Thursday, October 30, 2014

Which Wolf Will You Feed? ...

It's been a hard few weeks. Our lives have been shaken by the deaths of 24 year old Canadian Forces Cpl Nathan Cirillo and 53 year old Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent. Many of us have been feeling the effects of secondary traumatic stress as we've been exposed, again and again, to the details of their deaths and the aftermath.

Those of us who know about secondary traumatic stress have tried to respond by focusing on good self care and on gathering with loved ones for comfort or to talk about our thoughts and feelings (though, hopefully, without re-traumatizing each other through the sharing of "gory details"). We've exercised in order to shift some of the trauma energy from our bodies and we've used spiritual practices like meditation and yoga to lower our general level of fight/flight arousal. We may even have tried to teach others to do the same.

But how do we go deeper in our responses, now, now that a little time has passed, the initial shock is wearing off, the funerals and commemorations are done and the families and friends are settling into their long bleak journeys of bereavement? What can we do in our own lives to help prevent such incidents from happening again?

In the months after 9/11, a wisdom story circulated widely that may shed some light on how we can begin to make the changes we would like to see in the world:

A Native American grandfather was speaking to his grandson about violence and cruelty in the world and how it comes about. He said it was as if two wolves were fighting in his heart. One wolf was vengeful and angry, and the other wolf was understanding and kind. The young man asked his grandfather which wolf would win the fight in his heart. And the grandfather answered, "The one that wins will be the one I choose to feed."

And here lies the challenge. Which wolf will we choose to feed as we continue to respond to the events of the past weeks?

Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist teacher living at Gampo Abbey, Cape Breton, reminds us that if we want to see change, we must be the change we want to see in the world. She offers us the following pathway for recognizing how our own words and actions may be causing suffering and leading to aggression and violence. She shows us a simple, though always not easy, way of "feeding the kind wolf":

1.  Make a commitment to ourselves to let go of old grudges, to not avoid people and situations and emotions that make us feel uneasy, to not cling to our fears, our closedmindedness, our hardheartedness, our hesitation. 
 2.  Be honest with ourselves. Most of us have gotten so good at empowering our negativity and insisting on our rightness that the angry wolf gets shinier and shinier, and the other wolf is just there with its pleading eyes. But we're not stuck with this way of being. When we're feeling resentment or any strong emotion, we can recognize that we are getting worked up, and realize that right now we can consciously make the choice to be aggressive or to cool off. It comes down to choosing which wolf we want to feed.
3.  Experiment with interrupting our automatic reactions to the things that push our buttons and make us angry. Learn to pause. Pausing creates a momentary contrast between being completely self-absorbed and being awake and present. We just stop for a few seconds, breathe deeply, become present and move on. Practice this several times every day and then when highly charged situations come along, we can shake up our ancient fear-based habits by simply pausing and waking up. 
4.  Access the 3 basic qualities of being human, natural intelligence, natural warmth and natural openness to help us to feed the kind wolf. When we are angry, when someone says something we don't like, when we want to get even or when we want to vent, we can use our natural intelligence to help us solve problems rather than making them worse,  we can use our natural warmth to love, have empathy, laugh, feel gratitude and appreciation and tenderness, and we can use our natural openness to think expansively, flexibly, curiously and within a stance of pre-prejudice. (Adapted from Pema Chodron)

We can each make a difference in our individual lives and relationships and those individual actions can  add up to make a difference in our society. Each time we choose to feed the kind wolf over the aggressive one, we take one more step toward peace.

If you would like to read more of Pema Chodron's thoughts on choosing new ways of being, try reading her 2009 book, Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears.

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