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Know Problem, No Problem - Reflections on Facing Fear


I have been an admirer of Bruce Lee for many years, starting with my journey as a martial arts student and continuing in my role as a teacher and a human. I am humbled by the dedication he showed in his pursuits, including the dedication to reflection and meditation. 


One passage from his teachings has been particularly helpful to me this year:


“We shall find the answer when we examine the problem. The problem is never apart from the answer, the problem IS the answer. Understanding the problem dissolves the problem.”


When I feel like the problem is something bad happening to me, or something outside of my control, or something unfair, or something that I have failed at, I can turn to this statement as an invitation to slow down and look at what’s really going on. What the problem really is, and what there is for me to understand, to learn. 


And recently, I needed this reminder.


Those of you who know me, also know that I am a big fan of Adam Lee. As my long-time martial arts practice buddy and friend, I have great respect for the work he’s done to know his own mind in a clear and powerful way. He is a source of some of the best advice I’ve ever received, including an invitation to reconsider the very nature of “the problem.” 


Recently, when I was upset and unable to see a path forward, he invited me to reflect, asking “What if this isn’t a problem?” 


“What if this isn’t a problem?!” I protested, “What does that even mean?! Of course, it’s a problem!”


When I followed Adam's advice and looked more closely to understand, I was reminded again of what Bruce was getting at.  


Over the last year, my family and I have experienced a lot of change, and next year we are facing more. We've also experienced significant losses, with the grief that comes with them. I knew that I couldn't continue working at the pace that I've been at, and I felt stuck to know what to do. I was upset and worried. One way or another I was going to disappoint people. I was avoiding conversations and putting off decisions. Sleep was elusive and stress levels high. I wasn't following my own advice, which made me feel like a hypocrite. But what was I going to do?


“We shall find the answer when we examine the problem. The problem is never apart from the answer, the problem IS the answer. Understanding the problem dissolves the problem.”


“What if this isn’t a problem?


I was making something a problem, making it a problem, in my mind. I was experiencing being upset about something because I was afraid. Afraid of what people would think. Afraid of disappointing people. Afraid of being a failure. 


And I was also afraid of exhaustion. Afraid that I couldn’t take on another year like this last one. Afraid of feeling bad. I had wanted things to be different than they were, and was disappointed that they weren’t. I was afraid of disappointing people. I had been doing my best, but when I fell short of that, I hadn’t been entirely honest. I was afraid of telling the truth, my truth. I was circling around in all this emotional gunk, but in short, I was afraid


And that’s when I saw what I hadn’t seen before, what I needed to be reminded of. 


The problem was that I was afraid

The problem was that I was afraid of disappointing others.

The problem was that I was afraid of disappointing others and feeling badly, like I had before.

The problem was that I was afraid of disappointing others and feeling badly, like I had before, when I had done something that disappointed others in the past


But I wasn’t in the past. I was in the present. I didn’t have a problem with or in the present, other than what I was making the situation mean. Which meant, I didn’t have a problem. Not really. A path forward was to see that there was no problem. Kind of like, "there is no spoon."


In reality, I know I can tell the truth, my truth, and people can decide for themselves whether to be disappointed or not. That’s not a problem. And it’s okay for people to be disappointed. I would be too, if I were in their shoes. The best way forward in the situation is and was the same as in all situations: clear communication.

As I edit this now, I can imagine someone reading "clear communication" and shaking their head in protest. Clear communication in so many situations feels exactly like a problem. If everything comes down to clear communication then there are consequences for speaking the truth. Which can be fearful.


You're not wrong AND the "know problem - no problem" model is a path to relief.


If I am having a problem, I am afraid of feeling something that I have felt in the past (embarrassment or disappointment, for example). I might find myself avoiding those consequences and feeling upset that I'm having this problem.


When I can slow down and recognize that I'm seeing things as a problem, I can begin to reframe my thinking. I might start by acknowledging that whatever is going on could be something that is happening "for me" rather than "to me". There is something here for me to learn.

 

In situations where the consequences impact my personal safety and security I need to consider asking for help. If I'm not feeling well, I need help and potentially medical attention. If I'm facing a threat of violence, I need help and potentially legal advice. And this can be "no problem" too!


Rather than seeing something as a problem and being upset and overwhelmed, I might choose to reach out for guidance or emotional support, legal advice, or law enforcement.


 

When the situation doesn't require legal, financial, or mental health supports, a path out of "the problem" is to understand the problem.


When I reflected on the situation I was in, I realized that I was making it a problem in my mind and avoiding dealing with it. In reality, there was just a choice to be made, and actions to take in pursuit of what is next. And "what's next" is an opportunity, not a problem.



Postscript: Thank you all for your support in 2023. I hope there’s something in this story that resonates with you. Take good care of yourself, and the next time you’re facing a difficult situation or choice ask yourself: What if this isn’t a problem?


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