Prison break

In spiritual circles it’s common to talk about being “on the path.” The path to God (or however we may describe a Higher Power), the path to redemption, the path to awakening, the path to enlightenment.

And we are hardly lacking for guidebooks and maps. Addicts may employ the Twelve Steps to work through their spiritual recovery. Buddhists have the Noble Eight-Fold path to inform their journey. Other wisdom traditions have various rituals, methods and practices to light the way. An entire self-help industry exists to inspire spiritual exploration through books, seminars, retreats, podcasts, YouTube videos and more.

The journey along a path IS real. For most of us, it’s long, filled with twists and turns, peaks and valleys, glimpses of light, flashes of despair. We stumble often on our wanderings through the Dark Night of the Soul. We wish there were an express lane–an easier, softer way–but there is not.

Yet we can spend a long time hiding in our shadow, staring longingly through a window out toward the light. We can convince ourselves that spiritual growth is inherently complicated. We can obsessively analyze competing “truths” and run through countless gurus and teachers. We can get overly focused on arriving at some imagined perfect destination and entirely miss out on what is possible along the way–right here, right now.

The invitation is simply to begin, to emerge from the places and situations that keep us stuck, entrapped. But it’s hard to escape from a prison if we can’t see that we are a prisoner.

Yet, right now, we can in fact acknowledge that we are prisoners of our habituated, reactive thinking, trapped in a room of ego protection, a pathological desire to control and a failure to accept reality.

Right now, we can see the forks in the road, the profound choices we get to make moment to moment. Do we choose forgiveness over revenge? Compassion or judgement? Being open-hearted or walled-off from connection? Do we fundamentally embrace love or fear?

Right now, we can accept that so many of the answers are within us–and available to us–in the present moment.

Often, we witness other people peering into our prison cell, and we think (hope?) that they have the answers, that they will drag us out, that they hold the key to our freedom.

But more often that not, we have the key, we just don’t see it.

We need to see it. And we need to use it.

We need to open those windows and unlock the door. And then we need to walk over the threshold and out into the light. There the path becomes so much more clear.

And we can begin the journey with a lot less baggage.

 

Start where you are

We humans are rather peculiar.

Many of us think our only way forward is from somewhere in the past. Our starting point is often stuck back in a time when we were laid off from our job, dumped by a lover, slighted by a friend or somehow or other left damaged and wounded on the side of the emotional highway.

Regret keeps the clouds from clearing, resentment keeps us trapped in a cage. If only those things had never happened…

Other times, our point of departure is set anywhere but today. We tell ourselves we will finally be happy when we find the perfect partner, get the bigger house, own a fabulous new car, receive the promotion we’ve always wanted. We define our okay-ness by clinging to the idea that we are defined by possessions and external forces. We grasp futilely to an idealized future.

We resist letting go of the past and moving on in the vain hope of relitigating events that didn’t go our way.

We resist accepting that the future is unknowable because of a pathological desire to be in control.

We resist the notion that we are good enough just as we are. And while none of us is ever truly and completely okay, we are all going to be fine.

We make ourselves crazy by being everywhere but right here, right now

As Pema Chodron reminds us: “when the resistance is gone, so are the demons.”

In fact, we can work with the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly. We can embrace self-compassion.

We must start where we are, not obsessing over our past mistakes, nor re-living our glory days.

We must start where we are, not fantasizing about some mythical future.

We can accept reality and move from there.

As it turns out, there is no other way that works.

Trust the process

Last night my connecting flight from Heathrow to Johannesburg was delayed by 17 hours.

As the news hit the business class lounge about a dozen folks, myself included, leapt to their feet and descended upon the customer service counter which, as it turns out, was woefully under-staffed and apparently supported by a computer system powered by a steam engine. There were two agents working the desk and I was first in line.

40 minutes later I was still the first in line. When I was finally called up, for a good 45 minutes, the agent relentlessly pecked at his keyboard and made nearly a dozen calls trying to re-route me. Spoiler alert: it eventually worked.

As the time clicked by the customers behind me were, hmm, what’s the phrase I’m looking for? Ah, yes, “losing their sh*t.”

The entire time I waited I was treated to a chorus of deep sighs. Occasionally someone in the queue broke from their nearly contained agitation with an exasperated “this is unbelievable” or “you have to be kidding me” uttered to no one in particular. One (presumably normally charming) gentleman even passive aggressively exclaimed “this bloke has got to be the worst customer service agent on the planet!”

