By Leo Babauta
Let’s say you are sitting at your desk, with something to write, and you notice some anxiety, and an urge to go instead to one of your favorite distractions.
And let’s also say you decided to adopt my approach, the Obstacle is the Path.
So the anxiety, and the distraction, are your obstacle … but how do you “work with them” as I advised?
First, you don’t run from the obstacle. So instead of seeing the anxiety as something to be avoided (with distraction and procrastination), see it as the place you go to. Same with the fear of failure, the worry that things will go wrong, the cold fear that comes when you think of quitting your job and starting something new. Anxiety isn’t the worst thing in the world, and is nothing to be feared. It’s just a feeling, and we can survive it. So sit with it.
Second, you accept the feeling. If it’s anxiety, say, “Cool, I’m feeling some anxiety.” Not, “No! I don’t want to be anxious!” The first actually calms the situation down, and allows you to look at it like an observer. The second makes the situation worse, and makes you see the situation as a scared child.
Third, you look at the cause. What is causing your anxiety? Is the writing really such a bad thing? No, actually, it’s not that hard. It’s simply taking the time to think through some thoughts, and then putting them down in writing, and maybe editing that so that it’s clear and makes a bit of sense. The writing itself isn’t giving you the anxiety — it’s the fantasy you have of wanting to write something excellent that people will think is good and so they will judge you as competent and smart. And the anxiety comes from the worry that you will fail at this and people will instead judge you as dumb. This fantasy, which isn’t real, is the source of your anxiety.
Fourth, you see that it’s hurting you. You can’t let go of this fantasy, because you want it so much. But take a moment to see its effects — it is hurting you. It is causing you suffering. It’s causing you to not do the things you want to do. Be honest about its effects — the fantasy isn’t helping, and is definitely hurting.
Fifth, let it go out of compassion. If you’re hurting yourself, and not helping, with this fantasy — why hold onto it? What’s so great about it? It’s not real. It’s totally manufactured in your mind. Instead, be compassionate with yourself, and let go of the fantasy. When you let go of this thing you’ve been holding onto, you can feel a sense of relief.
Sixth, then go through the obstacle and be mindful. The obstacle was anxiety. It lessens once you let go of the fantasy. You can now get to writing, and once you do, without fantasies, you can see that it’s not that bad. In fact, if you are mindful in your activity, you can see that it’s kinda alright. Better than that perhaps — kinda great. And you almost missed out on it because of your obstacle.
If you go through this six little steps, which aren’t that difficult each step along the way, you’ll not only be able to do the writing (or quit your job or start a new project or have a difficult conversation) … you’ll be better at dealing with similar obstacles in the future. You’ll be stronger, smarter, less afraid.
This is why you should work with the obstacles instead of avoiding them — you learn from them.
Editor’s Note: This post first appeared on Leo Babauta’s award-winning blog: Zen Habits, a meditation on finding simplicity in the daily chaos of life. Leo is married with six kids, lives in San Francisco, is a writer and a runner and a vegan.