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?

I think that in some ways that's beside the point. It was a path that I would have liked to be able to face them and talk to them, but the people who we love live inside us and so I had to work with that part of me. We carry it around whether we can confront the person or not. And it's best to deal with it.

It would have been nice to talk with Roshi, but I couldn't have expected anything. He came from a very reserved society and I don't think he would have talked to me about it. And I don't think my father would have either. So ultimately, I would have been left on my own anyway.

At a particularly difficult point in your life, you indicate that you retreated into meditation-but almost as a way of hiding from, rather than dealing with the pain. You write about the "cool illusion of serenity."

Yes, I was avoiding things then.

I think that's something a lot of people could relate to. Do you think that sometimes, instead of spirituality being a way to work through a problem, it can become a way of avoiding something difficult?

Yes. We can use anything as a way to avoid things. It's very tricky. And in a way it's trickier with religion because you can say you're sitting but you can be sitting but daydreaming the whole time. So it's a very tricky thing.

How do you catch yourself, become aware that you're doing this?

Well, for me, I do a lot of writing. I consider writing practice a true Zen practice because it all comes back at you. You can't fool anyone because it's on the page. You know if you're writing bullshit or not. So that's what I do. I can't prescribe things for everybody.

Talk more about writing as a religious practice.

You're meeting your own mind [when you write]. And when I say writing practice-I've developed this whole thing that I've written about in "Writing Down the Bones"-this is rooted in 2,000 years of watching the mind. So it's not just "some creative thing that Natalie does." What it is is you keep your hand going and whatever goes through, you put it down. Just like in meditation: Whatever comes up, you keep sitting with it and you don't run from it... hopefully. At least, if you're really doing the work. Writing is a taskmaster because it's on the page. You can't fool yourself.

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