Spirituality & Mistakes
Hello, today I’d like to explore another wonderfully risky subject – the connection v spirituality and mistakes. I don’t know why I am doing this series. I must have some kind of spiritual death wish…only time will tell whether this whole series is a mistake!
What are mistakes? Are there mistakes? What is your relationship to your own and other’s mistakes? Do mistakes trap us or can they free us? Can there be such a thing as perfection and mistakes?
These questions run deep. This is not just philosophy. These questions underpin our everyday lives. We live inside them. We may not have thought about them, but they affect us deeply, whether we are spiritually minded or not.
I’d like to begin by just saying a few words about the art of Contemplation and its role and power in tackling these kinds of deep questions.
Contemplation is a great deal more than thinking. Contemplation means we create a space inside ourselves, a vacuum of openness, of open-mindedness, of open-heartedness. And then we drop a question into that still pool and we watch the ripples. For many of us this is a great challenge – to empty ourselves out of opinion, of judgement or self judgement, even of curiosity. And then to wait, to wait until inspiration arrives, like the first shafts of sunlight piercing the echoing darkness…
There is a lovely term that comes from the Greek – Kenosis. Kenosis means ‘to empty oneself out’. It’s similar to Catharsis, which means to purify oneself by throwing stuff out. The difference in Kenosis is the way. There is no violence in kenosis. No need to weep or fast or any of those purifications that come with catharsis. Contemplation employs kenosis because it is a gentle approach. Essentially you wait. I’ve spent months contemplating this subject – spirituality and mistakes. I’ve watched the ripples going out and out, my ideas, my thoughts, questions, confusions. And one day you just hit this space of emptiness. All that stuff has just moved through in its own time, not through anything I’ve done.
Contemplation is like this – its kenotic – it empties you. First thoughts exhaust themselves, then feelings, then even the will to go on. And when that happens then you are ready, you are empty. And then insight comes, then clarity comes. And it comes so softly, and with such love. That’s the gentle power of contemplation. It empties you out.
So please try and come here with a beginner’s mind. Likely you have some deep-seated views about this subject of mistakes. Le’t explore our minds and use this contemplation as a way to cut through some layers in our thinking.
The answers always come in silence. That’s the paradox. I can’t say them out loud. They aren’t formable as words. But I can share some of the process with you, and maybe that will help you see how this all works. But don’t expect answers. This isn’t about that. What it may show you is what Contemplation is and how it works, and perhaps that will then inspire you to take it up for yourself. It’s the most beautiful path to Truth. But it isn’t structured like meditation. It can’t be turned into a technique so easily. And it isn’t like yoga or any of those things. It’s the subtlest path.
And one final thing – it doesn’t matter what subject you pick. Money, Mistakes – you can pick anything and the process is the same – when insight comes, the heart opens, and that’s the whole point. So it isn’t about the subject – its about our opening up from within. In that sense, contemplation is a path, a way, a tool and an art – to open us up to the mystery beyond words, beyond our thoughts, beyond our understanding. It’s the path of wisdom. That’s what it is.
So I’ve been contemplating this notion of mistakes for months now. I have some notions around it. It has become very clear inside me. I hope I can transfer some of that clarity to you through this transmission.
Here is a quote to get things started:
“ Human life is truly a short affair. It is better to live doing the things that you like. It is foolish to live within this dream of a world seeing unpleasantness and doing only things they do not like. But it is important never to tell this to young people as it is something that would be harmful if incorrectly understood.
Personally, I like to sleep. And I intend to appropriately confine myself more and more to my living quarters and pass my life away sleeping.”
I love this quote. It’s from Hagakure, the Book of Samurai written in the 18th century. Its a treasure of wild wisdom. And what he’s saying, apart from being very funny, is that in life you should do what you want. You should do things that bring you pleasure. But then he qualifies this by saying but don’t tell young people this! They’ll misunderstand it and use it as an excuse for all manner of things.
I also like this quote because it comes from maturity. It comes from a deep contemplation of life, from someone towards the end of their life. It comes from someone who has lived and learned from their mistakes.
And like all truth it is filled with freedom. He just wants to rest. He has given upon caring about the world or fame or what others think – he’s just going to enjoy sleeping. That’s going to be his contemplation. His simple joy.
So our first insight might be this – that mistakes can be our allies. They can be our friends rather than our enemies. They can one day lead us to freedom, but that freedom can’t be borrowed. It must be realised from within, from living and learning and maturing.
This insight alone can change a person’s life – imagine your life with this attitude – every mistake you make is an ally, and instead of tensing up, you breathe deeply when it happens because you know you are about to grow.
