Failure and the impossible goals of practice

“There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes to wash the dishes.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

A very interesting thing happens when you give an instruction like this.

One kind of student will come back and say “I did it! I washed the dishes, and I was completely present, and my mind was completely still, and it was a transcendent experience!” And then he will launch into some poetic blabbering about his breath, or the sun, or the gleam of the sun, through the window, off the bubbles onto his breath,… I don’t know. (I don’t have the ability to drum up nonsense like that, even for the purpose of making this point). In short, it’s nauseating, to everyone involved.

Another kind of student will come back and tell you that it’s nearly impossible. He will tell you what happened when he tried. And then he will tell you how he failed. He will tell you about his second and third attempts and how those also failed. He will tell you of his frustrations, and the obstacles he found standing in his way. He will tell you how he fears that it’s not possible to merely wash the dishes, and that when he saw all of the obstacles in the way he felt overwhelmed and dejected, like he will never get to the place where he can just merely wash the dishes. He will tell you that it made him want to quit the whole thing and just walk away. And then he will begin to tell you of the moment of recognition, the real moment of understanding of what this instruction really means, and what an incredible and powerful teaching this is. And then, as he is leaving, he will tell you how he can’t wait to fail at washing the dishes again.

The first kind of student is someone I call a phony, a person who doesn’t understand, doesn’t want to understand, and only uses spirituality and spiritual practices to feed his ego. To the first student, spirituality is about winning, achievements, and besting the practices (and everyone else he believes he’s in competition with). He collects these “winnings,” and believes that makes him superior to others. He climbs some kind of imaginary pyramid in his mind, thinking that at the top is a reward. And he foolishly lords his imagined winnings over other people, thinking that makes him more spirituality advanced. The truth is that he cannot bear to fail, but worse than that, he cannot face the truth or what the practice reveals, so he lies to himself about it. He is dishonest with himself, and with everyone else, about the work he imagines he’s doing. And because of that he can’t learn nor benefit from the practices.

This is usually an unalterable problem. A student who shows up this way, who approaches the work this way, cannot be recalibrated. His ego is too bloated, making him impenetrable even to the teacher’s attempts to correct him. To really see his mistakes, to see that there is no winning to be had, and that the path is really a series of failures revealing all of his flaws and weaknesses, signals a kind of annihilation to him, one he is unwilling to confront. (The kindest thing to do in this case is to suggest to him that he leave the field of spirituality altogether. Without the inner calling and capacity for real honest work, there is no reason to waste anyone’s time.).

On the other hand, the second kind of student is honest and sincere, but more importantly, he has the inner bandwidth to see himself truthfully, without the fear of annihilation. He wants to learn, to grow, to understand, so he engages with the practices authentically. And because he is willing to be honest with himself, he quickly reaps the benefits of his perceived failures. He understands how to use the instructions he is given – to make the attempt to implement them in order to illuminate the blocks. He understands that these blocks are the real substance of the work, and that the instructions given are meant to bring those blocks into focus. He lacks the arrogance and self-deception of imagining himself at a place he does not occupy, or conquering a practice that cannot be conquered, certainly not at the outset. He understands that growth requires lots and lots of falling down, and he’s willing to fall down without falling apart. This is the real humility, the threshold kind of humility that makes someone teachable, and a good fit for spiritual work.

Most spiritual practices, at their heart, function this same way. They are not given in order to be conquered or successfully completed. They are not designed like achievements to be collected. They are impossible ideals, impossible goals, which implemented correctly cause us to fail again and again. And with each consequetive failure, if we are honest, we are brought to greater and greater growth, healing, and clarity.

It is only in the failure to achieve the goals that the truths can be revealed.