It was about 11:30pm and I was flat on my back, staring up at the faint stars through the mesh of my tent. Relaxed. Grateful. At peace. Then I felt it: an unmistakable wave of nausea.
Until that moment, I had been enjoying myself. I was on a camping trip in celebration of a dear friend’s wedding. We spent the day preparing for the festivities, and the second half enjoying the fruits of our labor. And now, as I lay in my tent with the peace of nature around me, I experienced a new, deeply unpleasant sensation.
At first it was minor, and I batted it away with irritation. But as the minutes passed, it became clear that my insides were roiling, and I needed a bathroom. I lurched, dry-heaving, toward the bay of port-a-potties in the distance.
And that is where things get interesting.
And I don’t mean gross-interesting (although they did). I mean psychologically interesting. As I proceeded to literally lose my s#*t, I noticed something. I was physically uncomfortable but I was not suffering emotionally or psychologically. I wasn’t making things worse with my thoughts and feelings. Even when the shaky beam of my flashlight discovered a large spider mere inches from my feet, my thoughts were clear, completely in the present moment, and helpful. Kind. I found myself thinking “what does your body need from you right now?” and “you are here, in the woods, doing the best you can in a tough situation that will not go on forever”.
And you know what? That kind, friendly voice was right. The physical distress passed. Whatever had disagreed so vehemently with my body had been expelled, and I was able to spend the rest of my night sleeping peacefully in my tent by the river.
Out there, in the woods that night, a microcosm of life happened. As long as we are living life, we will encounter painful, inconvenient, and unpleasant circumstances that are completely beyond our control. The compelling parts--and the parts we can control--are what happens inside us when these painful things happen outside us. Let’s look at a few secular and spiritual wisdom traditions to see what they have to say about this.
In Buddhism, the inevitable discomfort of living is often referred to as the “first dart” of pain (1). As long as we have bodies and go camping with them in the woods, these kinds of “first darts” will happen. They’re a sign we’re alive. Buddhism maintains, however, that most of our suffering comes from the thoughts and feelings we have in response to the pain of the first dart. These automatic responses are called “second darts” of suffering, and we throw them at ourselves -- unconsciously, automatically, and unnecessarily.
Like all people, I am usually great at slinging those second darts. The darts I could have slung that night might have sounded something like: “This sucks and it is ruining my whole trip!” and “This is NOT FAIR! This is shameful and bad!” or possibly “This is why I can’t take any vacation. Something always goes wrong when I prioritize myself”.
Those second darts are profoundly powerful. They heap suffering on top of pain, and often invite more suffering. If I would have picked this route (like I have so many times in so many situations) I might have ended up frustrated, angry, and scared on top of feeling uncomfortable. And then later, when feeling better, I might have judged myself harshly for my response to discomfort. Having judged myself, I’d have felt disappointed and frustrated during breakfast, which would have distracted me from being present with my dear friend in the beautiful woods.
This is not a uniquely Buddhist observation. Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) looks at this phenomenon through a secular psychological lens (2). REBT was the first type of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and is concerned largely with how our thoughts and feelings affect our perception of reality. Albert Ellis, the theory’s creator, calls uncomfortable life circumstances “events” or “activating/adverse events”, and claims that all humans have responses to these events. He calls our responses “beliefs” and broadly classifies them as either “rational” or “irrational”. The irrational beliefs, akin to Buddhism’s second darts, come from past experiences of pain, and are distortions that we’ve come to believe are true. Ellis contends, just as Buddhism does, that these irrational beliefs increase our suffering and make the inevitable pain of existence worse.
Even the serenity prayer aims to illuminate this idea: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”
When people recite the serenity prayer, they are asking for the ability to accept the inevitable discomforts in life, the courage to shift their thoughts, feelings, and actions wherever it is helpful, and the wisdom to tell the difference between inevitable and optional pain.
So, if I would have said the serenity prayer in that moment, I would have been begging for the ability to accept the reality of the woods, my body, and the spider. I would have been praying for the courage to stumble my way through the dark into the bathrooms and the courage to be compassionate and present even though it was painful. I would have been asking for the wisdom to use my energy and thought where they could make a difference for my experience.
In Buddhism, the wisdom to tell the difference between inevitable and optional pain comes from mindful self-reflection. In REBT it comes from disputing irrational thoughts using logic and humor. In the serenity prayer, the wisdom is a gift from a higher power. But the message is the same: you can’t get through life without experiencing discomfort. But you can learn to respond to the discomfort skillfully and in a way that will not increase it.
Based on my experience of being human and working intensively with other humans, slinging second darts and responding irrationally to pain is often unconscious and automatic. It happens below our awareness, and before we even realize we’ve made meaning and connected dots.
So, how do you stop throwing second darts and believing irrational thoughts? Like most things in life, it is a constant process. Here are some ways to start:
- Practice mindfulness. We can only work with the thoughts and feelings of which we’re consciously aware, so create some mental and emotional quiet time to meditate. There are as many ways to meditate as there are people in the world, so do not be intimidated by thoughts of sitting in full lotus position for hours at a time. Experiment with brief guided walking or seated meditations, and see what you notice. (This article is a great introduction to meditation, and Insight Timer is a great free app with both a timer and guided meditation functions.)
- Attend to your physical needs. Are you sleeping enough? Eating food that helps fuel you throughout your day? Moving in a way that supports your body? Treating any chronic/ongoing illnesses as effectively as you can? Being a person in the world can be hard enough. Choosing to develop awareness in our hearts and minds can feel, at times, even harder still. Control what you can control by making conscious choices to nourish your physical body with quality movement, rest, food, and medical care.
- Know when to get help. Are you struggling to make time for mindful awareness? Are you overwhelmed or judgmental about what comes up when things get quiet inside? Are you afraid that you’ll never really know how you feel or what you need? You might find that working with a skilled therapist can help. Therapists are trained to accompany you on a wide variety of inner journeys, and can help you develop self-compassion, insight, and resilience. As human beings we are wired to connect, and it is often healing to have the objective, compassionate, and skillful help of a trained professional.
You can find professional therapists in your area through websites like PsychologyToday.com and GoodTherapy.org. If you’re in Austin and like what you’ve read, you can learn more about working with me.
1. Hanson, R. (2009). Buddha’s brain: The practical neuroscience of happiness, love, and wisdom. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
2. Albert Ellis Institute. (n.d.) Rational emotional behavior therapy’s a-b-c explanation of emotional disturbance [Brochure]. New York, NY: n.p.
Legal disclaimer: I am a mental health professional licensed to practice in the state of Texas. Reading my blog does not create a therapist-client relationship between us. My blog is designed for informational purposes only, and is not intended as a substitute for professional care. The contents of my blog should not be used to diagnose or treat illness of any kind, and before you rely on any information presented here you should consult with a trusted healthcare professional. If you are currently experiencing a mental health emergency please call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.