Another IPS (Inner Peace Symptom): an understanding that action and failure are two sides of the same coin. [The trick is to use failure as a signal for a course correction rather than as a stop sign….]
I’ve just devoured a book, FAIL, FAIL AGAIN, FAIL BETTER: Wise Advice For Leaning Into the Unknown, and it’s left me with a full and satisfied feeling.
This book grew out of the transcript of a commencement address by Pema Chodron, the American Buddhist nun who is also a best-selling author of many wisdom books. Her teachers have included master Tibetan lamas, Dzigar Kontrul Rinpoche and Sakyong Mipham Rimpoche as well as the late Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. At various times since she became a nun in 1981, she served as the director of Karma Dzong in Boulder, Colorado and as the director of Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia.
The speech from which the book was made was a promise fulfilled. When her granddaughter Alexandria entered Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, Ani Chodron told the girl she would give the commencement address when the Alexandria graduated. This was a large gift.
When her granddaughter graduated in 2014, Chodron presented this speech. It is based on a quote from Samuel Beckett who advised, “Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
In this clip from an Oprah Winfrey Network “SuperSoul Sunday” episode published as a YouTube video in that same year, Chodron tells a little bit about the speech.
The book that was made from the speech is a graceful, simple thing, but, as is true of a lot of Chodron’s work, the information in it is layered, and it unpacks beautifully.
AN OLD STORY
My favorite bit is when Chodron tells an old Chinese story about an old farmer with a beautiful stallion and a strong and strapping son, both of whom are precious to him.
One day the horse runs away and the farmer’s wife and all their friends in the village moan and groan and tell each other how terrible it is. The old man says, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”
The next day the horse returns home with a wild mare. The farmer’s wife and the villagers celebrate and tell each other what a grand thing it is. Now the farmer and his wife have two horses. The old man says, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”
The following day, the son decides to try and tame the wild mare. The horse throws him off her and his leg is broken. His wife and the villagers wail. It is a catastrophe! The old man says, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”
The day after that, the Chinese army comes through the village and conscripts all of the able-bodied men in the village to fight in the latest war. The son, with his broken leg, stays home….well, you know what the farmer’s wife and the villagers said. You know what the old man said.
That’s where the old story ends, but you do get the feeling that it probably goes on like that over and over again, ad infinitum, with the old man saying, “Maybe yes, maybe no” while the people around him mill about and react emphatically to every circumstance and situation.
Chodron advises the students to take the old man as a model as they go out into the world to meet whatever is out there for them. She tells them, “If you can just remember the old man and what he had to say about what is happening, you’ll remember that you never know where something will lead.”
Her whole point is that we live in the middle of the Great Mystery. Nobody knows where life will take us. Nobody knows how we will grow and develop from moment to moment.
The nun tells the graduating class that it’s a good thing to get curious about your outer circumstances and notice how they impact your internal talk. That internal talk will be what you carry around with you and it does impact what you do in the world.
Each of us is part of a continuing saga and it sometimes goes well for us and sometimes not. Nobody can know what happens next. It unfolds.
Chodron advises that if you can avoid getting caught up or lost in the storyline, then there is the possibility that you will learn something about Mystery and about your own self. You might even get to a space where you can stand still long enough in the rawness and vulnerability of what you feel to actually be able to get past it gracefully and learn the lessons each episode has for you.
From this space, you will be able to communicate the lessons you’ve learned from that to other people. The event and your feelings about them become a door to a space where you can build something new.
The key to getting into that space where creativity and making can happen is to get curious. To notice what is happening inside you as well as what is happening outside in the world. To stand up again after you fall down. To try again. To “fail better,” as Beckett says.
This YouTube video, “Get Curious,” published by Sounds True, is a part of Chodron’s speech at the university.
AFTER THE TALK, MORE TALK
After the speech, Chodron agreed to a follow-up interview with Sounds True publisher Tami Simon. This interview, which is another rarity for Chodron, is included in the book. The teaching unpacks the points Chodron makes in her speech and also offers valuable strategies for working with the outer circumstances of your life to help develop your own inner strength and to reaffirm your own inner goodness.
At one point in all this Ani Pema says, “Failure opens an unguarded, vulnerable and wide open space. And from that space the best part of ourselves come out.”
She goes on to explain how the process works and how it feels from the inside.
At the end, Chodron and Simon agree, there is only “Forward.”
My favorite quote from the FAIL, FAIL AGAIN, FAIL BETTER is this: “Failing better means that failure becomes a rich and fertile ground instead of just another slap in the face.”
I do recommend that you get this book. The lady is wise.
Here’s a poem:
I HAD FORGOTTEN
I had forgotten:
wrapped up in
just the facts, m’am,
so busy measuring out
and weighing up
the ashes of old dreams,
caught in the conflagration
of yet another apocalyptic end,
I had forgotten
just how beautiful
the ruins look
and just how much I love
the nicked and dented
lived-in parts of
this life I have made.
Sometimes I confuse
the facts for the truth.
A common failing, I suppose.
And here I am again
working on being “special.”
by Netta Kanoho
Header picture credit: “Scraggly Tree Sunrise” by Ken Schwarz via Flickr [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]
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