Inner Bonding has changed the way I handle obstacles. I still ask, “Why me?” sometimes…but now I have a better option in my pocket.

We spent a wonderful five days hiking in the Adirondacks last month. These mountains offered a different experience from any others I’ve climbed. Switchbacks? Those are for wimps. The Adirondack trails send you straight up, picking your way over and around rocks and boulders and clambering up steep granite slabs. Even the trees—like this one I photographed on the Hopkins Mountain trail— have to grow over and around rocks.

Navigating this terrain, I couldn’t help thinking of it as an obstacle course. Merriam-Webster defines an obstacle as “something that impedes progress or achievement.” The word comes from the Latin roots ob (“in the way) and stare (“to stand.”) Certainly, this boulder stood directly in the way of my tree. By that definition, was this boulder truly an obstacle to the tree? Had it impeded the tree’s progress? Perhaps the tree took longer to grow. But in the end, it had responded to this “obstacle” by creating a spectacular, arching root formation.

As we hiked on, I pondered, wondering how our perception affects the way we handle obstacles. I realized this question lies at the heart of one’s stance towards life. In our lives, we need plans, goals, and dreams. How else would we move forward? But along with plans, goals, and dreams come expectations. And once we have expectations, anything in the way of them looks like an obstacle.

Inner Bonding teaches that there are two approaches to meet obstacles. One approach leaves us feeling miserable. The other leaves us feeling stronger and more self-empowered. So it’s worth taking time to unpack the two options so we can be clear which one we’re choosing.

What is your stance towards obstacles?

In each of our Adirondack hikes, we wanted to get to the summit to see the view. Accordingly, we chose to navigate many obstacles: boulders, roots, mud, and streams. But in daily life, we don’t get to choose our obstacles: they just show up. Toilets clog. Mufflers fall off. We leave the grocery list at home. We break an ankle. We lose our job. In other words, shit happens.

My typical response—the first of the two stances— is to wonder, “Why me? What did I do to deserve this?” Inner Bonding calls this response the intent to protect. I go into the intent to protect when I want to avoid feeling the helplessness and powerlessness I would feel if I were to admit the truth—that great swaths of my life are out of my control. The intent to protect is one stance towards obstacles. It is a recipe for unhappiness:

Obstacle + “why me?” = anxiety + depression

Fortunately, I’ve learned from Inner Bonding that I can choose a second stance: the intent to learn. When I’m in the intent to learn, I see obstacles as an inevitable part of life that provide me the opportunity to learn and grow. I experience relief because I give up trying to control things I can’t control. Even better, I open myself to a new, more positive equation:

Obstacle + “what can I learn here?” = self-empowerment + energy + purpose

Can we stop there? Can I simply tell you, “Move into the intent to learn and you’re all set?” Not quite. Moving into the intent to learn is simple, but it’s not easy. You have to go through the fire of feeling your grief, loss, and helplessness first.

The missing piece: making space for loss

During my oboe career I spent most of my disposable time, energy, and money auditioning for orchestra positions. I practiced and made reeds for hours every day. I flew and drove all over the country trying to fulfill my dream of a principal oboe job.

Unfortunately, I faced an obstacle as daunting to me as a sheer rock face: severe performance anxiety. Again and again I’d choke up under pressure and not play well.

Once, having returned from yet another disappointment, I went in to see my Zen teacher for a private meeting. I poured out my frustration and anguish. He looked at me calmly and said, “You are learning how to die.” From a Zen point of view, he was perfectly correct. I was so attached to my musical self-image that each audition rejection fell on me like a blow from a pickaxe, hacking another chunk out of my ego.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t take in his wisdom. On the contrary: I wanted to strangle him. Now, all these years later, I know why. He skipped a key step, trying to move me into the intent to learn without giving me space first to feel all the grief, frustration, and powerlessness I was feeling. That’s the Zen way: direct. But I needed empathy before I could take in yet another loss.

The fact is, obstacles are a form of ending. They end the course we thought we were on, and force us to alter it. And we don’t do endings well in our culture. We tell ourselves—and each other— “Move on. No point crying over spilled milk. Don’t wallow in negativity.” But you can’t truly move on until you’ve acknowledged and felt the pain you are in.

Feeling and acknowledging so you can move forward

I understand now that when I encounter obstacles, disappointments, or setbacks, I need to gnash my teeth and vent. Then I need to mourn. To be clear, feeling this pain doesn’t mean wallowing in it. It simply means I am present with whatever is going on in me.

With more daunting obstacles, this process takes time. I write in my journal to get what relief I can that through self-empathy. Then I turn to my partner, close friends, focusing partners, or therapist for additional support.

With smaller daily “obstacles” like pesky computer glitches, long waits on the phone trying to reach a government agency, or dropping a bag of rice so it explodes all over the kitchen floor, I opt for a lighter approach.  I turn to two favorite characters who model for me a “quick and dirty” version of venting and self-empathy so I can move on.

First, I vent. Marshall Rosenberg called it “letting the jackal show fly.” Dastardly Dick’s dog Muttley is my cursing role model (you’ll find an example about 45 seconds into the clip.) You can never quite make out the words—this is a children’s cartoon, after all—but there can be no doubt of their glorious obscenity. Muttley-style swearing is incredibly effective as a venting strategy. Even better, it makes me laugh…and humor is a sure sign I’m moving into the intent to learn.

Next I run a mental YouTube clip from Lord of the Rings. In the mines of Moria, the Fellowship are about to be swarmed by goblins. Boromir opens the door of their hideout just long enough for a couple of arrows to whiz through, then slams it shut. With a weary look that’s worth a thousand words, he says, “They have a cave troll.” When something incredibly frustrating or “not-this-on-top-of-everything-else-ish” happens, I channel Boromir. I say out loud, “They have a cave troll.” It never ceases to amaze me how much relief I get from this quick shot of self-empathy.

Transcending obstacles

But will venting and self-empathy work with truly devastating obstacles? I think with awe of Christopher Reeve, the actor of Superman fame. Reeve broke his spinal cord in a terrible equestrian accident that left him paraplegic, unable to breathe without a ventilator. Tim Ott writes,

The physical and emotional anguish was so overwhelming that Reeve contemplated suicide. In his 1998 memoir, Still Me, he revealed that his wife Dana was the one who talked him back from the metaphorical ledge. “I will support you whatever you want to do, because this is your life, and your decision,” she told him. “But I want you to know that I’ll be with you for the long haul, no matter what. You’re still you. And I love you.”

I can’t imagine obstacles more extreme than those Reeve faced after this accident. Still, reading about this conversation he had with his wife, I saw that he went through the same steps I described above. He needed the freedom to curse his fate, like Muttley—even to the extent of considering the option of suicide. And he had to go through an intense version of Boromir’s self-empathy moment. Only after going through this painful but essential inner process could he move on.

Reeve did move on—in a spectacular way. Incredibly, he acted. He directed. Ott goes on to describe describes how he devoted himself to helping others with injuries like his:

Regaining a sense of purpose, Reeve devoted himself to learning everything he could about his injuries and approaching physical rehabilitation with the same zeal that had once fueled his enthusiasm for outdoor activities… That year he also established the Christopher Reeve Foundation, an entity that paired with the American Paralysis Association in 1999 to become the leading organization for research and advancement in a field once called “the graveyard of neurobiology.”

Opening to learn, as Reeve did, is humbling and ego-annihilating. We can’t pull it off unless we admit that our expected course is blocked, admit our powerlessness, and acknowledge our pain. Then we can open to spiritual intuition and grace. These greater forces, in turn, help us to transcend our newly recognized limitations.

I send gratitude to Muttley, Boromir, and Christopher Reeve for their support and inspiration with this deceptively simple process of moving into the intent to learn.