Partisanship: “In Each Human Heart There Are Two Wolves Battling Each Other”

I recently had the ordinary experience, in a political conversation with another person, of trying (and failing) to overcome a partisan difference.

This sort of thing happens all the time in our polarized and dysfunctional political culture. Usually in these situations there’s plenty of blame on each side.

Because of the pervasiveness of fear and anger, none of us is above the tendency to prefer battle over reconciliation. We get so attached to winning that it takes some determination — perhaps even a bit of self-awareness — to avoid getting stuck in the usual conflict.

A day or so after that most recent conflict, I fell asleep in bed at night listening to some political program on my iPod. In one of those strange moments of synchronicity, I woke later in the dark hours of early morning (still in my earphones) to the voice of Tara Brach, the Buddhist psychologist, speaking about fear and anger as the source of human conflict (2 minutes and 59 seconds into her talk, “Causing No Harm“).

To illustrate her point about how each of us (not just some of us) contains the source of this conflict, she told the following story:

An old grandfather is speaking to his grandson, and he’s talking about what causes violence and cruelty.

He says, “In each human heart, there are two wolves battling one another. One is fearful and angry, and the other one is wise, understanding and kind.”

And so the young boy looks at his grandfather and says, “Yeah, and so which one is gonna win?”

The grandfather smiles and quietly says, “Whichever one we choose to feed.”

Brach claims that, through meditation, it’s possible to act more consistently under the direction of the neo-cortex (where the wise wolf lives), rather than under the terrible influence of the more ancient part of the brain (where the fearful wolf lives).

I’m intrigued and encouraged by Brach’s suggestion that wise action is a choice (the point of the grandfather’s story, after all), and that it’s possible to practice and become more skillful in making that choice.

Like everyone else, I still need a lot of practice.

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