When the student is ready…

It turns out that just about every thing I have needed to become a more loving, happy and compassionate person has always been available to me.

For the longest time it’s been right under my nose, calling my name, knocking on my door, laid out like a freaking buffet of knowledge and wisdom. For years I didn’t see it, didn’t heed its call, didn’t open the door, didn’t pick up the fork or drink ravenously from its cup.

Yet there I was–for more years than I care to mention–wanting, hungry, starving…

…for connection…

…for love…

…for acceptance…

…sometimes simply to be seen and appreciated.

These are some of the uncomfortable and inconvenient truths of my past:

I was wrong a lot, but could seldom admit it.

I often didn’t know what I was doing, but faked my way through it, rarely asking for help.

I got overly invested in perfectionism, which drove me–and the folks around me–crazy. Spoiler alert: Despite all the worry and the polishing it almost never made a substantive difference in the quality of my work.

I sat in judgment of others while simultaneously doing a lousy job of scrutinizing my own side of the street and taking appropriate responsibility for my shit.

I spent plenty of time regretting a past I couldn’t change or fretting about a future over which I had little or no control.

I took just about everything personally.

I seldom felt good enough.

I tolerated inappropriate behavior because I prioritized staying in a relationship over my own most important desires and my genuine need for emotional safety.

I held on to resentments, unable to discern between disappointment and frustration, and often failing to see my own role in what had transpired.

I’d push my agenda and defend my particular version of reality, rather than try to see the other person’s humanity–their own moments of struggle and brokenness–and seek to discover their version of the truth.

Much of the time I’d rather be right than be connected.

I am keenly aware that most of my struggles pale in comparison to what so many face. Regardless, this all brought me to my knees more than once.

Career opportunities gone or missed. Serious health crises. Fractured friendships. Not coming close to showing up for my family in the way they deserved. Romantic relationships that I deeply valued now strewn upon the trash heap of history.

It still hurts, because it all mattered, even if I didn’t always know how to show it.

Here are some more truths, which turn out to be rather more convenient:

In recent years, I haven’t become a more open-hearted and compassionate person because a clinical trial needed to be completed or some new breakthrough book was finally published.

I didn’t start consistently choosing love over hate, forgiveness over condemnation, accountability over blame, because a new law was passed requiring me to do so.

I didn’t have some sort of medical procedure that suddenly allowed me to realize that I am good enough just as I am.

I didn’t start surrounding myself with people that were more spiritually and values aligned with me because I moved to a new neighborhood.

The books, videos, seminars and people I have learned so much from in recent years existed long before I ran into them, sought them out or had someone point me in their direction. But I had to be ready for their lessons.

The truth is always there if we are willing to look for it.

A different path is possible if we are willing to do the work.

It’s never too late to start. And I got here as fast as I could.

When the student is ready the teacher appears.




So much of any year is flammable

At a time when many of us are reflecting upon (dissecting?) the year that just ended and now find ourselves perhaps already struggling to live up to a new set of resolutions, I’m reminded of the words of the poet Naomi Shihab Nye:

Letters swallow themselves in seconds.
Notes friends tied to the doorknob,
transparent scarlet paper,
sizzle like moth wings,
marry the air.
So much of any year is flammable,
lists of vegetables, partial poems.
Orange swirling flame of days,
so little is a stone.
Where there was something and suddenly isn’t,
an absence shouts, celebrates, leaves a space.
I begin again with the smallest numbers.
Quick dance, shuffle of losses and leaves,
only the things I didn’t do
crackle after the blazing dies.

So much of life is impermanent.  So much is out of our control despite the illusion that often holds us, twists us around, sends our monkey minds into overdrive and compels us to grip the wheel even harder.

Very little of what consumes our thoughts, fills most of our days and fuels our resentments matters one little bit over the long run. Much of it doesn’t even serve any useful purpose right this very second.

We don’t need another resolution. We need better perspective, mindful awareness, radical acceptance, an open heart, the courage to act.

So rather than sweat the small stuff or lament the things that only access to a time machine would allow me to fix, I’m looking ahead, without a long list of impossible to meet resolutions, mindful of the important things I have yet accomplish, where the crackle still calls.

What breaks your heart?

Everyday, if we allow ourselves, we are going to experience a full range of emotions; some intense, others minor and insignificant. And some of them are felt deeply and mindfully in true presence and awareness.

Others are reactions–habitual, triggered. And many them we experience in a flash. If we are not careful, we are dragged back into–and mired in–a regretful past; love lost, opportunities missed, silly mistakes, personal slights, envy and so on. On the other end of the spectrum we can easily be set adrift in worries of an impossible to know or control future. If you are anything like me, sometimes that means grasping the wheel that much tighter, radically overestimating our power.

At other times, when the feelings become too intense, we employ anger to mask them or turn inwards with deflection, self-loathing, avoidance and numbing. It often seems easier to occupy our worried, shame-driven minds by protecting our egos or distracting ourselves with mindless activities and pointless concerns.

If we’re feeling jealousy, the need to win, the urge to lash out, the desire to be right, there is a good chance we are in reaction, operating from a place of a wounded or needy ego.