To be completely honest, I was hardly the perfect model of serenity. I was disappointed and frustrated. This WAS taking a ridiculous amount of time.

But a few things became clear. The delay was entirely out of my control. The British Airways system wasn’t going to miraculously improve just because I hoped it would. The agent was doing the best he could. I had done my part in stating my needs and wants calmly and respectfully.

Trying to control the uncontrollable only served a singular purpose: to make me crazy and unhappy.

Once I saw that it became easier to relax into the situation. To loosen my grip on the steering wheel. To have compassion for the folks behind me and their struggles with reality and ego (I had certainly been there before many, many times). To just breathe and let things unfold as they would–and know I was pretty likely to come out okay on the other side.

Sometimes we don’t get to our desired destination on the route we had planned, in the manner we had expected or on the timeline we want.

Sometimes we wake up to the fact that we were chasing the wrong destination all along.

Trust the process. Enjoy the journey. Smile at your fear.

And don’t underestimate the power of metaphor.

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Hmm. Maybe I’m the problem?

For much of my life when things didn’t go my way my default mechanism was to find someone to blame. Sometimes I was aware of what was happening. But mostly it was a subtle reaction, a reflex that came from a lifetime of largely unconscious habituation.

It didn’t help that I was raised by someone who lived her life as a victim. As the saying goes, “if it’s not one thing, it’s your mother.”

To be sure, there were very real and painful reasons for her to feel victimized, but there were many others that were simply the by-product of mental illness. Either way, I didn’t have the best role model.

Yet regardless of whether we were parented well, had good teachers or benefitted from strong mentoring, playing the victim card is often the easy way out because it absolves us of accountability. I don’t have to actually confront my pain, shame or fear if I can shift attention to others.

I didn’t get that promotion because of office politics.

That teacher is picking on me.

I couldn’t close that deal because they didn’t give us a fair chance.

My family always treats my brother better.

I have to drink, don’t you understand how much stress I’m under?

We broke up because she didn’t really understand me or is just kind of crazy.

The election is rigged.

Well, maybe.

Certainly there are times when we are needlessly attacked or just flat out treated unfairly. But far more common are those times when we failed to look deeply at ourselves and our actions. Where we neglected to stay on our side of the street and understand our contribution to the outcome.

Stephen Karpman’s work on his eponymous drama triangle illustrates how this dynamic plays out for many of us. We bounce between victim, rescuer and persecutor (of ourselves and others), all the while failing to see our role in perpetuating the dysfunction, telling ourselves “if only they would change” everything would be fine.

It’s a con.

It would be far easier if I could avoid being the one to change. But the ONLY thing I can do is take responsibility for my stuff, share my truth, accept reality and do my work.

It’s been very humbling for me to become aware of and accept my role in creating or enabling so many problems over so many years.

It’s been harder still to admit that maybe I’m actually the problem.

But first comes awareness and then comes acceptance. Then it’s time for me to choose a different way to be in the world.

I wish there were an easier, softer way. But I got here as fast as I could.

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What’s worth fighting for?

Unless we live in certain parts of the world we get to pick most of our battles.

So it’s probably a good idea to decide what’s worth fighting for?

On my best days, I realize my list is pretty short:

  • Love
  • Compassion
  • Generosity
  • Connection
  • Justice
  • Confronting my pain, fear and shame
  • Acceptance of reality
  • Living in the present moment.

Of course, despite knowing this, I often convince myself that other things are important. I strap on my emotional armor and fight the useless fight.

The battles with our egos are ultimately both the most seductive and most destructive. We fight to be right, to win, to avoid our failings, to medicate our feelings, to control uncontrollable outcomes, to protect us from getting hurt. And to what end?

Our desire can betray us. Merely knowing our vulnerabilities is not enough.

We need to understand there is a profound difference between a reaction and a choice.

And if we decide that something–or someone–is truly worth fighting for, we go for it. We make mistakes, we embarrass ourselves (full disclosure: as I’ve already done this morning) and sometimes we’re going fall flat on our face.

But if we’re truly fulfilling our heart’s desire, then we pick ourselves up, recalibrate and just keep doing the work–smiling at our fears and our imperfect humanity.

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Seeing around the corner

If very recent events tell us anything, polls, elaborate analyses and unbridled prognostication from “experts” only goes so far. Your best friend could be Nate Silver and you are still going to get a lot of stuff wrong.

It turns out nobody has a crystal ball or the perfect predictive model. We may have a pretty educated guess about what’s around the corner, but we are bound to be surprised–or even shocked–a fair amount of the time.

