What do you see when you look in the mirror? What story do you tell yourself about your body?
If you’re like many people, when you see your reflection in the mirror, you think, “Ugh. When will I get rid of these fat rolls/cellulite mountains/burgeoning stretch marks?!” Then you silently (or not so silently) vow that tomorrow you are starting a new diet/new exercise program/new strategy for excising that part of your body forever. Then later, when you’re driving, or washing the dishes, or talking to a friend on the phone, you’re still giving yourself a hard time about it-- sometimes for hours or weeks.
“There are two arrows,” Buddha told his students. “The first arrow is pain, injury, loss. You can’t avoid it. What you can avoid is the second arrow; the one you shoot at yourself about why you got shot by the first arrow to begin with.”
When I share this story with my yoga students, they often look at me with surprise. “I don’t have to shoot the second arrow? I don’t have to tell and re-tell the story about how there is something wrong with me? Or him? Or the world?” Nope. That’s the suffering we create for ourselves. You don’t have to tell the story that makes you or the world bad.
Here’s an example: my partner comes home late from work. I’m mad, because I had dinner ready 45 minutes ago, and she didn’t even call to tell me she was running late. Her being late is the first arrow. The second arrow is the story I tell myself:
What a complete, inconsiderate, insensitive, self-centered jerk! I can’t believe I married her. What’s wrong with me that I always end up with people who walk all over me?
Then I shoot a few kerosene-soaked second arrows at her, too. Add a little PMS to this flammable mix of arrows, and we can end up in an epic, hours-long fight involving slamming doors, threats of divorce, and multiple emptied tissue boxes.
Instead, what if I didn’t shoot the second arrow?
People are late sometimes and forget to call, despite their best efforts. What if I thought to myself, “I’m bummed she got home late. Maybe she’s bummed too. I know she loves me and would never do this on purpose.”? First arrow but no second arrow. Pain but no suffering. Disappointment but no argument.
When you look into the mirror what’s the first arrow? Your body. Your aging, changing, un-airbrushed body. Your body is what it is. It’s not bad, it’s not necessarily even painful. It’s just a body.
But looking in the mirror, I might instantly compare my lips to Angelina Jolie or my thighs to some 20 year old model’s that I saw on a radio station billboard. Squinting at the reflection I remind myself that my lips are nothing like Angelina’s and even when I was 20, my body did not look like an airbrushed model’s. The longer I look, the crappier I feel. Comparing myself negatively to someone else is a second arrow inandof itself. Then I get out the big artillery: the story I tell myself about why I don’t look “better.” It starts with, “What’s wrong with me that I don’t look younger/thinner/more gorgeous?” And moves to, “I need to work out more and do a master cleanse, that will get me started.” Soon my inner anorexic feels her powers return and she helpfully suggests, “Stop eating.” Uh-oh.
How do we stop shooting the second arrow?
First, notice when you start comparing. Your body stands alone. Your body is good and worthy. Heck, it’s carried you around your whole life, and for its thanks you compare it to Hollywood actresses, or your friend, or yourself ten years ago? Get real and give it a break. Second, notice when an encounter with the mirror (or scale---a different sort of mirror) sets your inner critic on a raucous meth-binge of self-hatred. Or sends you over a speed bump of dieting wistfulness.
Notice your usual second arrows.
Get to know them, let them become like old friends. When the one with the story about how you should eat and look like Kate Moss/your svelte aunt/your tiny friend comes up, just say, “Hey, it’s you again. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your opinion. You’ll have to forgive me if I don’t serve you refreshments and ask you to stay awhile, but I’ve really got better things to do.”
When you notice yourself repeating a really sticky story (like shooting yourself over and over with the same second arrow), observe how it feels in your body and in your heart. Offer it your breath, and a sense of spaciousness and tenderness. These stories can be powerful and persistent. But really, they’re just stories.
You have the ability to tell different stories.
Nowadays, instead of shooting second arrows at myself, when I see my reflection in the mirror, I tell myself:
This is a good body. Thanks for everything you do, body. I’m working hard to learn to love you and to keep loving you no matter what. We’re in this together.
Instead of being mad at my body, I feel a sense of friendliness and trust. Where I once had to duck to avoid the second arrows, now my body soaks up gratitude and affection.
The next time you find yourself in the mirror, notice your second arrows, get to know them, and offer your reflection healing, instead of hurt.
(Thanks to yoga instructor and author Judith Lasater, who first told me a version of the second arrow story.)