“Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”
― Pema Chödrön
Pema Chödrön is an American Buddhist nun in the lineage of Chögyam Trungpa. She has inspired millions of people from around the world who have been touched by her example and message of practicing peace in these turbulent times. She is resident teacher at Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia, the first Tibetan monastery in North America established for Westerners.
Excerpt from Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better by Pema Chödrön
If there is one skill that is not stressed very much, but is really needed, it is knowing how to fail well. The fine art of failing. There is a lot of emphasis on succeeding. And whether we buy the hype or not, we all want to succeed, especially if you consider success as “it works out the way I want it to.” You know it feels good in the gut and in the heart because it worked out. So failing by that definition is that it didn’t work out the way you wanted it to. And [failing] is what we don’t usually get a lot of preparation for.
So fail, fail again, fail better. It’s like how to get good at holding the rawness of vulnerability in your heart. Or how to get good at “welcoming the unwelcome.” That is a quote from the founder of Passage Works, which brings contemplative education into elementary schools. Welcoming the unwelcome.
Accept Failure for What It Is
Well, one of the things I want to say about failure is that it feels very raw. I think the most significant thing about it is that we usually think of it as something that happens to us from the outside, right? We can’t get in a good relationship or we are in a relationship that ends painfully or we can’t get a job. Or we are fired from the job we have. Or we don’t get the grades we want, or any number of not getting things the way we want them to be that we think of failure as something that happens to us. There are usually two ways that we deal with that. We either blame it on somebody else or some other—the organization, our boss, our partner, whatever. We move away from the rawness, of holding the rawness of vulnerability in our heart, by blaming it on the other.
The other really common thing, which is probably inherent in whatever approach we take, is that we feel really bad about ourselves and label ourselves “a failure.” We have this feeling that there is something fundamentally wrong with us—something basically wrong with us. I think this is what we need a lot of help with: this feeling that there is something wrong with us, that we actually are a failure because of the relationship not working out, the job not working out, or whatever it is, botched opportunities, doing something that flops.
Find the Opportunity in Failure
One of the ways to sort of pull yourself up or help yourself to hold this is to begin to question what is really happening when there is a failure. So someone gave me a quote, something from James Joyce’s Ulysses, where Joyce wrote about how failure can lead to discovery. And he actually didn’t use the word “failure”; he used the word “mistake,” as in making a mistake. He said, that mistakes can be “the portals of discovery.” In other words, mistakes are the portal to creativity, to learning something new, to having a fresh look on things.
Can you allow yourself to feel what you feel when things don’t go the way you want them to? When things don’t go the way you hoped and wished for and longed for them to go?
Sometimes you experience failed expectations as heartbreak and disappointment, and sometimes you feel rage. Failure or things not working out as you’d hoped doesn’t feel good; that’s for sure. But at that time, maybe instead of doing the habitual thing of labeling yourself a “failure” or a “loser” or thinking there is something wrong with you, you could get curious about what is going on. And really this is where I think your education will come in handy.
If you can just remember that you never know where something will lead. Getting curious about outer circumstances and how they are impacting you, noticing what words come out and what your internal discussion is, this is the key. If you want to be a full, complete human being, if you want to be genuine and not pretend that everything is either one way or the other way but you can hold the fullness of life in your heart, then this is the opportunity when you can get curious about what is going on and listen to the storylines. And you don’t buy the storylines that blame it on everybody else. And you don’t buy the storylines that blame it on yourself, either.
Book to Hang out With
‘Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better: Wise Advice for Leaning into the Unknown’ by Pema Chödrön
When her granddaughter was accepted to Naropa University, the celebrated author Pema Chödrön promised that she’d speak at the commencement ceremony. Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better contains the wisdom shared on that day. “What do we do when life doesn’t go the way we hoped?” begins Pema “We say, ‘I’m a failure.” But what if failing wasn’t just “okay,” but the most direct way to becoming a more complete, loving, and fulfilled human being? Through the insights of her own teachers and life journey, Pema Chödrön offers us her heartfelt advice on how to face the unknown—in ourselves and in the world—and how our missteps can open our eyes to see new possibilities and purpose. For Pema’s millions of readers, prospective graduates, or anyone at a life crossroads, this gem of clarity and reassurance is sure to find a welcome place in many a kitchen, office, and backpack.