The Power in Obstacles

Minor White, Moencopi Strata, Capitol Reef, Utah, 1962. Courtesy of The Minor White Archive, Princeton University.

Minor White, Moencopi Strata, Capitol Reef, Utah, 1962. Courtesy of The Minor White Archive, Princeton University.

Last week, a group of us talked about what happens when we face obstacles and difficult situations.   We agreed that no one escapes such things, and that often what happens is inside is fear, which has a powerful undertow. Signs at ocean beaches warn swimmers not to try to fight their way out of a rip current but to swim with it and parallel to the shore. In the same way, it’s best not to try to fight your way out of a rip current of primal fear and reactivity—those triggered times when you are raging inside (or out), bracing to fight or fly away. If you keep watching with kind awareness, swimming along without fight with it, sooner or later you will wash up down the beach.

And you may find that something else is quietly happening when we face obstacles.  Under the mind that is freaking out or shutting down, we may find another mind, a vastly more quiet and responsive mind. And within the body that ordinarily seems so limited, so lacking in energy or strength or beauty, we may find a doorway to another body—an inner body of sensitivity and intuition that feels as vast and wise as the earth (the body is of the earth). In times of great crisis or great loss or great obstacles, we may discover that we contain our own ancient teachers. We discover that inside we are wise and caring teachers caring for terrified children, even (and I mean this in a kind way) crazy maniacs.

In times of crisis, we may find ourselves responding without a single thought interfering—seeing what is needed and meeting that need, as sensitive and aware and sure footed as an animal (the body is an animal). In the face of obstacles, we may discover new ways of being intelligent. In 1980, in the “Obstacles” issue of Parabola, a much younger Dalai Lama told an interviewer that obstacles draw out qualities that can’t be known in any other way.

This is one of those deceptively simple statements that open like Aladdin’s cave in the face of difficulty–suddenly we behold hidden treasures. There is patience, who knew that was so valuable? And determination—who knew what that was? Not forcing but working with reality, showing up again and again, swimming with the current, not losing sight of the shore. It turns out that faith is a willingness to let go of our ideas and see what is, trusting that swimming along seeing itself is a way to break free. It is often in the midst of big trouble that we discover that the universe is responsive if we are.

Also in the cave of treasures for hard times is the insight that the most precious and useful feelings are not really single feelings at all but intentions, orientations, directions. Courage, for example, turns out to be the intention to go on. It is spacious enough to hold all kinds of emotions, fear and a powerful wish that we didn’t have to be caught in a rip current, desperation. Compassion, it turns out, is not empathy or sympathy or certainly not pity, but an objective or conscious wish to respond with care. And love turns out to be an action, an active verb–an aim to live as if we were one (and we are).

Often, the last diamond in rough is the discovery that we were all made to be broken, made to let go of all we think we have and know, we are made to surrender to a power greater than we possess in what David Foster Wallace called our skull-sized kingdoms. Meditation (and prayer and spiritual practice) has been called death in life. We are meant to die into a greater life, to heal into a greater wholeness. (in English the words “heal” and “whole” are related). We need not be in a monastery or on a mountaintop to experience this dying. We need not be like Milarepa, the great Tibetan Buddhist sage whose great teacher Marpa made him build up and tear down three towers to show him that the real aim is not the tower but the qualities that break open in the building and tearing down. Ordinary life offers us many opportunities, many obstacles and unwanted tasks. Try noticing this in small things. We fret and fret and fret about an upcoming event. Finally we get so tired of all the fretting and projection and tension that we just give up.

At least for a moment or two, we die into the state Buddhists call non-self or emptiness. Other traditions may call it salvation or the quickening of the spirit or touching the higher Self. This turns out to be a state of great peace and simplicity right in the midst of things. As I’ve said before (and no doubt I’ll say it again), this is the state of slipping under the electrified fence of the ego. In such a state, we feel the crisp fall air and hear the birds without the background hum of the story we are constantly telling ourselves about ourselves, without the force field of ego, of self and other. We feel stillness. In such a state, we lose ourselves only to find ourselves present and miraculously alive and even grateful…this is how it feels to wash up on the beach.♦