Posts Tagged ‘failure’

The Post – The Breath, Compassion, and Pacifiers

March 24, 2008

Over the years I’ve read about or studied different kinds of meditation. Some wanted you to focus on a word or sound repeated over and over, others on a lit candle. More recently the focus was on trying to keep a totally blank mind and completely halt all the “noise” and the 10000 things running through your brain every minute. Of course I failed at all of them…as do most people. You’re so focused on a goal, on doing it perfectly, that when you can’t measure up, you give up out of frustration or despair.

On the flip side, I suspect that if you are lucky enough to achieve what these methods want…or at least you think you achieved it, the danger is that then you might walk around feeling so proud of yourself, so much better than others because “you achieved it.” You can try “not to go there,” but it’s hard, and even if you manage not to be proud, there is also the danger of feeling “overly holy and falsely humble” about your accomplishment.

One of the things I like about Buddhism is it’s emphasis on “Middle path.” No extremes of perfection or failure. This extends to its approach to meditation practice – “acceptance” of, in fact, it’s emphasis on the fact that you’ll never be perfect and it’s not about a goal. It’s always about “letting go and coming back to the breath.” Whether the teacher is Thich Nhat Hanh, from the Zen tradition, or Jack Kornfield from the Theravadan tradition, the point is not to “eradicate” what’s going on in you, but on simply to notice it and let it go on. You don’t waste a lot of energy either trying to get rid of all the thoughts, or giving them more importance than they’re worth. You just notice what is happening, acknowledge it, let it go, and come back to the breath.

Even that though, is easier said than done and human beings have a way of making anything a goal or contest. I think the one part of those instructions that I find most useful is: “Come back to the breath.” The reality is, we will be distracted for the rest of our lives. There’s bills, fights with people, retirement planning, kids, whatever. SOMETHING is always creeping in. That’s being human. And as nice as it is to say “notice it, don’t judge it, just let it go” even that is impossible. Something sticks in our throat and it replays in our heads over and over. Our anger, hurt, pride, despair, fear, will get hooked and we have a hard time letting that go. Accept it. We all do it. We always will. Instead of beating yourself up about any of this you simply, come back to the breath.

At first glance that might seem like a useless approach. Someone more “austere” might say “Well what kind of mental discipline is that?” The point is, it’s not about “discipline.” It’s not about self-flagellation, beating yourself up, getting rid of anything, or trying to be perfect. It’s about being human, and it’s about compassion. Being gentle with yourself. It’s about accepting and loving who you are. Even with all the noise in the brain, you can chuckle at your foibles and still say I’m a good person. I’m full of love, even when I’m distracted.

So why bother learning to treat yourself with compassion in your meditation practice? Because it is the way you train yourself to be compassionate with yourself in life. Instead of expecting yourself to be perfect at jobs, parenting, being a spouse, friend, being a human being, you simply note ‘I did my best. Yup, messed that one up, it happens.’ You pick up the pieces. You make amends. You come back to whatever it was you were trying to do and start over. You “come back to it” again and again and again, with no hope of perfection, simply the willingness to “show up and try again.” So if you can accept with compassion, an imperfect meditation practice and come back to the breath, you can learn to do the same for yourself in life.

Is there a benefit to treating yourself with compassion in life?

Yes. Aside from giving yourself some inner peace and acceptance, it is the only way you can exercise that “heart muscle” and learn to give that same gift to others. If you are so hung up on perfection in yourself, will you learn to cut somebody else any slack? Will you even notice anybody is there struggling, too, if you’re so wrapped up in your own struggle to be perfect? And if you can’t accept yourself as less than perfect, will you be able to accept anybody else’s mis-steps? Come back to the breath. Come back to life. Settle yourself, with compassion.

I often noticed how babies settle down when you give them a pacifier. It’s like they need that to stop whatever is winding up in them, settle down, and come back to calm. I’ve joked that maybe adults need them, too. Something that makes you shut your mouth, take a break from the world, focus on something small, and return to calm.

