One evening, an elderly Cherokee brave told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two ‘wolves’ inside us all. One is evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.” The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?” The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one that you feed.”
Some might read this story and enjoy the wisdom. Others might read it and feel maybe bad in some way. The truth is all of us are fundamentally good, and we’re all learning how to get used to that wonderful fact!
I see the two wolves at work in my own life. These two tendencies are continuously playing their dynamic game. Depending on how exhausted, clear, actively engaged or tired I am, the ‘bad’ wolf can be quite powerful. Observing my well-being, I notice that I never feel truly good when he wins. Even if I create a situation that I thought I wanted, a bad aftertaste follows. Those moments are very inspiring for me to stay conscious and observant to maintain the freedom to choose from a healthier place. But why do we keep feeding the bad wolf when it seems obviously unhelpful to do so?
One answer is the inertia of our existing habits. As we feed our body with more or less healthy food, we also take in different quality foods for our mind. Our eating habits usually operate fairly unconsciously, and often we’re not entirely clear about what’s good for us—and even if we are, we can find ourselves eating physical and mental food that doesn’t serve us well. What’s more, we might feel a lack of choice about our thoughts, self-talk, and reactions, which means that bad food might be dominating how we feel in general and how we will think and act down the road. Have you ever noticed that the feeling of choice is strongest when you feel free, open, unpressured, easy, but shrinks almost to nothing when you feel overwhelmed and accused? In that small space all we usually do is react, not choose.
What is Good and what is Bad?
Another answer is that we demonize the poor bad wolf. Every family, group, culture, and tradition has accepted certain behaviors and thought patterns and rejected others. Looking at the rules and behaviors of the world religions, of political parties, clubs, tribes, and other social groups, we can see similar patterns and opinions—for example, the Ten Commandments in Christianity, the Five Vows in Buddhism, and many others. So it’s easy to understand that we find good/bad internalized within ourselves. This sense of rightness and wrongness can be quite heavy, because it isn’t just the knowledge of right and wrong that we’ve internalized, but the powerful attitudes and reactions towards those, including pride, fear, and disgust. It’s an uncommon achievement to hold good and bad with equanimity. But true choice only comes from this equanimity.
Our Inner Relationship
So a challenge we might face in dealing with our thoughts and emotions is the way we feel towards them. Can we know good and bad without indicting ourselves? It’s so easy to slip into judgment and rejection of what we find when we turn inside. Most of us didn’t learn to move toward the diverse appearances inside with openness, acceptance, understanding, and kindness. As we all know, the way we communicate with ourselves is often less friendly than it is towards another person. If we notice this is so, this means that that we might have some repair to do in our inner relationship with ourselves. What a wonderful thing, to notice this and wish to repair this essential relationship.
Looking inside we can discover our automatic patterns and current positive and negative role models. We all have ideas about how we’d like to be and how we really don’t want to be. Looking for alternatives and fresh inspiration, we might turn outward. I feel it’s not so easy to find good orientation in this world, because I can see many interesting and inspiring models, but also plenty of not-so-good possibilities. Still, we all have qualities we are searching for. What if we were to search a little more consciously, with a little less desperation and a little more curiosity? With a fresh and kinder view we might find what we have been looking for maybe for a long, long time. Then we can start experimenting and gently alter our inner atmosphere.
As mentioned above, self-reflection about how we are doing can lead us to challenging self-talk. Noticing these tendencies I see the ‘bad’ wolf acting. This is always a great chance to apply compassion and kindness right here and to find new pathways of understanding, more space and caring for myself.
Where tightness and rigidity are active, space and understanding are lacking. There are different ways to find spacious understanding and actively integrate it into our lives. For some, meditation and mindfulness are very helpful methods, while others might prefer to take a break and read an inspiring book or go for a walk with a good friend. Sometimes all that’s needed is to take a break:)
Noticing that our inner atmosphere doesn’t serve us but that we have no idea how to change that, it’s often very helpful to open up to someone else. Many of us have habits or deep wounds that make it difficult to find a relaxed and loving connection with ourselves. Sometimes all that’s needed is to move towards others with the challenges we are experiencing. It’s a relief to know and discover again and again that we are all dealing with similar difficulties, person to person and culture to culture. Then, as we find and establish more kindness and understanding inside, we will find even more satisfying relationships with others and our environment.
All the best and a good week with a ‘good wolf’ for you!