Zen Dynamics: The Obstacle is the Path

“Doing new things invariably means obstacles. A new path is, by definition, uncleared. Only with persistence and time can we remove debris and impediments. Only in struggling with impediments that made others quit can we find ourselves on untrodden territory –only by persisting and resisting can we learn what others were too impatient to be taught.” ~ Ryan Holiday, The Obstacle is the Way

The obstacle, the problem, the hindrance, the difficulty, the complication, the impediment, the whatever-is-standing-in-your-way, is not in the way. It is the way! As this ancient Zen parable reveals, “every obstacle presents an opportunity to improve our condition.”

overcome obstaclesIt’s the very thing that will make you stronger, more resolute, and more robust. It’s the struggle that will sharpen you into an instrument powerful enough to cut through all red tape. It’s the rub that will polish you into a more refined version of yourself. Within every obstacle is an opportunity to enhance our current condition, we just have to be present with it.

The obstacle isn’t to be avoided. It is to be confronted. It should be embraced and transformed into an excuse to be courageous. It should be transcended in order to provide purpose. Taking the “easy” way is not always the best way.

Like Darnell Lamont Walker said, “Sometimes our walls exist just to see who has the strength to knock them down.”

Indeed, knock those walls down and then build steps that can launch you into an adventure of the most high. It’s actually the struggle of life that makes life great. It’s a matter of disposition: get busy growing or get busy idling.

The obstacle can either be a boundary or a horizon. It can either be something we run from or something we learn from. It’s our choice which. It can either be something that trumps us or something we figure out how to trump.

And even if it does happen to trump us, making the obstacle the path means learning from mistakes, adapting to unfortunate circumstances, and transforming setbacks into steppingstones.

Like Ryan Holiday said, “Blessings and burdens are not mutually exclusive.”

Overcoming burdens can reveal blessings. Unappreciated blessings can easily transform into burdens. Disposition, flexibility, courage, and perseverance are master keys to overcoming the obstacle and making it a crucial part of the journey, be it a hero’s journey or not.

Would you rather have an easy life or a better life?

sometimes the right path is not the easiest one“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, and to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Life is not meant to be easy. It’s meant to be lived. Truly living our life means not looking for the easy way out. It means adapting and overcoming to the worst that life can throw at us.

It means failing, again and again, but getting back up and learning from our mistakes. Failure is merely information that can lead to a resolution.

Like Ryan Holiday said, “Failure shows us the way –by showing us what isn’t the way.”

An easy life won’t make you stronger, because you will not have been tested. There is no confirmation of soul with an easy life. There is no establishment of character with an easy life. One must be tested in order to become better, healthier, and more robust.

Think about the obstacles that athletes have to go through in order to become peak performers. They made the obstacle the path, and so can we. Whether the obstacle is finishing a marathon, winning a marathon, or simply being in the best possible shape to run a marathon, the difference will almost always come down to time and perseverance.

A better life comes from pushing through tough times, from chiseling the boulder of our struggles into steps that can lead to a greater refinement of our mind, body, and soul. It comes from staying with a problem long enough that we eventually become the solution.

Where others turned back from the obstacle mumbling, “Impossible,” we who make the obstacle the path, keep at it, and with enough time and perseverance we can eventually say, “This is possible.” Embracing obstacles in this way naturally leads to further adventure, and even greater obstacles.

Would you rather have a comfortable life or an adventurous life?

“Suddenly you’re ripped into being alive. And life is pain, and life is suffering, and life is horror, but my god you’re alive and it’s spectacular.” ~ Joseph Campbell

Typically when we face obstacles, we shrink back to our comfort zones. The majority of us never leave those comfort zones, and so the majority of us rarely ever overcome our obstacles.

face challenges Here’s the thing: too much comfort can lead to complacency. But by making the obstacle the path we turn the tables on complacency through consistent acts of courage. The trick is to test the obstacle to the point of exhaustion, then return to your comfort zone, heal, and then engage the obstacle even further.

Before you know it, your comfort zone will have subsumed the obstacle, and it becomes an inherent aspect of the journey, from which you can learn powerful lessons.

When life tosses a monkey wrench into our machinery, or a twist in our road, or a wrinkle into our plans, we have a critical decision to make: shrink or grow. Shrink back into our comfort zone and throw in the towel, or grow by adapting and overcoming and become a force to be reckoned with. Give up, or chin up?

Like Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can or can’t, you’re right.”

Whether you think the obstacle can be overcome or not, you’re right. The journey is the thing. Fake it until you make it. And even if you never make it, at least you had an experience that didn’t trap you into complacency. At least you lived with passion, choosing an adventurous life over a comfortable one.

Adventure and comfort rarely go together, and even when they do, a little discomfort will almost always jumpstart the journey into further adventure. Failures almost always outweigh victories.

Life is a rollercoaster ride with more downs than ups, with more corkscrews than straightaways. In order to become the type of person that can overcome obstacles, we’ll have to get better at facing failure. We’ll have to become adaptable to setbacks, and then be able to transform them into steppingstones, all while maintaining a healthy disposition toward either victory or failure.

Sogyal Rinpoche said it best, “What we have to learn in both meditation and in life is to be free of attachment to the good experiences and free of aversion to the negative ones.”

Let’s free ourselves from our attachment to success, and free ourselves from the aversion of failure.

So let’s get out there. Let’s get uncomfortable. Let’s stretch our comfort zone to the brink. We’ll keep stretching it until it snaps. Then we’ll rebuild our comfort zone into a more flexible and robust space. Let’s unmoor the ship of our dreams that has been collecting barnacles and wasting away in port for too long.

Let’s take it out to sea, the Sea of Life. Let’s challenge all obstacles and spiritually crush out. And should we wreck, so be it. We can adapt, overcome, and get the most out of the wreckage by learning from our mistakes.

Like Voltaire said, “Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats.”

Indeed, when we make the obstacle the path we must, above all else, have a healthy sense of humor.

Image sources:

Buddha on the Path
The right path is not always easy
Joshua Marine quote
Stepping stones out of stumbling blocks

Please share, it really helps! :) <3

Gary Z McGee
Gary Z McGee
Gary 'Z' McGee, a former Navy Intelligence Specialist turned philosopher, is the author of Birthday Suit of God and The Looking Glass Man. His works are inspired by the great philosophers of the ages and his wide awake view of the modern world.


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