Given that they don’t have adult pacifiers, perhaps coming back to the breath is the next best thing?

PS People often say animals are intuitive and sometimes animals have more compassion than people. If you think the benefits of coming back to the breath and being peaceful, are limited to humans, check out the CNN article:

Zen (dog) Master: A New Take on Prayer Position

This article has two other lessons about life:

1) Sense of humor – Even in religion, a smile is the most important thing for compassion and inner peace.

2) Beginner’s Mind – Keep an open mind to new possibilities. You might write off the dog’s practice, but how do you know that on some level, he isn’t “feeling” the warmth of the compassion in the practice?

The Post – Can Surrender = Win?

February 29, 2008

Writers pay attention to words. It’s an occupational hazard, like a carpenter paying attention to what’s the best hammer or a painter finding the best brush. Words are the tools of the trade. So I’m always paying attention to things like “Does that word have the subtlety of meaning I need?” Or :”Does this word have a second meaning that might confuse?” Writers also think about overlooked possibilities with the words they choose. “Is there a meaning you can give this word that no one usually associates with it?”

Surrender. I was thinking about that word a lot lately. You hear that word and immediately thoughts of loss, failure, futility of effort, come up. It’s hard to see it any other way. Harder still is to get your head around the possibility that to surrender, could be to win.

Even as I say the word, the competitive part of me that wants to fight for my rights, get ahead, succeed in life, cringes. I can feel my stomach knot, an uncomfortable churning inside, the hair on the back of my neck raise up. My brain yells, “NO!” The thing about surrender, though, especially in our close relationships, is that if done well, both walk away with something, both end up feeling better.

When things are always viewed in terms of win or lose, there’ s no room for anything else. There’s no “other option” possible. No wiggle room for a place that might leave both parties feeling a bit more empowered and a bit less stomped on. If there is a winner, there’s always a loser. A loser is not going to be happy and when someone in an altercation isn’t happy, it’s going to stay alive and fester. Look at World War I. When Germany lost, the terms dictated to them were so onerous, so harsh, it bred the even worse horror known as World War II. Losers are more apt to pull back, regroup, plot the next battle, seek revenge.

It’s not always possible to seek “surrender.” Some situations just don’t give that option. Then the best option is to be a generous winner. But as much as possible, taking a step back, giving the situation “more room,” might yield a more satisfying result. Take something all knotted up, spread it out on the floor, and you often can spot the tangles. Spread the tangles out more, and you have room to pick them apart, unravel them, possibly even remove them completely.

It’s the law of physics. The more room given to particles in a closed container, the less pressure there is. They spread out evenly. Close things down and pressure builds. Tighten down the valves enough and things might explode.

Surrendering in a relationship to the possibility of a greater good, allows time and room. Spread out the mess, find the knots, pick out the tangles. It might be possible to save the whole ball of string. Even if not, it might be possible to salvage a good bit of it.

So, a new twist on “surrender” – see it as a win? Something for both the writer, and the human being inside the writer, to ponder.

The Post – In Art: What is Not There, Makes it Useful

February 10, 2008

I had about three other posts in mind for today. Each one flooded my brain though, making it impossible for me to find the “simple thread” at its heart. That means they’re meant for another day when my mind can absorb them and sift through the layers to the simple truth at their cores. Sometimes, what is not there, makes it useful. By clearing something away, you see what is waiting there to be discovered. As soon as I set these other topics aside, my eyes landed on what is meant to surface today.

There is a book from the 6th century B.C. written by Lao Tsu, called the Tao Te Ching. The book is described as the essence of Taoism, contained in 81 chapters, which are more like 81 poems or pages because the entire book is about 5000 words. Don’t let it fool you. The shortest entries are the hardest to decipher. What is not there makes it useful.

Entry Eleven is one I could actually figure out-at least most of it. We won’t discuss those last 2 lines whose meaning in view of the rest I still haven’t figured out.

Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore profit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.

