If you’re not trying to get somewhere, says Judy Lief, nothing can stop you.
Generally, we define something as an obstacle because it stops us from achieving a goal we’ve set. If you’re walking along a trail and a big tree has fallen across your path, that’s an obstacle. You either have to turn back, climb over it, or go around it. Chances are you cannot simply lift up the tree and clear your path. Instead, you have to assess the situation and find an appropriate response. You need to figure out your options, and to do so, you need to know yourself: your strengths and limitations.
On the other hand, if you’re not trying to get somewhere, the tree is no longer an obstacle. It’s simply a tree lying across a path. It could be quite lovely, with furry moss and a woody fragrance. It could be home to many living beings. It could be a nice place to sit.
So, is the tree in itself an obstacle or not?
We need obstacles, because when we face and overcome them, we experience growth and forward movement. In fact, we intentionally create obstacles to challenge ourselves and develop skills. We make obstacle courses. We struggle to beat our last time in a race, lift a heavier weight than before, or get to the next level of our video game. Once a game or a challenge becomes too easy, we lose interest. Without obstacles, there’s no growth, no reward.
Do we need obstacles to deepen our meditation practice and gain a feeling of accomplishment and growth?
This need to challenge ourselves is apparent even in little babies. My four-month-old granddaughter has a project: to learn how to move about. She spends many of her waking hours diligently working on this project. First, she worked really hard learning how to roll over without getting her arm stuck. Once she could do that, she struggled to lift herself up into a crawling position. Soon she’ll move on to the next step. We seem to be born like that: we need obstacles at every step of our life, in order to learn and develop.
How does this relationship to obstacles apply to our spiritual path? Do we need obstacles to deepen our meditation practice and gain a feeling of accomplishment and growth?
There are many lists of typical obstacles encountered in meditation practice—things such as drowsiness, physical discomfort, restlessness, distraction, and impatience—and there are various suggestions from experienced practitioners about how to deal with them. It’s encouraging to learn that your own particular obstacles are not all that unique. They’ve been known about and worked with by countless practitioners who came before you.
However, if you focus too much on obstacles and how to overcome them, it can backfire. You begin to relate to obstacles as more solid than they actually are. At the same time, you become more entrenched in your view of what is supposed to be happening while you’re meditating. You’re guided by “the meditation experience according to you.”
Developing a solid view or opinion of what you’re supposed to experience when you meditate can be pretty appealing. If you’re trying to manufacture a particular experience, you can enjoy pushing through obstacles to get there. You can measure your meditation according to the standards you’ve set up. You can document your progress. You can succeed!
That’s all great. It’s good to make progress and overcome obstacles as they arise. But eventually, it’s time to revisit the whole idea of obstacles. To do that, it makes sense to clarify where you’re trying to go with your practice.
Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche once commented that rather than using the term “meditating,” it might be better to simply say “experiencing.” Experiences arise moment by moment, as does meditation practice. However—seemingly instantaneously—we label these experiences one way or another: good, bad, desirable, undesirable, etc. As soon as we create those labels, we enter the world of obstacles and antidotes. We find ourselves subtly struggling to shift what is to what we think should be. This habit runs very deep.
Obstacles are an expression of your desire to control and your discomfort with unedited experience.
Our attempts to manufacture experiences we presume will be better than what we’re already experiencing can be very subtle. As you’re meditating, you can notice the many moments of micromanaging, the many little adjustments you make to shape your experience.
Because you’re trying to make something happen, you also need obstacles to overcome. You need to form allegiances and take sides. This may be subtle and somewhat hidden, like cyber warfare, but it’s still going on. And even if you manage to overcome your obstacles while you’re on the meditation cushion, once you get up and return to your life, they come roaring back.
The heart of meditation practice is not that easy to grasp through conventional thinking. It can seem as if nothing is happening, that we’re getting nowhere. It’s hard to simply trust the practice. We keep coming back to thinking we have to do something to make it work. But meditation works best when it is left alone to work its wonders.
Once you have established the ground of settling your mind and working with the coarser obstacles to practice, you could begin to question the whole notion of obstacles. Obstacles arise due to your desire to get somewhere, to do something, to be somebody. They’re an expression of your desire to control and your discomfort with unedited experience. As you let go of the need to push your practice and try to make something happen, there are fewer obstacles. You’re not going anywhere, so there’s nothing to disrupt, nothing to obstruct.
No matter how much we toss around words like “being” and “presence,” it’s not so easy just to be, not to do. Meditation practice isn’t about doing things a different way, and it’s not about becoming a different and better person. In fact, it’s just the opposite: it’s about unraveling the whole paradigm of trying to get somewhere and be somebody. Glimpses of meditation happen all the time, even to beginners, in the moments when we forget to try to be meditators.
The whole project of meditation, with its obstacles and antidotes, is manufactured experience: it sets the stage and so has its place. However, it’s important not to cling too much to that production. When you stop trying so hard, when you have less of an agenda, obstacles fall away quite naturally. It’s not that you have overcome them. They just have nowhere to land. They have no reason to be. When you drop your agenda, meditation becomes very simple.