4 Tips for Failing Better in Your Spiritual Practice

“Ever tried, ever failed, no matter. Try again, fail again, fail better.” ~Samuel Beckett

I felt an enormous sense of relief when I discovered that he was a total mess! I’m talking about one of the most revered Buddhist monks of our time. I learned this from a short autobiography, A Mountain in Tibet: A Monk’s Journey. It was written by the current abbot of the Kagyu Samye Ling Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Scotland (UK), Yeshe Losal Riponche.

Having escaped from his war-torn home country (Tibet) and after much other trauma, he found himself in the West, entirely immersed in the sex-drugs-rock’n’roll culture of the 1960s. “Selfish and full of pride,” “surly and miserable,” is how Yeshe Losal Riponche describes his younger self in the book. He didn’t part with this way of being until his late thirties despite having grown up in, and having been surrounded by, the Buddhist culture his whole life.

I too have had an intense period of being “selfish and full of pride,” “surly and miserable” recently.  I was overworked, stressed, snappy, judgmental, critical, disappointed with myself, and constantly blaming others. With zero daily practice to carry me through the inner and outer chaos.

Why is it still happening to me? After years’ worth of pursuing a different way of being. After years’ worth of seeking a life free from craving, aversion, and the usual human insanity. Why do I have to go through this never-ending cycle of feeling more mature and more at peace, and then hitting a low point when my mind is as unruly as that of any random person who’s never been exposed to any dharma whatsoever?

The autobiography was a timely gift. It reminded me that I was not in it alone.

We all, every single one of us, travel the same path. With its “ups and downs.” And this whole thing is called life. Ram Dass says that aiming to stay on a spiritual “high” all the time is not just unrealistic. It is a form of spiritual materialism. I become a consumer who wants this one thing (being high and holy) and has a tantrum every time she doesn’t get the goods. The more you fight it, the worse it becomes.

Ram Dass shares the most hilarious and uplifting stories of enjoying (?!) seven hours’ worth of sexual fantasies while pretending to be in deep meditation. Or spending the first nine days of his thirty-day silent retreat watching tv for twelve hours a day. While it’s fun listening to his confessions, one can feel how utterly painful it would have been for Ram Dass to observe himself engage in such behavior.

His advice? Simply keep watching but do it with compassion. This too shall pass.

Even if I’ve failed to learn much else on the path, I think I have managed to figure out this one thing. It is not about getting holier each day moving in a neat trajectory. I’m not sure what it’s all about. But it’s not about that.

Now, when I catch myself sleep-walking through life, I no longer feel deflated, discouraged, or dismayed. I am much more at peace with it. And that weakens the power of the monkey mind. Non-resistance is a great source of strength. I could never really understand Mooji’s call to “be at peace with a chaotic mind.” I now know that it is definitely possible.

You can watch yourself do mental acrobatics with self-righteous guilt and blame, and think, “There there…this too shall pass.” Once the child has exhausted itself and collapsed after the tantrum, it’ll naturally calm down. And the Buddha is waiting on the other side. There is nowhere else to go. There is no escape from our Buddha nature.

This is not to say that discipline doesn’t matter, that sustained whole-hearted commitment is not necessary, or that “anything goes.” But I strongly believe that neither lack of discipline nor commitment, nor any other force under the sun, as Christians put it, “not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love.” (Romans 8:38, NLT) The Buddha’s heart overflows with compassion for me; his faith in me and commitment to me is unshakeable. Nothing can ever change that.

All of the above is just to say do not be discouraged. Ever. If you are reading this, rest assured, you’ve been trapped! You are secure on the path. You may get off track, do a U-turn or whatever, but you simply cannot choose another path. The path has chosen you. You are safe.

What follows are a few simple tools and suggestions to create an environment and a lifestyle that continue to remind you that you are a student, a disciple, a pilgrim. Always. Even when your life is filled with anything but peace, contentment, and equanimity.

The Environment

I like to draw living water from out of the well that is fed by the rivers of every tradition. I am quite eclectic in my spirituality and my home reflects that. Among my precious possessions are

  • a small statue of Ganesh, the Elephant God, from an ashram near NYC,
  • a beautiful Orthodox icon Mary and the baby Jesus (that reflects my cultural heritage),
  • incense sticks from London Buddhist Centre that I pop in for puja now and then,
  • a string of beads from the London Self-Realisation Society,
  • an audio-Bible on my phone,
  • an e-version of Ekchart Tolle’s The Power of Now on my laptop,
  • a magazine on spiritual accompaniment on the bedside table…

The list goes on. The point is, my flat and my environment in general are flooded with reminders of where I’ve been, what I’ve heard, who I’ve met, and what matters most to me.

Sometimes some of these reminders become like fridge magnets and I stop noticing them. Then I may introduce something new. But most of the time, these things are not wallpaper. I’ve given them a function. They are meaningful. They keep reminding me of who I am.

