Buddhist Philosophy

Failure: Learning from Our Mistakes

Failure: Learning from Mistakes


Failure is something we usually try to avoid at all costs. We don’t want to be a loser, so better not to get too involved. This is a common perception, especially these days. Phakchok Rinpoche in this audio teaching explains that one main reason we fail — both in mundane and spiritual life — is we lack decisiveness.

We are afraid to commit to anything, so we are always questioning. Many young people now worry about what to do with their lives. They ask for advice, but they often won’t take the necessary step of fully engaging in something. Why? Because they are worried about failure. And what is the result? Depression, often.

Failure: It’s Really Not So Bad!

We make a mistake by making failure into some sort of monster to fear. Instead, let’s use a different approach. Go through the process and try doing something. Fail once! Then get up again and re-engage. Do something!

And, again, try and then fail. This may seem really frightening, but if we ask older people, we understand that this is how we learn. We aren’t going to be perfect immediately. Realistically, all of us won’t be perfect all the time. That is OK! We really need to learn how to fail again and again. And we need to know how to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and start over.

Failure: Part of the Spiritual Path

On the spiritual path, we find the same issue. We need to be decisive about our practice. In the beginning, we may feel like we are failing. Or we have fears and think we will never succeed. That’s normal. But we need to just keep practicing. That’s what diligence means. We shouldn’t give in to our doubts about failure and just decide to stop practicing. On the spiritual path, we arm ourselves with decisiveness: I’m following this path and I trust it! With that attitude, we can lose our fear of failure. We understand that the fear is baseless, and we move on!

Failure: Importance of Acceptance

Phakchok Rinpoche often reminds us to accept, expect, and not be depressed by failure. For more encouragement from Rinpoche see The Importance of Failure.

Reflection Questions

In your daily life, can you start to observe how small fears are preventing you from doing or trying new things? Really observe your own thoughts and behavior this week. Can you feel this as a physical sensation? Now, take some more time to examine those fears: are they realistic? If you did whatever you are frightened of, what would happen if you failed? What would failure feel like? Do you think that you could accept that? Even laugh at it a bit?

On your spiritual path, examine your determination. Try making a decisive step in your practice: maybe it is setting a specific short time for your meditation. For at least a month, commit to that. Whatever time that you choose, make that a habit. 

At the end of a month, observe your progress. If you failed in meeting your daily goal, were you able to get back on the cushion the next day? Feel how resolve and determination strengthen your practice. Can you accept any slips with a sense of humor and gentle self-encouragement?

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Suggested Reading

Dudjom Rinpoche, The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, trans. and ed. by Gyurme Dorje and Matthew Kapstein (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1991), vol. 1, pages 468–474.

Ngawang Zangpo, Guru Rinpoche: His Life and Times, Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2002.

Nyoshul Khenpo, A Marvelous Garland of Rare Gems: Biographies of Masters of Awareness in the Dzogchen Lineage, trans. Richard Barron (Junction City: Padma Publishing, 2005), pages 41–48.

Padmasambhava, Legend of the Great Stupa, Berkeley: Dharma Publishing, 1973

Padmasambhava & Jamgön Kongtrul, The Light of Wisdom, trans. by Erik Pema Kunsang (Boudhanath: Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 1986-1999), pages 43-47 & Appendix 5.

Taranatha, The Life of Padmasambhava, Shang Shung Edizioni, 2005

Tulku Thondup, Masters of Meditation and Miracles, Shambhala, 1996.

Yeshe Tsogyal, Life and Liberation of Padmasambhava, translated by Kenneth Douglas and Gwendolyn Bays (Emeryville: Dharma Publishing, 1978, republished 2008).

Yeshe Tsogyal, Lotus Born: The Life Story of Padmasambhava, Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 2004.

‘The Life of Guru Padmasambhava’ in A Great Treasure of Blessings, The Tertön Sogyal Trust, 2004.