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  • Writer's picturenancy willbern

The obstacle is the way.

Marcus Aurelius

There are so many ways that we, as humans experience roadblocks in our lives – being laid off from a job, a physical disability, a disagreeable boss, a child who continues to act out. The list could go on and on. I’m sure you are already coming up with a list of your own, but to take you into the inner workings of how an obstacle in life could possibly be the way to freedom, I

will use an example from my own life.

Many years ago, when I was married the first time, I truly believed that the primary obstacle in my life was 6’2” tall and weighed 175 pounds. I genuinely thought he was the problem. After all, I could give you a bulleted list of all the ways he was standing in the way of my personal peace of mind and the potential for tranquility in our relationship – his drinking, his obsession with money, his use of intimidation with me and the kids, and his flirtation with other women. I am fully aware that he would have his own interpretation of these traits that would differ from mine – and, his own list of grievances about me. It always works that way. But doesn’t it seem reasonable that I would find these character traits of his as standing in the way of my inner peace? I certainly thought so at the time. And, of course on the surface of things they did. I didn’t make any of that up. From my perspective, he was doing all of those things. And because of that obvious fact, I kept believing that those traits were the problem. All I had to do was to get him to see them as I did. So, of course I tried to talk to him about them – talk, accuse, nag, scream at him about them. You can imagine how well that went over.

At the same time that I was determined to get him to understand and agree with my perspective, I tried harder and harder to be a more perfect, loving, patient, responsible wife. Not that I ever actualized any of that, but I couldn’t have tried any harder at either of those pursuits. And neither of them got me anywhere. If anything, they kept us both in a destructive, shall I say, a wrenchingly frustrating feedback loop that took us to replay after replay. I cringe thinking back on it now. I stayed there for such a long time. My heart goes out to both of us. We just didn’t know any better.

It was only after my exhaustion from trying so hard and clearly getting nowhere, that I stopped and asked a pivotal question, “Is there some other way to see this?” I moved into curiosity, “What is really going on here?! What am I missing?” And of course, those questions took me back into therapy, but this time from a position of genuine humility. I was truly all out of answers. And I was open to being shown something new.

Of course, explaining what happens in therapy is too convoluted to go into, but the gist of it is that I got to know the part of me that was holding myself in those destructive patterns that had nothing to do with my husband. I discovered that the real obstacle in my life was a part of me whose identity was crafted out of a mistaken set of assumptions from my childhood, that I unconsciously held as irrevocably true. Those assumptions had to do with what I thought love was (self-sacrifice), what I believed about what my own unique value (not much), what I believed about who has the right to power and who doesn’t (As a male and first-born, he did. As the youngest daughter and a female raised in a fundamentalist church, I didn’t.)

You get the idea. All of those assumptions got exposed when I got to know the part of me that was so stuck. When I opened my heart to her and validated her experience and then listened to a deeper Reservoir of Truth inside of myself, I was set free. The obstacle went poof.

P.S. This does not mean that your boss isn’t hard to deal with or that your child isn’t doing drugs or that you don’t have cancer. It just means that underneath whatever outward form our obstacle is taking, more often than not will be some unconscious, limiting assumptions on our part that are making the obstacle more solid than it actually is. Bringing those assumptions up into consciousness, goes a long way in dissolving the obstacle.

PP.S. There’s so much more to say about this. But I will stop here.

Image by Ruthson Zimmerman on Unsplash

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  • Writer's picturenancy willbern

Updated: Jan 7

The obstacle is the way.

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius, as a Stoic philosopher is known for recognizing the inspired idea, “The obstacle is the way.” He recorded this insight in his now classic, Meditations (current edition, 2018). To get a modern-day cliff notes version of this philosophy, I would recommend the book of the same title, The Obstacle is the Way (2014) by Ryan Holiday. There is much truth in this perspective – that humans have the capacity, should they choose it, to turn obstacles into opportunities. Ryan talks about the virtues of resiliency and persistence, of the power of self-will. The time-honored edict: “Never, never give up,” comes to mind. And it is true, humans can overcome a lot of roadblocks by putting this philosophy into practice. They can develop a deeper level of self-esteem, a stronger inner core, a felt-sense experience of integrity that they didn’t have before. Rather than letting unwanted life circumstances take us to a dead-end and stopping there, we can call upon our creative problem-solving skills to find a way around them or at the very least, to shift our perspective and see them as opportunities for growth. All of these things are beneficial, but I come at it, this insight, “The obstacle is the way” from a qualitatively different perspective.

