No. 13 - On obstacles

From bumps in the road that don't even register in the conscious mind to seemingly insurmountable problems, obstacles come in all shapes and sizes. Some are metaphorical, others physical. They range from easily brushed aside to requiring dynamite and a full pyrotechnic license. Hopefully, the latter are much fewer and farther between. Those that have introduced themselves into my path this week range in size (fortunately, no dynamite required!) and impact. On reflection, several were only in my mind—perhaps you can relate to the phenomenon of "getting in your own way." If so, this week's reflection may resonate. If not, come find me and share your secrets!


In our everyday life, it is quite easy to put obstacles in the way of our own serenity. One that plagues many of us is the "lost" object (glasses, keys, phone anyone?), which swiftly becomes an obstacle to easily transitioning from one task to another. Given the right circumstances, it can quickly change a calm and happy morning into a whirlwind of anxiety and stress. Here, a dose of 'obstacle prevention' may be just the thing.

For this, it may be helpful to know a little about the science of lost objects. In The Organized Mind, the author, Daniel J. Levitin, briefly introduces the concept of "inattentional blindness"—the ability of the brain to completely disregard things that are not a priority at the moment. When you come home and are carrying groceries in one hand, phone in the other, all is well. However, add the sound of a door banging open, and your attention is immediately drawn to the sound. You remember where you put the groceries because you had to put them down gently to avoid breaking the eggs, but your phone? Poof, gone! No longer deemed important by comparison, your mind became blind to where you put it down, and that misplacement becomes an obstacle to answering the phone 15 minutes later. The more of these situations that pile up, the less serene our day becomes.

While not all such situations are avoidable, creating systems to simplify our lives is recommended in The Organized Mind. A couple worth exploring can be found in the aforementioned book, among others. Consider taking a few moments to create some systems. Organization and serenity make lovely brain fellows.


When we are small, we learn that we can overcome obstacles with repeated practice. Calm and curiosity were the key ingredients in learning. Even today, overcoming obstacles when the mind is a jumble is unlikely to lead to swift solutions. Rather, a pause to collect one's thoughts often results in more meaningful interactions with the world around us. Often, as you will have noticed, solutions seem to bubble out of the ether when we are "doing something else"—standing in the shower, driving a familiar route, walking in nature, cooking, exercising, sitting in meditation, or simply daydreaming. What is common in these situations is the freedom of thoughts to flow. In particular, the daydreaming state can be especially "productive" in identifying paths through or around an obstacle. A cup of tea offers a chance to sit, reflect on the obstacle at hand, and then lose oneself in the simplicity of enjoying the aromas and flavors of the tea. Try it and allow the solutions to steep into your consciousness.


Reflecting on the phenomenon of "getting in your own way," consider its effect on the body. When the obstacle is ourselves, there is a certain level of discomfort in our own skin. The longer it remains within, the more the discomfort may grow. It is easy to see how the inability to remove, let go of, or overcome this—or really any sort of obstacle—can lead to anxiety.

In a conversation worth listening to, Tim Ferriss interviewed the enjoyably quirky Dr. Martha Beck (episode #732 of The Tim Ferriss Show). She made the insightful comment that creativity, specifically the act of creating something, is the opposite of anxiety. This ties right back into the idea of "doing something else" and seems a beautiful route to well-being while working through and once on the other side of any obstacle.

So, consider grabbing a cup of tea and finding your creative spirit. May your obstacles disperse like dandelion tufts in the wind, leaving behind only the most useful parts of the plant.

One more thing...

"The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way." — Marcus Aurelius

Until next time,
Steep Calm.
No. 13 - On obstacles
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