“A grandfather is talking with his grandson and he says there are two wolves inside of us which are always at war with each other. One of them is a good wolf which represents things like kindness, bravery and love. The other is a bad wolf, which represents things like greed, hatred and fear. The grandson stops and thinks about it for a second then he looks up at his grandfather and says, “Grandfather, which one wins?”
The grandfather quietly replies, the one you feed.”
This parable was recently revealed to me by someone who cares deeply about the war that I, like millions of people all over the world, face every single day: the war between happiness and depression. Depression, anxiety and obsessive thoughts and behavior have been a regular fixture in my life for as long as I can remember. Sometimes these episodes last only a couple of days, sometimes weeks, sometimes months at a time. I force a sunny disposition in public spaces during these periods when I have to, but it is difficult to explain to someone who has not suffered from depression just how physically, mentally and emotionally draining it is to pretend you are someone you are not.
The parable of the two wolves feels particularly poignant to me in a chapter of my life where wolf symbolism and imagery have played an increasingly powerful role. It started with discovering my new favorite book Women Who Run With the Wolves, which has since informed my internal explorations as an openly effeminate male and emerging feminist; it continued when I began having dream visitations by a wolf that I interpreted to be my Spirit Animal (feel free to laugh…that’s another story for another post); and Wolf has now become a nickname bestowed upon me by the dear soul who shared with me this powerful story of the war between the “good wolf” and the “bad wolf.”
Much like the keen ears of the wolf are inundated with a never-ending cacophony of sound, my mind is incessantly flooded with more thoughts than I can ever hope to keep track of. I try to quiet my mind through meditation and yoga; I keep lists to keep myself on track, and I journal regularly to try to make sense of it all.
When I perceive my life as good, I experience something akin to ecstasy and marvel at the beauty of the very fabric of existence. I throw my head back and laugh at the sky, and in turn, my good wolf joins in to howl at the moon.
When a negative thought comes into my head, however, it is amplified just as much, if not more. Those close to me (particularly significant others) can testify to my ability to obsess over a word, an action, a thought. Throughout my life, this has bred paranoia, jealousy, feelings of hopelessness, and convincing myself of the notion that I would never get to enjoy a normal life like others do.
Ladies and gentlemen – meet my big, bad wolf.
I have read countless articles and testimonials on struggles with depression, peoples’ lists of tips for how to mitigate it, inspiring stories on how people overcame it, both with and without the use of anti-depressants, selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and ongoing therapy. I spent a significant period of time on anti-depressants and did not like the way they affected my mind, because while that over-activity often associated with my “bad wolf” decreased, so did the cries of my good wolf. The energetic, inspiring and deeply loving me seemed to slip away. I removed SSRIs from my system and embarked on a long-overdue spiritual journey, finding some semblance of inner peace through the patterns in the stars, omens in the world around me, meditation, yoga practice, and backpacking across some of the most beautiful terrain of the United States. But through my periods of depression, I also medicate in other ways: I turn to vices, I become derailed, I lose focus.
I lose myself, so much so that I stop trying to find solace in the words of fellow depression-sufferers and opinions of psychiatric/spiritual experts alike.
Despite my chronic frustrations that none of these words and opinions can actually help me, an article in The Atlantic recently caught my eye, titled How To Build A Happier Brain. It takes a look at a new book by Dr. Rick Hanson of U.C. Berkeley (which I have just ordered), who makes the argument that “our brains are naturally wired to focus on the negative, which can make us feel stressed and unhappy even though there are a lot of positive things in our lives…Hanson’s book (a sort of self-help manual grounded in research on learning and brain structure) doesn’t suggest that we avoid dwelling on negative experiences altogether—that would be impossible. Instead, he advocates training our brains to appreciate positive experiences when we do have them, by taking the time to focus on them and install them in the brain.”
Essentially, Hanson holds that we are evolutionarily programmed to hard-wire negative experiences into our brains for means of survival, while hard-wiring positive experiences requires an active effort on our part. It is about “taking the extra 10, 20, 30 seconds to enable everyday experiences to convert to neural structure so that increasingly, you have these strengths with you wherever you go.”
This goes beyond the sort of ‘positive thinking’ that so many non-depressed individuals try to offer as advice to those of us who suffer from depression (thanks for the advice guys, but ‘looking on the bright side’ just doesn’t work for everyone!). Hanson differentiates between positive thinking and ‘taking in the good’ – a more active reflection on the balance between negative and positive in each experience, and appreciating the positive in relation to its negative counterpart.
This, to me, is the same concept as the parable told by the grandfather. All of life has its positive and negative parts – and while some people are simply better wired to be able to focus on the howls of the good wolf rather than the bitter cries of the bad wolf, some of us are, chemically speaking, just not as lucky.
I do what I can to focus on those ecstatic moments when my good wolf is in control. I try to internalize them. I close my eyes and take a deep, intentional breath and hold onto that feeling, and allow gratitude to wash over me like a cleansing wave and spread from my fingertips and my toes and my third eye out into the Universe that swirls around me. I can visualize that positive energy diffusing outward and making the world a better place. I smile, I laugh, I cry, I thank myself, I thank the Universe, I thank everyone.
I feed my good wolf while I can, because I know that soon, the bad wolf is going to get hungry…
I was recently chatting with a friend while in a very enlightened state of mind, telling her “I feel really great these past couple weeks, very inspired, very clear, very happy.” To which she replied, “are you sure that’s not just your brain in a ‘high mode’ and you’re going to switch back to a low mode soon?” It was a mildly hurtful statement, but a reasonable one and I could see where it came from. As I write this, my good wolf is in control, and has been since the last full moon (I’d prefer to measure my moods in moon cycles…it makes more sense to me and to the parable).
But how long will it last?
I hope that Hanson’s book, Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, will offer some useful perspectives, and I’ll have to write a followup to this piece once I’ve read it. In the meantime, I wanted to write this post as a reminder to those who suffer from the same inner battle, the same competition between their good and bad wolves, that you are not alone in the fight.
Feeding the right wolf is up to each and every one of us. While it may take years of practice to learn to truly ‘take in the good’, we can start by surrounding ourselves with people that lift us up, inspire us, reflect the best and brightest sides of ourselves. We can allow our creativity to flow from us, whether through painting or writing or dancing our fucking asses off. We can focus on the feeling in our core when we laugh from deep within, and the feeling in our hearts when we cry hard enough to release whatever is weighing us down. We can dedicate our time to helping others and to making our corner of the world a better place to live in. We can savor every single bite of the meal on the table before us and we can look someone deep in the eye next time we say the words “Thank you.”
We can be the best versions of ourselves, and feed the best versions of ourselves. We all have that power, and none of us are alone.
Take a deep breath, close your eyes, and promise yourself that today, even if just for a moment, you will feed the right wolf.