As I begun my own contemplation on mistakes, I obviously thought about my own life and some of the big mistakes I’ve made down the years. This is a good exercise to do. What do you consider to be your mistakes and where have they led you? Or do you not think you’ve made any? That is also a viewpoint. I’m not saying that any one view here is correct. I’m just exploring…What’s the biggest mistake of your life? Thats a good place to start. Most of us immediately know what that is – often when we dig a little deeper, it’s when we have caused another, or others pain. And the mistake may not be one thing either, like an event. Possibly it could be a whole mindset, a whole way of being that we just wish we could do away with. That’s another way of looking at mistakes. They aren’t just events. They can be. But they can also be a worldview – a kind of pessimism, a depression or repression even. And we see that as a flaw on our part – some aspect of us that isn’t good enough, that doesn’t measure up…
In my book, the Gene Keys, which is a modern reworking of the Chinese I Ching, I explore the 64 primary archetypes of human behaviour. Each archetype, called a Gene Key, consists of 3 levels, a Shadow, A Gift and a Siddhi.The Shadows are all the selfish, victim patterns that we humans get stuck in. One good example is the 29th Gene Key – the Shadow of this one is Half-heartedness, so anything you do in a half-hearted way keeps you trapped. If you are in a half-hearted relationship, it will be miserable for you both, but maybe you stay in it for one reason or another. If you are in a half-hearted job, it won’t be good for anyone – you wont be productive, or creative, and you will tend to cause confusion and things won’t really flow for you….That’s halfheartedness. The Gift of this GK however is commitment. And the Gift is always hidden in the Shadow.
So half-heartedness conceals the gift of commitment. What does this mean? It means that through being aware of the things you do in a half-hearted way, you get to learn about commitment. Unless you have commitment you will find life keeps slipping away from you, nothing substantial can form or crystallise around you – no purity of awareness, no flowering of love, no evolutionary rhythm. Commitment brings all these things, so it teaches us a great deal, as does the Shadow of half-heartedness. This teaching is the very basis of my work – the Gene Keys – that all mistakes are reckonings. They are wormholes to freedom, if we have the courage to dive through them.
So on a personal level, I’ve learned about commitment through my relationship mistakes – I’ve learned through my own half heartedness. And I’ve learned about honesty through being dishonest. Ive learned about prudence and patience through impetuousness. I’ve learned about forgiveness through my anger, my blame and my self judgement. Self judgement seems to be a huge aspect of our contemplation on mistakes. It keeps coming up. At every turn, there it is.
In spirituality, there’s this notion of the perfect teacher or master. It seems to me that there are two types of master – there is the flawless example of perfection that is extremely rare. As a wise man once said: show me something that’s perfect, and I’ll show you something that isn’t!’. Scratch the surface and we are all human. We are a spectrum. Awareness dances inside us along the spectrum between vanity and purity. Even the purest human being must have some in-built flaw, otherwise they would not be a human. Only the Angels are flawless. This is why the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke, a deeply spiritual man, begins his greatest work The Duino Elegies with the simple sentence: Every Angel is terrifying. I love that…so there are the pure teachers, and then there are the other ones…
the teacher with flaws, or the teacher that openly makes mistakes but atones for them honestly and with humility. I mean not all teachers can do this. Many of them hide their mistakes.
In spirituality we have inherited this notion of the impeccable master – the being who is beyond mistakes. All manner of dishonourable and disreputable behaviour has been excused in the name of a higher spiritual insight, as though bad behaviour in a master or teacher somehow has a meaning that we cannot understand. There may even be some truth to that, but the bottom line is this is about honesty. We are all human, and humans are fallible. I’d like to pick an example of such a teacher – Chogyam Trungpa. A Tibetan teacher who lived in the last century….a wonderful enigmatic man …. And he was infamous for his immoral behaviour – people called it – crazy wisdom. He slept with his students relentlessly. He discarded them and mis-treated them. He is just one example of literally thousands of spiritual teachers who fall pray to what really looks like ego.
Trungpa undoubtedly had access to higher wisdom. He was a great spiritual teacher, but was he a master? What is a master? Might a master be someone who learns from his or her mistakes? Who changes and learns and grows and is humbled by his or her mistakes?
My point is that its a delicate and subtle balance. Truth gets mixed in with positionality. Even the crazy teachers get locked into patterns. Can they change? `the real test is can they change? I don’t know about Trungpa. Not being him, I can never know, so I am not here to judge him. In fact I thank him for his totality, if nothing else, so we can use him as an example for our contemplation…
Mistakes of course are bound up with ethics and morality. Who is to say something is right or wrong? We seem to have an in-built metre that tells us when we have overstepped a mark somewhere. So perhaps this is about Ethics, but not as a fixed set of parameters. Perhaps this is about a Wild kind of ethics that we learn from within. If we react to ethics, either for or against, then we are fixed, conditioned. We may fall prey to the Dogma of teachers and teachings. I was always amused by one of my early teachers, Ra Uru Hu, a self-claimed heretic and founder of a system called HD. Ra was surely irreverent and a genius and a heretic. He loved to overthrow morality and all these concepts, but then he was a heretic who could never stomach others being heretics. When others, like me, took his teachings and breathed new life into them, he felt he had to cut me off. I don’t blame him, and I don’t judge him for it. I am simply calling it as it was. We are far from perfect, and those who teach are the most fallible. I often counsel my students to take care not to put me on a pedestal. I will disappoint you. I am bound to do so, I know how flawed my character is. I always think of Walt Whitman’s wonderful statement: Im as bad as the worst, but thankfully I’m as good as the best.
