Byte of Prevention Blog

by Will Graebe |

Stop Throwing Darts

In his book Buddha’s Brain, best-selling author and neuroscientist Rick Hanson suggests that physical and mental pain and suffering is inevitable in life. People die. They lose their jobs and suffer illnesses and injuries. Marriages dissolve. Hanson calls these things first darts. They are events or circumstances that we often have little or no control over. However, Hanson goes on to explain that we often exaggerate or prolong our suffering by throwing second darts at these experiences. Second darts can come in the form of negative self-talk or ruminating over our pain. Hanson uses the simple example of stubbing your toe on a chair. The physical pain is the first dart. But then you throw second darts by becoming angry that someone moved the chair or you feel resentment toward your partner because he or she isn’t sympathetic enough to your pain. Or maybe you ruminate about whether your toe is broken and how much the medical bills will cost. We all do this. We take a first dart and make it bigger than it is. 

If we want true happiness and well-being, we must learn to move through and process the pain of the first dart without making it worse than it needs to be. This allows us to release the negative emotion or pain and move toward a positive emotion.

We can also reduce suffering by changing our mindset (perception) of what is a dart in the first place. In other words, we can stop seeing so much of what happens as negative and simply perceive circumstances as nothing more than that-circumstances. This concept can best be understood by considering an old parable of a farmer. In the story, one of the farmer’s horses ran away. A neighbor dropped by to apologize for the farmer’s bad luck. “Maybe,” the farmer replied. The next day, the horse returned and had three wild horses with him. The neighbor exclaimed, “How wonderful!” “Maybe,” replied the farmer. The following day, the farmer’s son was thrown from one of the horses and broke his leg. The neighbor again offered his sympathies for his son’s misfortune. “Maybe,” answered the farmer. The day after, military officers came by to draft the farmer’s son for war. Because the son had a broken leg, the officers passed him by. The neighbor expressed to the farmer how well things had turned out. “Maybe,” said the farmer. You get the idea. We don’t always know what events and circumstances mean. What might seem like a negative event could turn out to be a blessing.

Avoiding second darts and limiting what we see as first darts requires mindfulness. When something “bad” happens, we can choose to stop and simply observe the circumstance without judgment. If it causes physical or emotional pain, let that pain come without fighting it. Then let it pass without magnifying or exaggerating it with fear and rumination. If you catch yourself throwing second darts, just stop and observe the second darts that you’re throwing. Then stop throwing logs on the fire. 

This practice can be very difficult. Our negative responses to situations typically are triggered by an automatic response in the limbic system of our brain (think fight or flight). In her best-selling book My Stroke of Insight, neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor explains the physiology of what happens. When a negative emotion is triggered by a threat in our physical or mental environment, our limbic system sends chemicals into the body which put it on high alert. Taylor explains that it typically takes about 90 seconds for these chemicals to be flushed from the body. While those chemicals are present in your system, your reactions are based on the emotions of fear, anger, or panic. If you can wait for the chemicals to flush without reacting or forming any opinion about the triggering event, you are less likely to throw a second dart. You can simply be present with what has happened.

About the Author

Will Graebe

Will Graebe came to Lawyers Mutual in 1998 as claims counsel. In 2009, Will became the Vice President of the Claims Department and served in that role until 2019. After a two-year sabbatical, Will returned to Lawyers Mutual as claims counsel and relationship manager. In his role as claims counsel, Will focuses primarily on claims related to estates and trusts, business transactions and real estate matters. Will received his J.D. from Wake Forest University School of Law and his undergraduate degree from Stetson University. Prior to joining Lawyers Mutual, will worked in private practice with the law firm of Pinna, Johnston & Burwell.  

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