Being vulnerable · Embrace the present moment

Stay. Stay. Stay.

The amygdala is sometimes known as the “lizard brain.” It’s more or less a holdover from prehistoric times and its role is to activate our primal survival instincts such as aggression and fear. When we are faced with a perceived threat, it can reflexively kick us into “fight or flight” mode. Sometimes–typically when we get overwhelmed and flooded with stress hormones–we can bounce back and forth from attacker to avoider, from villain to victim. Or we can shut down entirely.

At work, the lizard brain can keep us from trying new stuff despite knowing we need to innovate. It can cause us to push back hard on challengers to the status quo because we fear being wrong or looking stupid. Or we can just get stuck, paralyzed into inaction.

In personal relationships, those of us who fear intimacy can push away those whom we love, despite our desire to be more deeply connected. Or we can bolt for the door just as we get closer to what we so strongly desire.

The Resistance is real. So is self-sabotage. But as Pema Chodron reminds us, “fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.”

Clearly some situations are untenable and they deserve to be run from and put well behind us. Frankly, quitting is often under-rated.

Other circumstances require us to stand up and fight and say “enough is enough.” No one should endure tantrums or constant boundary violations or harassment or far worse.

Discerning the situations where we need to get in and rumble and get messy and walk through our fear is not easy. It takes real courage to remain in the arena when everything tells us to to flee. To engage when the fear comes up. To do the hard, uncomfortable work. To be neither victim, nor persecutor, nor rescuer, but an accountable adult, fully present, living in reality and owning our truth.

Our restlessness is part of the human condition. And the lizard brain can be easily activated–even more so if we have a history of trauma.

But like a dog being trained, we can learn to stay. Stay engaged. Stay focused. Stay patient. Stay accountable.

We can do the work.

The challenges are great, but so too can be the reward.

 

This post was also published at http://www.stevenpdennis.com

Be the difference · Smile at fear

The wrong voices

We are surrounded by the wrong voices.

People who tell us that our idea won’t work because it’s been tried before.

People who are talking when they should be listening.

People who condemn out of fear, ignorance, hate and intolerance.

People whose minds were never open in the first place.

People who feel powerful only when they make others feel small.

No one is forcing you to heed their call.

It’s a choice to turn off your inner voice of doubt and walk through your fear.

You can follow your passion.

You can do what’s right.

You can make a difference.

We can make a difference.

Let’s get started.

What better time than now?

 

A version of this post originally appeared at http://www.stevenpdennis.com

Letting go · Radical acceptance · Smile at fear

Dragging the raft

There is a Buddhist parable concerning a man trapped on one side of a fast-flowing river. He faces great uncertainty and danger by staying on his side.  And he soon realizes he must cross the river to find safety.

Alas there is no bridge or ferry for crossing.  So the man decides to construct a make-shift raft from logs, branches and vines. Eventually he is able to paddle himself to the other side.

The Buddha then asks the assembled monks a question: What would you think if the man, having crossed over the river, said to himself, ‘Oh, this raft has served me so well, I should take it with me as I continue my journey on land’?  The monks replied that it would not be very sensible to cling to the raft in such a way.

The Buddha continued: What if, instead, he lay the raft down gratefully, thinking that this raft has served him well, but is no longer of use and can thus be laid down upon the shore? The monks agreed that would be the proper attitude.

If you are anything like me, you may find yourself clinging to beliefs, techniques and practices that once served you well but were meant for an entirely different set of circumstances.

If you are anything like me, you may hold on to the familiar–the comfortable–despite ample evidence it is no longer working.

If you are anything like me, you may be carrying around the proverbial hammer in search of the next nail.

Many of us have some version of a raft we continue to drag behind us.

Maybe, with the passage of time, we will find ourselves in the exact set of circumstances where that raft will turn out to be exactly the thing we need.  Maybe.

But there is so much freedom, so much speed to be gained, so much possibility to be claimed, in simply letting go.

This post originally appeared at http://www.stevenpdennis.com

Do the work · Letting go of ego · Radical acceptance

They’ll see it eventually. Or not.

When we believe another person is unable to see the harsh reality of their words or actions it can particularly frustrating. When those words or actions affect us directly by activating our own worry, shame, sadness or pain, it can be especially difficult. Even traumatic.

Maybe we want to change their perception of past events.

But then again “truth” is a relative concept, often simply held in the eyes of the beholder.

Perhaps they can’t let go of a something we’ve done in our history together.

Yet the idea that we can magically make their feelings go away by our well reasoned arguments is a fool’s errand.

Maybe we don’t like their choice of friend, lover, job, outfit, hair style, the book they are reading and on and on.

But it’s probably worth remembering that it’s their life and most of the time their decisions have little or nothing to do with us. It’s also worth reminding ourselves that much of the time we rarely have the full picture anyway.

Maybe we want them to see us fundamentally in a different light, to focus only on our good parts, or forgive us for past ills we’d prefer they ignore, or just simply extend us more grace and compassion.

Yet their journey is their journey. And our is ours.

Things will unfold in their own time, despite our attempts to jam the accelerator to the floor.

Hope is not a workable strategy. Acceptance is.

In the absence of a fully functioning time machine (which, by the way, I HAVE added to my Christmas list) we can only start where we are.  And we can only work on what is within our control and, whether we like it or not, that’s our stuff, not theirs.

It may well be that the other person is in denial, or using poor judgment, or making a terrible mistake. It turns out this is what we humans do.

And eventually they’ll see it. Or not.

Either way, OUR work is the same.

