A Native American grandfather was speaking to his grandson about violence and cruelty in the world and how it comes about. He said it was as if two wolves were fighting in his heart. One wolf was vengeful, resentful, and angry, and the other wolf was understanding and kind. The young man asked his father which wolf would win the fight in his heart. And his grandfather answered, “The one that will win will be the one I choose to feed.”
A person does something that brings up unwanted feelings, and what happens? Do we open or close? Usually we involuntarily shut down.
Yet without a storyline to escalate our discomfort we still have easy access to the natural state of our heart.
Right at this point we can recognize that we are closing off, and instead allow a gap, a crack, and leave room for change to happen and for our self-protective reflexes to relax and gentle..
In Jill Bolte Taylor’s book “My Stroke of Insight,” she points to scientific evidence showing that the life span of any particular emotion is only one and a half minutes.
Just 90 seconds!
After that we have to revive the emotion and get it going again.
And we do this automatically by the story or stories we tell ourselves about what has happened. We revive the emotion and amplify it by the habitual patterned ways we have of talking to ourselves—which unless we have trained the mind through mindfulness meditation, or therapy—will likely be counterproductive and just antagonize our emotions, instead of deescalating and re-centering ourselves and seeing and experiencing more directly what happened to us.
Our usual way of dealing with a negative emotion is that we automatically do revive it and feed into it by uncritically feeding it with our internal conversation and the stories we tell ourselves of why the other person did this to us, or why this shouldn’t be happening to us, or why this isn’t fair. . . .
This is a very ancient and basic habit. And it allows people like you and me who have the capacity for tremendous empathy and warmth and understanding to get so clouded that we can actually do harm to each other.
Understanding this, I’ve become highly motivated to make a practice of doing the opposite. I don’t always succeed, but year by year I become more familiar and at home with dropping the storyline and trusting that I have the capacity to stay present and receptive to other beings.
Suppose you and I spent the rest of our lives doing this? Suppose you and I spent the rest of our lives not avoiding what we fear but befriending it, staying, becoming less reactive, and not feeding that reactive self-protective uncharitable wolf? Suppose instead we began a practice of feeding the other wolf, the wolf of forgiveness, charity, kindness, understanding, courage, and love? What might happen to the quality of our own lives and the lives around us? What impact might this have on our community and even the world as a whole? . . .
Look what the opposite does.
When we avoid those who activate our fears and insecurities, those who bring up unwanted feelings, we dehumanize them. This just cultivates a more aggressive and anxious and isolating and self-protective society.
Yet it can also become a daily practice to humanize people. We can make that choice. We can feed that wolf.
And when I do feed this wolf of friendliness and understanding unknown people become very real to me. They come better into focus as living beings who have sorrows and joys like I do, people who have parents and neighbors and friends, just like me. I also have a heightened awareness of my own reaction and fears, judgments and prejudices that pop out of nowhere about these ordinary people I’ve never even met.
When we see difficult circumstances as a chance to grow in bravery and wisdom as well as in patience and kindness, when we become more conscious of the ways we get hooked and we don’t take the bait and escalate, then our personal distress can become a means of better connecting with the pain, discomfort and unhappiness of others.
The primary intention in writing this book is that we might prepare ourselves to look beyond our own welfare and consider the great suffering of others and the fragile state of our world. As we change our own dysfunctional habits, we are simultaneously changing society, for society is nothing more than sum of all of our relationships, interactions, exchanges or lack of exchanges. Our own awakening is intertwined with the awakening of an enlightened society. If we can lose our personal appetite for aggression and addiction, the energy on the whole planet will become a bit more loving, tender, compassionate.
For the sake of all sentient beings, I hope you will join the growing society of aspiring and full-fledged spiritual warriors who are emerging from every continent on the globe. May we never give up our genuine concern for the world. And may our lives become a training ground for awakening our natural intelligence, openness, and warmth.
– Pema Chodron, adapted from “Taking the Leap,” pp. 3, 78-81, 98-99.