the obstacle in the path becomes the path

What’s in your way? from wikimedia

On Sunday, I left the Peninsula Town for a day in the city (O, The City! How I love you, The City!) at a poetry workshop titled “The Obstacle in the Path Becomes the Path.” With that title, you won’t be surprised to learn that the workshop was sponsored by the S.F. Zen Center. Genine Lentine taught the workshop, which was much more philosophy than craft, and, to my mind, as much about  life as about poetry. I learned so much about re-seeing and mindset that I wanted to share some of it here.

The word obstacle comes to us originally from the Latin ob- “against” and stare “to stand.” So when we say obstacle, we mean something that stands against us. As Genine pointed out in class, the very concept of obstacle presupposes that we’re on our way somewhere. If not, any old thing could stand against us, we might glance at it from time to time and think, Geez what is that thing doing hanging around here all the time?, but it wouldn’t be in our way.

The workshop focused on “cultivating a friendliness with our obstacles, holding out the possibility that something that feels like an obstacle might mark where our most necessary work lies.”

We also spent some time trying to figure out what our obstacles actually are. For this we did a really cool exercise in pairs. One person was the listener and one was the answerer. The listener would ask, “What’s in your way?” The answerer gives the first answer that comes to mind. The listener then says, “Thank you,” and repeats the question, “What’s in your way?” This goes on for three minutes, then the listener and the answerer switch places (By the way, I think you could also do this by yourself by by writing the questions and answers, but having a listener was really great, too).

My answers for “What’s in your way?” surprised me. Amongst them: Dinner, the PTA, dried beans and my insistence on using them, chins, elbows, cuts and scrapes, their mouths, sore throats, the beds, the laundry, the refrigerator. Of course, really, my family life is not an obstacle, it’s a greatly desired and cherished (though often challenging) part of my path, and it’s the source and substance of my very best writing. In the end, I realized that what’s in my way are my own expectations for what it means to be A Good Mother.

Pass the canned beans, please.

Other gems and tidbits from the workshop:

“Asking the question that seems impossible to ask is a good practice.”

“Try to move from a feeling of frustration to a space of curiosity and maybe even gratitude” toward your obstacles.

“Our poems tend to go out in front of us. They know more than we do.”

“When we begin a poem we don’t know what’s going to happen in the poem. You can create stable conditions for writing, but you can’t plan the poem.” (I would add that the same is true for life).

Keats’ concept of negative capability is all about living with the uncertainty of what we’re making long enough to make it.”

How easy it is to think we know what we’re doing, what our destination is, and how to get there! I know that I, for one, always have a Plan. Despite the fact that I’ve learned, re-learned, and re-re-learned that the Universe thinks Plans are hilarious. Which is not to say that we shouldn’t have any plans at all, but which is to say we need to expect obstacles, changes, and plans gone wild. But the next, and perhaps the more important step, is to see the obstacles, changes, and wildness to be integral to the plan.

And what about that project you’ve been putting off, or the poem you know you need to write but you don’t want to write? Or on a very micro level, what about the line in your draft that you just can seem to get to work?  What if those blocked places are exactly where you need to go to do your most important work as poet or as person?

It’s an interesting question to ponder, and I know I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about re-framing. Suddenly, I’m enjoying Minimum Day — the half-day of school the kids have every week which I usually don’t enjoy because it doesn’t give me a large enough block of time “to get anything done.” Well, what if I saw Minimum Day as part of the plan — a day off from heads-down, intense work? A chance for a walk with a friend, a quick blog post, and a stop at the store for — what else? — T.P. and milk.

Reader, may all your obstacles become part of your path. Thanks for reading!

6 thoughts on “the obstacle in the path becomes the path

  1. We need TP and milk right now. Ha ha.

    I love the philosophy of the obstacle becoming the path. As a psych major in another life, it became pretty obvious that the things we avoid are the things we most need to work on, so this philosophy ties in perfectly with what I’ve always believed. It’s getting to the point of seeing the obstacle as the path that is the hard part. The listening exercise sounds like a perfect way to get around that, and I’m sure as you said, it would work well by oneself with pen and paper. In fact, I’m going to do it myself!

    The workshop sounds wonderful, so glad for you that you got to go!

      • Well, I asked myself the question about twelve times. I just typed the question, space, answered it, space, typed it again, etc. until I reached the bottom of the page. I’m not sure yet what it means, but it was interesting. My answers are connected in a weird way. The strangest answer: “Memory: I can’t remember the good things; I can’t remember IF there were good things.” So, there must be something to that.

        I could see doing this exercise with other simple, basic emotional-ish questions also…there’s something about the repetition that leads you deeper and deeper.

        Definitely something to keep trying when feeling blocked.

        P.S. Got the milk and TP today. 😀

      • Interesting – thanks for sharing. Sounds like memory is where you need to write. Congrats on the T.P. and milk — we are also stocked now, too 🙂

    • I like it too. The other thing Genine said was that she knows it’s time to stop working on the poem “when the poem is done with me.” In other words, to her a poem is done when she’s learned what she needs to learn, about life and craft, from that poem.

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