Zen proverb "the obstacle is the path": what's your story?

I recently ran across the Zen proverb “the obstacle is the path,” and though I can’t stop thinking about it, I also can’t seem to get my mind around it. (Not very Zen of me, I guess.)

Have you had an experience in which, whether in hindsight or at the time, the obstacle proved to be the path? What happened, and how did you figure it out? I’ll welcome your speculations, but what I’m really interested in is a story from your experience.

I’d love to start with an anecdote of my own, but I haven’t thought of one yet.

The obstacle was me, simply enough, my false beliefs about myself. Cleared it away, found the path revealed ahead.

Now, I’ve got another obstacle I am about to get cleared.

Pretty much it.

So “the obstacle is the path” really means “the obstacle is standing in the way of the path”? Isn’t that the standard definition of an obstacle? Some proverb.

Ha, this is totally how Zen works.

My anecdote is not very exciting, but I used to have a big problem with overeating and compulsive eating. I often tried diets or to eat more healthily, but I had no will power, and could never stick to them. Eventually I decided to look at the ‘no willpower’ as the issue rather than being overweight as the issue. I started to keep track of when I overate/ate junk and what kind of things were going on in my head when I made choices that I knew weren’t healthy. That’s when I realised that I am a massive stress eater and eat whenever I get upset. So I looked for things I could do differently when I was upset, rather than just eat. One side effect of this was that I stopped overeating and lost lots of weight (around 50lbs) but that obstacle - lack of willpower - was really telling me something much more important about my life and how I was dealing with emotions.

Another example, when I am meditating, and I am feeling, say, bored, that feeling is not something to push aside so that I can get back to my meditation. That feeling is the very thing that I need to accept and let go of.

I don’t think this is it. I take it to mean the thing which you believe to be an object blocking your intended path (and are thus trying to avoid) is actually the path that you really need.

No, it means the problem is not that the path is blocked, but your desire to go down the path. Remove the desire and the obstacle isn’t a problem. I see that all the time with friends - the problem isn’t that they can’t get what they want, but that they can’t get it the way they want it. The real obstacle is themselves.

This reminds me of a video I saw of Tim Ferriss talking about Practical Pessimism. He maintains that one way to be successful is not to focus on your goals, but instead focus on the fears that are holding you back.

There is no point saying “I can’t get to point B because there is a fallen tree on the path”. If there is a fallen tree on the path then it is not the path to point B anymore. The real path begins with finding someone with a chainsaw and learning how to cut a tree apart.

I’m thinking along the same lines as White SIFL. Different people consider different things to be obstacles. When we come upon an obstacle on our chosen path it may be that we were led to contemplate that very thing, which may then send us in a different direction. Or not.

This is really helpful. Thank you.

The purpose of a koan is to force you to look beyond distinctions created by language as a first step in understanding that reality is maya (illusion). So if you ever do think you understand a koan, then you can be sure that you’ve missed the point. :slight_smile:

I don’t know what it means to Zen Buddhists, but it seems to have a very specific meaning to me as a research mathematician. In mathematics obstacles force you to think very carefully about what they mean. And that often (unfortunately not always) leads you to figure out how to get past them or, in many cases, to realize they are immovable and that knowledge can be equally important.

I wonder whether this has application elsewhere, but that is what it means to me.

It’s not the way you’re supposed to approach it since it’s suppose to expand your perceptions and not narrow them, but you can look at the obstacle as being the self-imposed deception that we are all born into and when you understand the nature of the obstacle and the false distinction it represents, you will see there is no obstacle and no path - but also that they are the same.

Hey, you wanted some Zen . . .

An example. You want to become a better person, and maybe even an enlightened person, whatever that means to you, so you decide your path is to spend a year or two in a monastery, meditating. However, your elderly parents become ill, and you need to take care of them. The elderly parents have become an obstacle on the path. However, in the act of caring for them, you learn patience, and loving-kindness, and present moment awareness. All the things you would have learned in the monastery. You realize that you don’t need to go there after all – the seeming obstacle has become your path, and possibly a much better one than the one you originally had in mind.

I’ve had many opportunities in my life, revolving largely around education, career possibilities, and personal choices. And in my fear and insecurity, essentially self-sabotaged my way around them all. I spent many years living with regret.

One day a few years ago I was watching TV with my then 4-year-old son planted on my lap, he reached his chubby little arms up and clasped them around my neck as he often did (and still does) but in that one little moment I realized that if I had made ANY life choice differently, my path would not have led me to this beautiful little man and to the privilege I have of being his mama.

I seriously have not spent another moment of my life wishing that I could have done anything differently. My self-limiting obstacles were my path in that I ended up with what I wanted (and needed) all along.

Not how I see it, more like **epbrown01 **but not exactly.

You have a goal and have chosen a path toward attaining that goal, yet your are unable to succeed.

The path you have chosen, is the obstacle preventing you from reaching your goal. Your plan is faulty, abandon it, abandon the path. It is your obstacle.

It is about re-thinking your approach to things. Your path.

In this case, wouldn’t the proverb be “the path is the obstacle”?

I appreciate everyone’s helpful viewpoints and stories so far (and welcome more). I don’t expect to rationally “understand” a koan, but I do wonder if I can integrate it into my lived experience – or, rather, be more aware of ways it’s already been part of that experience. Which is why I’d like to hear about your experiences.

Mu, dude. And mu to that, too.

A great example. Thanks.