These notes are an adaptation of a profound Native American teaching which has served me wonderfully most of my adult life. It is, in my view, the best and most beautifully condensed wisdom I have encountered.
Introduction and Summary
This is how the teaching goes: there are two types of suffering: avoidable and unavoidable. Often the best we can do with unavoidable suffering is to sit with it and allow ourselves to feel it fully in the knowledge that all things pass. We can however do something about our avoidable suffering, a good deal of which is characterised by seven dark arrows (to be explained soon). If we find a dark (or poisonous) arrow sticking in us then the chances are that we are suffering right now or that we are setting up the basis for future suffering for ourselves, for other people, or both. So, we need to pull it out and break it! This requires an act of will and can feel very unfamiliar. If we are not prepared to make the act of will that is required by the teaching then what follows is worse than empty words.
Once we have pulled out and broken any dark arrow that is poisoning us then the next stage is to pick up one or more of the seven light arrows (to be explained after the dark arrows). This is how we heal the wound.
As we do the work of identifying dark arrows, choosing by an act of will to rid ourselves of them and to pick up the light arrows, then the seven rainbow arrows arrive gracefully. We cannot attain the rainbow arrows by trying to grab them directly. The only way to attract the rainbow arrows is to do the work with the dark and light arrows, and this begins by understanding (and breaking!) the dark arrows:
The Dark Arrows
Each dark arrow is described in turn below. Described also is its contrary manifestation (opposite) which is no less poisonous. The trick is to learn to transcend the particular thought form represented by the arrow- that is to transcend both the dark arrow and its contrary manifestation. (Opposites keep us entrenched in the same thought form). Some of the ways we can do this (tricks) are also outlined.
Perhaps the most poisonous and least obvious of all the dark arrows. This is where we have become attached to suffering itself and our own particular brand of it. Though we are not usually aware of it at first (or only dimly) we have become masochistically prone to being victim and to setting up situations which reproduce the types of suffering that have become so familiar to us. We do this because we prefer to stay in the familiar, however painful that may be, than risk the unfamiliar which feels deeply terrifying. We prefer known misery to the anticipated misery (which often never manifests) of entering the unknown.
Contrary Manifestation: There are two contrary manifestations of this arrow. First, ‘ungrounded detachment’ (e.g.: “nothing can touch me: I don’t mind that you took and wrote off my car without even asking to borrow it- I’m beyond possessions”). Second, a compulsive exploration of the unknown which is painful because it takes no account of our fears and experience and gives no credit to habits that are serving us well.
Tricks for transcendence: Stay alert for this arrow which often seems counter-intuitive initially and can infuriate us when it is pointed out to us (why on earth would I choose to suffer!). We need to guard against our infuriation blinding us to the truth. Once we have spotted the arrow we need to learn from the lessons we have been given and ACT by following through a conscious choice to move away from familiar avoidable sources of suffering.
This is where we have become dependent upon a drug, person or activity and have come to believe that our very survival depends on that person or thing, and that we could not do with out it/them. We are not talking about sufficient food, shelter or drink here but everything else that feels indispensable – to which we are addicted. Included in the list can be alcohol, legal and illegal drugs, work, partners, and dependencies on praise, money and fame.
Contrary manifestation: Independence. Absolute abstention from all of life’s pleasures is no solution here. If the arrow relates to people then attempting absolute independence is no solution. None of us are islands and we need to live in relation to others.
Tricks: valuing interdependence and a restoring of our ability to choose. Dependencies are often a way of escaping underlying feelings that we mistakenly think are unendurable. The various stages in the process of addiction (craving and our battle with it, giving in and getting high, coming down and withdrawal, self disgust and disappointment followed by shaky resolutions giving way to craving) can keep us so preoccupied that we manage to successfully avoid our underlying feelings. We need to break the cycle by allowing ourselves to experience the underlying feelings. This can put us back at cause rather than effect.
When we judge others or ourselves (most usually both if one tendency is present). It is different from appraisal, which is a necessary part of the way in which we need to make sense of the world. Judgements are distinguished from appraisal by their causticity, which seeks to undermine its target (either directly or in the mind).
Contrary manifestation: is to attempt a state in which we do not to appraise anyone at all. If we manage this manoeuvre we end up wide open to abuse and disappointment.
