Curbing Second Darts
Over the last month, I've been transitioning to a new job which has come with the typical stressors one would expect. The transition has prompted me to reflect on the Buddhist concept of first and second darts, a conceptualization of how we deal with life's inevitable stresses. Most importantly, the concept offers a way to deal with stress in a way that minimizes needless suffering.
First darts are the unpleasantries that life throws at each and every one of us - these are nonnegotiable, and we have no choice but to experience them. Examples include pain that accompanies a physical injury, or emotional pain from feeling hurt or rejected by others. We're automatically wired to respond to these negative stimuli as a basic survival mechanism. If our ancestors didn't, we likely wouldn't be here today. Ignoring a physically threatening stimulus would have led to bodily demise, while ignoring emotional pain would have reduced our ability to reap social benefits crucial for survival.
First darts are unpleasant, but necessary. However, we reflexively throw additional reactions (second, third darts, etc) on top of the first darts, essentially throwing sparks onto mental tinder. Before we know it, there's a full on mental conflagration with runaway activation of the stress response. Borrowing a simple example from Buddha's Brain:
1. While getting up for a glass of water late at night, you stub your toe on a chair. You feel pain (First dart - not optional).
2. You wonder who left the chair out. You start to feel angry (Second dart - optional).
3. You remember all the good things this person has done for you, then you start to feel guilty for being angry (Third dart - optional).
Second darts are man-made reactions, based on individual life experience, insecurities, and learned patterns of response. These are usually out of proportion to the original stressor. The operative concept is that second darts are optional, giving us the power and opportunity to opt out, thereby avoiding needless suffering. It's an empowering concept.
Another reason to cut down on additional darts: continuous activation of the stress system is self-propagating. In other words, stress begets stress; continued activation of the stress system over time leads to less hippocampal and prefrontal cortical activity, meaning memories of the highly-charged events are less accurate, and you are less able to "talk yourself down". With time, the brain becomes more and more sensitized to negative stimuli.
I've found a couple of tactics helpful in curbing second darts:
1. This one may seem obvious, but it's key: identifying your reaction as a second dart.
2. Take a few slow deep breaths to activate the relaxation response, which is part of the parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system. Only one system can predominate in your body at any given time, so use the parasympathetic (relaxation) response to crowd out the sympathetic (stress) response.
3. If you still can't stop the darts from coming, just recognize them for what they are - useless diva-like darts, then let them flow away. One visualization I find helpful is to breathe slowly, imagining that each exhalation is the negative feeling floating further downstream, away from you.
Hope you'll find this helpful!
Thanks for stopping by,