Obstacles (or, life is like an oyster)

Funny thing about obstacles – even though we view them as temporary roadblocks on the highway of life, very often they lead us on a completely different journey.

You’ve no doubt read the inspiring stories of “average” people who suffer an unthinkable tragedy and use it to create a lasting, positive legacy – quite removed from the life they were living.

In an earlier blog, I wrote about Elizabeth Smart, who was kidnapped and subsequently reunited with her family. She explained in a TED talk that the horrific event she lived through enabled her to advocate for other sex abuse victims.

In 1980 after her 13-year-old daughter, Cari, was killed by a drunk driver, Candy Lightner founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) – one of the most influential non-profits in the country.

John Walsh, whose 6-year-old son was abducted and murdered in 1981, went on to found the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and became the host of America’s Most Wanted, helping law enforcement track down hundreds of fugitives.

Admittedly, these are examples of some pretty big “obstacles,” but they highlight the resiliency of the human spirit, and to me, they open the door to a new way of thinking about obstacles. As human beings, we tend to view obstacles as roadblocks or setbacks – things to overcome so that we can get back to the business of LIVING.

Perhaps our obstacles ARE our life.

On New Year’s Day, I started a free, 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program. Each week, I learn how to sit still, observe, and then “allow” whatever IS to simply BE. In other words, rather than figuring out how to lessen or eliminate the obstacles in my life, the goal is to change my relationship to those obstacles.

In preparation for the 8-week program, I was provided with a few videos to watch. One of them, a 12-minute TED talk by Daron Larson, significantly changed the way I view the obstacles in my life.

Here’s what he said:

“If you expect your everyday life to be free of discomfort and confusion, you’re going to spend all your energy worrying, trying not to feel what you feel, and saying, ‘this messy life is not my real life.’”

Daron went on to explain that human beings tend to view themselves kind of like a video game character, navigating various challenges in order to “get somewhere.” We don’t view these challenges as part of our “real” life; we view them as temporary annoyances that we must push through to get to the other side. The problem is, on the other side of the obstacle is – very often – another obstacle! So, we find ourselves on autopilot, slogging through each day…sitting in traffic, dealing with a difficult boss, biding our time until we can get some relief in the form of a weekend or perhaps a summer vacation – when our “real” life can begin.

We have to stop “holding out” for these comfortable, perfect lives we imagine!

This is where mindfulness comes in. Mindfulness simply means paying attention – taking a moment, in the midst of any experience, to be fully present, to explore the experience with all of our senses. Stop to smell the roses, yes. But notice, also, the vibrant red color and the velvety softness of the petal; listen for the hum of the bee hovering over the flower.

When we pay attention to the present moment, we focus on the NOW. We disengage the auto-pilot and take time to observe – and appreciate – all the little things that make up our LIFE.

A daily mindfulness practice can support us in being attentive throughout the rest of our day. If we notice relaxation during our timed practice, for example, we can learn to “check in” during the day to find something, anything, relaxing that we can savor, particularly in the middle of chaos.

So, instead of lamenting, avoiding, or railing against what we perceive to be impediments to the good life, we can attempt to change our perspective. Much like prying open the oyster shell to seek out the pearl, changing the way we relate to obstacles can help us discover the hidden beauty of life itself.