People come to psychotherapists when they feel blocked in some way, stuck in old repetitive patterns that they can’t break out of or continuing to feel frozen from a past trauma. Maybe they have sunk into depression because their lives no longer have any meaning for them. Regardless of the reason, a person doesn’t come into therapy unless they have exhausted their personal resources to solve a perceived problem or to bring them back to that spark of life. When this is the case, trying harder to push through, find more grit or to be more creative about problem-solving might leave them feeling frustrated and exhausted, like a failure. In these kinds of situations, staying persistent and trying harder actually holds the block in place. It turns it into something to be conquered, instead of something that can be dissolved.

Paradoxically, as a psychotherapist, I have come to deeply appreciate the blocks that show up in our lives. I now know they have something to share with us. They carry messages that are not readily recognized by our problem-solving minds. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the deep discomfort or out-and-out wrenching pain associated with them. That level of experience has to be acknowledged and held gently. And it’s not that I am suggesting that perceiving a life situation as an obstacle is just something we are making up, like it’s all in our heads. I’m not downplaying or discounting the concrete level of the thing, but I am suggesting that embedded in every insurmountable obstacle will be a mistaken assumption that we have labeled as true and irrevocable. And it is that assumption that gives it substance, a something to be reckoned with or resisted or to run from.

So, instead of those very human responses to life’s obstacles, I, as a psychotherapist trust that there really is wisdom to the insight, “The obstacle is the way.” I take it at its word. Instead of trying harder to push through it, I invite my clients to get to know it, to trust that it is here in this particular form for a reason. I encourage them to get curious about what it has to say. And then to listen, deeply and respectfully.

In Part Two, I’ll say more about what I mean by that.

Image by Chris Yang on Unsplash

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  • Writer's picturenancy willbern

Updated: Jan 7

Something watches over us and we know it when

we follow the little voice inside or heed the warning

or inspiration that arrives as if on wings.

We need the intermediaries that keep us close to

the spirit of life, to the wonders of nature

and to the subtleties of our own inner nature.

Michael Mead

I love it that a full grown oak - waxy dark green leaves, craggy trunk and broad, outstretching branches somehow lives nestled inside its very own acorn. I also love it that at the moment a creature suffers a scrape or is invaded by a predatory virus, a whole host of antibodies races to the scene to apply immediate care like a little EMS team always on the ready. I love it that embedded inside the very fiber of all living things, Nature is organically equipped to bring about our highest good, our healing, our growth and expansion. I love it that the Creative Life Force is innately conspiring on our behalf. But, it gets even more exciting for those of us within the human species. Programmed right into the system of what it means to be human, there is even more of this natural Benevolence. Just like the mighty oak incubated inside its protective seed-pod, our souls, the truest part of who we are, are also tucked safely inside our outer beings - just waiting to be discovered, waiting to be invited into existence.

The fawns and the ferns, the frogs and the fungi - all other living things on the planet don't have either the privilege or the responsibility to choose their own further evolution. They just let it happen without any conscious recognition of it, much less conscious participation. But, we, those of us with the developed frontal lobe, we get to partner with the whole thing. We are not the ones who know how to make it happen. We couldn't possibly know how to do that. But we are the ones who invite it to have its way with us. And when we let it, we unfold - beyond our ability to imagine - into who we were meant to be all along. Don't you just love that?!


Here is what I have noticed. There is a quiet, open space inside myself where I often hear the voice. Sometimes it speaks to me when I ask a direct question. Other times it comes in the form of a vision or as a character in a dream, personified as an angel or a guide or a soul keeper. Sometimes I just feel its presence in my body. Regardless of its presentation, I don’t experience it as my voice and it’s not a voice that is audible out there in the world. That is, this other voice, this other viewpoint does not come from the part of me I identify with most of the time, which lives on a roller coaster of felt-sensations and heart-felt emotions. That’s the me I identify with most of the time. This other voice of the “intermediaries,” this other energy is always bigger and broader and deeper, steadier and more peaceful, more wholistic in its vantage point. And it is that bigger-than-vantage-point that I have come to rely upon.

After living years out of my own best thinking, there came a time when I was compelled to let go and venture beyond the boundaries of my habits of mind. And thankfully, that compulsion has come again and again. If you haven’t already discovered it on your own, let me invite you to be open, invite you to get curious about the possibility that there really is a “…Something that watches over us…,” that lives in a place inside of us that is sometimes terrifying – sometimes delicious – that liminal space, that is neither here nor there, physical nor ephemeral, fact nor illusion – the dark, mysterious, transformational chrysalis of the human experience.

To avail yourself of Nature's alchemical magic, you have to be willing to set your rational thinking aside long enough to step right past the boundary of your known reality, right past the borderland of the you, you know yourself to be. Because that’s where our human souls break out of their sheltering husks, into that exquisite place that lies just past the expected - into the birthplace of all unfettered creativity – into the sacred space in the center of our hearts, right where the winged ones hover close.

Image by Gerd Altman from Pixabay

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