“Obstacles do not block the path, obstacles are the path.” – Zen saying
When the term “obstacles” is used conventionally, we tend to think of problems and circumstances that have interrupted or blocked our progress to the accomplishment of some goal or desire. But to understand the puzzling meaning of this Zen teaching we have to reframe completely our idea of what obstacles and goals are. In Buddhism, there is only one worthy goal, and to quote the Zen Master Yasutani, it is “to meet the True Self,” a term used to describe an insight into the non-dualistic truth of existence and thus, who we really are and what our capacities for clarity and insight truly are.
From a conventional perspective, our goals are viewed as ways of establishing our lives as significant, and their accomplishment is highly desired, and the “obstacles” towards their fulfillment are our frustrations. Zen, in its usual paradoxical manner, instructs us that, in truth, it may well be that our greatest obstacles are our goals and desires themselves, and it may be that what we experience as obstacles to reaching our “goals” are our great opportunities towards the development of the true purpose of our lives – to grow in wisdom, compassion, insight and skill.
So, as we live our ordinary lives, we have an idea of ourselves moving toward goals. As we experience success in meeting these goals, we feel pleased; as we are thwarted and frustrated in meeting these goals, we feel unhappy. Anxiety about the future of our ambitions and despondency and anger at past failure is typical. We experience being not-OK with our lives. Buddhism, as a psychology or philosophy of life, above all, points us toward being OK with life beyond success and failure in our endeavors and experiences.
What we are exploring here is how the traditional idea of goals, such as dedicated focus on what we consider success, can get in the way of our being OK. This is obviously true if our goals are frustrated, but it is also true if they are fulfilled; for we begin to believe with ever greater certainty in these goals as the purpose of life, and, as Buddhism and life teach, everything that comes also goes. Peace and well-being cannot be accomplished through material success. Success only breeds desire for more success. Eventually this strategy will fail, but as long as we believe in it, we are diverted from opening beyond this belief that says happiness comes from success. In this way, success is an obstacle to realizing deeper and truer skills and perspectives. Likewise, frustration, even seeming catastrophe, may open us to look for deeper and broader perspectives, and in hindsight be realized as the source of our most important growth.
Buddhism is a set of precepts and insights into life accompanied by the development of mental skills that have proven effectiveness in leading to increased peace and well-being or OK-ness, independent of success or frustration in conventional terms. The great Vietnamese Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh helps us better understand the key to Buddhist perspective and practice when he points out that there are two dimensions to our existence – the “historical” and the “ultimate.” The historical dimension is the idea of our life experienced in the timeline of past, present, and future, and the important word here is “idea.” We all live inside an idea of who we are made up of experiences, desires, fears, hopes, and capacities about which we are confident and capacities about which we are insecure. This idea of our self is very unstable, highly personalized and quite insecure. To this historical identity, obstacles are events, circumstances or people who obstruct the fulfillment of the idea of me getting to the goals that I imagine will give me peace, well-being and happiness. We believe that they are the reason we are not-OK.
To explore the meaning of “the ultimate dimension” we have to return to Master Yasutani’s invitation to meet our “true self.” This is no idea of who we are. This is who we are deeper than experiences, thoughts, desires, fears, hopes, and capacities about which we are confident or insecure. To the true self in the ultimate dimension, the “obstacles” encountered in the historical dimension are merely opportunities for practicing transcending the reactivity of the historic-self, understanding that it is our own ideas about events, ourselves, people and our life-circumstance that are the source of our feeling not-OK.
We have all experienced obstacles to the historic-self. We’ve had problems and losses in relationship, occupation, the fulfillment of our desires, perhaps even severe illness or disabling injury. Even driving across town can be a frustrating encounter with the obstacle of traffic, throwing us into varying states of not-OK-ness, for some, even rage. As these events occur in the historical dimension, we are affected quite adversely. We experience very difficult, perhaps overwhelming, negative emotions. We are reactive and judgmental about what is happening. It is this reactivity and judgment that our practice works with through realizing that as we are aware of these states of not-OK-ness, the awareness that witnesses it all is completely OK. We begin to recognize awareness as the pure witnessing consciousness before any thought or emotion colors the experience into good or bad. We are taking the first steps in discovering that awareness is the mind of the ultimate dimension and our true self and that ultimately we are that awareness. We begin to realize that we are awareness that has a body and a mind that engages circumstances in the historical realm, and that while body and mind may be threatened, awareness is not, cannot be, threatened for it exists in the ultimate dimension acting as witness to the historical dimension.
If we are to become conscious in our lives, that is, living from awareness of things as they are in large, even vast perspectives, rather than as we concoct them in our very small idea of our self and the world, we must practice living in awareness, the pure witnessing consciousness of the present moment unfolding. As obstructive events occur, our historical self, the mind of ego, reactivity and judgment, experiences these obstacles as injurious and frustrating. Awareness, the mind of the true self, witnesses and discerns the unfolding of events and is only there to learn and become more skillful. The obstacles as defined by the ego gradually become experienced as the path to personal growth into realization of the true self.
When upsetting events occur in our historical dimension, our personal sense of self experiences being threatened and diminished by the event and we experience debilitating negative emotion as a result. An encouraging truth, however, is that often, with time, the event becomes just another incident in our lives – neutral, or it may even become valued because it brought with it perspective on the relevant circumstance that, with distance, we learn much about ourselves and the circumstances that we were incapable of seeing at the time. Our growth as a wiser, more skillful person gives credit to the then painful experience as now a valued lesson. This is awareness working through the passage of time as the event becomes more distant from our personal experience unfolding. As the event becomes less personally threatening, we are able to see the deeper truths it reveals. We can trust that this process happens for we have experienced it many times and this trust can be a great ally in bringing this lesson into the immediacy of a challenging situation.
Our practice, then, is to bring this capacity for perspective to the events of our lives as they happen. Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki once said, “The essence of Zen is ‘Not always so,’” meaning that events are not always as they seem from the limited perspective of our personal conditioning. As we walk our path in life in the historical dimension our practice is to simultaneously maintain our perspective in the ultimate dimension where we can always be remembering, “Not always so”– always available to allowing that seeming obstacles can be valued elements of our path. Rather than having to go through weeks, months, or years of suffering as the lesson of a particular obstacle is processed, we can grow in the ability to look deeply into what is happening in the now. When we shift into present moment awareness in the midst of difficulties we can see what is happening with greater perspective and use the event as an opportunity for expanded capacities in wisdom, skill, compassion and insight. We can see the obstacle as the path and proceed mindfully towards its awaiting lessons free of resistance.