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The First and Second Dart: Primary and Secondary Suffering


Some physical discomfort is unavoidable; it’s a crucial sign to take care of life and limb, like the pain that makes you pull your hand back from a hot stove. Some mental discomfort is inevitable too. We feel distress when those close to us are threatened and sorrow when they are harmed. We also evolved to care greatly about our place in the band or group and in the hearts of others, so it is normal to feel hurt when you’re rejected or scorned.


Inescapable physical or mental discomfort is the “first dart” , or primary suffering of existence. As long as you live and love, some of these darts will come your way. While the first darts are unpleasant, we then add our reactions to them. These reactions are “second darts” , or secondary suffering– the ones we throw at ourselves. Most of our suffering comes from second darts….we get upset, beat ourselves up, become angry, anxious, depressed, it’s all my fault, I will never get better, etc. The key point is that the impact of the second dart is invariably far worse and more long-lasting, more injurious to our health and well-being, than primary suffering.


This concept can also be usefully applied to understanding chronic pain where the impact or perception of the pain/suffering, is made much worse by the things we say to ourselves, like… I will never be free of this pain, I will always be disabled, this is my future now, nothing I do seems to make it any better, etc.


Mindfulness-based Pain Management uses meditation. A typical meditation takes just a few minutes and involves focusing on the breath as it flows into and out of the body. This allows you to see your mind and body in action, to observe painful sensations as they arise and to let go of struggling with them. Mindfulness teaches you that pain naturally waxes and wanes. You learn to gently observe it, rather than be caught up in it, and when you do, something remarkable happens: it begins to melt away of its own accord.