What does my weird collection represent to me? It reminds me that my past has been filled with spirituality, and so is my present and my future. No area of my life is free from meaning and purpose, as every moment in time and every place in space are part of my practice. I am never alone.

I am surrounded by fellow pilgrims even when I don’t have anyone physically present next to me. Behind the awe-inspiring diversity of beliefs and practices, there is unity and oneness underneath it all. Every one of us is part of the lineage. May we continue practicing in gratitude to those who came before us and in guarding the tradition for those who are yet to come.

Does your environment reflect your path, your identity, your truth? How can you make small changes to your bedroom or workplace to introduce a few things that would remind you of who and where you belong?

The People

Life is forever dragging me into some human drama where people and situations trigger me, and my behavior acts as a trigger for others. There’s no sense of perspective or wisdom or equanimity in my life. No one models any of that to me, and I fail to model it to others.

Without spiritually significant others in my life, I’d be entirely lost, thinking that the grown-up world really is just about bills and “commitments.” In the more balanced periods of my life, I may have a more stable relationship with such people (e.g., taking part in a meditation group regularly). At other times, I still try to make sure that these people are still in my life even if I’m not in regular contact with anyone in particular.

The longer you stay on the path, the more fellow pilgrims enter your life. Then there’s other people who are just naturally joyful, or naturally perceptive or compassionate. Talking to them reminds me to seek after what’s true and beautiful, and to not just stay a passive participant in the rat-race of life.

It’s important that I get an occasional email or message from those people. It’s vital that they get to hear from me once in a while. This infrequent contact isn’t too heavy to maintain, yet it punctuates one’s life with tiny reminders of who one really is, or rather who one isn’t.

If you are able to, just pop into any spiritually meaningful place that’s local to you. Even a five-minute chat with someone there would help you to feel like you’re on the right path again.

Send a quick “hi, how are you” to someone you met on a retreat or someone that you’ve connected with in another way, watch a YouTube video with someone who has been a long-term teacher or source of inspiration for you, or attend a live talk, online or in person.

Even a random one-off visit and a very occasional catch-up with someone who is after the same thing as yourself does miracles. This is especially so because you get to see how other people fluctuate between the states of being spiritually awake and asleep. They too occasionally fall asleep without falling off the path.

The Doing

It’s good if you are able to do things “properly” (e.g., you meditate once a day every day; you are part of a community where people deepen and grow in their practice together, etc.) But chances are, you want to do these things, but half the time you can’t get yourself to do much or anything at all. That’s fine. Just do something.

Pretty much anything goes. Watching inspirational videos, listening to thought-provoking podcasts, journaling, walking, doing mindful coloring, listening to relaxing music or sacred chanting, meditating, or sleeping. Anything that adds color to your life counts (e.g., a heart-warming film or a powerful theater performance, or enjoying a nice meal or learning the basics of self-massage).

You are in a classroom, so every life experience is part of the path, part of your practice. Just try and have a brief moment of mindful appreciation for whatever it is that you are doing. Give thanks. And just relax, enjoy it, have fun.

Remember also that rest is resistance in a world where we’re expected to do more, better, faster. So, be rebellious. Do nothing.

The Timing  

Yes, that is the most annoying and painful question. Just when do I get the time to stop and do anything vaguely spiritual?! I’d say this is about being creative and generous in your interpretation of what counts as spiritual practice. If your daily routine allows you to have a five-minute cup of tea or coffee first thing in the morning, that’s an awesome start to the day. That’s your practice.

When I can’t do it (most days), I make myself a cup of coffee at work and try to not turn my work laptop on until I’m done with my cup of coffee. At the end of the day, when I’m too tired to meditate, pray, read, or do anything else, I just turn on the pretty fairy lights and curl up on the little sofa for ten minutes. Just staring into space.

My other mindful pause is while air-drying my hands at work. It takes a little longer than doing it with a paper towel and gives me a couple more seconds of peace and quiet in the bathroom. Occasionally, I’d stand up and stare outside the window in my office. Two- to three-minute-long micro-breaks are powerful tools for grounding yourself in the moment.

Naturally, some days are so full-on, I don’t even have the luxury of taking the time to dry my hands properly. I just do it when I can. When I remember. Bringing attention back to the breathing is something that I find relatively easy and very helpful as this is how I meditate anyway.

Little but often is certainly best. In my books, “occasionally” and even “very occasionally” are still better than “not at all.” If you can take one mindful breath a day—even once a week—this is still a precious moment of mindfulness. It counts; it does make a difference.

No matter how much or how little “spiritual stuff” you manage to do on any given day, it’s the intention that counts, as the old saying goes. It really does. While the intention is there, the flame is burning. So, just keep it burning by taking those micro-breaks and filling your life with mini reminders to ground and strengthen you. In conclusion, let me remind you of my precious mantra:

Ever tried, ever failed, no matter. Try again, fail again, fail better. (Samuel Beckett)

About Elena Verigo

Elena manages a learning support department at a busy school in central London. Her work with adults focuses on creative therapy solutions for identity issues. Visit her at soothesands.com.

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