Mindfulness Mathematics, and The Tale of Two Arrows by Marc De Bruin

In my counselling sessions with clients, I often remind them that the mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy contain one important mathematical equation. This equation, once learned and applied, could make the difference between leading a fulfilling, rich life, or one of suffering.

Here is the equation:

S = PR

In normal English: Suffering equals Pain times Resistance.

Kristin Neff, a psychology professor and researcher in mindfulness and self-compassion, came up with this equation, and I love it for its simplicity and profoundness.

A common human misconception is that pain means suffering; in actual fact, these two words describe two entirely different states. Pain is a fact of life. We all have “pain” every now and then (some people very often!). This could be mental, emotional, physical or spiritual pain. A loved one passing away; a relationship ending; a promotion not offered; our bodies falling ill; an accident; a financial disaster; you name it. These (and many more) are all examples of “pain”. Pain is our initial response to adverse or unwanted situations, circumstances or events.

Suffering, however, is a totally different beast. It is caused by the resistance we tend to put up against that pain: our fight with “what is”. Thoughts and comments like “why me?”, or “this shouldn’t be happening”, or “why doesn’t this go away?”, or “I wish I could get a break for once” are indications of our resistance against the pain. Our level of suffering is not necessarily dependent on the level of pain. It’s more dependent on the level of resistance. In equations: Small Pain x massive Resistance = great Suffering. Big Pain x little Resistance = little Suffering.

In Buddhism, it is said that every time we experience something unwanted, 2 arrows fly our way. Being struck by the first arrow is painful, but can unfortunately not be avoided at all times. Being hit by the second arrow is optional and can potentially be avoided. IF it hits, though, it’s even more painful than the first arrow, and makes us suffer.

A more popular way of saying this is: pain is inevitable; suffering is optional. That’s quite a radical statement, as there are situations in life where suffering probably is the only (real) response to what has happened, and there seems no “optionality” to it. But, most of the time, we have a tendency to just let that second arrow hit, and experience (much) suffering because of the way we interpret and mentally-emotionally process events. We often “make too much of it” in our heads and bodies. I spoke about that in previous articles when it comes to us often not owning our own experiences, and the way we then react to what others say and do.

So how to you prevent yourself -as much as possible- from being hit by the second arrow, which causes you to suffer? Well, acknowledging the first arrow, fairly and squarely, is a good first step. Some events or circumstances just hurt. And we feel the hurt. Which is totally ok. As I say to clients regularly: life stinks, at times. And it’s normal and ok to feel the pain that comes with that. No need to avoid it; no need to run from it; no need to fight it; no need to control it. What happens after that, though, is a matter of choice: do I stay with the hurt, blow it up, make it bigger, make it “mine” (identify with it), let my actions be decided by it? Or can I take the hurt, process it, share it with others, look after myself, and find a more useful and/or meaningful way forward in life with that pain and through that pain? When we keep looking at the unfairness, injustice, painfulness and perceived permanency of the pain, we will surely suffer; that much I can tell you.

I quite like the Japanese saying: “fall down seven times and get up eight”. To me, it speaks of the resilience we all have in times of distress. We just keep getting up. That may not be easy; heck, it may be really tough. But it is a decision we can make. The alternative decision: giving up and giving in, will be even tougher, though. You’ve now jumped into the path of the second arrow, and are stuck with 2 arrows instead of 1.

If you would like to learn how to effectively deal with the first arrow, without having to wrestle with the second arrow, please contact me. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and other Mindfulness-based approaches (such as MiCBT), teach us just that. I would love to help you make a difference.


Marc de Bruin

Marc de Bruin is a registered counsellor on the Sunshine Coast in QLD, Australia, assisting people with “Simplifying Life” for improved levels of mental health and well-being.

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