What Failure Can Teach Us

Buddhist writer Natalie Goldberg talks about how the darkest aspects of our lives can be the most spiritually illuminating.

Natalie Goldberg, a practicing Buddhist for more than 30 years, is the author of 10 books, including the best-selling "Writing Down the Bones", a guidebook for writers. Goldberg considers writing a spiritual exercise, and it has helped her come to terms with her relationships with her father and her teacher, Dainin Katagiri Roshi.

In ways her birth father never was, Katagiri became a trusted mentor, and she practiced Zen with him for 12 years. But the idealized image she had of her beloved teacher shattered when she learned, after his death, of an inappropriate relationship he'd had with another student. Goldberg's decision to write about his transgressions publicly has cost her many friends in the Zen community who want to protect their teacher's reputation. Goldberg believes she is in fact honoring Katagiri by acknowledging the whole truth of his life, both good and bad, and considers his flaws with compassion rather than judgment.

In "The Great Failure" Goldberg faces the demons of both her father and her teacher. Using her own experiences as a guide, she spoke with us about how difficult times can help us grow spiritually.

How can failure be useful to us spiritually?

Failure is what we're all running from, we're always running toward success with failure at our back. And actually, which one of us has never failed or never been disappointed or betrayed? What I learned to do was to step back and enter the heart of failure. There are a lot of jewels there for awakening.


Are there particular ways to work with failure, other than acknowledging it?

I think what I did in the case of my father and Katagiri Roshi-two people I loved very much and who also betrayed me-I really entered that betrayal. I didn't cut off the love; that's what we usually do-we either make it black or white, success or failure. "The Great Failure" is about embracing both.

And how do you do that? Well, you can practice, you can go to therapy, you can write about it, cry a lot-you know, it's kind of a practice of grief because we have an idea that we won't fail. You know so it's a process that we're human beings and on this earth and that we're going to fail, we're going to be betrayed, we're going to be disappointed, and the world is not the way we thought it was. So it's really entering a process of grief in some ways and being willing to enter that pain.

Do you think it would be harder or easier for you to come to terms with the ugly truths about your father and Roshi if they were alive now?

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