The world’s collective wisdom about addressing life’s obstacles is tremendous. And yet, day to day, we seem unable to answer these deceptively simple questions: Am I on the right path? Am I doing the right thing?

Sometimes, it seems the world has conspired against us. Maybe on the way to that new job interview, every light we come to turns red, and every door seems to close, then we get in a fender bender. Or when we date someone new, our friends yell at us, our parents chastise us, we lose money, things break and fall apart. After a long day, it seems like the universe couldn’t have made it any more clear that we were heading in the wrong direction. Then we wake up the next morning, and our current job seems so boring and pays so little that there has to be a better alternative, and so-and-so’s “good morning” message to us was so sweet, how could we not go on another date with them?

And why is it that when we resolve to start a new diet, a birthday cake finds its way onto our plates? It must be a sign from the universe that actually, we don't need a diet. So maybe we eat the cake, but resolve to go jogging the next morning. But when we finally put on those jogging shorts and open the door, the sky is gray and the streets are flooded with rain. “I’ll do it tomorrow,” is a phrase we might offer as a solution to such scenarios.

All this to say, if we do not stop to listen, we will never hear what the universe has to say, and even when we do try to listen, most of us do not claim to understand the cosmic voice. How should we, when our minds are steeped in the languages and actions of mankind?

The real solution, then, is as simple as the question, and equally as deceptive in its simplicity: in order to hear the cosmic voice, we must quiet our human voice – and not just the physical voice that comes from our mouths, but the subtler voices in our heads, which speaks only to us, because subtler still is the voice of the world.

Consider this: the voices we hear in our own mind are unquestionably real, yet we cannot see the source of these voices, nor can we hear the voice in anyone else's head (normally, at least). Why, then, should we deny the possibility that the world really is speaking to us? “No neurons,” the headstrong scientist might say. No, the world may not have a brain that is recognizable to the human eye, but for those of us who have listened, we cannot deny, no matter how quiet or convoluted, the world does speak.

Returning to the titular question, then, how do we know when an obstacle is meant to deter us from a path, or when it is meant to test our resolve? For as many times as such a question has been asked, I imagine there have been as many answers. Some may turn to astrology, or to tarot, or pendulums, or a wise friend. All helpful tools, to be certain, but invariably, the answers we receive are interpreted through our own desires. The only actionable solution, then, is to practice listening, to practice silence. In this way, when we have a question, we can ask the universe and know, with certainty equal to our stillness, that the answer we receive comes from somewhere other than ourselves.