Feeding the Bad Wolf

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.

The Fight of Two Wolves Within You | Dean Yeong

Seeking Redemption

Last night I dreamt about possibly the biggest mistake I ever made in my past. I woke up feeling weighed down by all those heavy memories. All morning I have been feeling ashamed and unworthy of redemption. When I think about terrible, selfish things I’ve done there are at least a handful of things that readily come to mind. Yet when I try to think of caring, kind, selfless acts, my mind goes blank. Am I really this awful person that I perceive myself to be? Or is my perception skewed?

I think most people make justifications and excuses for the wrong they’ve done. They allow these rationalizations to comfort their conscience. My mind tries to tell me that everyone makes mistakes, that I was young and naïve, that I would never want to hurt anyone. But I refuse these ideas outright. I feel at my core that I deserve condemnation for my actions, that if anyone knew me like I know myself, they would cast me out, and rightfully so.

Some people argue that altruism doesn’t really exist. Even kind acts are beneficial to the bearer. Yet most people, I imagine, still feel confident in their goodness after performing a good dead. I on the other hand, view the kind things I’ve done as others view their misdeeds. I minimize them. I explain them away. I tell myself that I’ve done these things out of my own self-interest. I deny any altruistic intentions.

What I’m left with is the guilt and blame of all the wrong I’ve done and none of the credit for anything decent in my past. Most people are shocked when they discover that I think so little of myself. “You are a good person,” they tell me, “You are so kind and compassionate!” But I shrink away from these reassurances. They don’t really know me, I tell myself. Then I feel even more guilty for deceiving them. It is a very lonely life, feeling unknown and unknowable.

I suppose there is really no way for me to truly know if the image I hold of myself is accurate. It might all come back to the grey areas I struggle so much with. Perhaps I am a bad, selfish person, but also a caring, loving one. Even so, I desperately want to atone for all the wrong that I have done, even though I am the only one who knows about a lot of it. I want to live a life that I can be proud of. I don’t want to keep lamenting these mistakes. I want to be freed from the sins of my past. I want redemption for myself, from myself.

I am grateful that I have the principles of yoga to guide me. Even though I feel a lot of the Yamas and Niyamas are out of my reach, beyond my capabilities, I still want to try to embody them. I want to become honest and upright, truthful and generous, thoughtful and helpful. I know that happiness lies within these virtues. I must believe that, regardless of my past failings, I am strong enough, I am intelligent enough, to change.

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Shades of Grey

It’s getting to the point where I’ve written every day for so many days that I can’t remember if I’ve talked about something before or not. However, I don’t really care enough to sift through all of my old posts to find out. So if I have started to repeat myself occasionally, I apologize. That being said, I’ve been thinking a lot about that black and white thinking I know I’ve mentioned before. This is a quality of mine that has in some ways been instrumental in determining my path in life. I’m not sure that I would have become a vegan or have the courage to stand up for what I believe in with as much passion as I do now without seeing the world primarily in black and white.

Some things are wrong. Some things are right. Some things are good. Some things are bad. This narrow frame of view is somewhat childish. Most people come to understand that very few things in this world actually fit into those parameters. The majority of life falls into that broad area in between, that grey area. While intellectually I recognize this, I still can’t help but reflexively place things into my black and white boxes. It is as if my mind doesn’t have a space for the many shades of grey. Rather than letting anything rest there, I feel many things, people, and actions constantly oscillate back and forth between good and bad, right and wrong. Which, as you can probably imagine, is quite mentally exhausting and emotionally confusing.

It has always been hard for me to reconcile the different aspects of people into a cohesive whole, a realistic image of a person in my mind. Instead I find myself idolizing someone one moment, then condemning them the next. This, understandably, makes all of my relationships quite difficult. I may feel undying love and admiration for someone, placing them up on an impossible pedestal, then feel utterly tricked and betrayed when they don’t live up to that unrealistic image. And even though I recognize this, I can’t seem to help it.

Even my self-image suffers from these extremes of perception. However, usually when it comes to myself I remain pretty consistently in the “bad,” “not good enough,” “broken” box. I focus on my faults and flaws while dismissing or diminishing anything positive about myself. Lately, I’ve even been feeling guilty about my posts on this blog. I feel like I’ve been playing a dastardly trick on everyone who follows me. I want to write about love and gratitude and yoga and self-improvement, but every time I do, I feel like a phony. “I’m not good enough to speak on these things,” I tell myself. I feel like a hypocrite for the things I write because I, myself, can’t embody those ideals fully in every moment. I’m not entirely perfect, therefore I must be utterly terrible.

Even though I know it’s ridiculous, it’s the way I feel most of the time. I feel like I am missing out on so much in life by being unable to accept all the shades of grey for what they are. Instead I find myself keeping a mental tally. If someone or something has more “bad” qualities than “good”, into the “bad” box it goes and vice versa. Anything close to true neutral flip-flops between the two endlessly rather than being allowed to remain in the middle.

