The transformative power of problems

Problems can be very, very instructive in helping us find more peace and inner security. How is this the case? Well, problems, especially big ones, often lead to feelings of despair and helplessness, where we don’t know where to turn, what to do, or how to respond. Problems bring us to our edge, to a place within where we may feel lost, alone or ungrounded. Problems can make us angry and will rile up profound emotions. The experience of problems is jarring, annoying, frightening, and disconcerting. Problems, simply stated, are problematic. And we experience them as such. But herein lies their transformative potential.

If we sit with the problem, or rather, sit with our experience of the problem, then we are on our way toward the solution. But this requires a willingness to face the darkness that the problem represents – the ugliness, the confusion, the guilt, the shame, the anger and annoyance that the problem is generating within us. It can be very difficult, because problems (especially the tough ones) are ever so convincing in telling us that the issue is out there, in the world, apart from me.

But when we sit quietly and nondefensively with what’s bothering us, we may come to another realization: that the inner experience of the problem, that is, our thoughts and feelings about the problem, is actually the problem. In other words, we have something to do with the problem, in as much as we contribute to or rather, literally construct, the experience and perception of the problem.

And typically, our reactions are extraordinarily familiar. Eminently familiar to our particular story, narrative – the myth and tale of me.

Think of a problem you might be having currently, an issue or dilemma that doesn’t have a particular solution. Now think about the experience of the problem, what happens inside you, how it feels to have the problem. Perhaps there’s a contraction in your chest, or butterflies in your stomach, a feeling of fear or a heaviness in your body. Have you felt this before?

Where, then, is the problem? Is it ‘out there’, or rather, is it ‘in here’?

Chances are that the fear (or related emotion) that the problem points to is what feels most challenging about it. This is not to negate that we have to confront and tackle issues and dilemmas that show up in our lives. Can’t avoid that. But again, the interior experience of the problem, if we’re honest, is where it is animated, where its energy resides. In us. We don’t have problems out there. We have problems in here.

Problems when believed to be real problems, that is, when they affect us emotionally, are actually ways that we reinforce ourselves, our sense of self, our identity, our story – again, the myth and tale of me. The problem may be real (at least in relative terms) but the reaction, our reaction, is, sad to say, arbitrary, utterly dependent upon our own meaning making capacity. The mind is the ticket here. The mind, our mind, makes the rules.

While this is ultimately an empowering thought it is also scary. It threatens the self-narrative that we are so accustomed to. Truth be told, at no time do we feel most ourselves than when we experience problems. That’s when the story, the narrative is activated, when the familiar constellations of thoughts and beliefs come online and we are prompted to retreat into the known and familiar world of me. It may be a scary me, an uncomfortable me, a suffering me, but me nonetheless. There’s a strange comfort in that.

Yet there is a place within us, a quiet stillness that is alive with depth and presence. If we can bring the experience of the problem – the fear, the grasping, the dis-ease – to the place of inner quiet within then the experience will begin to change. As sure as night gives way to day, bringing the darkness that the problem represents to our own inner light will dispel, dissolve and discard its experiential components. ‘In quietness are all things answered1’ because in quietness the mind is pointed back to itself, and in this we see that we are the authors, the dreamers. From this place of calm it may be that a new possibility emerges, and we are suddenly inspired or gifted with a holistic solution to the problem, one that may have previously eluded us. Yet the solution comes not because the world has changed, but because I have.

Thus, in quietness we begin to see that we are the dreamers of dream, the cosmic image makers who in in this case, dream up our thoughts and feelings and reactions to our problems. Ultimately, we dream up ourselves. As such, we are responsible not for what happens in the material world, but for our reactions and the meaning we make from these ostensible outside events. Here we see that there are no outside events. What then is the world when I see that I create the rules? What are problems when I realize that ‘problems’ are simply assertions of what I believe and wish, projected onto this mental dreamscape that we call life? 

1. Taken from A Course in Miracles, (T-27.IV.1:1)

2. Art Credit: Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion by William Blake, plate 53, printed in 1821