31 Mar What’s Your Story: Two Wolves In The Heart
The other day I attended a conference on Healing Trauma. The event was outstanding and the speakers beyond good! One presenter was Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist who talked about the brain, and about feeling good and feeling bad. Bad news: we are hard-wired to feel more bad than good! The good news: there are daily practices we can undertake to increase the positive side of life.
Rick talked about the two wolves that live in our hearts: Love and Anger. Both wolves want to be nourished and they compete for our attention. Love nurtures and leads us toward connection and compassion. Anger prepares us to attack and defend and leads us in the other direction, toward separation and self-protection. They both exist! The question is how to guide these powerful forces toward coexistence and not tear ourselves apart through an internal civil war.
Whichever we give more attention to grows in power. The brain, activated by each, gives birth to more neurons that support that emotion. In this way, one person can end up with an anxious and angry brain while someone else is blessed with a calmer loving brain. Anxiety and anger take little or no conscious practice, whereas calmness and love require conscious awareness and consistent practice. That may be unfair since the game is stacked in favor of the anxious and angry brain.
But why does the brain appear to foster and magnify unpleasant emotions such as anxiety, anger, shame, depression and guilt? Why does it play down current competencies and exaggerate future obstacles we might face? Why do we tend to hold onto bad information about a person rather than the good? Why do we work harder to avoid a loss than to move toward a success?
The answer, according to Rick Hanson, is because the brain holds a Negative Bias rather than a Positive Bias. It tilts toward anxiety, suspicion, agitation, jealousy and shame. The reason for this unfair situation may lie in our evolution and how our brains grew through millions of years of existence. We actually could think of our brains as three brains, each developing at different times in the past. One brain, the Survival Brain, is responsible for breathing and other vital functions, and it developed over 400,000,000 years ago. Its primary job is to keep us alive using its two fundamental skills: fight and flight. Our middle brain, the Emotional Brain, is responsible for connecting with and relating to others, managing feelings, and nurturing others and ourselves. This part had been around for about 1,000,000 years and is a much younger sibling to the Survival Brain. The new kid on the block, the Thinking Brain, is only about 75,000 years old. The Emotional and Thinking Brains do their best to keep us calm, connected, solution-focused, and taking care of ourselves and eachother. But remember, the Survival Brain has been around much longer and has developed a powerful presence and a persistent claim to our internal territory. It has no plans to leave and surrender control to its easier-going relatives.
At the moment we perceive danger, either real or imagined, this older brain kicks into action and acts like a big bully, taking over and making the decision of whether to run away or take a stand and fight. The angry wolf pushes the love wolf out of the picture. Somehow the brain says, “Survival is more important than feeling good!” So, if someone ignores you or speaks to you in a negative tone you might experience this as an attack, causing your anxiety or anger to flare up; the anxious and angry wolf will either run away or bite back. And, if you show affection to someone but are rebuffed, feelings of rejection flood over you and the anxious wolf again bites back, sometimes even backfiring against you by making you feel inadequate or like a loser.
Not a great story? Sorry, but isn’t a good story usually made of desire, upset, disappointment, challenge, and ultimate victory? Well, today I just laid out the upsetting part. I’ll get to the challenge and victory part in later blogs. Perhaps you can check in with the two wolves in your heart right now: are you feeling the angry wolf feeling annoyed and disappointed with what I have left you with? Or is your loving wolf feeling curious, interested, and looking to further connect?
To learn more about the two wolves in our hearts check out Rick Hanson’s post on the subject or his powerful book Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom
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