There's a timeless story that involves a child posing a question to their wise grandmother: "Grandmother, how have you become so loving and wise?"
The grandmother, with a serene smile, imparts this age-old wisdom: "In my heart, there are two wolves: the wolf of hate and the wolf of love. They engage in an eternal struggle, vying for dominance."
Intrigued, the child inquires further, "Which wolf wins?"
Grandmother, her eyes twinkling with insight, responds, "It all depends on which one I feed each day."
Now, pause for a moment and ponder: Which wolf do you choose to nurture within yourself daily? According to neuroscience, we possess the remarkable ability to cultivate inner strengths like compassion through simple daily practices.
Our individualistic lifestyle conflicts with the interconnectedness of our world
In our world there is a discrepancy between the way it operates, and the way people want to live their lives.
On the one hand, our global economy is increasingly interdependent and interconnected. The two current major crises - the climate crisis and the pandemic - have shown how interdependent we are. Yet our modern life emphasizes an individualistic and egocentric way of life. Many companies, governments, and individuals act as if their actions have no effect on others or do not matter.
This egocentric lifestyle fosters possessiveness, defensiveness, endless striving for more, and separation from others. As a consequence, people feel more and more cut off and isolated.
Yet the things we do in the world come back to us like a boomerang.
There is this quote by the Dalai Lama “compassion is the wisest form of selfishness”.
This suggests that being compassionate and kind is ultimately also good for us on an individual level. Research shows that people who are generous and altruistic are happier than others because it provides a sense of purpose and gives them joy.
You already have an ability for compassion
The story suggests that we each have the ability—grounded in our daily actions—to encourage and strengthen empathy, compassion, and kindness and reduce ill will, disdain, and aggression.
Research from, for example, Tania Singer, Richard Davidson, and Rick Hanson suggests that we are born to be altruistic and empathetic, but some of us have lost this innate ability. The wolf of love is already within us – we only need to find it again and strengthen it.
So how can you cultivate compassion towards yourself and others?
Towards yourself: being compassionate starts with how you relate to yourself.
When we speak to ourselves in harsh words and put ourselves down, we are feeding the wolf of hate and self-blame. But we can also learn to talk to ourselves in kinder words and in a softer tone. Research has shown that self-compassion and self-kindness have lots of benefits for our mental health, our resilience, and our wellbeing.
Towards other people: Perhaps we can start with the intention of doing no harm. How can I relate to others and the environment without doing any harm?
This could involve deeply listening to others with a true sense of interest and care, being mindful about our words and the tone of voice we use towards others. Start looking for similarities and what you have in common, even with the people you disagree with rather than focusing on what divides you. Knowing that everyone wants to be seen and to belong and that everyone must carry their own baggage.
Towards nature and the environment: Our interconnectedness goes beyond other human beings. We also are connected to the world that we live in, and so cultivating compassion and kindness towards nature and the environment is just as important. Do I take a flight to the Canary Islands over Christmas? Am I willing to accept the extra organisation and discomfort if I get rid of my car? Are there any alternatives to eating meat in my family? Is there a way of reducing my Christmas presents? Where do I buy them? Do I buy the new coffee machine with new functionalities even though the old one still works?
There is also a specific compassion meditation that you can practice where you bring various people and groups of people to mind and cultivate a feeling of warmth, kindness, and care towards them.
Our shared humanity provides the ground for oneness and collective responsibility
The aim is to widen your circle of love, to move from a state of us (your tribe) versus them to a feeling of togetherness and shared humanity.
One of the key elements in compassion is recognizing that we all want to be safe, free from suffering, loved, and at ease. Therefore, you can use the words, “just like me this person or this group of persons wants to be happy, free from suffering, and at peace.”
Thich Nhat Hanh, a famous Zen Buddhist often speaks about the concept that he calls “interbeing”, meaning that everything is interrelated in this world. Everything we do on this side of the Earth has an impact on the other side and everything is a result of everything else. The pandemic and the climate crisis has brought this reality to our mind in a drastic way.
This can have a frightening aspect, but it can also be comforting and give hope. I am not alone in this. More people are feeling the same.
And it also has an empowering side: it asks for collective responsibility.
Compassion must be cultivated on an individual and societal level to heal the world
We are all in this together! Everything we do and also what we do not do has an impact on our life and that of others. There is not “my life” and “my decision” – no us versus them.
As individuals we need to become more conscious about the way we eat, consume, travel, surf the internet, talk, and interact with others. This should also apply to society as a whole: schools, companies, and governments.
If compassion is included in the societal discourse and taught in schools and companies, we can all move more towards a society with greater collective responsibility and more care. In fact, the crisis that we are in right now demands it. Compassion provides a powerful antidote to separation and isolation and ultimately heal our planet.
It is up to us to decide each day, each minute of our day, which wolf we feed.