Tricks: keep appraising but watch out for causticity. Distinguish the behaviour from the person behaving – we can disagree with a particular behaviour without writing off the person. Working with acceptance and forgiveness. In breaking the judgement arrow we have to be careful to avoid a vicious cycle in which we judge ourselves heavily and caustically for having picked up a dark arrow again!
This is where we compare ourselves favourably or unfavourably with others. Again the poison of the arrow lies in its caustic component rather than in the act of assessing per se.
Contrary manifestation: giving up a realistic measure of others and ourselves.
Tricks: Valuing difference. We are all different rather than ‘better’ or ‘worse’.
When we have high expectations or ourselves or others. e.g.: “Only once I have earnt a million can I accept myself and retire happily” or “You will only be acceptable to me as a husband once you are established in a good career”. The present becomes mortgaged to the future. So we (and/or others) suffer in the present and even if we reach the future goal the chances are we set ourselves another (because this is our trusted habit- see Attachment) rather than settling into a greater self-acceptance.
Contrary manifestation: Attempting to be goal-less. Life starts to feel meaningless.
Tricks: We have the goal without hooking all our self-esteem to it. We have a hope or a wish for someone else (or ourselves) without making our love or acceptance of them dependent on their realising that, and we let them make their own decisions and learn from their own mistakes (if indeed they are mistakes).
6. ‘Needy child syndrome.’
When we become so identified with the needy child that resides in us that we lose all perspective and are therefore at the mercy of huge swings of mood and the fancies of the child inside us.
Contrary manifestation: ‘Duty locked adult’. Here play and passion goes out of our lives and duty rules.
Tricks: cultivate a respectful dialogue within between our child part and our adult part. Not easy if we haven’t had good parental models of this. The adult needs to listen to and accommodate the child but not give in to his/her every whim. The child has to learn it can’t have its own way all the time and to be appreciated for the important resources it brings to the relationship. Bargaining is useful here: “if you let me do another hours work I’ll buy you an ice-cream on the way home”. We need to stick to bargains that have been struck or the child will sabotage the adults endeavour.
7. Self Importance
We put our own needs and triumphs before those of all others and start to inhabit Narcissus’s contracting world. We are incapable of empathy or love and cannot hear anyone else and are just surrounded by the hollow sound of our own echo. We become lost and unreachable in our own grandiosity.
Contrary manifestation: we attempt to make ourselves really quite important by stressing what a lost cause we are. “Nobody is quite so messed up as me”.
Tricks: Contemplating and accepting our limitations (not faults or deficiencies), this includes our mortality. Fully letting in and sharing how isolated and lonely we feel.
What to do when we spot a poisonous arrow sticking in us
So, the teaching continues: if we find ourselves suffering first check through to see if we have a dark arrow sticking in us. We need to be honest! If we really cant find a dark arrow then it may well be that our suffering is not open to influence and the best we can do is sit with it in the knowledge that all things pass. Some suffering is part of the human condition. But if we find a poisonous arrow then the next stage is:
PULL IT OUT AND BREAK IT!
This is essential. Just reflecting on the arrow won’t stop its poison. We need to act. And the only point at which we can act is NOW. Right now! In this present moment. The will is like a muscle- if we don’t use it frequently it gets weaker and weaker and we undermine our wills further by postponing action. Here we need a vigorous and masculine sort of energy. To the judge inside us: “I hear your point of view but now require you to STOP. STOP. STOP. To the comparer “I am neither better nor worse than this person we are just different. Now STOP. STOP. STOP.
It can help to actually imagine pulling out the arrow and breaking it.
Beware of the voice that says I can’t do this or I don’t know how to do this. This crafty manifestation of the Attachment arrow would keep us in the known by catching us up in an open ended cerebral enquiry that goes on forever and dulls us with the false sense that we are doing something. If we actually had a poisonous arrow sticking in us would we hang around wondering how to pull it out? “How” questions are red herrings here and a wedge that gets between us and action. We also need to keep acting in a series of present moments. We are often dealing with entrenched patterns here which need a sustained assault in order to turn around.
And each time the arrow has been pulled out then we have an open wound that needs filling and dressing. This is where feminine sorts of energy come in (both masculine and feminine energies are present in us all- to have them in balance is one of the rainbow arrows). We need to nurture and look after ourselves, and heal. We need an alternative thought and feeling pattern. We need to pick up the seven light arrows. We can work through these picking them up one at a time starting with the first and working down the list. If we do this we will definitely start to feel better though this won’t necessarily happen instantly- there can be a time delay. Don’t dismiss this teaching if results are not immediate.
