• amyobrien

The Second Arrow in Labour [an important conversation about amplifying and resolving pain]

Updated: Oct 3, 2019

The Second Arrow is a Buddhist teaching. I'll briefly outline my understanding of it here, but mostly I want to get to the juicy work of how it can play out in childbirth.

What is The Second Arrow?

When we experience some kind of pain, an arrow gets shot at us. This first arrow is a direct result of the experience. Unavoidable. Linked to our evolution and sparked by conditions outside our control. Things like fear and anger can be part of this first arrow.

The second arrow is the arrow we shoot at ourselves. The follow up arrow. It is the judgement of the way we feel. The repulsion of unmet expectations. All the extra added emotions and thought spirals. The beating ourselves up.

'The second arrow is the self-aversion for the fact of the first arrow' - Tara Brach.

The second arrow is the one we can choose and can control.

Separating the confused lump that makes up any particular experience into these two arrows serves to untangle it. It becomes clear where best to direct our attention.

'Realising that the first arrow is out of our control

and releasing self-blame

is the beginning of bringing forth the awareness

that can free us from the pain of the second arrow.'

Upon hearing this, my whole first labour unfolds in my memory, and clear as day I can see the second arrow for the huge impact it had that day.

How The Second Arrow Reveals itself in Labour

Let's cross both time and possibility and step back into my labour memories. Let's observe my hardest hour - the hour where the second arrow filled all available space.


I am at home. The first hour of my labour unfolding beautifully. A gentle excitement as things begin. The smile of possibility. And a relaxation into it all.

Going with it. Breathing into it. Allowing.

I find beautiful rhythm in the dance of these new sensations. Various postures are working really well. My breath feels useful, impactful. My eyes instinctively close. I am in my own little world. Flowing. Each moments sprinkled with the slightest sense of glory. Reverence. And we travel into the birth centre.

As we arrive, sensations ramped up. The next layer. Layers upon layers now. Becoming more complex. Harder to understand, interpret and integrate.

And in this, my second hour of labour, I met an intensity I am not prepared to meet yet.

I knew I would meet her, that intensity, but I thought I would first look her in the eyes at the summit, the very edge. Yet here she is, playing her cards fully at the very beginning.

I am not expecting this.

Why is the wall of intensity here - in early labour? Why at 3cms and not 8cms?

As beautifully and rhythmically as the first hour has unfolded, this second hour of my labour becomes the hardest.

In this second hour, I pace around the birth centre. Every contraction shattering my lower back. All the tools I have fall away. There is no position that gives me relief. I try them all. Try anything. Everything. To make this doable. To find some kind of possibility.

In spiral. Grasping.

My midwife can't do the work for me. My partner can't either. They can't take this intensity away from me. The absolute ferocious intensity.

I realise that it's just me. That this is how this is going to be. That this will continue to unfold outside of my control and my expectations. That this is bigger than me. Each incoming wave ten times my size.

Right now, in this pain, I feel an excruciating level of self judgement. Shame. And I shoot myself with the second arrow.

In this moment I expect more of myself than I can actually muster.

I expect more because I have peeled back the layers of myself in lead up to this. Because I have gathered and honed the craft of so many deeply useful tools. Because I had been willing, all along, and had done the work. Because I had a firm and solid understanding of the birth process and I know how to work with my body. Because I am comfortable in the space I have chosen, and the people I have chosen to stand beside me in this.

I have so consciously stacked the cards in my favour that I planned to be standing here at 3cms in flow. And yet here I am, just two hours in, already past my limit.

Meeting a level of unhinging pain that should surely only come later in the piece. If I was doing it right.

For a good hour I judge myself for the pain I am feeling. Falling short. All talk. Not enough. I feel like a failure. I am struggling to integrate all the different inputs of pain and I know the work of labour has barely even begun. I am weak.

And I don't want to be struggling. I really don't want to be struggling. I want to be breezing. I want for all the ease that does not come.

My ego and my cerebral cortex are alive and firing hard. I judge everything about the way I am handing this situation.


Everything changes when I get in the bath.

I get in the bath and I find relief. The relief of weightlessness. Something else holding the heavy load of my frame and of this moment.

I find trust. Trust in being held. Trust to be able to sink into the water and into this experience.

I find focus. An inward turning. A melting of the mind. Ego dissolving. Things become more simple. I feel a sense of 'well, I am here, and this is what it is, lets continue'.

The soothing nature of warmth and weightlessness unlocks a sense of compassion in my bones for the big work I am doing in each moment.

Self judgement melts into the glorious possibility of it all. Changes the channel of my thoughts. Frees up crucial space for a more united approach.

It feels as thought the thinnest crack of self compassion I have held all my life opens up into a crevasse. Compassion swallows me whole. This is where I am, and that's okay.

I stop judging myself for the pain I'm experiencing. Let go of the self-aversion I feel about the way I am coping with this situation. Drop the second arrow on the floor.