While Lao Tsu probably wrote them as rules to live by, I realized that they also apply to the creative arts:

Michaelangelo said that the sculptures he did were already there, fully formed in the rock. He just released them by cutting away all that was not the sculpture.

In photography, the photo’s essence is all about what to include and what to exclude. Even when you print the photo, it is often cropped first, to remove the things that don’t contribute the the unity of the photo. Leave in too much, and you dilute the power of what remains.

I recently took an oil painting seminar on color theory. The artist, Caroline Jasper, shared her process of creating seascapes. She started with some photographs of boats docked in a small port town. Her next step was to make some quick sketches, deciding which boats and buildings to keep and what to cut. By eliminating the excess, what remained had power. Only then did she proceed to actually painting the scene.

In writing, the same is true. Whether fiction or nonfiction – there is a slant, a premise, a particular viewpoint. By the very nature of selecting a perspective, some things will be excluded because they don’t support the main focus of that piece.

If there is any process in writing where “what is not there makes it useful” it would have to be editing. It is the writing equivalent of cutting away the excess stone, cropping the photograph, deciding what elements stay in the painting and which are removed. If anyone doubts the importance of removing what is not needed, consider the Gettysburg Address experience.

On November 19th, 1863, many dignitaries, including President Lincoln, gathered to dedicate the cemetery for the thousands of soldiers who died during the Civil War battle that took place there in July of that year. The main speaker was the famed orator of the day, Edward Everett. A former US Senator, US Representative, Governor of Massachusetts, and President of Harvard University, Everett was held in high esteem. Lincoln’s invitation to attend was actually an afterthought. Everett delivered a well-crafted masterpiece that was 13,607 words long and took 2 hours to deliver. Lincoln spoke for 2-3 minutes and delivered a speech that ran approximately 10 sentences long and had about 272 words. Lincoln considered his speech a failure, yet that is the speech everyone remembers to this day. Edward Everett, himself acknowledged that reality in a letter to Lincoln the very next day. He told Lincoln:

“I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

To remove the excess is to enhance the power of the creation. When I set the other topics aside, this one came up to be discovered. What was not there, made it useful.

The Post – Writing: Fear, Luck, or Burn the Ships?

February 5, 2008

I know I am lucky because I have a chance at a dream. I have the rare chance to write my books, my blog, do what I’ve dreamed of. There are moments though, where I’ve considered that a curse, not luck, and I suspect there are at least a few writers who share that. It’s scary.

It’s like the time my husband and I moved from CT where we were born and raised, to North Carolina, where we’ve lived now for 18 years. We’d decided we needed a different environment. Ours was killing us – between climate, work problems, cost of living, we needed a change. We checked out this “North Carolina place” and after some initial uncertainty, decided, “yes, that’s where we want to be.” It took us about a year before my husband found a job that was right. The offer even included relocation costs, something not as likely today. It was exactly what we’d dreamed of. But when the person in North Carolina called and said, “We want you for the position. If you want the job, it’s yours,” we froze.

In that moment, all the eagerness to get the job, make the move, obtain relief from the circumstances draining us and our marriage, evaporated. In that moment terror flooded both of us. The moment of truth – if you want it, it’s yours. Now came the real questions – DO we want it? CAN we do it? We thought we could, but up until that moment it was a dream, not reality. Could we really leave all we knew behind? Go to a place we’d spent one weekend in? It was the equivalent of choosing to jump off a cliff. We knew there would be no turning back if we did. Financially, it was stay or go. No changing your mind once you chose.

My husband and I looked at each other. The question hung in the air. “Well?” We recovered after a few moments, gritted our teeth and said, “It’s not getting any better here. I guess . . . we jump.” With that, we invested our whole souls to make that choice a success.

My writing dream has that same feel. Each day I watch others go off to jobs that maybe they love or hate, jobs they choose or need, and I sit here, with the opportunity to create my dream. All it takes is for me to say “yes” . . . and just do it. I feel the weight of the responsibility, and the wall of fear comes up.

