Recently, I read the Zen saying, “the obstacle is the path.” I have been tumbling this wisdom in my brain box trying to polish the ideas these words inspire. Like two pieces of flint, the words “obstacle” and “path” strike sparks for me. Let me see if breathing my thoughts across the saying produces any enlightening flame.
First, the Zen master seems to be saying, “recognize the troubles you face are themselves a path to enlightenment.” Or, in a more cliched representation, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” We human beings tend to respond poorly at first to obstacles. We want the path to be easy, the way to be wide and smooth and to lead us like a yellow brick road to our destiny of wealth and happiness. What we fail to realize is that the only way to true awakening lies through adversity. Wealth and our illusion of what “happiness” means will become the obstacles themselves if we have taken an easy road to attain them. Like tulips, we must struggle through the dark, move past the stony soil that would stop us, and survive the cycle of cold and thaw in order to be strong enough to lift our heads to the light.
In these last ten months of stroke recovery, I have often whispered in my husband’s ear, “the only way out is through!” He always turns his face to mine and nods. I don’t know if the words help him. His aphasia prevents him from sharing his thoughts, but his eyes are full of knowing. Sometimes he must wish that the stroke had just taken him. That would have been a far easier path. At least I could understand his thinking so. Had sudden death been the outcome I doubt I would have thought it an easy journey to embrace. And maybe death only seems a release from this side. Perhaps there are other obstacles that create a path for us in the ether life. Maybe we are better off if we embrace the physical obstacles here – like a shortcut to eternal wisdom.
What would that wisdom be? In part, we gain the privilege of perspective. We learn to appreciate paradox. Life isn’t either/or, it’s both/and. For example, we know we are each something special – part of a miraculous whole, a unique piece of the cosmos, an expression of the joy of being. But it is also wise to know that we are no more special than anyone else. Each of us is only part, a minute part of something much grander than ourselves. I value my husband’s gifts, the qualities that make him such a special person, and I have experienced gratitude for the privilege of knowing another human being so well. The self-centered pangs of “he doesn’t deserve this!” have swept me over more than once. But in the facilities that have sheltered him, I have also seen suffering far greater than his or ours. The selfish question, “Why me?” becomes, “why not me?” when viewed through the magnitude of what other people must face. The obstacle is the path – for each of us. Acceptance of our own journey brings enlightenment.
But an alternative reading of this saying brings another truth: The path can become the obstacle. Henry David Thoreau noticed that after only two weeks at Walden Pond he had begun to establish paths – to the well, to the privy, to the door. Thoreau saw the paths as defeating his very reason for trying this experiment in living boldly and breaking free from society’s patterns. He recognized that we can’t escape entirely from the patterns – or paths – that life imposes. We are creatures of habit. Which is, paradoxically, both a blessing and a curse. Habits help us cope with the multiplicities of daily decisions. Constant choices exhaust us. But habits can lock us into solutions that blunt creativity and spontaneity.
A life altering event – like a stroke – interrupts our habits of living. The changes bring frustration and anger. We are forced to make new choices about how, even where, to live. We feel overwhelmed to have lost the familiar paths of life. However, in some ways the obstacle IS the path. If we focus only on the loss of the familiar, we blunt our capacity to reinvent life. We can make new paths. We can forge new ways of communicating, of solving problems, of finding intimacy. When forced by loss, we can mourn what was or we can get busy forging new solutions. Which may need at some point to be abandoned, as well. A path is comfortable, but never permanent. We forget the impermanent part. Usually until we are forced to blaze a new trail. But a new trail is always within our power. And that’s the wisdom we can gain.
I find two ways of looking at this Zen proverb. The obstacle provides our path or the path becomes the obstacle. However, either reading produces wisdom for those who embrace the truth.