How deeply we are conditioned by our spiritual teachers and teachings? Are we fluid like the Tao? How seriously does a spiritual teacher/teaching take itself? Mistakes exist and yet they don’t exist. This is the Paradox of Truth. It’s easy to say ‘there are no mistakes’. I have said that myself once or twice. But what are its implications? If there are no mistakes, does that mean there is only fate? Freewill is bound up in this question as well.
Out of this contemplation I have devised a map. This is my Core Metaphyics – a map of your Positionality with regard to mistakes. You are somewhere in this map. Take a look at it. Can you find yourself in these 4 hoops?
So there are 4 hoops. Each hoop is a position connected to spirituality and mistakes. You can say that you don’t fall into any one of these belief structures, but the truth is you are! You just have to dig a bit deeper….
Describe the map….
You may have moved, like me, over time, between the hoops, with your position changing. Examine your belief structures. Be honest. I have been in several of these. Here you will find all the religions, all the materialistic paradigms, atheism, pantheism, all of it. This is a map of the Maya – the illusion of belief. The great breakthrough that this map offers is the centre. The only true safe place is in the centre. From the centre you can take any of these positions, but you remain at the same time in the centre, aware of your position. This is the only place where wisdom dwells. Spend some time contemplating this map. It can really open up your mind.
There is this lovely teacher called Mooji. You can find videos etc…one of them is simply him laughing with one of his students. This is the centre. Can you be nowhere? Can you be the laugher?
So what is a mistake? Lets dig even deeper for a moment….
I would say that one potential definition of a mistake is an act that causes oneself or another harm. Of course there are exceptions. If you harm another in defence of another or yourself, that is not the same thing. But a mistake that harms another or yourself can be a great teaching if you let it in. You need to feel the guilt, or the regret or the shame. These feelings are our human markers of a mistake. Consider this. Take Shame. Haven’t we been endlessly bred to feel shame? Shame from our teachers when we were young, shame from our parents and enemies perhaps? Shame seems awful, as does guilt. They are cancerous energies if we let them eat us away. But what if these feelings can also be our teachers? What if shame could become my ally? Maybe I did something that needs me to feel that shame. And what if I really, really let the shame in? Most of us find this really hard. But I recommend you really let these feelings in, so they can come out. Deep shame or guilt, when listened to, can create a huge opening in us, a great humbling. And then of course comes forgiveness. How can we talk about mistakes without talking about forgiveness? Perhaps the purpose of mistakes is forgiveness.
Think about your mistakes. Have you forgiven yourself for them? Have others forgiven you? Forgiving yourself doesn’t not have to include you being forgiven by others. According to the Gene Keys, Forgiveness is a Siddhi – a holy power of grace that travels backwards in time from the future to the past, freeing humans from their karmic mistakes. And when we open to it, when we let our own suffering in deep enough, when we feel the shame or the guilt or whatever it is, then we can also let it go when we are ready, and then forgiveness touches our soul, and it feels like the sun has come out from behind the clouds. Such a beautiful feeling. And it has its own timing. It has to be gently courted. It has to be invited in. We can’t chase forgiveness down.
My journey has been one of self forgiveness. I have hurt those I love. I have felt that shame deeply. I still feel the remorse inside me. Probably it will never go away. Maybe it even keeps me humble. But I have listened to that shame and that guilt and its changed me. Slowly, slowly I have learned to forgive myself. And I’ve also learned something magical: The more forgiving we become of ourself, the fewer mistakes we make, because our love and self respect prevents us from doing things which harm ourselves or others. We become in a way, purer of heart. We allow more love in.
It’s not that we become purer. It’s that we remember our innocence again. We are all children, and as with all children, we need a combination of both boundaries and gentleness. We have to learn to parent ourselves…
One of the great challenges is to allow those we love to make their own mistakes and have their suffering. Every parent knows this. And Again this is a balance. Too much detachment here is impassive, too little is invasive. Love and wisdom always finds this equilibrium. So think about this the next time you try and save someone. Is it your pure intention, or is it your own discomfort with their suffering? Your intention may be totally noble, but it may also be inappropriate. It depends on the circumstances. You can only find out by living. These are questions that can only be lived. I don’t have answers. Each question, each person is unique….
