Stifling fear is a full-time job but the absence of anxiety is not happiness Avoiding the bad is missing the opportunity to overcome it overlooking the value of such satisfaction The demons that chase you are challenges to conquer so thank them for helping you grow Inviting everything in with grace and equanimity the remedy for running is simply to stop
A grandfather is talking with his grandson:
“I have a fight going on in me,” the old man said. “It’s taking place 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.”
The grandfather looked at the grandson and went on. “The other embodies positive emotions. He is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. Both wolves are fighting to the death. The same fight is going on inside you and every other person, too.”
The grandson took a moment to reflect on this. At last, he looked up at his grandfather and asked, “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee gave a simple reply. “The one you feed.”Cherokee Parable
One of my favorite podcasts recites this parable at the beginning of every episode. I’ve always loved this story, even if it does get a bit annoying hearing it every single time I listen to “The One You Feed.” Still it’s always interesting to hear what each guest has to say about it. My favorite spin so far is from a guest named Steve Hagen.
Hagen made the distinction that it is not just about which wolf we feed, but what we are feeding them. We still have to feed the “bad” wolf. We feed it kindness and love and compassion, the same as we do for the “good” wolf. For me this is such an important thing to remember. While the parable of two wolves is profound and inspirational, it can also be the first step on the path toward toxic positivity.
We all have these two conflicting sides inside of us. It may not always be as simple as “good” and “bad” though. It might seem straightforward enough to starve the bad wolf, imagining eventually that dark side of ourselves will lie down and die. It’s much harder to comprehend and accept, that although we may dislike aspects of our character, we need both of these wolves. Ultimately they are both a part of us. To truly heal and grow, we have to make peace between the many facets of ourselves and learn to integrate them all into a cohesive whole.
For many years now, I have been attempting to starve my bad wolf. Ironically, this hateful energy, even when directed towards hate itself, does the exact opposite. The parable never really gets into what precisely it means to “feed” these wolves. The “bad” wolf is being fed from the very bitterness we feel towards it. In the same sense, if we try to disregard it and ignore that side of ourselves completely, it becomes more depraved and more unpredictable in its desperate attempt to avoid starvation. A hungry wolf is a fearsome animal indeed.
Labeling one side of ourselves as bad, and the other as good, is doing a disservice to the complex tapestry we call life. Saying that we have a bad wolf elicits feelings of anger and self-hatred rather than equanimity. It’s our job to befriend both wolves and find harmony within the chaos.
This past week has been pretty rough for me. I don’t know what it is exactly, but I’ve been in a bad mood for a while now. Nothing bad has happened. In fact, on paper this week looks pretty great. It was my birthday. I got lots of thoughtful gifts and well wishes. I got to spend an evening with my best friends. It’s nearly Christmas. My boyfriend will be coming home next week. Life is good. Yet for some reason I just can’t seem to enjoy it right now.
I’ve woken up the past couple mornings looking for that lighthearted, eager, bright-eyed feeling that I normally find waiting for me as I walk into work. However, instead I’ve been greeted with irritability, impatience, and disinterest. None of the things I normally look forward to in a day have brought me any enjoyment. And I’ve been making it worse by being upset with myself and frustrated because of it.
I keep searching for some reason or explanation so that I can make sense of this strange off place I’ve been in. But sometimes there doesn’t need to be an explanation. Sometimes we just have days, weeks, or even months that are less enjoyable than others. There isn’t anything wrong with that. The problem is holding these unrealistic expectations for myself. I’ve been doing amazing for months now. I’ve had high energy, low stress. I’ve been upbeat, proud of myself, and treating myself well. We can’t hope to continue experiencing only positive emotions indefinitely though. Off days are a natural part of the human experience. Progress is not linear.
Even knowing that, it can be hard to sit with uncomfortable emotions. Everything passes in due time, even our hardest moments, but there is something inside of me that worries it never will. I keep waiting and hoping that the next day I’ll feel better. Then I am furious with myself when I don’t. Fighting and rejecting how I’m feeling isn’t doing me any favors though. It’s just prolonging this funk I’m in.
I can’t help feeling a bit like a petulant child, pouting because I’m not getting my way and allowing my stubbornness to prolong my suffering. My higher self keeps offering me kind words and helpful suggestions, only to have them angrily cast aside by my wounded ego. Sometimes I just don’t feel like listening to my own advice. It’s hard to know what to do with myself when I’m in this undesirable mindset.
When we’re faced with these situations, all we can do is allow ourselves to be where we are. It’s okay if I don’t feel like joking and smiling as much with my coworkers this week. It’s okay if I don’t feel like doing as long or as intense of a yoga practice. It’s okay if I need to set down my to-do list and just breathe for a few days. We must have faith that this storm will pass and the time will come when we feel motivated and upbeat again. It’s okay for us to put some things on the back burner while we wait for that day to come. Even though your mind might be telling you this feeling is forever and we need to keep pushing forward, that is only an illusion. There is nothing wrong with offering yourself the space and compassion you need in order to rest. Just because your hobbies aren’t bringing you the joy they did a few days ago doesn’t mean you’ll never find joy again.