The longer we stay in judgment, blame or resentment toward the other person, the longer we make ourselves miserable.

 

Being vulnerable · Letting go of ego

Well isn’t that interesting?

“When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. ” 

– Thich Nhat Hahn

I don’t like to brag but my judging skills are pretty epic. I don’t always have my phaser set to “judge”, but it often just seems to turn on automatically.

Sometimes I attach a story (spoiler alert: a negative one) to what certain individuals say to me or the way they behave. Sometimes I react (spoiler alert: negatively) to a certain tone of voice or take something personally before I have even fully heard and discerned what’s actually been said. Sometimes I instantly get a feeling (spoiler alert: not a good one) that I’m being put down or being attacked when nothing of the sort is actually going on. Other times, I actually sense the intention of what’s being communicated but I fixate on needless stylistic details or meaningless semantics because of my need to be right (spoiler alert: this rarely works out well for me). Sometimes I ridiculously feel the need to make the other person wrong to feel okay about myself (spoiler alert: this has often blown up in spectacular fashion).

Now to be sure there are times when other people fail to maintain proper boundaries, and there is no reason to tolerate those sort of violations. But in my experience, it is far more common for me to simply jump to a false conclusion, become defensive or go on the attack with little or no justification.

And that’s about me.

My desire to protect myself from past wounds. My need to go “one up” because I’m having a lousy day or feeling badly about myself. My fear of really being vulnerable.

I wonder what would be different if instead of sinking into judgment mode I simply paused to observe and took a deep breath?

What if instead of assuming the other person was wrong, I shifted my energy to challenging my filter or habitual response?

What if I realized that he or she is just as human and imperfect as I am and sometimes we all just simply make a mistake.

What if I chose to interpret what was said or done from the most generous place, instead of assuming it comes from some form of malicious intent?

What if I because curious instead of defensive or aggressive?

What if I decided it was more important to be remain connected rather than chase my need to be right?

What if I simply said, well isn’t that interesting and let it be?

It’s taken me a long time to see this and start–emphasis: start–to evolve my behavior.

I got here as fast as I could.

 

Letting go of ego · Smile at fear

Punished by anger

“You will not be punished for your anger; you will be punished by your anger.”

–  Buddhist Proverb

There is nothing inherently wrong with feeling anger from time to time. Frustration and anger are perfectly normal human responses to perceived threats, unfair circumstances, unkind words and even the ebb and flow of daily annoyances, like being cut off in traffic or making a simple mistake. Yet it is how we understand our anger and what we do with it that is the problem that ultimately leads to suffering.

Clearly there are vast injustices and truly awful persistent situations that my cause us to stay in anger beyond an initial reaction. But for most of us, it is an underlying fear or painful experience that causes us to “bite the hook”, ramp up our defenses, escalate our aggression and stay stuck in our anger beyond the momentary trigger.

If you are anything like me, trapped in habit, you often latch on to a story that we are being attacked by an outside force, when in fact what is really going on is, deep down, some fear or wound within us is being poked and uncovered. And when we layer on a dose of shame, unresolved hatred or long simmering aversion, we are quickly lost, making matters far worse. Now, if we’ve played out an angry dance with someone we care about, we’ve made ourselves miserable, broken connection in an intimate relationship and likely pushed our friend or loved one away–perhaps forever.

Been there, done that.

How does this serve us or support how we wish to show up in the world? Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron offers sound advice on this topic in her talk The Freedom to Choose Something Different.  She suggests that we must embrace three difficult practices.

First, we must notice when we start to bite the hook, that is, when we begin getting caught in habitual patterns that cause us to suffer. We must learn that getting hooked is a natural, spontaneous reaction. There is no suffering in the hooking itself, only in how we respond to it.

Second, and far more challenging, is actually doing something different, or as Pema calls it, “choosing a fresh alternative.” We must practice changing the negative momentum we are so familiar with and learn to avoid speaking and acting in ways that only serve to strengthen our habits of resentment, anger, blaming others and other patterns that entrench us (and those around us) in becoming more and more unhappy.

Third, is to make this difficult practice a way of life. One or two “good” reactions does not change our negative habitual ways. It is impossible to avoid challenging circumstances and we will be faced with many opportunities to bite the hook. Learning to avoid getting stuck there is the real opportunity and what ultimately sets us on a path to freedom.

Deciding not to punish ourselves is, in fact, a choice and a habit well worth breaking.

eckhart-tolle-primary-cause-unhappiness-5r3e

 

Do the work · Open heartedness

Does this path have a heart?

“Does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good; if it doesn’t it is of no use.  – Carlos Castenada, “The Teachings of Don Juan”

The focus of our career. Who we vote for. What we say when challenged. Where we spend our free time. The people we decide to hang out with. The organizations and causes we support. The comments we make on social media. How we show up in relationships. Just about anything we opt to give our time and attention.

These are all choices and each imply directionality and our fundamental orientation to the world.

And so…

We can operate from self-righteousness or curiosity. We can employ a mindset of scarcity or one rooted in generosity. We can choose judgment or grace, condemnation or forgiveness, distraction or connection, cruelty or compassion. We can chase busyness or meaning. And so on.

It’s not easy. And I fail at it all the time. Sometimes miserably. And yet…

And yet…it’s always worth knowing which way I want my compass to point. It helps to challenge that which I worship. It matters that when I get to the fork in the road, I know which path I want to choose, even if I get it wrong more times than I’d like to own up to.

Sure the bigger house is nice. The bigger heart maybe just a wee bit better.

 

This post also appeared on my business blog at stevenpdennis.com