Some physical and mental pain is inevitable. I remember being six and slipping on an icy sidewalk in Illinois and landing hard on my tailbone: ouch! Much later, in my fifties, when my mother passed away, there was a different kind of pain. To survive physically, you need a body that tells you it hurts when it’s ill or injured. To flourish psychologically and in your relationships, you need a mind that sends different signals of distress – such as loneliness, anger, or fear – if you’re rejected, mistreated, or threatened.
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 reactionsto these darts. For example, you could react to a headache with anxiety that it might mean a brain tumor, or to being rejected in love with harsh self-criticism.
Further, it’s common to have upsetting reactions when nothing bad has actually happened. For instance, you’re flying in an airplane and everything’s fine, but you’re worried about it crashing. Or you go out on a date and it’s fun, but then he/she doesn’t call for a day and you feel let down.
Most absurdly, sometimes we react negatively to positive events. Perhaps someone complimented you, and you had feelings of unworthiness; or you’ve been offered an opportunity at work, and you obsess about whether you can handle it; or someone makes a bid for a deeper friendship, and you worry about being disappointing.
All these reactions are “second darts” – the ones we throw ourselves. They include overreacting to little things, holding grudges, justifying yourself, drowning in guilt after you’ve learned the lesson, dwelling on things long past, losing perspective, worrying about stuff you can’t control, and mentally rehashing conversations.
Second darts vastly outnumber first darts. There you are, on the dartboard of life, bleeding mainly from self- inflicted wounds.
There are enough darts in life without adding your own!