Escaping the Emotional Rabbit Hole

The Parable of the Second Arrow

According to the Buddha, any time we suffer misfortune, two arrows fly our way. The first arrow is the bad event itself, which certainly can (and often does) cause pain. The second arrow is our reaction to the bad event, the suffering we attach to our pain. This secondary pain, he tells us, is always self-inflicted. 

What you might not have been told, however, is that there’s often a third arrow in response to that second arrow! And, sometimes, even, a fourth arrow in response to that one. In fact, every now and then, hundreds of them start raining down. So much so that you end up feeling like this:

(That feeling when someone criticises your blog post)

To give you an example, let’s say I step on my son’s toy lego (first arrow), but instead of accepting this pain, I react by getting angry (second arrow). But then, I get mad about the fact that I’m angry (third arrow). So now I’m really angry. As a result, I lash out at my children for failing to put their toys away, and also my wife, who I decide (because I’m über pissed) is too nice to our kids (fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh arrow). 

Eventually, in a moment of ever-so-brief clarity, I realised that I was being unfair and regret shouting at my family (eighth arrow). But then, guess what? This makes me angry (ninth arrow). So now I’m mad about feeling guilty because I got angry, about my anger, because of my pain, and then taking it out on my family. I think I got that right. Anyway, you get the point. 

You see, there is suffering, and then there is suffering. The first kind of suffering, as Buddha taught us, is equal to pain times resistance. The second kind of suffering is equal to pain times resistance to the power of arrows fired. (That’s real maths!)

Of course, the emotion doesn’t have to be anger. To use a real-life example (I swear I made the last one up) earlier this year, I started to feel sad because of the pandemic. As a result of not being able to get home to see my family, I began to feel isolated.

But I didn’t just feel sad; I felt bad that I felt sad. I did this by painting a picture of what I thought life should be like. Then, eventually, I felt bad about doing that. So, I told myself I shouldn’t feel sad because other people have it much worse. Then it occurred to me that I should be happy even though I’m not. Therefore, I concluded, something must be wrong with me. 

And this sent me down the emotional rabbit hole. 

Secondary Emotions = Suffering

Now, there’s a psychological name for these kinds of secondary emotions, and that’s, well, secondary emotions. These are the feelings we have about our feelings. Naturally, we’re the only animal on the planet who has these, and, naturally, they have a tendency to mess everything up (thanks consciousness). Basically, there are four major ones. Those are:

  1. Feeling bad about feeling bad (think self-loathing)
  2. Feeling good about feeling bad (think self-righteous)
  3. Feeling bad about feeling good (think excessive guilt)
  4. Feeling good about feeling good (think narcissism/ego) 

Of course, many complex reasons contribute to these secondary emotions, including our upbringing, cultural beliefs, past traumas, etc. However, to give you a simplified answer, I believe the essence of the problem stems from a belief that because an emotion feels good or bad, it must mean it/us/the world is good or bad, instead of seeing the feeling as just, well, a feeling. 

Now, how much of this has to do with what, exactly, is up for debate, but (to give you a few examples) one suspects telling boys things like, “men don’t cry” has something to do with it. One also suspects certain helicopter parents who worship their children’s feelings (instead of allowing them to struggle and fail in order to grow) might have something to do with it. The role of social media broadcasting everyone’s perfect airbrushed lives 24/7 can’t help either. 

“How come everyone else is so happy? Why am I not happy? Something must be wrong!

Feeling Bad About Feeling Bad Makes You Feel Bad

At any rate, this belief that something is wrong with us, in particular, is central to the issue of feeling bad about feeling bad. This is because that belief brings up more negative emotions (go figure), which we then see as confirmation that something is wrong with us. So, we end up in this emotional rabbit hole where we fire arrow after arrow after arrow – feeling bad about feeling bad – and on and on until, well, we have depression, or anger management issues, or an anxiety disorder.

Aside from forming a habit that becomes very hard to break, that first arrow pain is still there. So long as we keep firing second arrows, it will continue to do all manner of push-ups, pull-ups, and sits ups in an attempt to get out. That mother is getting ripped! Unless you give it the space it needs, eventually, it will break free and tear you (or someone else) apart.

Unfortunately, if you’ve been firing these secondary arrows for a long time, you may be unclear what your first arrow pain is really about. If standing on a piece of toy Lego turns you into the Hulk, for example, you can bet your bottom dollar that your primary pain has little to do with that piece of toy Lego, or your kids failing to put their toys away, or your wife being too nice. 

On the surface, we may believe our suffering is because of these things, but it’s rarely true. That’s simply the narrative we’ve written over the top of our emotional pain because we believe we shouldn’t (or should) feel the way we do. Of course, we need to drop this false narrative to escape the emotional rabbit hole and process our pain. 

