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This does not define you

Around two and a half thousand years ago the Buddha made an important distinction between pain and suffering. He suggested that though we are unable to prevent pain from occurring in our life, our suffering is optional.

The undeniable fact is that we cannot prevent ourselves experiencing pain, whether it be physical, emotional, psychological or spiritual pain, pain happens. The Buddha called this the “first arrow” and suggested that we are shot by that arrow time and time again. But then-being clever humans-we do something with this arrow of pain: we resist it.

We resist the fullness of experiencing this pain by either fighting it, flighting it, or freezing from it. This might take subtle or not-so-subtle forms, such as suppression, denial, distortion, repression or projection, the latter being where we project the difficulties we have of meeting this pain onto another thing or person (“It’s your fault”).

This disowning of our experience builds up and becomes reified into a fixed narrative of suffering, whereupon we identify with the resistance as “us”-it literally defines us. So this is the second arrow, shot right into the tender wound made by the first, yet enlarged and made more wounded.

So we might walk through life habitually conditioned with and by this narrative of suffering. But it doesn’t stop there.

Because our human minds are so tricky we do something else. We fire a third arrow. This is the arrow we fire into ourselves, and if it spoke it might say “I deserve this” or “I’m not good enough” or “there’s something wrong with me.” If you google “I’m not good enough” there are 64 ½ million results.

Now the world can rest. Nobody need hurt us because we are carrying within us a narrative, a repeating cycle of self-attack that we fire into ourselves again and again. In a very basic way we are subjugated within a reactive self, split off from our authentic being. This, we let define us.

This does not define us.

Neuroscience has known for years that within the human brain “neurons that fire together, wire together” and from the perspective of mindfulness an oft repeated maxim suggests “where attention goes, energy flows and something grows”. It’s clear that what we bring our attention to, either by holding onto it or attempting to reject it, this actually reinforces the very thing we’re trying to rid ourselves of.

We need a different approach.

We can pause, we can literally stop firing these arrows. Mindfulness practice tells us we can become more present to the moment, right here and right now rather than being caught up in old and disabling story lines. And we can send deliberate, conscious messages of kindness to ourselves allowing us to open and deepen into the disowned parts of ourselves.

Kirsten Neff has worked extensively in the area of self-compassion, and suggests that we need to evoke a sense of mindfulness, common humanity and self-kindness to halt the firing of these arrows. Neff created what she calls the self-compassion break as a way tending to ourselves. The instruction is to pause, take a breath, let your mind settle, relax, then say to yourself (perhaps putting a hand on your heart)


this is a moment of suffering

everybody has moments of suffering

may I be kind to myself in these moments of suffering


The first line is mindfulness, recognising without denial the difficulty or suffering, the next common humanity, it tells us we are all in this together as part of our human nature and the last line self-compassion, which is a prerequisite for meeting those difficult parts of ourselves we have rejected.

Taking back the arrows of projection, of reactivity, and pausing our narrative of suffering allows us not only to get closer to our pain but also find our authentic selves. Fight, flight or freeze, a life defined from a narrative of suffering can flow and grow: but so can kindness.


Kristen Neff Self Compassion

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