A Cherokee Legend . . .
An old man is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he says to the boy.
“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old man simply replied, “The one you feed.”
I heard this story again recently in the context of a talk given by neuro-psychologist Rick Hanson on what we are learning about contemplative practice and the brain. Hanson noted the wisdom of the legend in that our brains seem to have two sides, one full of fear, ready to fight or flee, and the other eager for social connection and love. Evolutionarily, he says, our fear-ridden brains have gotten more of a work-out, and we seem primed for negative experience. When our survival is not always on the line, this tendency does not do us much service. In fact, research shows that we have a hard time holding on to positive experiences, which may be one reason that studies have indicated it takes 5 positive interactions to make up for 1 negative interaction in close relationships. That’s a lot of work, and I’m sure we’ve all found ourselves in the midst of it in both our personal and professional lives.
So are there any short-cuts? It’s all about practice. Naming difficult emotions as they arise helps to diffuse them, as does conjuring up positive memories (about something completely unrelated) when negative ones arise that are not useful. And accentuating the positive helps. The wolf we feed is the wolf that leads.