To come back to my previous example, I felt sad for some very understandable reasons earlier this year. However, my belief that something must be wrong compounded my misery. The truth is these difficult emotions brought up secondary emotions related to low self-worth. This is a common reaction that has to do with past trauma rearing its ugly head. I wasn’t resisting my sadness so much as I was resisting my habitual response to that sadness. 

It’s at this point things started to unravel.

Escaping the Emotional Rabbit Hole

Having a clear understanding of the false beliefs/traumas driving our secondary arrow of choice is important for this reason. Not because it will stop that second arrow, necessarily – unless you’re a Buddhist monk, it probably won’t – but because it will, at least, prevent you from firing a third arrow. If not a third, then a fourth, fifth, or, in my case, twenty-seventh arrow. This awareness gives you an out. It allows you to transcend the false beliefs masking your real pain. 

Baruch Spinoza once said,Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.” 

If you’re still suffering – if you’re still firing arrow after arrow – then you don’t have a clear picture of it, despite what you might be telling yourself. For some, it might require therapy to untangle the web of secondary arrows and see that picture clearly. For others, it might simply need a period of quiet introspection. Happily, there is a well-touted meditation that I’ve used to great effect on many occasions called RAIN. I like to think of it like this – when it’s raining arrows, I need to:

  1. Recognise it (become aware that you are firing arrows or experiencing difficult emotions)
  2. Accept it (allow your pain to be as it is/don’t judge it)
  3. Investigate it (look into it with curiosity)
  4. Not identify/Nurture it (understand you are not your pain/practice universal compassion)

After torturing myself for longer than I care to admit, I sat down and did this meditation. I soon understood what I was resisting (it’s always the same). Of course, it had nothing to do with my pain about the pandemic, but what I believed those emotions said about me. When I saw through this false belief – when I could see my demons in the light – the whole web of arrows I’d been firing crumbled to the floor. 


You can find more of AP2’s writing here at: https://pointlessoverthinking.com

You can also find him on Medium at: https://anxiouspilot2.medium.com

Or on Twitter at: @AnxiousPilot

Grounded

In aviation we have a term called AOG that means Aircraft on Ground. It refers to a plane that can’t fly because of a technical issue. We might also say a pilot is grounded because of a disciplinary issue, or that passengers are grounded because of weather. 

In all cases, the term indicates an inability to fly.

We might also use examples in real life. We can say we have been grounded by the pandemic, or personally because of health issues (or because we misbehaved). I could say my current reality has left me grounded here in Hong Kong. Extremely strict quarantine restrictions means I can’t leave, even though I’m currently on holiday. 

Once again this idea of being grounded is seen as bad.

Of course we desperately want to fly in life. It’s in our nature. But I question whether being physically grounded is the real problem. In fact, when we’re physically grounded in life, it’s our inability to stay mentally grounded – that’s the real problem. This is when we lose our footing. This is when we find ourselves off balance

When we desperately wish we could fly, even though we can’t.

But being grounded is a matter of safety. When an aircraft is AOG, it’s for very good reasons – whether that’s extreme weather conditions or a technical issue. We should wait for the right conditions. We should wait until we are at full strength before we attempt to get airborne. Otherwise, the results may be catastrophic. 

Keeping that perspective is important.

It also worth noting that an aircraft (or person) should always remain grounded, at least in some sense. Not only must we begin and end our journey on the ground, once airborne, it’s imperative that we retain contact with it. Especially when we fly over remote expanses, thousands of miles from home. Let me tell you, it’s a lonely place to be flying halfway across the Pacific. That connection is crucial. I need only mention the mystery surrounding MH370 to tell what losing contact with the ground can mean.

This is what I believe being grounded is really about: connection. It’s about being connected with your current reality, with those around you. It’s about being planted in the present. When we think of a person we describe as grounded this is what we think of. Someone who is level-headed and balanced, someone who understands what is important here and now. Grounded in this respect is undeniably a good thing. It prevents you from getting caught up in regret or worrying about the future.

It’s easy to get ahead of yourself in this life. We can relax well before we arrive at our destination. We can assume that the journey will go according to plan. We can switch off as a result. Equally, we can get hung up on past mistakes. We can let an error we made distract us from the task at hand. This usually leads to more mistakes. If we fail to put those mistakes behind us, we can quickly find ourselves in a hole.

We may also wish we were at our destination long before we’ve arrived. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve tortured myself while working the graveyard shift, wishing for it to end so I could get some sleep. It’s a classic example of Buddha’s second arrow. The first arrow is the fact that I have to work through the night. This pain is unavoidable. The second arrow – wishing for something different. Desperately hoping I had arrived. That pain is entirely self-inflicted.

This is what I’ve been doing recently. I’ve been getting ahead of myself. Putting too much emphasis on my future plans at the expense of my present-day responsibilities. As a result of my relentless pursuits, I can feel myself stalling. And I know what that means. I need to point the nose down. I need to spend some time playing and being with my gorgeous family. Being grateful for everything I have today. For my perfectly imperfect life.