As I’ve gotten older it’s become easier to recognize, but no easier to adjust. I know that this is possibly a symptom of an autistic brain, but I wonder if there is anything I can do to create space in my mind for the grey areas. Am I truly incapable of this type of comprehension? Perhaps there are some types of exercises or therapy that would help with this issue. In the meantime I guess I’ll just have to keep reminding myself that good people can do bad things. Bad people can do good things. No one is truly “good” or “bad” at all. Including me. We are all just doing the best that we can. And we are all constantly changing. I don’t need to label everyone and everything, I just need to allow them to be what they are. Even if that happens to be something I don’t fully understand.

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Humans Aren’t Bad, Our Systems Are Bad

The more I read of Daniel Quinn’s work, the more I start to embrace humanity’s potential. As I’ve stated in other posts, I’ve always felt a stronger kinship with other species than I have with my own. It is hard to feel as loving toward humans when we are constantly bombarded with news and real life examples of people at their worst. It makes us start to believe that humans must just be inherently flawed, selfish, ignorant, violent beings.

However, learning about the ways in which the societal systems we’ve built up throughout the centuries affect us is beginning to change the way I see my fellow humans. We are all the product of our environments. I do believe we have free will to a certain extent. But the choices we can make are limited by a lot of factors. A major one of those factors, I’ve come to realize, is our society itself.

Now I believe that if humans were still living within the same structure of community we once did, a more natural one, we would be just as innocent and lovable as other animals. I may even believe that other animals could become as disturbed as humanity is if placed in the same detrimental systems we’ve placed ourselves within.

I hope that this new perspective will help me be more gentle and loving towards other humans. Now that I can clearly see the bars of our collective prison, it’s harder to blame anyone for their poor choices or violent actions. In reality, crime, poverty, severe mental illness, famine, corruption, these things are not natural parts of humanity. They don’t reflect who we are as a species. They are merely the symptoms of a larger problem. Our systems. Our systems of government and the ways we have all been conditioned to live.

I have felt like a victim of these systems for so long. I’ve desperately wanted to escape into the forest and leave this life behind. Live close to the earth as I feel we were all meant to. Yet for some reason, I didn’t think that was a normal desire. I felt like an outlier. That most people were comfortable and happy with the way humanity has been heading. And maybe a lot are. But that doesn’t change the fact that my instincts turned out to be right. We aren’t made to live in this way. It brings out the worst in us. It makes us hurt one another. It causes mental illness, aberrant behaviors, endless suffering, subjugation, environmental devastation, mass extinction, war, hunger, disease, death, etc.

I can no longer find blame in any individual now that I see the true error of our society. One that no one person created or decided upon. One that was thrust upon all of us. One we feel powerless to change. One we wouldn’t really know how to fix if we wanted to at this point. We are all in this mess together. And it’s no one’s fault. I don’t have the answers to these problems. I don’t even really believe we have enough time to fix them before we’ve damaged the earth beyond the point at which it can support us.

What I can do is be kind while I’m here. I can stop seeing the worst in people. I can stop harshly thinking “they should know better,” “they should be better.” Instead I can acknowledge and focus on the good, that glimmer of animal innocence inside all of us. Instead I can think “thank you,” “you are doing your best with what you’ve been given.” Because in the end I do believe that’s true. We are all doing our best. The fact that hasn’t been good enough for me a lot of the time made me think humans were the problem. Now I finally see that is not the case.

From now on when I see another human, I’ll think about Pitbulls. They are not bad dogs. They are not mean dogs. They are simply a product of their experience and their environment. And just like with Pitbulls, even the ones trained to be dangerous, I will love them anyway.

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The Difference Between Complacency & Surrender

By cultivating attitudes of friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and disregard toward the wicked, the mind-stuff retains its undisturbed calmness.

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (1.33)

During my yoga teacher training, we spent a lot of time discussing yoga philosophy. I have come to believe that the study and practical application of the wisdom within ancient texts such as the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are perhaps even more important than the physical practice of asanas. I have no doubt that the adherence to these guiding principles would produce an idyllic life with the least amount of suffering. However, putting these teachings into practice is much easier said than done.

The sutra I quoted above is one that has been particularly challenging for me. I am fully on board right up until the words “disregard toward the wicked.” I feel a strong aversion to this idea in the pit of my stomach when I consider it. I am someone who has a strong sense of justice and can be quite inflexible in that regard.

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

Edmund Burke

Multiple people have said to me, “you have the courage of your convictions.” This is something I’ve always taken pride in. It is hard for me not to speak out and take action against things that I view as wrong, even to my own detriment at times. I used to make myself sick, fighting with people about the moral obligation of veganism and exposing the insidious effects of religion on society. I could see that I wasn’t changing anyone’s mind. I was quite possibly just causing many to dig their heels in deeper. Yet I didn’t see any other option but to keep fighting. I felt each moment of silence was a moment of consent, of complacency.

