Which wolf do you feed?
Feed the wolf of love.
I once heard a Native American teaching story in which an elder, a grandmother, was asked what she had done to become so happy, so wise, so loved and respected. She replied: "It's because I know that there are two wolves in my heart, a wolf of love and a wolf of hate. And I know that everything depends on which one I feed each day."
This story always gives me the shivers when I think of it. Who among us does not have both a wolf of love and a wolf of hate in their heart?
I know I do, including the wolf of hate, which shows up in small ways as well as large ones, such when I get judgmental, irritable, pushy, or argumentative. Even if it's only inside my own mind - and sometimes it definitely leaks out.
We've got these two wolves because we evolved them, because both wolves were needed to keep our ancestors alive.
Until just 10,000 years ago, for millions of years primates, hominids, and early humans lived in hunter-gatherer groups that bred mainly within the band while competing intensely with other bands for scarce resources. Therefore, genes got passed on that promoted better cooperation inside a band and better aggression between bands. The wolf of love and the wolf of hate are stitched into human DNA.
Bands kept their distance from each other, and when they met, they often fought. For example, researchers have found that about 12-15% of hunter-gatherer men died in conflicts between bands - compared to "just" the 1% of men who died in the many bloody wars of the 20th century.
So it's natural to fear the stranger - who, back in the Stone Age with no police around, was often a lethal threat. The related impulse to dehumanize and attack "them" also worked well (in terms of passing on genes) for millions of years.
Today, you can observe the wolf of hate all around us, in acts of thought, word, and deed. For example, as soon as we see others as "not my tribe," whether it's at home or work or on the evening news, the wolf of hate lifts its head and looks around for danger. And then if we feel at all threatened or mistreated or desperate, the wolf of hate jumps up and looks for someone to howl at or bite.
While the wolf of hate was vital back in the Serengeti, today it breeds alienation and anger, ulcers and heart disease, and conflicts with others at home and work.
And at a larger scale, with 7 billion people crowded together on this planet - when a flu mutation in Hong Kong can become a worldwide epidemic, when bank problems in Greece roil the global economy, when carbon emissions in one country heat up the whole world - when we fear or dehumanize or attack "them," it usually comes back to harm "us."
So what are we going to do?
We can't kill the wolf of hate because hating the wolf of hate just feeds it. Instead, we need to control this wolf, and channel its fire into healthy forms of protection and assertiveness. And we need to stop feeding it with fear and anger.
Meanwhile, we need to feed the wolf of love. This will make us stronger inside, more patient, and less resentful, annoyed, or aggressive. We'll stay out of needless conflicts, treat people better, and be less of a threat to others. Then we'll also be in a stronger position to get treated better by them.
There are lots of ways to feed the wolf of love.
We can feed it by taking in the good of everyday experiences of feeling seen, appreciated, cared about, even cherished and loved.
We can feed the wolf of love by practicing compassion for ourselves and others, and by letting these experiences of compassion sink into our heart.
We can feed the wolf of love by recognizing the good in other people - and then by taking in the experience of the goodness in others.
Similarly, we can feed the wolf of love by sensing the goodness inside our own heart, and by letting that sense of truly being a good person - not a perfect person, but a good person - also sink in.
Last, we can feed the wolf of love by seeing the good in the world, and the good in the future that we can make together - in the face of so many messages these days that are dark and despairing.
We feed the wolf of love, in other words, with heart and with hope. We feed this wolf by sustaining our sense of what's good in other people, what's good in ourselves, what's already good in our world, and what could be even better in a world we can build together.
We need to stay strong to do this, to hold on to what we know to be true in spite of the brain's tendency to focus on threats and losses, and in spite of the age-old manipulations of various groups that play on fear and anger - that feed the wolf of hate - to gain or hold onto wealth and power.
So let's stay strong, and hold on to the good that exists all around us and inside us.
Let's stay strong, and hold onto the good that can be, that we can nourish and build in this world.
Let's stay strong, and hold onto each other.
Let's stay strong enough to take in the good that feeds the wolf of love each day.
Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist and author of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom (in 23 languages) and Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time (in 9 languages). Founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom and Affiliate of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, he’s been an invited speaker at Oxford, Stanford, and Harvard, and taught in meditation centers worldwide. His work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, FoxBusiness, Consumer Reports Health, U.S. News and World Report, and O Magazine and he has several audio programs with Sounds True. His weekly e-newsletter – Just One Thing – has over 70,000 subscribers, and also appears on Huffington Post, Psychology Today, and other major websites.