I need to regain my footing in the present. I need to find that secure base again before I attempt to climb higher. And so, ladies and gentlemen, that is what I’m going to do. I’m going to take a break. I’m gonna come back to earth for a while. Although I can’t physically fly anywhere, I fully intend to let go and enjoy this time off. I realise that being on holiday, like most things, is a mindset. I don’t need to travel halfway across the world. I just need to stay grounded in the present.

That really is the best way to fly anyway.

***

You can find AP2 at the following places and spaces:

Mindset Mondays – 19/10/20

Hello lovely readers and welcome back to my new and improved Mindset Mondays post – the only weekly newsletter that turns out all the lights before handing you a lit match…

For those who don’t know, each week I try my best to give your Mondays a much needed boost by sharing 3 thoughts from me (that you should probably ignore), 2 quotes from others (that you probably shouldn’t), and 1 thing I’ve been reading or listening to that has helped me grow.

As always I finish with a joke that’s either so good or so bad, you won’t be able to help it but laugh.

Let’s begin!


3 x Thoughts From Me:

Attachments/Wanting = Unhappiness. Letting go/Generosity = Happiness. 

Some mornings, when life inevitably gets in the way, routine is the first thing that goes out the window. We shouldn’t let this get us down. Instead we should see it as a wonderful opportunity to practise mindfulness – to be at peace with the fact that things didn’t go according to our perfect little plans (because it really doesn’t matter). It’s also a great opportunity to practise flexibility – to work out how you can make it up later on, or fit it around a different schedule. Maybe you only meditate for 5 mins today, or maybe you can only afford to get in 5 pushups? If you can look back and say you still managed something, I’m guessing you did much better today than you think. Routine is important but it’s not the be-all and end-all, being flexible is equally important. In fact, you need to allow for flexibility within your routine. Otherwise you’re liable to throw in the towel completely.

Ignorance is bliss… but only for you, for everyone else it’s miserable. That’s not to say ignorance is unforgivable. We’re all ignorant to a large degree. The important thing is not to be deliberately ignorant about matters that affect us all. Listen to the facts. Don’t simply choose to believe something so you don’t have to feel shame. Shame is a useful emotion designed to make you change for the better. It works wonders. Don’t avoid it. Accept it. Process it. Then move on with the greater meaning and purpose that you have derived from it. 


2 x Quotes From Others:

“Open your mouth only if what you are going to say is more beautiful than silence.” – Buddha

“The desire for a more positive experience is itself a negative experience. And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one’s negative experience is itself a positive experience.” – Mark Manson


1 x Thing That Has Helped Me Grow

This insightful Happiness Lab podcast episode with Dr. Laurie Santos: Happiness Lessons of The Ancients: The Buddha From the show description: ‘The Buddha was born to a royal family… and it shocked him when he found out that no amount of money or power could keep suffering and loss at bay forever. The quest to accept that life brings us pain was key to the development of Buddhism as a major religion. Dr Laurie Santos is joined by Liz Angowski and Robert Wright (author of ‘Why Buddhism is True‘) to explore The Buddha’s teachings about unhappiness and how mindfulness meditation can help us come to terms with the negative feelings we all experience from time to time.’ My personal show notes below.

  • It’s not that beautiful things don’t make us happy but that they change. We change with them. To all happiness there is unhappiness and suffering. There is impermanence. There is a flip side. Things age. People die. 
  • Buddishm teaches us that we don’t see the world clearly by nature.  If we could see the world more clearly we would become happier and we would become better people.  
  • What is central to all suffering? That fact that we always want something more. This gratification never lasts. From a Darwinian survival perspective this makes total sense. Being restless and unhappy drives us to find food or have sex. Then we’re satisfied for a while before we are left wanting more. 
  • Unfortunately we are wired to think once we have sex with that person or eat that great meal or attain that big house then we will live happily ever after. Of course we don’t. It doesn’t matter how much you accumulate you will always go back to that unhappy restless base line. This is an example of our delusion. We are designed to keep convincing ourselves of this. That we will be happy after we have just this little bit more money or recognition, etc. 
  • The mind isn’t designed to bring us happiness. That’s not high on natural selection’s agenda. Understanding that is the beginning of seeking a more enduring kind of happiness. Buddhism offers us this path.

1 x Silly Thing To Make You Smile:

Struggling for a story this week folks so thought I’d leave you with this comic instead – Hope you enjoy!


Thanks ladies and gentlemen… I’m here all week! 

Till next time, I sincerely hope you have a very happy Monday!

One bonus question for you all:

How can you add flexibility to your routine?


PREVIOUS MONDAY POST:

Mental Mondays – 12/10/20