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Mindfulness Mathematics And The Tale Of Two Arrows

Written by: Marc de Bruin, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


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

Muslim man in brown session lift two hand for praying and wearing bead on hand.

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. We seem to put the two together. In actual fact, these 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 (and quite normal) 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: it is our fight with “what is.” Thoughts and comments like “why me?” or “this shouldn’t be happening,” “why doesn’t this go away?” or “I wish I could get a break for once” are indications of our resistance against the pain. Moreover, our level of suffering is not necessarily dependent on the level of pain.

Suffering is more dependent on the level of resistance. In equations again: Small Pain x massive Resistance = great Suffering. Big Pain x little Resistance = little Suffering.

In Buddhism, a parable states 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 the second arrow hits, though, it’s an even more agonizing experience than the hit of the first arrow, and it causes us to 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, with seemingly no “optionality” to it. But, most of the time, we have a tendency to just let that second arrow hit -even if we could have avoided it. This creates (much) suffering, mainly because of the way we interpret and mentally-emotionally process unwanted 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 react to what others say and do (find those articles here and here.

So how do you prevent ‒ as much as possible ‒ being hit by the second arrow, the one that creates suffering? Well, mindful acknowledgment of the first arrow, fairly and squarely, is a good first step. Some events or circumstances just hurt. And we feel that 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 very much a matter of choice: do I stay with the hurt, blow it up, make it bigger, make it “mine” (identity with it), or let my actions be decided by it? Or can I take the hurt, process it, and share it with others while looking after myself and working on finding 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, unwantedness, 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 decide to 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 then 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 deal effectively 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.

Follow me on Facebook, LinkedIn, and visit my website for more info!


Marc de Bruin, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Marc is a Registered International Counsellor, Supervisor and Educator "with a twist". If you're looking for a run-of-the-mill mental health professional, feel free to contact one of his very capable colleagues. Marc looks at life through a different lens, with a transpersonal, even "spiritual" filter. Expect to discuss your life from a bigger perspective, while still being very practical (Marc is an ex-litigation lawyer, too, so very solution-focused); and expect to work from the inside out: YOU will change before your circumstances will. In order for things to change, you'll be the one to change some things. If that sounds like something you are up for, Marc is ready for you.



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