Failure Is a Wise Teacher

Pema Chodron’s new book, Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better: Wise Advice for Leaning Into the Unknown is a deceptively small volume that contains a vast amount of heartfelt wisdom. The first section of the book consists of the text of the 2014 Commencement Address that Chodron delivered at Naropa University, where her granddaughter was graduating.

In her speech, Chodron speaks to that most common of human experiences - failure - and the overwhelming feelings that accompany it. She calls this “the fine art of failing.” As Chodron leads us step by step through the experience of failure, expanding our consciousness of the process, her usual poise and equanimity shine through her words. Chodron’s words of wisdom are accompanied by simple brush-stroke drawings, which I suspect she painted herself, though the book’s front-matter doesn’t attribute them to anyone.

Chodron leads us, with clear and simple language, through the experience of failure and beyond, to a space where we can see its benefits. When we allow ourselves to truly feel and experience what is going on deep inside us, without blame, she relates, we come to a whole new understanding. “It’s in that space - when we aren’t masking ourselves or trying to make circumstances go away - that our best qualities begin to shine.” Chodron shares stories and wisdom from various sources and teachers, all of which lead the reader to a place of greater understanding.

In the second and final section of the book, Pema Chodron is interviewed by Sounds True producer Tami Simon. In this conversation, they go even deeper into the subject of failure and new ways to approach it. Rather than teaching specific techniques, Chodron offers suggestions on making this process your own. Her focus on going deeply into what you’re truly feeling, even though it’s difficult, is something that is much needed in this culture of avoidance and addiction.

Rather than delivering her wisdom from on high, Chodron, with a loving sense of humor, shares how she still faces these fears and intense feelings herself at nearly eighty years old. She goes into some detail about the process of aging, in response to a question by Simon about the failures of the body. Whether it’s due to aging, injury, or chronic illness, Chodron advises the reader to turn your experience into your path, to the way you practice. She says, “Whether it’s a mental illness or physical disability, it hasn’t touched your basic nature. You can trust that and come back to that as a touchstone.” The notion is the same as with other types of failure - just because something bad has happened, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. The theme that runs through the book is one of self-acceptance, recognition of the way things are in the present moment, and moving forward from there.

This little book is a gem, to be treasured and returned to again and again. It would make a lovely gift, not only for college students but for anyone in any stage of life. Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better is, at its heart, a powerful message of self-love and spiritual persistence. Chodron’s calm wisdom flows off the pages and into the reader’s consciousness. If she can do it, we feel, perhaps we can, too. The insights shared here apply to all of us. Such universal wisdom needs - and deserves - to be shared widely.

~review by Nikki Starcat Shields

Author: Pema Chodron
Sounds True, 2015
pp.131, $14.95