Taking wisdom from the Cherokee culture today...this is a wonderful story about the importance of making space for ALL of your experiences; whether you perceive them as positive or negative. This rendition of the story I got from ServiceSpace's weekly email called InnerNet Weekly (February 5th 2013) and it's called "Beyond the Conflict of Inner Forces."
An old Cherokee 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, superiority, 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?”
You might heard the story ends like this: The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
In the Cherokee world, however, the story ends this way:
The old Cherokee simply replied, “If you feed them right, they both win.” and the story goes on:
“You see, if I only choose to feed the white wolf, the black one will be hiding around every corner waiting for me to become distracted or weak and jump to get the attention he craves. He will always be angry and always fighting the white wolf. But if I acknowledge him, he is happy and the white wolf is happy and we all win. For the black wolf has many qualities – tenacity, courage, fearlessness, strong-willed and great strategic thinking – that I have need of at times and that the white wolf lacks. But the white wolf has compassion, caring, strength and the ability to recognize what is in the best interest of all.
"You see, son, the white wolf needs the black wolf at his side. To feed only one would starve the other and they will become uncontrollable. To feed and care for both means they will serve you well and do nothing that is not a part of something greater, something good, something of life. Feed them both and there will be no more internal struggle for your attention. And when there is no battle inside, you can listen to the voices of deeper knowing that will guide you in choosing what is right in every circumstance. Peace, my son, is the Cherokee mission in life. A man or a woman who has peace inside has everything. A man or a woman who is pulled apart by the war inside him or her has nothing.
"How you choose to interact with the opposing forces within you will determine your life. Starve one or the other or guide them both.”
Here is a moving rendition of Amazing Grace. It's the Cherokee version, done by Walela. Best experienced with the volume turned up, and headphones on.
From my heart to yours,
I can’t be the only person on this planet who has struggled with holding the pain of grief and “thanks-giving” at the same time.
Just today, I heard an ad on the radio outlining the things we should be grateful for. That one word, “should,” got my back up. Gratitude has become a buzz word, and I’ve often wondered how many people (myself included) really understand what gratitude is? In our busy distracted world I wonder if people really do feel and experience a deep sense of thankfulness and appreciation instead of just saying they do? Especially in the face of loss and grief.
Back in October 2006, I attended our annual family thanksgiving dinner fill with dread. All 40 of us circle around the room and state what we are thankful for. That year, I had nothing. Cam died 4 months prior, I was overcome by the largeness of my loss. As CS Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed, about his wife’s death, “her absence is like the sky, spread over everything.”
There was a lot I should have said, and even could have said, but I didn’t. I could have said, “I am grateful for my health,” but instead I agonized over, “Why wasn’t he healthy?” I could have said, “I’m thankful for having him in my life,” which simply reinforced how much I lost and how much I still wanted him in my life. I could have said, “I’m grateful for my family,” but the only person I was looking for in that crowded room was him.
Gratefulness felt trite. Empty. Impossible.
Earlier that October day I had been sitting outside in the fall sunshine. I closed my eyes and absorbed the warmth of the sun. I could smell the crispness of fall in the air. I heard the flap of a bird’s wings as it flew overhead and stared in awe at the mere fact I just heard a bird flying.
I felt something in those experiences. I absorbed, smelt, heard, and felt awe. But, I can’t say I took the time to appreciate them. And yet, looking back, these glimpses of experiences that were so small brought large amounts relief and reprieve.
Now I see that what I needed at the time was to not only understand the power of gratitude but to shift my expectations of it. To forget what the world thinks I SHOULD be grateful for and find things that move me to a natural state of deep appreciation and kindness…and beyond that, recognize that state as gratitude itself.
In wrestling with this over the years, I have learnt some valuable lessons about how to make gratitude a more accessible experience even in the face of grief.
1. Be flexible with your expectations around gratitude. Gratitude is malleable, and your perception of gratitude will change depending on life circumstances. There may be times in your life when your gratefulness spans life-times and relationships, and there may be other times when you are grateful to get through a moment. For example, when you are healthy, it’s easy to say, “I’m grateful for good health.” After a life threatening diagnosis, your expectation of gratitude may change to being grateful for good lab results, or a good report from a surgeon. Your benchmark of gratitude has shifted and this flexibility allows you to find gratitude despite challenging situations.
2. Slow down enough to notice the small things. Think of gratitude as a practice of mindfulness. On my daily dog walk I could go over projects, to do lists, mentally solve all my problems and do all my thinking, but instead of being “mind full” I try to be mindful. I try to get out of my head and into my body. I engage my senses and take the time to notice the beauty around me; to see the slanted light shining through a grove of trees or the red fall leaves against a bright blue sky, hear the crunch of snow under my boot on an otherwise silent morning, smell the pine tree as I walk under it, the relief and release I feel after in my chest and shoulders after a deep sigh. Instead of these small things going un-noticed, they become an intentional exercise in appreciation. Thich Nhat Hanh says, "People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don't even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child - our own two eyes. All is a miracle."
3. Let it sink in. Take the small things and the beautiful things, and make them big things. Be open to feeling the shift in perception when something sparks that fire of appreciation and relief within you. That spark is what we are grateful for – it’s a feeling, a visceral response that brings us much-needed reprieve…
4. Understand that gratefulness is not about denial of loss and grief. Alternatively, we become more aware of the fullness of life – the beauty and the pain. Holding both means full engagement of the heart, full compassion, full living. Zora Neale Hurston captured both profound life and profound gratitude when she said, “I have been in Sorrow's kitchen and licked out all the pots. Then I have stood on the peaky mountain wrapped in rainbows, with a harp and sword in my hands.”
This thanksgiving, take time to slow down, and notice the small things. Gratitude helps to build courage, resilience, feelings of connection and well-being and sometimes we have to be intentional about finding these moments and letting them grace us.
On the topic of Gratitude, I have found these sites invaluable: