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who’s your teacher today?

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Everything is rolling along nicely, health is slowly restored, a bit of money set aside, and robins busy building spring-time nests. What could be finer? (Well, there’s always something that could be “improved,” but that’s the voice of greed talking.)

Then, out of left field, when least expected, comes flying an obstacles of some kind, the proverbial fly in the ointment. In my case, someone writes to criticize my ways, makes demands on my time that are beyond my willingness to give, asks why I haven’t replied to an oh-so-urgent email, and so on. Even on this well-intentioned blog there’s disagreement among commentators. Rats!

Time to revisit the path of obstacles or, more accurately, the obstacles that are the path. And a reminder by the poet Antonio Machado that “There is no path. Paths are made by walking.” I dread this realization as it intrudes on my comfort zone to foreshadow work that has to be done. So I turn to the writing of Zen teacher Ezra Bayda who advises us to ask: “Can I welcome this as my path?”

Understanding that our distressful situation is exactly what we need to work with in order to be free is essential. For instance, the person we find most irritating becomes a mirror–you could call this person “irritating Buddha”–reflecting back to us exactly where we’re stuck. …

[This may lead us to feeling] helpless when our usual props break down. This can easily turn into hopelessness and negativity–but this barrier of suffering is only a barrier until we see through it. Seeing through it can lead us to an amazing discovery: that our distress turns into hopelessness only when we forget that it’s our teacher.

source: Bayda, E. (2009). Zen heart: simple advice for living with mindfulness and compassion. Boston: Shambhala, pp. 92-93. image:


6 responses »

  1. An obstacle is something that obstructs or hinders progress. When I encounter unexpected or difficult situations on my path there are many ways to interact with them. Ignore them, climb over them, duck under them, go round them, remove them, turn back etc. All, at times, valid responses. Maybe there is also another way – Is it the way I’m looking at this thing that makes it into an obstacle? Can I try to see it as a new experience which has something to offer? As you say, Peter, a teacher. After all, it is on my path – perhaps for a reason? What is it showing me? Maybe I needed to stop at that point. Or slow down. Or get a different perspective. Or even engage with the ‘obstacle‘!! Although this option is pretty scary, I have found if I do this, it’s nature invariably changes from ‘hindering’ to ‘enriching’. Rather than being adversarial, it becomes remedial. Then, perhaps, I need to rename it.

    As David Wagoner says in one of his poems –
    “… you must treat it as a powerful stranger, must ask permission to know it and be known… ”

    • Just thinking to myself…did the Buddha ever get offended or encounter obstacles? are they really just all in our minds….

      • Your question goes to the core of Buddhist teachings, dawne. I’d say he’d agree with you: they ARE in our minds, nowhere else. It is said that in his first talk after reaching a state of enlightenment (clear insight), the Buddha formulated the Four Noble Truth. Everything we do in our “practice” is based on them.

        These “truths” or “actual things” are:

        1.There is suffering.
        2.There is a cause of suffering.
        3.There is the cessation of suffering.
        4.There is the eightfold path leading to the cessation of suffering.

        For a succinct description, go halfway down the page on

    • Everything you say makes sense, fiona, including (and especially) the parts that are scary. To me, the mark the edge of practice, the edge of waking up from delusional slumber.

      Trouble is that it’s an ongoing undertaking as one obstacle takes the place of another. It’s foolish to think (so I’m discovering) to hope/wish/expect that no further obstacles will arise. See: First Noble Truth.

  2. peter, going back to my first line – “An obstacle is something that obstructs or hinders progress” – perhaps this word, obstacle, could become something different – because, in fact, the things that are apparently ‘obstacles’ can actually be the very things we need to enhance our progress, not hinder it…

    • I agree. Obstacles are the path. We/i easily mistake them as interference, as something at impedes or hinders our so-called progress. In the Buddhist view, obstacles serve to slow us down, to make us pay attention from what matters. Multi-tasking and obstacles don’t get along :-).

      Etymology: from [Middle English, from Old French, from Latin obstculum, from obstre, to hinder : ob-, against; see ob- + stre, to stand; see st- in Indo-European roots.]


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