The obstacle IS the way.
We tend to view discomfort adversarially, as a foe to be vanquished or avoided, but an alternative is to view it as a sign of something important for us to learn, or an indicator of a meaningful growth opportunity. When something feels daunting, we can get curious. When something feels scary, we can step forward.
John was drawing upon a passage from Book Five of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius:
Now it is true that [people] may impede my action, but they are no impediments to my affects and disposition, which have the power of acting conditionally and changing: for the mind converts and changes every hindrance to its activity into an aid; and so that which is a hindrance is made a furtherance to an act; and that which is an obstacle on the road helps us on this road.
It's been useful to reflect on these ideas as I've faced some obstacles of my own recently. When I first encountered them it was disconcerting to see how readily I experienced them not only as "impediments to my action," but also as "impediments to my affects and disposition." I was hurt and upset and angry.
It's taken some effort to step back from my immediate response and view these situations from a broader perspective. They are obstacles, and my action is impeded. And yet they have something important to teach me--not despite the difficulty and discomfort I'm experiencing, but because of it. So what am I learning?
Attachment brings suffering, and suffering is a choice
As I've written before, there’s a powerful scene in David Simon’s dramatic series The Wire in which an anxious store security guard pleads with a dangerous gang leader who’s just shoplifted, asking him to appreciate the difficult situation in which the guard now finds himself. The gang leader is unmoved. "You want it to be one way," he murmurs, "but it’s the other way."
My attachment to wanting these situations "to be one way" when in fact "it's the other way" is the ultimate cause of my hurt and upset and anger here. While our emotions can be valuable inputs in the reasoning process, they're not unerring guides to right action, and it's been necessary for me to interrogate these feelings and to understand their origins. My emotions aren't being inflicted upon me--I am triggering them through my attachment to an alternative reality, one in which these obstacles I've encountered don't exist. But they do exist, which means I face a choice. I can remain attached to my vision of an obstacle-free path and suffer when reality intrudes upon my fantasy, or I can accept these obstacles and see them as integrated with my path. Rather than choosing to suffer, I can choose to learn.
Some growth requires struggle
I first learned this lesson nearly a decade ago as I watched groups that were experiencing difficulties benefit most not when the leader took action to resolve the problem but when the leader did nothing and allowed the group to struggle toward its own solution. To be clear, I'm not suggesting that leaders should always stand back, but it's important to recognize when a leader's efforts to help a group avoid difficulties can actually serve to block the growth that will come only through struggle.
Today I can see that the same principle applies to my own development as an individual, and that my efforts to avoid difficulties--to navigate around these obstacles--will prevent me from growing in important and perhaps even necessary ways. Rather than viewing them as "obstacles" in the first place, I can see them as sources of growth.
Resilient self-care matters
I try to exercise and meditate every day. I pay close attention to my sleep habits and adjust them as needed to insure that I'm well-rested. I like good food and drink, and I aim to consume both in moderation. And I occasionally throw these routines out the window, because a perfect attendance record has never been one of my goals in life. Over the last few weeks it's been particularly important to both invest in these routines and to relax them.
We sometimes equate "resilience" with "toughness," and we fail to appreciate that many "tough" materials are brittle and subject to failure under stress. Truly resilient materials are sufficiently elastic to allow them to absorb a blow, deform under pressure, and return to normal after a brief interval, and that's how I'd characterize my approach to self-care during this time. Rather than feel demoralized because these obstacles have disrupted my smoothly running routines, I can trust in my resilience and return to a state of equilibrium over time.
A final thought: I'm reminded that I often tell my students in The Art of Self-Coaching that self-coaching is not a solitary process, but a highly social one, and it's essential to develop and maintain relationships with trusted partners we can rely on during times of difficulty. I'm deeply grateful to the people I've been able to discuss these situations with, not just (or even primarily) for their advice, but for their ability to listen, to empathize, to bear witness. These obstacles have served to remind me of the importance of these relationships with my most valued fellow travelers. Once again, the obstacle IS the way.
Thanks to John Stephenson for the inspiring reminder.
Photo by Dan Cook. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.