By Duane Toops
I was listening to an episode Rob Bell’s podcast and he said something that really resonated with me.
He said, “there is a risk at the heart of being human.” In my opinion, that risk—that danger at the heart of being human—is the risk of vulnerability, the danger of fragility, the risk of humiliation, the possibility of heartbreak and rejection, the risk of failure.
In a social media driven world, the temptation to create and present hyper-polished, hyper-idealized versions of ourselves is greater than it has ever been. But I think something almost magical—almost miraculous—happens, when we allow ourselves to be seen authentically and transparently; when we allow ourselves space enough to make mistakes and room enough to fail, and when we’re brave enough to share it.
I’m a multi-leveled amateur.
I’m still finding my way within Buddhist practice. I’m still grappling with Zen; I’m still just trying to find my footing. I’m not a professional anything and I’m not an expert at anything. I’m not a dharma teacher and I’m not a zen master. I wouldn’t even say that I’m a particularly good writer and I certainly wouldn’t call myself a videographer or a cinematographer, and yet I write and make videos, and now I even make podcasts. And I do it all without ever really knowing what I’m doing.
Needless to say, I make a lot of mistakes in the process and I’m constantly at the risk of humiliating myself. I inch ever closer to failure with every article I publish, every blog that I write, every podcast I put out, and every video I upload.
Actually, I think it might be more accurate to say that I am continually crossing the threshold into failure with every project I take on.
I’ve dedicated myself to learning, to learning-out-loud, to practicing this path and to honestly documenting the process—and that includes documenting all the mistakes, mishaps, failures, flaws and shortcomings. I think we can create a great opportunity for practice when we mindfully observe our mistakes. I think that by watching all the feelings, emotions and attachments that come up when we allow ourselves to just be with the foibles of our failures, when we simply sit with the slip-ups of our miscalculations, gives us the grace to breath freely in the honesty of just being.
We improvise, we experiment, we take chances and we take risks, not because success is guaranteed but, because we’re committed to the work.
We’re dedicated to the practice. We’re in love with the work. We work for the love of the work, for the love of the practice, for the love of the process, for the love of the present, without any concern for failure or success.
Chan master Sheng-yen said, “When you are working hard, failure is natural.”
He says that “failure is…necessary.” Failure is a necessary and integral part of the practice, an essential part of the process and an indispensable part of the path. So much so in fact, that Sheng-yen goes so far as to say that, “According to Buddhism, nothing can be a success” and that “there is never a successful conclusion.”
Failure isn’t an optional part of the practice—you can’t opt-out. If you’re practicing, failure is inevitable and unavoidable. That’s why its called practice. The act of embracing failure isn’t an apathetic act, its an act of acceptance. It’s being fearless in the face of failure in order to defy and subvert apathy.
As Chan Master Sheng-yen reminds us, “If you have never failed, you have never tried.”
Failure doesn’t exist on the sidelines and it doesn’t exist on the bench, because if you’re there, you’re not even in the game. In his book, The War of Art, Steven Pressfield writes that, “it’s better to be in the arena, getting stomped by the bull, than to be up in the stands or out in the parking lot.”
If you have failed it means you were in the game, you were in the arena. If you have failed it means you were on the field. It means your boots were on the ground and it means your hands got dirty. If you failed it means there’s blood in your teeth, and there’s mud on your cleats.
It means you took a risk. It means you learned something. It means you grew. It means you tried…
Failure can revitalize our resolve, it can strengthen our steadfastness and failure doesn’t mean it’s over. It means we are recalculating, re-calibrating, readjusting. It means we are collecting new data, re-running the numbers and fine-tuning our trajectory.
It means we will try again.
Maybe failure hones in on the opportunity for us to have an honest and obstructed view of reality. Maybe failure creates the conditions for creative continuation.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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