The light arrows:
1. Self awareness
We already picked up this arrow when we become aware that there was a dark arrow (or cluster of them!) sticking in us. We need to get as familiar as we can with the arrow and understand the circumstances in which it sticks in us, where or who we learnt it from, its history, its ruses and its particular poison; and generally we need to cultivate an overall awareness of ourselves. Meditation is helpful here.
2. Self Appreciation
Here we find something, anything, however small, to appreciate about ourselves. We look especially for our qualities, and we need to be mindful here of the judgement arrow: we are never any good quality all of the time. One appreciation we can also make here is that we have got to this stage of the teaching and already spotted and identified the dark arrow, or we can scan through the last 24 hours and recall one (or several) actions we have taken that we can appreciate. Good practice here is also to note carefully and allow ourselves to let in appreciative comments others have made of us. Can we allow that their appreciation may be right and not necessarily deluded, manipulative, naive, unthinking, or foolish? Perhaps the other person may be seeing us more accurately than we see ourselves.
3. Self Acceptance
This is more encompassing than Self Appreciation and includes our limitations as well as our good qualities. Acceptance means more than just acknowledging or admitting, it has a component of positive approval of ourselves as a whole. It does not mean we cannot improve who we are and indeed it embraces the paradox that we cannot change ourselves at all without first accepting who we are.
4. Self Pleasure
This is about actively allowing and pursuing pleasure in our lives. This includes basic activities such as eating- are we really letting in how good each bite of this meal tastes? It also includes the individual pursuits that we enjoy and we need to allow ourselves time to pursue them. And it means allowing in full the pleasure of our sexuality both when we are with someone else and when we are self pleasuring alone. We need to open up our heart area fully to the sensation of pleasure filling us up and breathe it in consciously. In general we need to guard against the shame our culture so often attaches to pleasure, particularly sexual pleasure.
5. Self Love
This is all of the first four light arrows and more. We can imagine ourselves as an all accepting, all knowing, ever merciful and unconditionally loving mother holding ourself in her arms. We are absolutely OK just as we are; there really is nothing to be afraid of.
Again, we need to guard against our culture which frequently defines self love as selfishness when in fact it is the opposite: if we do not cultivate a love for ourselves our cup is too empty and our needs too great for us to be of much use to others.
6. Self Actualisation
This is where we start to lead our lives in a way that feels fully connected to our souls destiny. So we need to be connected to our soul. If we were on our deathbed now what might we regret not having done? We need to go for those things right now. The meaning of life is the meaning we give to it. We can hold ourselves back out of fear of failure or fear of success, attachment to fantasies or because we don’t know precisely what it is that we want to do. All of these can be aspects of the attachment arrow if they hold us back from acting and once again not acting can be our greatest enemy. Sometimes we need to leap before looking and it is only by leaping that we start to see further and get our direction. And if we fail? Then we need to pick ourselves up, learn the lesson, and carry on.
7. Self impeccability
This is about taking full responsibility for ourselves and the consequences of our actions including the effects of our unconscious mind. It means admitting fully when we have messed up and not fudging the issue with lame excuses or fogging. It also means not taking responsibility for the actions of others. Discerning between what is and what is not our responsibility is a very subtle and complex process requiring close attention.
What happens next?
If we make a practice of breaking the dark arrows and picking up the light ones then the rainbow arrows arrive by the grace of the Great Spirit (or God or the Cosmic Choreographer or however you choose to refer to the great mysterious force(s) at large in the universe). It isnt helpful to target the Rainbow arrows. We need to work on the dark and light arrows. For example: just chasing abundance and properity can end up with us getting an impoversished version of it (monetary wealth) without any accompanying merit. Because the rainbow arrows should not be pursued directly they are only listed here:
5.Heart to heart communication
6.Equal balance male and female
7.Abundance and prosperity
May you entice all the rainbow arrows into your life and have fun with this teaching and hold it lightly.
If this teaching has been misrepresented in any way may the responsibility rest entirely with me and may the credit for any merit rest with the Native Americans who kindly allowed their wisdom to be made available to others.