Wise and Unwise Attention

Two Wolves – A Cherokee Parable

An old Cherokee chief was 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, superiority, self-doubt, and ego.

“The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.

“This 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 chief simply replied,
“The one you feed.”

I became viscerally aware of this battle shortly after my first daughter’s birth.

For me, having a baby broke my heart wide open and in that opening all of the unresolved issues of my heart and mind came into my awareness.

Walking back into our house five days after her birth, my view of the world had changed deeply. Not in the way that most people talk about when they become parents for the first time – becoming better providers, setting sound examples, or securing better futures than their own parents. For me, I felt I had been asleep my entire life and suddenly, without my permission, had been forced to wake up. This waking up made the present moment alive, vibrating and intensely light-filled. But instead feeling it as a beautiful realization of present moment, I was terrified. My mind became constantly seized with disappointments and fear about my c-section, and a lifetime of trauma from my mother’s addiction and death began to reveal itself.

The first noble truth of the Buddha is that when we feel suffering, it doesn’t mean that something is wrong. What a relief…Suffering is a part of life, and we don’t have to feel it’s happening because we personally made the wrong move. – Pema Chodron.

 The simultaneous anxiety and openness were disorienting.

I felt anxious most of each day. My nervous system felt as if it had been turned on and no matter what I tried, I couldn’t turn it off. My mind spun, often throwing up images of my daughter being hurt, of me going crazy, of my uselessness in the world. However, at the same time I felt fully rooted in the aliveness and openness of the present moment. The trees in our backyard were so alive that I could see them vibrating with life. The sunlight that spilled in through the nursery as I nursed my baby seemed to speak to me of comfort and my place in the present. And the green of the budding spring leaves relentlessly invited me to step beyond the fear-based chatter of my own mind and into the vast clarity of the present moment.

My daughter is almost five and I have another daughter who is almost two. Becoming a mother has fundamentally changed my experience of life. Yes, in all the ways children will. I have less sleep, a messier house, more frustration, and hardly any free time. But on a much deeper level, I am more awake to the open aliveness I, we all, seem to be swimming in.

The rawness of my first experiences in the present moment has left me, but the memory is a precious anchor I return to often. I now know, because of those first months as a mama, where wise attention and unwise attention will lead. Whether I am staying aware of it or not, wise attention leads me back to the alive, awake openness of the moment and unwise attention leads me to the habitual, learned chatter of my discursive mind.

Most days, at least for sporadic moments, I can see my internal chatter without losing awareness of the openness. And much of the time, I still get lost. Fear and anxiety about discomfort, pain, and even death still come up, but now I can see them for the old friends and teachers they are – reminders that I am lost in unwise attention.

The days (and sometimes only moments) that I choose wise attention, I feel more peace, more kindness, and more presence than I ever have before.

My daughters’ births and shaky beginnings as a mama gave me a chance to open to the gift of awareness and I’m beginning to feed it more and more.

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