The first arrow is still there. The discomfort that life is throwing my way is still immense. But the second arrow lies discarded. Of no use to me here. And I am able to get on and do the work.

As I commit to being on the ride with compassion the floodgates open to a whole new world. A completely different life experience. The true depths of labour. A total other place of existence.


It's taken years to realise that in that hour, what I was feeling at my core was not shock. It was shame and disappointment. The perfectionist that I had always been seeing this as an already poor performance. Already not matching up.

Oomph. That Second Arrow.

Labour sure is an alter by which we can unfold and examine and abandon and rewire all these more hidden aspects of ourselves.

The Relatability of The Second Arrow

I really wanted to talk about this because I feel like firing off the second arrow is something that feels so natural to do.

Especially for women. Especially for perfectionists. And especially on life's big stages - and labour is quite the stage!

The truth is, I have always been super hard on myself. Lacking in self compassion in the biggest ways. Of course that was invited into my labour space.

Something for me to examine. To see clearly for the first time. To be eye-to-eye with this way of living. To feel it's immediate and debilitating impact.

Progress on that day required me to smash the well worn path of self hardness and endless judgement. To rewire. To open into the self compassion necessary for the task.

Before that day I felt comfortable and at home in self judgement and in seeking perfectionism. A High Distinction Or Nothing mindset. A lifetime of second arrows.

This birth brought with it the fullest expression of the pain that comes with constantly inflicting the second arrow into my own heart.

To remove that arrow in order to birth him was to truly obliterate the idea that perfection is love. To understand on the deepest level that imperfect effort deserves unbounded compassion too.

To be flawed and still beautiful. To be in pain and to struggle and still be magnificently worthy. Still be holy. To still be love.

To feel the affects of all this in my own bones? A Revelation.

Oomph. I am tingles that this was the lesson his labour brought down from the sky and into my cells. That my son was born amidst this important work of unfolding of my own self.

If You Are Preparing for Labour

I think it's worth exploring your own thoughts, feelings and responses to this idea of the second arrow.

If, like me, you have always set the bar right up the top for yourself. If you are filled with compassion for others, and yet simultaneously hold yourself in a rigid and hard and impossible way. If expectations of self sit just beyond the realm of possibility. Then this is surely worthy of illumination.

And hey, if you can identify with this mindset, know that that's okay. And common!

I believe it is possible to feel more prepared in knowing that you will likely doubt yourself in the most real and visceral way in the process of labour. That that is a part of it.

Anticipating this ahead of time may make it easier to spot, normalise, and move through.

Tuck into your heart the idea of self compassion as a labour progress tool.

Get your birth team involved too. Have them remind you to let the arrow fall.

And if you recognise judgement and self-blame unfolding, extend a hand to your heart and melt that second arrow with the depth of self compassion.


I wanted to share this because in all my reading this was not something I understood about labour. That being kind to yourself might matter. Might be pivotal.

I hadn't come across just this articulation of the experience. And I feel like it could be a game changer. Potent fuel for preparing for, working with and stepping down from labour.

The marvel of how this spills into Life Beyond The Birth Room

This ability to get through hard things by giving self judgement a break is not just useful in labour.

Collecting this tool as we cross the threshold into motherhood is an incredible asset. Surely by design.

The idea that we can look at ourselves with compassion is a motherhood game changer. Dissolving self blame, judgement and self aversion fast become a crucial part of navigating the life that begins beyond the labour room.

The vital key of self compassion that is available in labour is the vital key of the whole experience of motherhood.

And that compassion becomes something we can always lean on. Always refer back to. To feel the whispers of. And to continue to explore and unfold.

Four years into motherhood I can see that I needed this. I needed for hardness to become softness. For harshness to become kindness. For all of me to be worthy in the eyes of my own self.

Throwing self judgement into the fire was just one of the incredible things that became available for the very first time in that tricky terrain.

Dropping that second arrow is Freedom. It is power. It is clarity and certainty. It is learning to back ourselves. Trust ourselves. And flow compassion into every corner of ourselves.

And the tricky parts of this labour created an opportunity for me to see that for the very first time.

It's true - we never know the value of a moment while we are in it. At the time I certainly didn't feel this unsettling level of self judgement and aversion as a gift. But with heinseight I can see these moments allowed me to find the limitations of the life I was living. The reality of what being hard on myself was actually creating. These moments offered an invitation to be reborn in my thinking.

And that is everything.


I shared this offering with some incredible birth attendant colleagues and they immediately shone a light on one more exquisite use for applying The Second Arrow teaching in birth.

The way we look back at how our births have unfolded.

How we interepet what has just happened.

The processing of big life moments such as these.

And it's so perfectly true.

It's rare to listen to a birth story without finding threads of self judgement, shame, guilt. Arrows, arrows, arrows.

The idea that we can learn to look back on our births with compassion seems almost a rebellious act.

And I am here for it!

Compassion gets us further than a second arrow ever could. That much I know for sure.

The idea that we could let this huge and burdensome second arrow fall in the way we carry our birth stories for the rest of our lives is a gooden.

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