Katherine Paterson spoke a bit about the fear: “With each new book we must dare failure, or worse: mediocrity.” There are the questions: What if I try for that dream and find out that what I wanted all my life, I can’t do? What if I fail? What if I try and nothing happens, or I try, and it’s downright terrible? And if it is, it will be a very open, very public failure. As Paterson also said, “Writers are very private people who run around naked in public.” No hiding the results once you put it out there.

All the years I worked at other jobs to pay the bills, take care of my son, whatever, and didn’t have the chance to try for the dream, it was easier in two ways. First, love or hate the job, I came home with a steady paycheck. No matter what, the mortgage got paid, groceries came home, the car was repaired. I had worth and value because I provided security. It came in a paycheck. Not only was my home life secure but my identity got validated as well. The paycheck gave that, too. If I wasn’t who I said I was, would they really pay me? Second, the weight of having to answer that offer from life – it’s yours if you want it – was lifted from my shoulders. Because it wasn’t an option, I didn’t have to answer. Because I didn’t have to answer, I didn’t have to find out whether I could do it or not and risk humiliation, even if that humiliation was only in my own mind. So I had financial security, value, identity, and I could escape the question I felt God was waiting for me to face.

There’s that truth that a dream is always perfect. The moment you try to pin it down in the real world, it never, ever measures up. I read an interview someone did with Billy Joel one time. He spoke of the songs he heard in his dreams, wondrous bits of heaven. Perfection. Then he woke up and tried to capture them. Now I consider him a tremendous singer and songwriter and a hell of a success, given the body of work he’s created. Yet he said that nothing he’s ever created measured up to what he heard in his dreams.

So if someone considered a success by the world, feels he’s failed, where does that leave me? His work got the financial security. He had a job title and identity validated by his paychecks. God asked him the question, “Will you create?” and Billy Joel did it. Yet he feels it didn’t measure up to his dream. What do I do? Why? And how?

I don’t know how anyone else would answer those questions. For myself, I’ve gotten some glimpses at my mortality. I only know I can’t meet God and say, “Well, I meant to, but . . .” I could get away with that answer before. I can’t now. I also couldn’t look my husband in the eye, the man whose hard work is giving me this chance, and say that. Or my son, or my friends. However, I think the absolute worst would be having to look me in the eye and say that. I think God, my husband and son, my friends, would forgive me, accept me, and who knows, God might even give me another life to try again. But would I forgive myself? Maybe that is what hell is. So why would I do it? Because I would never forgive me if I didn’t.

The question hangs before me: the job is yours if you want it. Deep in my heart, win, lose, fail, or as Katherine Paterson put it, be mediocre, I know what my answer is.

The remaining question is – How? I could say that if I’m terrible, at least I know I tried. But then maybe that’s not quite the right attitude, either. In the movie, The Empire Strikes Back, Luke tells Yoda he’ll try to lift his spaceship with his powers. Yoda immediately jumps down his throat. “NO! Do, or do not. There is no try!” Maybe the answer is that it’s how you show up to do the work that makes all the difference. It certainly made the difference in our move to North Carolina knowing there would be no option to turn back.

There’s a scene from the movie “Hunt for Red October,” that illustrates it. The captain, played by Sean Connery (who looks better and better as he gets older), is leading a select group of officers on a mission to defect and deliver a new, deadly silent Russian attack sub to the Americans. It is treason. If discovered, they’re dead and they all know it. Their consciences drive them to do this so that such destructive power cannot be used by their superiors, yet at one point their resolve fails and they want to quit. At that moment the captain tells them there is no going back. Moscow knows what they are doing because he sent a letter to their superiors stating their intentions. His men freak. In their eyes, he’s signed their death warrants for sure. They know that every ship in the Russian Navy will be out there to hunt them down and kill them. They demand to know why he did that.

His answer: “When he reached the new world, Cortez burned his ships. As a result, his men were well motivated.”

