As I navigate the busyness of the holiday season and notice how I and others react to its stressors, I have become increasingly curious about how mindfulness can help. Attention to the present moment can soften stress reactivity, yet this time of year calls for something more solid, more strategic.
I think the Buddha’s parable of the second arrow can help us mitigate holiday stress. The parable goes like this: The Buddha once asked a student, “If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful?” The student responded, “Of course. If we’re hit by an arrow, it will surely hurt!” The Buddha then explained, “In life, we cannot always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first.”
The first arrow represents the unpleasant event in the moment it shows up. The second arrow points to (pun intended) the harmful qualities of the thinking mind. For example, I recently crossed a street in accord with the pedestrian traffic signal. When I was about half way, a car drove rapidly through the designated crosswalk and nearly hit me. So that’s the first arrow. I felt it.
And then comes the second arrow — my thoughts and feelings about it: “What an impatient, stupid, unaware, driver!” And the third arrow: “So disrespectful of pedestrians. This person obviously never walks anywhere.”
Usually my walk home from the bus stop is relaxing and pleasant. Yet during this walk, I kept the original wound active by shooting myself with another arrow … in the same reactive sore spot.
So how can we apply this to holiday stress? The first step is awareness — awareness of when we have been struck by the first arrow. The second step is to become a PRO, practicing Pause - Relax - Open before we shoot ourselves with the second arrow:
Dodging the Second Arrow like a PRO
P - Pause
This step helps break the automatic reactive stress cycle. Take a couple deep, slow breaths.
R - Relax your body
When we're stressed, our muscles get tight and then send signals to the brain to fight, flee or freeze. This reaction makes our thoughts more distracting and chaotic. Relaxing the body helps to calm the mind, making it easier to focus.
O - Open to this moment and let go. Explore a deeper felt sense of presence.
The third step is to practice non-judgmental awareness of when we shoot ourselves with the second or third arrow. The skill we’re developing here is to observe what the mind is doing, and try another round of PRO.
The holidays can bring a mixed bag of joy and stress. Give yourself the gift of PRO — learn to dodge the second arrow!