The truth is expectations so often suck the joy out of us.

Our fantasy of being in control undermines our happiness time and time again.

Fear of the future keeps us stuck.

Yet we shouldn’t conclude that we must gird ourselves for relentless disappointment or simply throw our hands up in despair as we are cast between the waves of the world’s events.

We only live in this present moment.

And as Shakespeare reminds us “there is nothing either good or bad, only thinking makes it so.”

Ultimately being on the path is to accept the things we cannot change, set our intention towards the things we can and, most importantly, find beauty in the unpredictability of this one precious life we’ve been given.

 

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Why try to change me now?

You probably have heard that Bob Dylan was recently awarded the Nobel prize for literature. You might also be aware that he has yet to officially acknowledge it.

At this point, it doesn’t seem likely he will turn up at the ceremony in Stockholm to receive the award. And if I were a betting person, I’d wager he won’t do the lecture that is a condition of receiving the $900,000 payout.

The powers that be at the Nobel Foundation are apparently aghast at Dylan’s silence, which one member deemed “rude and arrogant.”

Of course, this is all just Bob being Bob.

The other night Dylan performed a 90 minute concert in Oklahoma. He didn’t acknowledge the crowd when he took the stage and didn’t say “goodbye” at the end of the set. He didn’t pick up a guitar, but instead played piano most of the night. He didn’t introduce the band. There was no banter in between songs.

Just Bob being Bob.

Now there are a few things we know about change. Among them is the plain and simple fact that you can’t change someone who doesn’t want to change. Another is that we are only motivated to change when what we are doing no longer works for us.

Despite the protestations of the Nobel folks-and the broader lamentations of the public–I’m guessing a change is not going to come.

Perhaps it’s just a coincidence, but it turns out Dylan has been closing recent sets with this.

American Masters: Bob Dylan

The scorpion, the frog and the Donald

Perhaps you know the fable…

A scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a stream. The scorpion asks the frog to carry him across on its back. The frog asks, “how do I know you won’t sting me?” The scorpion says, “because if I do, I will die too.”

The frog is satisfied and they set out, but in midstream, the scorpion stings the frog.

The frog feels the onset of paralysis and starts to sink. Now knowing that they both will drown, he musters up enough strength to gasp “but why?”

The scorpion replies: “It’s in my nature.”

When new information is revealed, shock and indignation are totally appropriate. But when someone does some slightly different version of what they always do, why would we be surprised?

Instead, we should dig deep on how and why we allowed that level of unconciousness to arise.

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Learning to surf

There are a few different ways people approach the ocean.

Some dive right in.

Others inch in slowly, testing the temperature of the water until they feel comfortable to wade in all the way.

A few like to stand there and get pummeled by the water’s force.

And of course there are those that avoid going to the beach entirely.

The most daring and remarkable of all are the surfers.

The surfer harnesses the ocean’s power, gliding above the surface, zigzagging their way to the shore. Of course, sometimes they fall off their board. But the good ones understand this is just part of the process and hop right back on. They know that through practice they will navigate the inevitable ebbs and flows, the unexpected surge, the occasional fellow competitor that gets too close. Over time, they spend more time up on the board, reaching the shore faster with far more grace and power then when they started.

They understand and accept a few things we all should.

Avoiding turbulent water is impossible.

Fighting the power of the ocean is an exercise in futility.

Waves are inevitable.

We’re going to have to learn how to surf.

And the hardest part is paddling out in the first place.

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A post-fact era?

We buy products that we know don’t really work, but support a narrative about a hoped for self.

We select the fancier–and much more expensive–version of something in a vain (no pun intended) attempt to chase image over substance.

We pursue the latest bright and shiny object with no supporting data and little valid analysis because that’s where the crowd is moving and we want to appear relevant (or cool).

We tell stories about others that have little or no basis in reality out of fear, anger or desperation. And sometimes a frightening mix of all three.

We support candidates who tout demonstrably untrue accounts because they tap into deeply rooted frustration or our need to get even. Victim becomes persecutor.

Yes, we buy the story before we buy the product.

Of course, emotion often trumps purely rational thinking.

And it clearly would be wrong to say intuition never matters.

But are we really entering a post-fact era? Can we possibly be okay with that?

Facts may not do what we want them to, but we ignore them at our own–and society’s–peril.

Sometimes the best thing we can do is to call “BS”.

The best place to start is with ourselves.

And the best time to do it is right now.

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This post has been updated from a version that originally appeared at http://www.stevenpdennis.com