Once upon a time, or so the Cherokee legend goes, a young Indian boy received a beautiful drum as a gift. When his best friend saw it, he asked if he could play with it, but the boy felt torn. He didn’t want to share his new present, so he angrily told his friend, “No!”
His friend ran away, and the boy sat down on a rock by the stream to contemplate his dilemma. He hated the fact that he had hurt his friend’s feelings, but the drum was too precious to share. In his quandary, he went to his grandfather for advice.
The elder listened quietly and then replied. “I often feel as though there are two wolves fighting inside me. One is mean and greedy and full or arrogance and pride, but the other is peaceful and generous. All the time they are struggling, and you, my boy, have those same two wolves inside you.”
“Which one will win?”, asked the boy.
The elder smiled and said “The one you feed.”
This story, told in How God changes your Brain, by Newburg and Waldman (neurotheology), is a wonderful example of the power of therapeutic story-telling. Stories can help us see ourselves more clearly. They give us visual metaphors to describe intangible feelings inside us, along with new strategies for managing our challenges.
Newburg and Waldman embed modern neuroscience in this ancient story when they tell us that the unfriendly wolves within us reside in the limbic system. Filled with aggression and fear, these wolves are “fast, efficient and deadly, and they’ve been running the show for 150 million years.” By comparison, the friendly wolves are a more recent brain development, residing in our anterior cingulate and frontal lobes, where empathy, reason, logic and compassion reside.
How do we override the more instinctive, primitive parts of our brain that react in unfriendly ways to potential threats (e.g. being territorial and unable to share)?
Part of it really does come down to the ongoing choices we make regarding “Which wolf we will feed” , but the capacity to make this choice in the first place can be strengthened via the development of mindful self awareness and mental discipline. Most people have no idea what their “angry wolf” triggers are so they don’t see them coming. And without mindful self-awareness, or the ability to observe their own mind in action, they assume their automatic instinctual responses are the only responses. In other words, they don’t know they have choices.
With mindfulness, the spaces between triggers, emotional responses, thoughts and actions widen. We know ourselves well enough to see the trigger coming from a mile off, and this puts us on observational alert. Rather than fixating on the trigger itself (which might be a particular topic in conversation, a certain kind of person, or a specific event), we turn the focus inwards, using positive self-talk to soothe the angry wolf before it gets its heckles up and goes on the attack.
Often this requires a reframing process. If we let the angry wolf take over, we will see the situation through the red-tinged eyes of our primal limbic system: we’re under threat, so we fight or defend. Instead, we can use self-talk and/or story-telling to engage our higher reasoning centres. We can feed the friendly wolf within us and connect with the world around us in cooperative, mutually beneficial ways.
As a holistic naturopath with a deep passion for neuroscience, neurotheology, embodied cognition, therapeutic story-telling and colour therapy, I use colour and the ancient Indian chakra system as a mind-body coding system to link physiological functions with insights into associated behaviours, personality traits, mindsets and emotional patterns. You certainly don’t have to think of chakras as being literal to appreciate the way they can function as a brilliant colour-coded system to understand and memorise mind-body connections. Using this system, limbic responses are red ‘base-chakra’ responses based on competitive self-preservation instincts that help us survive in a dog-eat-dog world. People who are ‘seeing red’ can be aggressive, competitive, impatient, intolerant, unfriendly, stressed, hostile, and/or frustrated with the world around them when they can’t control it.
On the up side, people with a ‘red’ personality/physiology often have brilliant reflexes, make decisions quickly without procrastinating, boldly take risks and seize opportunities others might miss, and they are often confident and self-assured. Personally, I think it pays to cultivate these strengths while tempering the less helpful limbic/base-chakra traits by engaging the frontal lobes (higher chakras). In other words, feed the friendly wolf and tame the unfriendly one. That limbic base-chakra fire still has its place in life, it’s simply about knowing what is appropriate when, and channeling those primal instincts into things like competitive sports.
Here are some strategies to help you feed the friendly wolf within yourself and others, and make it stronger, so it can help you keep the angry wolves in check.
*Smile. Even if you fake a smile other people will respond to you with more generosity and kindness. Smiling stimulates brain circuits that enhance social interaction, empathy and mood. This is actually one of my favourite forms of meditation; I sit and smile, focusing on how it makes me feel, and I imagine that my heart is smiling too!
*Talk with people from all walks of life. Open your mind to new stories, cultures, perspectives and experiences. Be open to the thoughts, feelings, beliefs and ideas of others, even if you don’t agree or you struggle to understand where they are coming from. You aren’t an island, and by connecting with the stories and perspectives of others, you will discover the world. Think of yourself as a member of the entire human race, rather than segmenting yourself into a corner with an “us verses them” mentality. Practise using broader “us” and “we” language, rather than narrowing your scope and putting others on the outer.
*Practise loving-kindness meditation. This is a 2,500 year old Buddhist practise that strengthens our sense of affiliative trust. Affiliative trust is an open-hearted feeling that helps us have healthy relationships with others and improves our general health, reducing symptoms associated with stress, such as headaches, chronic pain, autoimmune diseases, heart problems and high blood pressure. Start by sitting, laying or standing in a comfortable position, and let go of plans and preoccupations. Mentally recites the following phrases:
May I be filled with loving-kindness
May I be well
May I be peaceful and at ease
May I be happy
Imagine how it would feel if these prayers for self were coming true. What would it feel like if you really did feel well, peaceful, happy and filled with loving-kindness? When you feel ready, perhaps after practising this daily for a few minutes over a few weeks or months, you might like to expand your circle of prayer to include others. This time, instead of saying “May I be…”, picture someone in your life and say the prayer for them instead i.e. “May she/he be happy…..” Eventually you can expand your loving-kindness meditation to include people you don’t like much, including groups and cultures you might struggle to connect with easily.
Resources for this blog include “How God changes your Brain”, a neurotheology book by Andrew Newberg MD and Mark Robert Waldman (this is where the wolf story comes from), and one of my favourites “The Immune Power Personality” by Henry Dreher, a book about PNI (psychoneuroimmunology)