts of negative implications for your physical health including: 

  • Increased risk of gastrointestinal issues such as ulcers, colitis, IBS, diarrhea, constipation

  • Impaired immune function

  • Increased risk of cardiovascular disease and heart attack

  • Disregulation of endocrine function resulting in type II diabetes, PMS, and even erectile dysfunction (Hanson, 2009, p. 56)


As if that wasn't bad enough, living in constant state of second dart reactivity is even worse for your psychological well-being, making you more susceptible to both anxiety and depression. (Hanson, 2009, p. 56-58)

 Double eek!

Sooooo...what does this have to do with playing music?

In practicing and performing music, things don't always go the way we would like them to. We all make mistakes and encounter setbacks. Sometimes our progress seems so slow as to be almost imperceptible. Sometimes we play poorly in performance or in an audition. It happens. These are the "first arrows" of being a musician and they are all normal and inevitable parts of the learning process. When things aren't working, it is absolutely helpful and productive to acknowledge what's not working so we can take appropriate steps to improve. Perhaps we need to increase our practice time -- or, conversely, take more rest. Perhaps we need to find more effective practice strategies. Perhaps we need to spend a greater proportion of our practice time focusing on musical expression or mental training. 

What is pretty much never helpful or productive is adding frustration, self-criticism, anger, etc. -- in other words, shooting the second arrow. Often, the second arrow will trigger an avalanche of negative thoughts and emotions such "Oh, I messed up that passage again! What's wrong with me?!?!? I should be able to play it by now. I will never be able to play it right." Those thoughts and emotions cause discomfort of their own, quite apart from the original discomfort arising from the inevitable ups and downs of the learning process (aka life). There are two big problems with this scenario. The first is that second arrow reactions have real and measurable impacts on our bodies and nervous systems, as noted above. The second problem is related to what I talked about in the post about how mindfulness works: A lot of the time, when we're caught in a second arrow reaction, our choices about what to do next are dictated by that secondary discomfort rather than a calm and dispassionate investigation of the original problem. With practice, though, we can learn to defuse our emotional reactions and keep our proverbial eyes on the ball. 

A Practice

This practice is adapted from "Don't Throw Darts" in Just One Thing, Rick Hanson's handy little guide to living more mindfully. It has several stages. Pick the stage that seems right for you and start there. The point is to cultivate the mental habit of noticing when you're having a second arrow reaction and then learning letting it go. With practice, you'll find that much of the time you can stop yourself from shooting the second arrow.

Stage 1: Acceptance - Accept that you will make mistakes -- in both practice and performance -- and that learning anything can often be slow and mysterious. In my experience, this is where a lot of musicians get hung up: They think that if they could just discover the secret magic practice formula, they wouldn't make any more mistakes, wouldn't mess up in performance, and would instead just cruise from success to success. It doesn't work that way. When you encounter people who seem to never mess up and who appear cruise from success to success, it is likely that they have figured out how not to get bogged down in second arrow reactions (although, unless they are Buddhists, they probably don't think of it in those terms). They are probably very good at looking at setbacks as information and mobilizing that information to improve their performance. 

If you are looking for the magic practice formula, I suggest you start here and work on becoming more comfortable with the messiness of life and learning. I'll write more about how to do this soon. 

Stage 2: Noticing - When something doesn't go as you would like and you start down the road of frustration, self-criticism, or "should" thinking, work on noticing that you have shot the second arrow. Be cool about it though. The vibe you're going for is more "Oh, I see what's going on here..." than "Dammit, I shot the second arrow! AGAIN!" Remember, an attitude of friendliness and non-judgment is key. Notice what happens in your body when you are caught in a second arrow reaction. Notice what happens in your mind. Do you feel optimally positioned to learn and grow? At this stage, you may be powerless to stop the reaction. That's okay. As you learn to bring awareness to your mental habits, they will lessen in intensity and, over time, you'll be able to move on to the next phase.

Stage 3: Notice...and Let It Go - In this phase, you practice noticing that you are shooting a second arrow, experience how it feels in your mind and body, and then you just let go of whatever unhelpful thoughts and emotions you are experiencing. To facilitate the letting go, you might find it helpful to relax your body and take a few deep, mindful breaths. This will activate your parasympathetic nervous system and short circuit that pesky fight-or-flight reaction. You can then return to the problem in a spirit of curiosity and investigation and take appropriate action. 

Stage 4: Don't Shoot! - At this stage, when something doesn't they way you want it to, you acknowledge it. And then you simply take action to correct your course. If you kack a note or flub a passage, you acknowledge that you kacked or flubbed and investigate what you could do to make your next attempt cleaner. If you play poorly during a performance or audition, you accept it and thoughtfully decide how you will move forward.

Bonus Points: If you want to take it to the next level, notice if you tend to have second arrow reactions to positive events. If someone compliments your playing, can you sincerely accept the praise with a heartfelt "Thanks!"? Or do you think (or even say out loud) something like, "Didn't you hear all the mistakes I made?" or "I played it better yesterday." 

Like many things in life, this process is non-linear. Lots of things -- lack of sleep, a new school or job, personal difficulties, etc. -- can trigger an increase in second-arrow thinking. Or, you may find that you are pretty much a mindfulness ninja in the practice room but that making a mistake in performance nearly sends you over the edge. It's all good. Just work with what shows up in any given situation.

A note

It is important to point out that one of the qualities you will develop in learning to notice your second arrow reactions is discernment. After a poor performance or a lackluster showing at an audition you may experience, say, disappointment. I would argue that in that scenario disappointment is a natural and possibly even inevitable response that is well within first arrow territory. But, if you feel disappointment and then add to it with anger, shame, or self-judgment, then you're sliding into second arrow mode.

On the other hand, if you're experiencing a lot of disappointment every time you miss a note in the practice room, I would say that is more likely a second arrow reaction and that you may need to re-examine your ideas about what the practice room is for.

The point is not to stop feeling things. On the contrary, a rich emotional life is one of the hallmarks of being human and may be essential for musical expression and communication. The point is to learn to distinguish what is helpful from what is not helpful so that practice and performing are both maximally productive and maximally enjoyable. 

Thanks for reading. Happy practicing! 


Hanson, Rick. Just One Thing.  Oakland: New Harbinger Publications, Inc., 2011. 

Hanson, R. and Mendius, R. Buddha's Brain  . Oakland: New Harbinger Publications, Inc., 2009. 

Go deeper

Again with this podcast! It’s just so good…

Also, check out episodes 2, 3, and 4 of the Music, Mind, and Movement Podcast. All three guests spoke about this idea in some shape or form.

This article summarizes some research (here) suggesting that mindfulness practice leads to a decrease in rumination and an increase in self-compassion in ways that interventions explicitly geared towards relaxation do not.

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