When I was an MFA student at Bennington many years ago, I had a poetry mentor named Jason Shinder who used to say, “Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work.”
He was talking about poetry, of course. Whatever is getting in the way of writing poems, that’s precisely what I need to be bringing into my poetry. Is something in my life keeping me too busy to write poems? Or is something in my life distracting me from the inner work required to write poems with heart? Whatever that is, it’s the thing I should be writing about and writing through.
Whatever is getting in the way of my creative life doesn’t have to be an obstacle. Seen from a different vantage, it’s a doorway in.
Whatever that obstacle is, right now it might be the work you’re being called to do.
I’ve come to see this as a profound spiritual teaching, too. “Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work.”
What is getting in the way of my ability to pray? That’s exactly what I need to bring in to my prayer.
What is getting in the way of my ability to manifest integrity in my relationships? That’s exactly what I need to work with in those relationships.
What is getting in the way of my ability to speak the truth? That’s exactly the truth I need to find some way of speaking in order to unlock my tongue.
I think about this aphorism a lot, but never as much as during the weeks leading up to the Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement. (Those weeks are happening right now.)
What’s getting in the way of my ability to write the year’s two biggest sermons? Maybe that’s what needs to be in the sermons. What’s getting in the way of my ability to plan the services? I need to take a closer look at that block, because it may be arising in order to teach me something.
Sometimes what’s getting in the way of the work is old habits which keep me from looking closely at something I know intuitively is going to be difficult to face.
Sometimes what’s getting in the way of the work is fear. I don’t like seeing things about myself which don’t fit with my vision of who I want to be. (Who does?) I don’t like seeing things about other people which don’t fit with my vision of who I want them to be. I don’t like seeing things about the world which don’t fit with my vision of how the world is supposed to work.
When I can feel that my fears are getting in the way of the work I need to do, then the fears themselves become the work.
What gets in the way of you doing the work you need to do – the inner work, the work of discernment, the work of being the person you most want to be in the world? Whatever that is, right now it might be the work you’re being called to do.
Since 2003, Rachel Barenblat has blogged as The Velveteen Rabbi. Ordained as a rabbi and spiritual director, she serves Congregation Beth Israel and is a founding builder at Bayit: Your Jewish Home. Her books of poetry include 70 faces: Torah poems (Phoenicia, 2011) and Texts to the Holy (Ben Yehuda, 2018).