The Body is greatest teacher. You drink too much or eat too much, the next day you feel bad or are ill. It teaches you balance. It’s an intuitive awareness. Its subtle. `contemplation teaches us this from the inside. The Earth is a classroom. We are not here to be perfect. We are here to perfect ourselves. Perfection is a verb. It’s eternal, it’s never-ending….So I recommend really listening to your body. This is the presence I spoke of earlier. The answer to all these questions is only to be found with presence. You accept yourself as you are right now, and if you can’t accept yourself, then just try allowing first. This is something I talk about in my book on C…allow, accept embrace…explain…..
I’d like to bring this contemplation to an end by talking about something else here. I’d like to talk about what I call The art of apology.
If you are going to admit you make mistakes, and I think someone who doesn’t would be intolerable, then you might like to learn to properly apologise! And this is an art – to know when to apologise and how to apologise. I mean this might be the most practical thing you get from me today.
Apologising is a hard thing to do. Its supposed to be hard. If it were easy, it wouldn’t carry transformation. And a proper apology makes you really vulnerable. Its a kind of reckoning. My old teacher at school used to say ‘if you were sorry you wouldn’t have done it!’ Like that makes sense!
Here’s a few examples of good apologies:
I’m sorry I said that. It was insensitive of me. Or it was an insensitive thing to say.
I’m sorry I did that. It must have been hard for you. Or it must have been painful or hurtful.
These are empathic and they don’t try and gloss it over. They don’t try and make YOU feel better. They are solely concerned with the other.
I’m sorry but you really hurt me. I love you.
This sounds good but it doesn’t engage with them. This ‘I love you’ is said for oneself, nboit for the other. You don’t say I love you in the middle of an apology. It can come later, once the healing has occurred.
I’m sorry. You made me crazy.
I’m sorry…I was so angry about what you did/said etc…..etc etc excuse excuse. – There is NO excuse. It happened, just own it!
I’ve experienced some truly appalling apologies in my time. I mean some people make such a hash of it that they actually pour salt into the wound.
The worst and most heinous apologies you can always tell because they use the word ‘you’. You made me feel, you were being crazy. You is accusational. It takes the apology away from I. And apology is always about I. I made a mistake. I misjudged you. I was an idiot. These are good apologies. And if you can, add the empathy – I was an idiot and it must have felt horrible for you…
Apology is an art. Try it! You have to realise the other person doesn’t want to hear an excuse. They don’t want to have it glossed over. I mean you can give flowers or something, but its not as good as simply being vulnerable. They want to feel that you feel their pain. I was an idiot. That is a middlish apology. Sometimes it breaks the spell, sometimes it doesn’t. Its easy to say. The thing that isn’t easy to say is the one that has the power in it. And be careful about being a serial apologiser. There are people like this in the world. They go on making mistakes and they go on apologising for them, but they never seem to learn or get any better. Ah bless them! We all learn at our own pace, in our own timing.
OK. Some views from friends on mistakes.
Pope – everything that is, is right. Moral essays.
Lao Tzu – “A great nation is like a great man:
When he makes a mistake, he realizes it.
Having realized it, he admits it.
Having admitted it, he corrects it.
He considers those who point out his faults
as his most benevolent teachers.
He thinks of his enemy
as the shadow that he himself casts.”
Vedas – actions that create negative karma by violating ethical or moral codes, leading to negative consequences
Adyashanti – ‘to be without anxiety about imperfection’ – Zen quote.
The kernel is this: A balance is needed:
The freedom of there being no mistakes, but coupled with a natural morality rooted in harmlessness. So please do not think that I believe that mistakes even exist. They do and they don’t. Contemplation loves a paradox!
Mistakes can be holy. Are they not the portals to Grace? How have you turned them to your advantage? You do not have to carry this guilt inside…let out go, befriend it, move forwards. Make amends. Be loving towards yourself and then you will make less of those so-called mistakes. In your relationships, allow each mistake you make to open your heart wider, rather than closing you down in guilt or shame. Forgive yourself and move on. Tell yourself you will do better next time, and make sure you do better!
The integration of your mistakes. Antonio Machado.
Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old mistakes.
Failures, mistakes, shadows – we all have our stories. We have to find a way back to love. This is what the ancients called Karma. We purify our karma. We atone for our sins. We repent. We accept the pain and transmute it, and over time, we learn how to truly love ourselves deeply, so that we begin to live in the field of forgiveness. Forgiveness is a field. We have to raise our consciousness into it.
Perhaps this is mastery – to use everything as a means of opening wider to life and love and Grace. To make honey from our wounds, and then to share that honey with everything and everyone around us…
Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old mistakes.