After any big news story depicting terrorists, mass shootings, or other terrible events, people tend to panic and it is very easy to become very negative very quickly. It is in these times that I read a wonderful and well-known Cherokee legend: An old grandfather is speaking to his grandson about what causes the violence and cruelty in the world. “In each human heart,” he tells the boy, “there are two wolves battling one another—one is fearful and angry, and the other is understanding and kind.” The young boy then asks, “Which one will win?” His grandfather smiles and says, “Whichever one we choose to feed.”
It’s easy to feed the fearful, angry wolf. Especially if we’ve experienced harm, the anger pathway can become deeply ingrained in our nervous system. When our old sense of injury or fear is triggered, the intolerable heat and pressure of anger instantly surges through us. Our attention gets riveted on the feelings and thoughts of violation and all we usually want is revenge. Often before we have any sense of choice, the nasty comeback is out of our mouth, we’ve slammed a door, hit send on an ill-advised e-mail, put someone down behind his back.
Yet, we do have a choice. There are meditations that train the heart and the mind directly deactivate the anger pathways that propel our habitual behaviors. While the limbic system acts almost instantaneously, we can develop a response from the frontal cortex which includes the social centers involved with compassion that interrupts and subdues the reaction. This is where cultivating mindfulness comes in.
Mindfulness is the “remembering” that helps us pause and recognize what’s happening in the present moment. Once we’ve paused, we can call on the higher brain centers to open new possibilities. We can soothe ourselves, recall another person’s difficulties and vulnerability, and remember our own goodness and strength. No matter how painfully we’re triggered by the world’s violence and insensitivity, we can direct our attention in ways that carry us home to our intrinsic sanity and good-heartedness. For the sake of our own inner freedom and the well-being of others, we can intentionally feed the understanding, kind wolf.
Often, our first instinct is to protect our wounds by armoring ourselves with hatred and blame. Forgiveness, which allows us to let go of this armor, becomes possible as we bring a full, compassionate presence to our underlying vulnerability. Such presence loosens our identification with the thoughts and feelings of anger, and uncovers a heart space that is naturally open, inclusive, and warm.
Yet, this seldom happens suddenly or irreversibly. If we’re resentful and at odds with someone, it can take many rounds of intentional presence with our own hurt or fear until our self-compassion opens us to more acceptance and understanding. And when our grievance expresses as full-blown hatred, or when we feel deeply violated, forgiveness can seem out of reach or even impossible.
Forgiveness can also seem like a bad idea. We may be afraid, for instance, that if we let go of blame, we’re betraying our own emotions and setting ourselves up for further injury. We may feel that if we forgive, we’re condoning a person’s hurtful behavior and not honoring our right to be respectfully treated. Maybe we feel that if we forgive someone, we’ll be stuck feeling that we are the ones to blame. These fears are understandable and need to be recognized, but they are based on a misperception.
Forgiveness means letting go of aversive blame; it means that we stop feeding the fearful, angry wolf. It does not mean that we dismiss our intelligence about who might hurt us or that we stop taking actions to protect ourselves and others from harm. We all need to be able to tell who might betray our confidences, take our money, misunderstand our intentions, and abuse us physically or mentally. And when someone threatens our own or others’ well-being, we need to find effective ways to communicate our concerns, set boundaries, and determine consequences for harmful actions. We can dedicate our lives to preventing harm,
People often ask, “How can I possibly forgive her after she had that affair?” “How can I forgive him for physically abusing me as a child?” When we try to forgive someone prematurely, we usually succeed only in papering over our anger and underlying hurt. So, what do we do? This might not be the time for forgiving; it may not be possible or real at this point. Sometimes what needs attention is the place inside you that is hurting and afraid. This is the time for offering a compassionate presence to your own heart.” Compassion for oneself is the very essence of a forgiving heart.
Many people say that when they stop feeding the angry wolf and instead open to their own vulnerability, it feels like a homecoming. As one person put it, “Instead of focusing on the person who hurt me, I started down a path of freeing myself.” We can either “get back” at someone and let the wound fester, or attend to self-healing. Feeding the angry wolf may come more easily, but learning to stay present and be compassionate towards ourselves connects us with our goodness.