If we find ourselves compulsively fascinated by reality TV, compelled to stay abreast of the latest comings and goings of celebrities, or merely repeating the same unworkable habits over and over, it’s likely we are avoiding the real work of the soul.

Once we go deeper, once we clearly see what breaks our heart, not in the romantic sense, but from a perspective rooted in understanding what substantively challenges our capacity to express our worldly unconditional love, extend compassion freely, act generously, live out our purpose joyfully and celebrate our shared humanity and connection.

When we comprehend what breaks out hearts we also get the keys to what lifts our spirits and drives how we truly wish to be in the world.

Whether we get upset by fighting things outside of our control (reality) or the random activities of people that have no bearing on anything substantive in our lives ( reality TV), the result is the same.

There is nothing wrong with accepting that this is just the human condition, the product of our past traumas, our monkey minds at work. Our hearts are not challenged, our egos are.

The key is to see it for what it is. Dance with it. Laugh at it and ourselves.

Then we get back to do the real work, the work of the heart and the soul, intentionally, with concentration, mindfulness and lovingkindness to ourselves and others.


Dust obscuring the lens

If our camera lens is covered by dust we don’t keep relentlessly snapping photos if we actually care about the ultimate quality of the shots.

If our air conditioning filter has become clogged we realize that turning up the fan speed or lowering the thermostat is not the smartest way to get the desired coolness.

If a traffic jam slows our progress stepping on the gas or leaning on the horn doesn’t get us there any faster.

When frustration strikes, when obstacles manifest, when our path becomes less than clear, our habit may be to step on the gas, get louder or grasp the wheel more tightly. That’s a trap.

It may seem counter-intuitive to go slow to eventually go fast. Our conditioning may prevent us from realizing that investing the time to achieve clarity before we plow ahead is the far wiser choice.

For most us, wiping the dust from our camera lens’–or changing the filters in our HVAC systems–seems pretty straight-forward with an obvious and immediate benefit.

Why then is it so hard to do the same with our thinking and with the work that really matters?


A bunch of kids running toward a soccer ball

I was the coach of my first-born daughter’s soccer team when she was 5 years old. The coaching requirements, apparently, were lack of competing hobbies and near infinite patience. As it turns out lack of knowledge of the game and no discernible experience in coaching did not seem to matter.

If you’ve never seen a bunch of 5 year olds play soccer, it goes down pretty much like this. One of the kids kicks the ball and the rest start chasing it madly (except for that one girl who decides to stay back and get a jumpstart on her botany career). Once the scrum catches up to the ball, they all flail their legs a bit until, through luck or the kind of perseverance that will serve them well later in life, one of them makes contact and the ball squirts free. The cluster once again goes running after it with reckless abandon. This goes on for about an hour.

kids soccer

Now when I had some spare time from selling stuff nobody needs (I worked for a retailer) and my fellow coach wasn’t out saving lives or something far more noble (he’s a doctor), we both tried to learn a bit more about the game and how to coach it. So during practices and games we tried to impart some of our new-found wisdom.

We ran drills, we encouraged the actual playing of positions, we taught “strategy” and we yelled “spread out” until our voices sounded like Harvey Fierstein on a bad day. Our results were decidedly “mixed.”

I guess there was just something so new and exciting about the game and that ball that those kids just couldn’t resist chasing.

It was going to be some time before they learned the discipline to pace themselves.

It would take practice to appreciate that they were all in it together–and that by all of them trying to be the hero, the team was in fact being held back.

They would need more experience to learn that just because everyone else was running toward something didn’t mean it was right for them.

Eventually, they would come to see that impulse and enthusiasm is great, but so is awareness and discernment.

And hopefully they’d learn to pick up on the subtleties of metaphor.

Don’t bite the hook

Depending upon our relationships, our work environment and what we choose to pay attention to, there is a seemingly endless variety of hooks that are dangled in front of us.

There’s the hook of the marketer that says “buy me” and we will miraculously become a “better” person.

There’s the hook of the bully who strikes out in anger hoping to entrap us in his cycle of pain and insecurity.

There’s the hook of escapism and avoidance that draws us into mindless distraction from– or numbing of–a painful present reality.

There’s the media hook of “breaking news”, trumped up (ha!) conflict and the ever present belief that it’s interesting when people die.

There’s the hook presented by our partners and friends trying to lure us into their codependence, neediness and demon dialogues.

And on and on.

Of course, just because it’s been said, doesn’t mean it’s true.

As it turns out, giving the finger to the guy who just cut us off on the highway will not actually make him a better driver.

Most of the time it’s about them, not us. There’s no requirement that we have to take things personally.

The notion foisted upon us by society, the media and (all too often) our families that we are not enough is both a lie and a huge trap.

And even if it were true, the new outfit we just bought or the photo of the fabulous dinner we just posted on Facebook may give us a momentary little ego boost, but it does nothing to make us happy and whole.

We don’t have much choice about which hooks will get dangled in front of us. There is hardly a shortage of bait.

If we want to stay trapped in anger and resentment, if we want live a life of disconnection and distraction, then by all means bite away.

Just remember it’s a choice.


This post originally appeared at http://www.stevenpdennis.com  New content will appear on this blog very soon. Stay tuned!