When there is no going back, you have only yourself to work with. It is “Do, or do not. There is no try.” You have only your motivations and faith, or the lack of them, to fall back on. What do you believe? When Luke could not raise his spaceship, Yoda did it for him. When Luke said he couldn’t believe it, Yoda’s answer was simple: “That, is why you fail.”

So my answer to how you do it is: Burn the ships. There is no turning back. Do or do not, there is no try. And believe. Because if you don’t, that is why you fail. I cannot control the outcome of the effort – whether my writings will be read, published, make a dime, validate me and give me value- but I can control how I do the work. And I only know that if I don’t do it, none of those things will matter.

The Post – Thomas Paine and the inner rallying call

February 3, 2008

I posted Thomas Paine’s quote from Common Sense, yesterday – “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right.”

Being a history lover, particularly of the American Revolution, I always love to see what kinds of thoughts and words propelled so many people to throw away every last bit of “status quo,” and “security” to wage war against the 18th century superpower so as to right injustice.

I used to go to the racetrack in Saratoga, New York, every summer with my family. We’d have our $10 or $12 to spend on bets and knew that once that was gone, that was it. So we chose wisely. Even as kids, we knew that yeah, you could walk away with many months of allowance money if you won on the 100:1 shot. We also knew we’d actually go home broke from the racetrack that day because the 100:1 shot never came in. So we passed on it. Given the power of the British in the 1700s, colonial America would have been doing great to even be considered a 100:1 shot. So for that many people to still roll the dice on themselves and go for a dream, you just know there had to be powerful motivators. I look at Thomas Paine’s words and rank his as one of those motivating forces to fight injustice.

I also realize they have a timeless quality. Yes, they applied to the circumstances that let to the Revolution. They also could be a rallying flag for battles against other injustices such as those against race, religion, sexual orientation. Many thought slavery was right. For centuries many just accepted that a long-standing institution was not wrong. These days people make derogatory jokes, or poke fun at certain religious or ethnic or sexual groups, and because “it’s always been that way” it’s assumed it’s okay. I realize Paine’s words do have a rallying quality to fight those battles, no matter the century.

It occurred to me, though, when I posted them, that most people read those words and perceive that the battle, the threat, the enemy is “out there.” The British, or the Jews, or the gays, or the Irish or the Muslims or whatever group is currently the problem. I wondered though if even Thomas Paine knew that his words were really a call to a larger battle.

I stood in front of the mirror and for a split second, caught a glimpse of the real enemy. The true battle, underlying all others, is within. Our beliefs. Biases. Our view that “I’m fine but it’s them” – “those people” – “they’re the problem.” Even the most open-minded liberal who supposedly loves everyone might be surprised to look in their hearts and see the real answers to questions like: Who did I judge today? Who did I decide I was better than? Who did I proclaim a failure because they did something I didn’t agree with so they must be worth less than me?

The reality is we all do it and we do it so often we don’t even notice it. We do it because we always have, and because “a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right.” But every once in a while, in the small second between thoughts of, “Well of course I’m better because I do this, and of course, they’re worse because they didn’t,” there’s that fleeting glimpse of the enemy. I see the enemy staring back at me in the mirror – the person whose heart is so sure it’s right, it’s hardened against anything else. The mind that is like a full glass of water – no room to add any more – so that no room exists to ask questions like, Am I really that good? Are “they” really that wrong? Or the most important question of all – “What if we’re all really the same, no better or worse than the other?”

No answers this morning. Just questions. When Voltaire said “Judge a man by his questions not by his answers,” maybe he was simply pointing out the importance of asking the questions. Questions can bring you to the mirror. The answers are perhaps less important. In fact, maybe the answers are the same for all of us. In the end, we all struggle with the same things because we’re all human. So it’s the questions, the stopping to ask, that matters. Deep down, we probably already know the answers, no matter who we are.

And by the way, don’t assume because I asked these questions, I won’t see that enemy staring back at me in the mirror tomorrow morning. I don’t think it ever leaves. I think it’s somebody that maybe just softens over time, and eventually might stare back at us and say “Yeah, I have been kind of a jerk, haven’t I?”