Coyotes: A Lesson in Resilience

“Next to God, the coyote is the smartest person on earth.” – Old Mexican Saying

Trotting through the field, I thought maybe it was a wolf. But it was too small. Must be a coyote, I figured. We hear them nearly every night through our open windows, so we know there are plenty of them out there. And yet, we rarely see them. Which is how they prefer.

But that’s true not just in rural Montana, but pretty much wherever you live in the United States – from densely populated cities to the wide open prairies. Anywhere we live, you can be sure – coyotes live there too. Because in many ways, they’re a lot like us.

Fission-Fusion: The Best of Two Worlds

In his book, Coyote America, Dan Flores describes the coyote as “the wolf we tried to erase but ended up in our backyard.” It’s true, wolves and coyotes are a lot alike. They share the same ancestry and are both intelligent as well as highly social creatures. But smaller and far more adaptable, the coyote learned how to do something that the wolf never did – it learned how to live, outside the pack.

Very few species have this unique advantage of being able to both live cooperatively in a pack and also fend for themselves as lone individuals. But the coyote has it. And so do we. It’s called fission-fusion.

Fission-fusion is the flexibility to be both social and solitary, as conditions warrant. And it’s how coyotes have managed to populate the country while wolves almost went extinct.

When early settlers to the west made it their mission to kill off all predators, it was the coyote that prevailed. Thanks to their fission-fusion ability, coyotes didn’t have to depend on the larger pack for hunting. They could forage on their own or in much smaller groups, learning to make do with a variety of vegetation. So they slipped into the cracks of the landscape, making them harder to spot and even tougher to trap.

But not the wolves. A wolf cannot survive outside the pack the way a coyote can.

Rudyard Kipling once wrote, “The strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.” But what is a strength can also be a weakness. And a wolf’s dependence on the pack made them vulnerable and hunters used this to their advantage. As a result, wolves were nearly extinct by the early 1900s.

Meanwhile, the coyote didn’t just survive – it thrived. Able to run with the pack but also fend for itself, fission-fusion is the best of both worlds.

As humans, we have the same social flexibility. We are able to cooperate with other members of our collective and accomplish great things. Our ability to merge with others (fusion) is what makes us mighty and productive.

But it doesn’t make us particularly resilient. Our intensely social ways do not help us during times of disease outbreaks (yes, coronavirus – I’m talking about you), extreme scarcity, or various other mortality events. In fact, it will hurt us. Instead, it is breaking away from the group (fission) that gives us our advantage.

And why, like the coyote, it’s important we also learn how to be alone.

Home Practice: A Break From the Pack

I am writing this now from Byron Bay, Australia where I am practicing with Dena Kingsberg and her community.

As someone who practices alone most of the year, it’s a real treat to have the energy of the group along with a teacher’s loving attention. And I know it is something I will miss once I’m back home, practicing on my own. Still, Dena does not teach all months of the year. So in her off-months, even local students here must learn to rely on themselves.

And maybe she sets it up that way on purpose. After all, Dena comes from a time before the size of one’s pack was something to boast. Back when there were no lists, or certifications, or even classes to attend. They had the freedom to move between joining the collective and exploring their own individual path.

But I fear that in an ever-increasing socialized world, we are now losing the very flexibility that helped grow this practice into each of our backyards. And instead it’s being replaced by a more rigid pack-like mentality, overriding our instinct to think and fend for ourselves.

So as someone who has spent her life building community, it’s in a strange twist of irony I write you today – pleading the case for smallness, and even solitude. That rather than trying to ‘run with the wolves’, we might also consider carving out a coyote’s smaller, more humble existence.

Because while we can fill auditoriums and festivals, grow our online followings to the thousands, and sell out workshops and classes – can we also be alone?

You see, more than anything else, it is having a home practice that has been my saving grace. And probably the main reason I’ve been able to continue on in this practice – through injury, aging, and a whole lot of other events that have led others to quit.

Not that it’s easy – it isn’t. It’s scary to step out away from the group. Lonely too. Progress is slow as you learn to make do with surprisingly little. Yet, this is the strength of having a home practice. Knowing how to practice alone is what builds resilience and sustainability. And probably why home practitioners are among the hardiest, most adaptable (not to mention committed!) group of individuals I’ve ever met. Like the coyote, we can survive nearly anything.

Because each of us have that coyote resilience inside us. But to access, we have to be willing to sometimes leave the pack. For our strength has never been in numbers or size. What makes us so remarkably resilient is our unique flexibility to come together – but also, stand apart.

Now, I’m not saying community isn’t important. It is. It gives us a sense of belonging and purpose. And it is in working together that we can achieve great things. But equally as important is our solitude – our ability to think and fend for ourselves. It is truly the best of both worlds. And to survive, we need to cultivate both.

5 Ways to Cultivate Solitude

  1. Practice at home. Especially if you regularly practice with a community, create a space within your own home to lay your mat at least one day a week. Try to notice the difference without judging.
  2. Make quiet a habit. Carve out 7-10 minutes a day of quiet stillness. Close your eyes and turn your awareness inward, cultivating a different kind of presence. 
  3. Seek your own company. Like you would a friend, make a weekly date with yourself. Maybe it’s a picnic, a long walk, or immersing yourself in an art project – enjoy your alone time.
  4. Fast on Sundays. Choose one day a week (mine is Sunday) and take a break from all social media. No posting, scrolling, or even peeking. Notice how that feels.
  5. Get a feel for your own voice. Thoughts come in words, and too often, it’s not even our own but ones planted by others. Intuition is a message that is felt, a voice that often emerges from the belly not the head. Learn to listen with your body and trust your own instincts. 

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