I wrote the message below to a fellow seeker this morning who asked a beautiful question and inspired in me this response. I thought I would share it here. The question was, how to identify when a challenging experience that feels negative is there to teach you something and when it is something that is just getting in the way of your life force. This was my "answer".
First of all, this is a profound question, one I've asked many times myself and certainly something without an immediately clear answer. Feeling stuck is really a part of the journey, I find. No mud, no lotus (though the mud is far from enjoyable).
I have two quotes on my kitchen counter: "wisdom is knowing which messages to listen to and which to release" and "wisdom is knowing when to act and when not to act." For some reason both of those are coming up for me. Perhaps because I sense your confusion and in my own experience of confusion, I find it's helpful to release all other voices, block out all other noise, and try to listen to the quiet whispers of my soul. When I fear those whispers might say things I don't want to hear, it is harder for me to listen and my system gets busy in the cloud of other people's thoughts and judgments. Sometimes it is hard to listen inward without a guide present to point out when I've wandered into self doubt or judgment, so I don't mean to make this intuitive listening sound easy. But it is how I've found my way into identifying what is getting me stuck and whether or not it is a situation in my life, or just an inner dragon.
I have found, for me, it is often my circumstance that needs changing and that IN changing my circumstance, I actively transform a karmic pattern. I find internal changes are reflected externally for me, and visa versa, and that one cannot usually fully happen without the other. This has meant that I have left many things and changed many things in my life, sometimes in ways that are hurtful to me and others. I am not excusing this, I am just stating it as fact. Sometimes the fire of transformation burns, but it is in the flames that we are reborn.
In a way, perhaps the answer to your question is both/and. All things teach us something, every experience teaches us something, but this doesn't mean we sit there flagellating ourselves with something that is negative or painful. We take the lesson and transform our lives based on it. If the lesson is, this is unhealthy for me, we learn how that is part of our pattern and we find the ways to transform that pattern physically, energetically, emotionally. If the lesson is, I am experiencing an inner dragon and undoing a false belief that lives in my system will free me, then we do that work while staying right where we are instead. And there have been many times where I have guessed, not knowing really which it is, and just trusting that if I take the next step based on what feels most true in this moment right now, and just keep doing that, that I'll arrive somewhere. Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans, so might as well leap and see what happens.
Part of it is trusting that you will survive the mud even when you can't see beyond it in this moment. That there is a beyond, that the way will become clear eventually as long as we keep paying attention.
I'll leave you with a quote from one of my favorite songs by Trevor Hall, "confusion clouds the heart, but it also points the way".