The Obstacle Course: How to View Life’s Upsets as Challenges

The Obstacle Course: How to View Life’s Upsets as Challenges

Spring is ruled by Wood, one of the five Chinese elements. The elements are substances and phenomena that can be observed in the natural world, and they’re also qualities and metaphors that are present in all things. The energy of Wood can be witnessed in all plant life. In spring, when Wood is dominant, there is a surge of fresh growth. Every sprout begins a new journey, and there are certain virtues which will serve the sprout along its path. In humans, these are the challenges and virtues Wood offers us.

First, when the Wood element is healthy in us, it imparts us with a certain decisive vigor – like the vigor required to break the dormancy of winter and push through the frozen crust of the soil. Second, healthy Wood gives us a clear sense of our plan and direction, and the vision and courage to carry it out. Built into every plant is a definite plan: the roots will grow downward and anchor the plant firmly, and the shoot will grow upward toward its primary source of nourishment, the Sun. It will form flowers and then seeds to propagate itself, and then it will wither and rest before the cycle repeats. There is no wavering from the plan. Third, healthy wood makes us flexible. When a plant is growing along and it encounters an obstacle, such as a rock or a fence, the plant just grows around it.

Sometimes it’s a tremendous challenge to find these virtuous expressions of Wood in ourselves, rather than the unvirtuous alternatives. When the Wood element is weak or out of balance in us, we may feel aimless and without a plan, or we may feel so attached to our plan that we’re rigid. We may have a plan but feel too timid or indecisive to pursue it. We may feel frustration, instead of a call to grow, when we encounter obstacles. We may lack vision and perspective, easily losing sight of the big picture.

These challenges are confounded by the presence of the emotion of Wood: anger. There are many flavors of anger, but Wood’s anger, at its essence, is provoked by a feeling that things aren’t going according to plan. We see our obstacles as injustices. That cop shouldn’t have been there (the plan was to make it to work unobstructed), those socks shouldn’t have been left on the floor (the plan was to have a clean house), it shouldn’t have started raining (the plan was to have a sunny birthday), I shouldn’t have broken my leg (the plan was to be a professional athlete). And there is a single (usually subconscious) belief that is present in all cases, which can prevent the resolution of the anger: I am right. Even though these things did happen, they should not have happened – life was wrong and my plan was right.

Rightness is a hindrance to flexibility and growth. An interesting thing happens when we loosen up about needing to be right. Whereas we may have thought it was our rightness that was making our plan work and giving merit to our position, without it we suddenly find we are able to move forward with great ease and flexibility. We are able to be decisive because we don’t get stuck on the obstacles. We develop like a healthy plant, for which obstacles are simply impetuses for more growth.

Bamboo is considered an archetype of these virtues. It grows strong and straight without being overly rigid. It bends in the wind without breaking. Its openness inside is symbolic of being open to whatever comes (not clenching tightly), unattached to the results, and not closed by anger. If the Wood Element in healthy in us, when anger arises we are able to recognize it as a feeling, and we pause before reacting to this feeling. In this way, the feeling of anger does not eclipse everything else. We determine the cause of the anger by stepping back enough to get perspective of the big picture. We see the plan that this incident seemed to obstruct. We decide how we want to respond to it, and we find our way back to the plan.

If we take a lesson from the plant world, we see that plants that have no obstacles are often physically weak, nutritionally weak, or medicinally weak. Plants that encounter obstacles are healthier and stronger. When tomato plants are weak, they can’t hold their fruit up, and if the fruit touches the ground, it’s susceptible to pests and disease. Some growers walk along their rows of tomato plants gently “whacking” them with a broom. While this procedure is slightly damaging to the stems, it induces them to grow tougher and stronger, so they can better support the weight of their tomatoes. Wind and cold have similar effects.

Echinacea, the well-known immune boosting herb, is most powerful when grown in a poor soil or found in the wild. It doesn’t like to be without obstacles. If it has to work for its nutrients this makes a more potent medicine. When I worked on a farm for the University of Massachusetts, we planted fields of several kinds of flowering plants to see which ones bees liked best. One of these flowers was Echinacea (purple coneflower) – dozens of breathtaking rows of it. When the experiment was over, I noticed one of the farm hands readying a plow to turn the plants under the soil. “Wait!” I yelled from across the field, “That’s a ton of echinacea there!” He paused as I ran over.

“You want it for medicine?” he asked. I explained that it was highly valuable stuff.

“This echinacea’s no good,” he replied.  “Our soil’s too rich and we put plenty of fertilizer in there. Taste it.” I was surprised that he knew anything about herbs, but I dug up a plant, wiped some dirt off the root and took a bite. Good echinacea root is sweet, then a bit spicy and bitter, and most importantly, it produces a tingly, numbing sensation on the tongue, or even throughout the whole mouth. This root had almost no taste at all and produced no tingling. He was right. I let him get back to his work.

Like plants, humans need obstacles. If we don’t encounter any in everyday life, we start searching for them. We climb mountains and run marathons on the weekends. We get into relationships with people we know will difficult to live with. We sabotage ourselves just for a challenge. Thus, it’s possible for obstacles to be both the bane of our existence (when we resist them) and the means by which we grow and mature.

Can the same be true for anger? Is there such a thing as appropriate or positive anger? It depends on what we do with it. Some healthy people who are prone to anger learn to transmute the anger into determination and purposeful action. It becomes the “oomph” to get past an obstacle, without provoking frustration or a sense of injustice. Others are able to acknowledge their anger and use it to regain perspective, to be reminded of their plan, and to challenge them to find kindness – for themselves and the world.

There are times when anger seems warranted, when it seems to make sense to be angry. But, while no emotion is intrinsically wrong, prolonged or habitual anger is never healthy. I am reminded of an interview with the Dalai Lama I read some years ago. The interviewer asked Tibet’s leader, after so much oppression of his people by the Chinese, how could it be that he doesn’t harbor any anger towards them? He replied, “They have already taken so much from me. Why should I give them my mind as well?”

If the release of anger doesn’t come easy to you, try following these four steps. (1) Figure out what plan the issue at hand is obstructing. If all you can come up with is that the plan was for things not to go this way, you aren’t stepping back enough. Broaden your perspective even more, see the BIG picture of your life and dreams. Where were you headed? (2) Recognize that your anger is keeping you from moving forward with your plan and separating you from peace and happiness. You are opposing your own growth. (3) Get back on track and aim for the result you really want for yourself. (4) If you’re really carried away in intense anger, try making the Daoist sound of the liver (the main Wood organ). Inhale deeply, then say, “Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh . . .” as you exhale as long as you can. Do this six times.

There’s a popular bumper sticker here in Portland, Oregon that says, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” I understand the sentiment behind the message: there is corruption in government, there is disenfranchisement, big business controls politics, etc. But it seems to imply that if we’re paying attention, we should be harboring an emotional poison. It also seems to say that outrage (anger) is what spurs us to act against injustice. But it’s simply not true that we have to experience outrage or suffering in order to care enough to take action for the world. In fact, although there may be certain situations in which acute anger doesn’t inhibit the achievement of our goals (e.g., fighting off an attacker), in most scenarios, angry people have perspective that is too narrow to make the most productive changes. If you’re not outraged, maybe you’re at peace. If you’re not outraged, maybe you’re too busy serving the community.

Read part two, The Kindness of Trees.

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