Yoga Wicca Buddha

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Permission to Fail

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

“You cannot win,” says the villain.

“No, but I can keep on losing forever,” says the hero.


This exchange from the movie Dr. Strange gave me a thrill of recognition, since failure--avoiding it, experiencing it, wrestling with it--has loomed large in my life. 


Turning to Buddhism, I learned that life may be "one continuous mistake” in the Zen phrase, but therein lies its beauty, even its freedom. The idea is to give up bullying yourself, others and the circumstances into obedience, and instead accept them for what they are, returning again and again to home base: the determination to be fully present, and to act from the place of openness and compassion that presence reveals. 


We can’t make others love us, but we can love. We can’t always (maybe never) shape the world to our liking, but we always have the ability to witness it. And in the end it is being loving that is the ultimate comfort and reassurance. It is in witnessing that we discover our true strength. And so we keep returning, failure after failure, to that place of acceptance and surrender. We keep the faith that it will always be there for us. That it will be enough.


I watch my yoga students, especially my private ones, struggle with failure on the mat. “I took this private because I’m a klutz and I don’t want others to see me,” says one of my clients, a fiercely determined businessman. At work, he has a treadmill desk he walks on all day. He drinks his daily green smoothie with a grimace, muttering “this is fuel, not pleasure”.  In his sessions, he grunts himself into position with jerks of effort and puffs of air.


I totally understand where he’s coming from—it’s my own battle. Only being a yoga teacher for most of the day keeps me from giving into a judgmental perfectionism. I am constantly reminded to breathe, to relax, to look for my edges and then accept them. Resting on the edge with patience, one finds it moving, every so slowly, outward to a bigger self, a more expansive posture.


At least that’s the theory. And most of the time, it works for me.


But right now, in the darker days of November, I feel a lack of inspiration. My writing seems unoriginal, my rituals stilted, my spiritual metaphors, prayers and practice dull and meaningless. All the advice in these situations is to continue despite that, to act “as if”, take one step at a time, have faith. I guess it's good advice, because it gives me the chance to keep failing. I sit and observe, during meditation, my doubt that the present moment has anything to offer, that sitting there observing it is a waste of time.


An epic fail. Well, “Fail more, fail better,” said Beckett. I'm doing my best.


And off the mat, off the cushion? Going to class, helping my students, keeping house, staying in touch with family, attempting to nurture my creativity…there’s a constant failure to change the world, yes, but a constant faithfulness to doing what has been given me to do. Constant chances to witness in myself and in the world what holds us back from something more-- including our attachment to a particular vision of what that something more might be. 


Sometimes it does feel as if I’m stuck waiting for Godot, or the gods, to tell me what to do… so I can feel like a real hero. But while I wait for that call, I can be the kind of hero who, knowing she cannot win, says to the doubts and darkness, “Yes, but I can keep on losing forever.”




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Archer has been trying to make sense of religion since her parents first abandoned her at Sunday School in the 60s. She’s a mom, yoga teacher and repository of useless bits of information on ancient religion, spiritual practices and English grammar. Check out her column “Connections” in Witches and Pagans.


  • Ted Czukor
    Ted Czukor Friday, 11 November 2016

    This is great, Archer - I love it! By the way, my friend's Buddhist teacher told her that she shouldn't do her practice until she absolutely wanted to - because it isn't supposed to feel like a punishment or chore, it should feel like the absolute privilege it really is.

  • Archer
    Archer Monday, 14 November 2016

    It really is a privilege to sit in a space where our natural messy minds are accepted and seen for what they are, and our relation to failure can be radically re-imagined.

    Your comment reminds me of how a teacher of mine suggested I try "going around the mountain and not through it." There is that lightness and humour and humility I associate with Buddhist practice.

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