I feel a well of indignation rise up within me whenever I am confronted with a situation or belief system I am morally opposed to. I have also been told by several people that I have a hard time “biting my tongue.” Something I am often embarrassed by.

Knowing this about me, you may better understand why I have agonized over accepting this particular sutra. What I’ve come to learn over the years is that there is a fine line between complacency and surrender. But there is still a difference. It is possible to accept something without agreeing with it, consenting to it, or supporting it. It is sometimes necessary to just allow, to surrender. Because there you will find peace. There you will find the clarity of mind to move forward in the most productive way. To stop shooting yourself in the foot with your outrage.

“Disregard toward the wicked” for me isn’t about simply ignoring the evils of our world. It’s about not letting that wickedness taint your heart. We mustn’t respond to these things with hardness and hatred. We must cultivate an indifference. An indifference that allows us to acknowledge all aspects of existence without judgement. In this way we can avoid inflicting unnecessary suffering upon ourselves and others. Creating more suffering does no one any good. It only serves to cloud your mind and heart. Ultimately hurting whatever cause you feel the need to fight for.

This doesn’t mean you have to surrender your ideals or your beliefs. It simply means surrendering to the fact that you can’t control this world. Accepting that. And carrying on. Returning your focus within, to the only place where you can make a true difference. In this way I have finally been able to find surrender without shame.

Learning to Love Humans

I have this strange inability to relate to most other people. I am mesmerized by the complete reversal of priorities and perspectives shared by those around me. For instance, I dearly love animals. All animals, I always have. I hold them in such high regard. I marvel at their loving, precious nature, their boundless innocence. Humans on the other hand have always been held closer to contempt in my mind. And not just other humans, myself included.

While I believe animals naturally share and display all the good qualities attributed to the human race, they lack the greed, the malice, the cruel ignorance and selfishness of humanity. I see humans as being capable or both tremendous good and tremendous evil. However, I more often see the latter being manifested. Animals seem to only be capable of good. At least in my eyes anyway.

Until I became older I never really gave much though to how other people viewed these things. I thought it was obvious that human being were awful monsters for the most part. But I was surprised to discover that not many other people share this opinion. I’ve learned that the human race absolutely loves themselves. To the majority of people we are the best, the pinnacle of excellence, the highest achievement of evolution, or the image of God himself. They see the evil created by humans, yet still insist that humans are mostly good, wonderful beings, the shepherds of the earth.

This seems so silly to me. The laughable bias of these ideas. No one seems to consider that maybe they are only inclined to see things this way because they themselves are human. I think an assessment of the bare facts would say otherwise. The sheer arrogance and conceded air of humanity is one of the things that I find so distasteful. I suppose I’ll never be able to know, but I never have gotten the impression that an animal values the lives of others of their own species more than any other life.

It’s hard for me to believe that I’m not even taken seriously when I suggest that the other species of animals we share this planet with are equal if not better than homo sapiens. That is a very unpopular and uncommon opinion. Yet it seems so very obvious to me.

I’ve said in the past (rather dramatically, I admit) that I were given the choice of saving this planet and the other animals living on it by surrendering my own life and the life of all other humans, I would do it. That is how much I love animals and this precious earth we inhabit together.

A lot of the ideas and opinions that seems like common sense to me, are absolutely appalling and unimaginable to those around me. It is weird to know how differently I perceive the world.

In the past I violently defended my negative view of humanity. The word contempt comes to mind once again. However, as I get older and learn more and more about good and evil and this existence, I don’t want to defend such a bleak, hateful outlook anymore. While I doubt I’ll ever see things the way other people do, I would like to at least learn to love my fellow humans as much as I love other species.

I know deep down that we are all just flawed beings doing the best we can with what we’re given. I don’t believe true evil really exists. I don’t believe that anyone wants to cause destruction and pain. We are all just a product of our circumstances. Everyone is the hero of their own story.

Even when an animal does something “bad”, I don’t hold it against them. I don’t blame them like I blame humans. I guess I think humans should know better. But if I’m honest with myself “knowing better” hasn’t stopped me from making mistakes. At our cores we are all just innocent animals that want to be loved as well.

I want to start reminding myself of this more often when I start feeling fed up with my human brethren. Most people have to start looking at animals as if they were similar to humans to have empathy and understanding for them. But for me it’s the reverse. Usually looking at other people like they are animals would mean lowering them in your mind. But for me remembering that we are all just animals is how I am able to open my heart to them. No matter what, we are all children of this magnificent earth. We are all one. We are all deserving of compassion, understanding, and love.