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.