I recently had the opportunity to talk a bit about failure with someone I know and care for. This was a soulful discussion, and one that filled me that perverse joy that only a good chat about failure can give me. And, as our discussion came to a close, I knew I wanted to write about it.
I grew up in the 80’s, and the only acceptable term for my projected adult future was SUCCESS. It was not an option to fail to be a Captain of the Universe, a Titan, an Upholder of the capitalist system par excellence. I was sent to the very best schools and a sense of the importance of my financial success was instilled upon me from the earliest age.
And let me tell you – I tried. I tried to be all that. Though I side-stepped the whole doctor/lawyer/banker gambit that constituted ‘what I was supposed to do’, I brought the same motivation into my choice of profession. I wanted to make it big time in the art world. I had a lot of passion for art and for working with artists. When I look back, it’s just so ridiculous… I am totally not cut out for that kind of work. I am no diplomat, nor to I have the capacity or desire to manipulate people or ‘markets’, I don’t come from vast wealth. I am not a ‘talk the hind legs off a donkey’ saleswoman, and, while I was passionate, I was not obsessively geeky about art. (I was geeky but not obsessive.) And, IMO, you have to be at least one of those things to deal in art in a serious way.
And so: I failed. Straight up. I tried to insert myself into a role in life that seemed like everything I wanted – one that I was exceptionally well-positioned for, at the ripe young age of 22.
And I couldn’t make it work. And I was crushed – but young. So then, I thought: I love clothes. Let’s do costumes for films. So I got into film production. (And I hated it.) And, by any objective measure – I failed!
Ok… so, fashion. I got a gig working for the wife of an art dealer who designed clothes… failed!
Then, let’s try to get back into the art world: NOPE, failed. How about just answering phones for a healer while I make enough money to get back to London? FAILED AT EVEN THAT.
I learned to do a very refined and deep form of bodywork, spent years as an apprentice to a master. When I went to set up my own private practice, I managed to just about break even for about a year, and then my practice folded. FAILURE. AGAIN. There’s more, too. I am giving you the abbreviated version of my many failures.
In an age where it’s normal to try your hand at a bunch of different things, and to have a side hustle or two, I can only giggle with the sense that there’s very little that I can actually do here on Earth in this lifetime.
I don’t want to make it sound like failure was easy for me. There’s nothing more obliterating than pouring your full passion into something and having it wilt and wither away before your very eyes. To keep trying – and to keep having things fall apart, or melt away at the seams. To be unable to see your own hard work manifest in any kind of a tangible way is painful. I know this pain intimately. I know what it means to feel like my world is closing in around me, to face a humiliating financial fuck-up, to second guess EVERY SINGLE DECISION, to not see a future unfolding in front of me. To see just dark. It’s scary. It’s not useful to try to sugar coat it. It can be terrifying.
And, for those of you who read my offerings regularly, you know that the much-desired family, child, and life partner has also eluded me UTTERLY. Not everyone knows how much time and energy I have put into that whole megillah. Let’s say this: A LOT. While I don’t think of this aspect of my life in terms of failure – I can acknowledge that it’s not far off. So, it’s not just career. It’s a deep cut right down to my primal needs, this failure-teacher of mine.
Sooooooo. Sounds like a heavy trip. I mean, looking back, I feel that ache – all that heart ache of my past. And… I find myself less miserable now than ever before. I mean, wildly less miserable, and vastly more joyful. I find myself more relaxed, more curious, and having way more willingness to just put it all out there. I don’t know where I am heading, and I have learned that goal-oriented living doesn’t seem to be how the spirit wants to animate this body. All of my conditioning about planning, being practical, and being ambitious has had to take a back seat for most of my adult life so far.
So be it.
On the spiritual tip, as far as really waking up to self and life in the deepest way is concerned – failure is not really such a bad thing.
My life experience has proved to me, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that failure does not in anyway prevent me from living a life of profound joy. According to one of my teachers – it may even be a prerequisite. Here’s Adyashanti:
“To me, spirituality is the willingness to fall flat on your face. That’s why, although my students put me up on a pedestal and think I’ve figured out something wonderful, I tell them all the time: my path was the path of failure. Everything I tried I failed. It doesn’t mean that the trying didn’t play an important role. The effort did play a role. The struggle did play a role. But it played a role because it got me to an end of that role. I danced that dance until it was extinguished. But I failed. I failed at meditating well; I failed at figuring out the truth. Everything that I used to succeed spiritually failed. But at that moment of failure, that’s when everything opens.”
(Anyone who has learned meditation from me has heard me talk about how ‘bad’ I am at it! After 25 years! Holy Shit! Yes, even that. Failure, people. I have got exactly nowhere! The opposite of a quiet mind. Which raises the question – is meditation all about quietness of mind? Come study with me if you want more on this. I am here to support you in a legit meditation practice that is NOT ABOUT SUCCESS.)
One of the greatest spiritual teachings out there concerns not having real control of anything. Trying really really hard and being really really good is no guarantee of anything. Spiritually speaking, glory is the doldrums. The edge of life is much more like a groundless, uncertain, hesitant kind of jam, as far as I can see. The desire to get a hold of it – to pin it down, to chop it down to ‘inhabitable’ size. This is a project that is destined for failure. It seems to me that the wise know this.
To be honest, I have developed something of an appetite for failure. Like, a perverse kind of attraction for fucking up, or getting it wrong, or bombing. Where I used to dread it, now I celebrate.
I am no longer trying to get it right. I know I can’t. And that does set me free – to be here, fully in this very moment, feeling all the feels, breathing all the breaths, and doing all the things.
Is there anything else going on? I mean, most of use are chasing success around because we want to feel free, or exhilarated, or – and maybe this is a better way of putting it – we want to feel complete, whole. But if I already feel whole – if I feel whole no matter what is going on, then what is there to chase after? If I want to be in touch with the infinite in every moment (and that seems like a great way of phrasing my own intention) – Is success in ANYTHING required for that? Is a complete failure of EVERYTHING ELSE the pre-requisite?
Is a failure required to really live life on life’s own terms?
Adya uses this phrase ‘danced the dance until it was extinguished’. I kind of get that. It seems like that to me, too. I can’t dance a step that doesn’t resonate anymore. Can you?
Because I think we go back to the old dance because we can’t bear the state of not knowing what to do. And then, the water gets kind of muddy, doesn’t it?
Not knowing what to do might be where it all begins.
I know I am not alone in feeling an immense pressure to be successful at life. I want to lovingly honour you in all the ways your life has been a mess, where your crops have failed, where your sky has seemed to darken, and where you have not lived up to your own expectations for yourself. I want you to know that I am holding all of that very high, in the way of honouring your pain – and also in the way of recognising your inherent and unshakable promise, your intrinsic value. None of that defines you, even as the struggle augments and shapes a deeper process of becoming and recognising who you truly are.
If you can let any of the self-remonstrance and self-attack release now, even just a bit, that is also a blessing. Learning not to lay into yourself in the face of a bad crop is certainly part of waking up, as far as I can see. It wasn’t your fault, there’s nothing else you could have done, and everything you said and did was perfect. You can both honour perfection and learn from what we usually call ‘mistakes’ as well. It’s not that nobody’s perfect – it’s that everyone is.
Please let me know how this resonates with you, or what your thoughts are. I am still responding to past emails so forgive me if it takes me time. In the end, I get back to everyone.
I’m sending my blessings of highest love to you.