These difficult days are just as valuable as the easy days. Perhaps even more so, in that they hold important lessons for us. They give us the perspective we need to more fully appreciate the good days. They are an opportunity for us to practice offering ourselves love even when we want to reject it or feel like we don’t deserve it. It’s a chance for us to practice equanimity and patience. It’s a challenge from the universe that we can choose to overcome. It’s a reminder of how lucky we are that we have so many good days, that a few bad ones feel jarring and unnatural.
When we find ourselves in these moments, continue to treat yourself gently and with love without the burden of expectations. Just because we don’t get the same pleasure out of acts of self-care, doesn’t mean that we should cast them aside. Toxic positivity is when we continue to do these things in an effort to force ourselves into a different mental state. But you cannot force happiness, nor should you try. Sometimes the greatest act of kindness that you can offer yourself is just allowing yourself to feel your feelings, whatever they may be.
Finding the fortitude to simply surrender Nodding in acknowledgement toward all that's disconcerting Breathing into the tight spaces of not only our bodies but of our minds as well Saving space for the unknown bowing down to the bigger picture that we cannot yet see humbly accepting a limited perspective of this life Noting our indignation as it arises in opposition to adversity and asking ourselves: What is this? Do I really know what's best? Can I release my opinions and embrace what is? Learning that our white knuckled grip is doing us no favors practicing unclenching our grasp on the way things "should" be the way others should act should think should be Having the humility to say: I don't know Having enough trust to say: And that's okay Cultivating curiosity in place of judgement Letting go
You see this goblet? For me this glass is already broken. I enjoy it; I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it. But when I put this glass on the shelf and the wind knocks it over or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ When I understand that the glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious.Achaan Chaa
If you are someone who is healthy and able bodied like me, take a moment to reflect on that fact. Even if you suffer from mental or physical illness or you are differently abled, consider all that you body is able to do for you every day. Most of us live our lives without ever thinking much about our health, until that health is threatened or lost. In the last two years, the Covid-19 Pandemic has brought health, as well as illness, to the forefront of our collective awareness. Now more than ever in my lifetime, I have been faced with the reality of uncertainty and impermanence.
Even now, it’s easy to imagine I will somehow be immune to things like serious illness, accidental bodily harm, aging, or death. Although, logically, I know these things can affect anyone at anytime, I can’t manage to wrap my head around that fact. I have been privileged so far in life. I’ve always had relatively good health. I was born healthy. I’ve never had to be admitted to the hospital. I’ve never even broken a bone! At worst, I’ve suffered strep throat, stomach bugs, and cuts and scrapes. I have all of my senses. I have all of my limbs.
I’ve been isolated and sheltered from the harsh realities of illness. I was too young to comprehend my grandfather dying of heart disease. My grandmother died quickly without much distress or struggle from cancer a few years ago. Other than that and the death of a handful of pets, suffering, sickness, and death haven’t yet touched my life. Because of this, I have been able to live oblivious to these painful experiences for the majority of my life. This has allowed me to disassociate from many of the darker aspects of living. However, I know no one will make it through there entire life unscathed. I think it’s important for me to face what I’ve managed to avoid for so long.
Most of the time, I insulate myself with reassurances such as a healthy lifestyle and “good” genetics. Rarely do I ever acknowledge that those things only get you so far. We feel shocked and unnerved when we hear stories about random accidents causing severe injury or death. We are horrified and fascinated by sudden diseases, infections, or afflictions that seem to have no clear cause or no way to predict. We have immense sympathy, but somehow still think, “Well, that could never happen to me.” Deep down we all know that every day, every moment is a roll of the dice.
I’m not trying to be a downer or a pessimist. I’m not saying that we should always be obsessing over the possibility of misfortune. What I am saying is that we should never lose sight of how impermanent this life is. The quote at the beginning of this post is an excellent way for us to conceptualize this. Imagine that everything you have is “already broken.” Then we will not be as shocked or devastated when it does eventually break. It is also a reminder to treat all of the amazing things in this life, including our incredible bodies, with tenderness and gratitude.
When we hold in our awareness the truth of impermanence, illness, and death, it allows us to more fully appreciate the good fortune we are enjoying right now. Yes, suffering will reach us all in our lives, but today we are alive! What a blessing to wake up and enjoy moving through the world with this strong, healthy, able body. What a precious miracle it is to be free from chronic pain or illness. Thinking of things in this way, realizing that we ourselves are “already broken” makes these moments that would normally be taken for granted, something to be overwhelmingly grateful for. Let’s make a practice of savoring these simple moments so that when the time comes we are able to let go with grace and equanimity.