What You Focus On Grows

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You may know this tale.  It’s well worth repeating.

An old Cherokee warrior is teaching his grandson about life.

“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, and ego.”

He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

Our mind is constantly being fed with thoughts and images.  (After all, where do you think we got the expression “food for thought”?!).  We have many hopes and fears. We reason and we worry.  We rejoice and we grieve. We experience a life of “10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows.”

Which do you tend to feed?

Negativity Bias

The brain has a natural “negativity bias.”  It often remembers negative experiences more easily and strongly than positive ones.  This is a hard-wired trait we developed because it helps us survive.  It’s more important to remember your near-fatal encounters than pleasant ones.  It’s literally more life-saving to remember where the bear lives in the woods, than to remember the pretty colors of the leaves in the trees.

As my colleague Rick Hanson points out, the brain is like velcro for the bad and teflon for the good.  The negative thoughts are “sticky” – they literally stick around longer.  Whereas the positive thoughts and feelings often slip away from us more easily.

That’s why it’s so easy to spin out into endless worries, especially in times of chronic stress.  The more we see and hear about the dangers of the coronavirus and police brutality and riots and climate change – let alone the daily difficulties of work and family and school – the more overwhelmed we become.

When we focus more on the negatives in our lives than the positives, we feel more negative.

When we focus more on what we can’t control than on what we can, we feel more helpless.

When we focus more on the problems than the solutions, we feel more hopeless.

The good news is that the opposite is true, too!

What you focus on, grows.

When we feed our darkest thoughts and fears, that wolf inside us grows stronger.  It can overtake us.

When we feed our hearts and minds with realistic hope and compassion, that wolf grows stronger.  It wins out.

In simplest terms, what you focus on grows.

It’s vital that we attend to the real dangers in our society right now.  We’re not talking about denial.  We’re not sticking our heads in the sand.  We need to be stone-cold and eyes-wide-open aware of serious public health risks and social injustices.

To thrive through stressors big and small, we need to be truly awake and present. We need to be aware of and accepting that “this is what’s here right now.”

Only then, without delusion, can we begin to solve the problem.  Only then can we skillfully work on changing what we can in our lives, and coping more constructively with what we can’t.

This is true whether we’re talking societal change, family or school change, or personal change.

What you focus on grows.

We have a choice.  Knowing that both wolves exist inside each one of us, we can choose to feed the angry, fearful, destructive wolf.  Or we can choose to feed the strong, loving, compassionate wolf.

We can blame and shame, or we can nurture and heal.  We can tear down or build up.  We can go low, or we can go high.

Every new day, every moment, we have the opportunity to choose.

Which wolf will you feed more?