Thursday, April 16, 2009

Not Obstacles, That's the Path

"We have no reason to mistrust our world, for it is not against us. Has it terrors, they are our terrors; has it abysses, those abysses belong to us; are dangers at hand, we must try to love them. And if only we arrange our life according to that principle which counsels us that we must always hold to the difficult, then that which now still seems to us the most alien will become what we most trust and find most faithful. How should we be able to forget those ancient myths that are at the beginning of all peoples, the myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses; perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us." - Rainer Maria Rilke

As we move through life, attempting to move in peace, planned precision, or along whatever pleasant, care-free path, we often encounter things which disrupt our flow. I cannot think of an unbroken month in my life when some incident has not occurred: my car being broken into, my work load doubled, my computer crashed, my thumb sliced open, my trip canceled, etc. How frustrating this can be. We've all been there, which is why we connect so well with Robert Burn's apology To a Mouse for destroying its nest while ploughing:
But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft a-gley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promised joy.
You probably recognize the oft quoted "best laid schemes o' mice an' men" part. The conclusion drawn here is that try as we might, there's no way to prepare with "foresight" for a complete path of "promised joy." There's always a potential accident or obstacle around the corner. Though, the "grief an' pain" is just the story that we tell ourselves, and Stories Define Reality. Rather than allow ourselves to rely on a happiness defined only be the path that we had planned, we can learn to walk that path that is presented to us.

Learning to be mindful and avoid obstacles is a wise and worthy pursuit. However, it is likely impossible to prepare enough to avoid every obstacle. Even in a secure garage, someone can still break into your car if you have one, and sometimes having one is the best option. "Being able to remain centered and awake even when we feel uncomfortable is much more impressive than doing so in an environment where everything is to our liking. No matter how good we are at controlling our circumstances, there will always be factors and people that we cannot control." (Daily Om's The Upside of Irritation) Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche believes that "We might even begin to welcome obstacles as an opportunity to engage in virtuous activity: patience, generosity, discipline, meditation, exertion, and their binding factor, prajna—wisdom rooted in seeing things as they are. With practice and a change in attitude, whatever comes our way—good or bad—has less power to obstruct our journey." (The Path Through Obstacles in Shambhala Sun)

In Growing Together, Thich Nhat Hahn shares a beautiful metaphor for dealing with suffering from obstacles: "You can use the goodness in yourself to transform your suffering and the tendency to be angry, cruel, and afraid. But you don’t want to throw your suffering away because you can use it. Your suffering is compost that gives you the understanding to nourish your happiness and the happiness of your loved one."

This is not only an Eastern concept, it is a central precept of the Greek Stoics. Here's an excerpt from Stoicism 101: A Practical Guide for Entrepreneurs by Ryan Holiday c/o Tim Ferriss:

The Stoics had an exercise called Turning the Obstacle Upside Down. What they meant to do was make it impossible to not practice the art of philosophy. Because if you can properly turn a problem upside down, every “bad” becomes a new source of good.

Suppose for a second that you are trying to help someone and they respond by being surly or unwilling to cooperate. Instead of making your life more difficult, the exercise says, they’re actually directing you towards new virtues; for example, patience or understanding. Or, the death of someone close to you; a chance to show fortitude. Marcus Aurelius described it like this: “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”


Stoicism, as Marcus reminds himself, is not some grand Instructor but a balm, a soothing ointment to an injury wherever we might have one. Epictetus was right when he said that “life is hard, brutal, punishing, narrow, and confining, a deadly business.

We should take whatever help we can get, and it just happens that that help can come from ourselves.

When you see the obstacles in this light, you can realize that it is not a path cluttered with obstacles. The path and the obstacles are not separate, they are the path, the whole path. "Like cars in amusement parks, our direction is often determined through collisions." (Yahia Lababidi) As children, many of us enjoyed running obstacle courses, jumping hurdles, running through tires, crawling under ropes, walking across balance beams. This was not tedious to us, it was a fun part that we chose. Let's learn from our own childhoods and find the joy of running the obstacle course. It can be so much more fun and satisfying than walking the easy route alongside the course. Relish in the whole path. In this way, we can learn to be Comfortable with What Is .

Comments, Please - Please share your thoughts. What are your experiences in recognizing life's obstacles as life's path?


  1. Ed, the timing on this one was impeccable. It was as though you wrote it for me. I read it shortly after getting into a car accident while driving to work Friday morning (just a fender bender, no one was hurt, but still traumatic, and also my fault). Even the traffic-related photos pertain :). This post was a wonderful reminder that sooner or later we all have accidents and we all run into obstacles, sometimes quite literally, and that it would behoove us not to make judgements nor to believe things will always go as planned. I am trying my best to remember that our direction is often determined through collisions (real ones with real cars!), and to view this situation as an opportunity to engage in virtious activity.

  2. Erica, just taking the time to reply to the comment now, and hopefully I can remember some of our phone conversation from this time.

    I am glad that you are well and handled the situation well. It's also bracing to know that my words helped in some way. That's one of the important goals for me, as the Buddhists say, it is contributing to the sangha -- the community at large, in any way that I can. To some extent, this is a way that I do it.

    I love the last line of your comment. It is so vulnerably written, which gives it so much beauty. I particularly like how natural it is and that it achieves beauty effortlessly, where perhaps only the true beauty lies: "I am trying my best to remember that our direction is often determined through collisions (real ones with real cars!), and to view this situation as an opportunity to engage in virtuous activity."