Zen Confidential: How to Fail Without Even trying

The sky is full of mushrooms today, grey clouds with puffy blooms covering the blue beneath threatening to rain over dusty,dry hillsides dying for a drink. It is 6:45 in the morning and my room mates alarm is going off insistently–first with a beep and then a sort of celestial tune as if the Swedish woman’s phone has found God in its details–and it’s my day off.  No Zenliness, no cleanliness, no work, no sitting, no expectation and apparently no sleep as this bugger of a phone will not shut up. She’s not here to silence it having gone eagerly ahead to begin morning meditation whether she needs to or not. I’m groaning; “fuck it, I don’t want to go.”

Two large candles light the wooden room and the flower scent of incense is moving through the Zendo as its smoke slowly dies. Faces are turned front and center, chins slightly upward as meditating Zen students sit erect in pressed black Samu (work) clothes. Only a glimpse of their bare feet reveal their humanity. Otherwise they are statues. Their hands in laps forming an oval, not so much as a hair moves. They are inviting their thoughts to rise up and drift past their feelings like the clouds outside. They are learning not to believe everything they think.

They can do it without me today.

All I can think of is AC/DC’s “Back in Black” and I’ve got it playing as loud as it’ll go in my ear buds. Now that I’m awake I might as well drown in my annoyance. I’m embarrassing myself with a rebellion against no one but I can’t seem to cool it. I’ve come to myself today like a great nor’easter without warning. I’m a storm raining all over, drenching my bones in anger and stupidity, even my blood is moping, slogging through me like its had enough of conscious eating and awareness. I’m in total revolt. Thinking everyone can see the madness in me,I hold up in my room and come out for brief coffee runs, my brain drenched in hurt and rejection as I say to myself a hundred times in a row; “I quit. It’s too hard.”

This madness seems to come like a chronic disease in cycles of every few days yet each time it hits I feel shocked and saddened as if I’ve never seen how this sitting and sanctity can make me mean.

The campus is nothing like my head- it’s growing quiet. Small, white flowers are poking through near the kitchen door of our dorm. After morning meditation herds of Zen students and masters have strapped on back packs and are heading to the brown, red hills under a huge desert sky where the weather can do whatever it wants to them. They don’t seem to care. They walk straight up rocks and river valleys past old hunks of twisted metal, once cars trying to make some daring run, through rain and sometimes snow past the dry canyons and red rocks, past the sharp cliffs and cactus to sit alone all day with their water bottle and serenity. I don’t have it in me today.

I feel rejection of the first kind. I am rejecting myself. Where does a lonely failure of a monastic go when trapped in the Santa Fe mountains in a deserted dorm? What do I say when my mind tells me I am a clumsy fool without the finesse for such a practice?

The Roshi here, Joan Halifax, recently called herself a Zen failure .At the time I took it to be a self effacing effort to be humble. But now it dawns on me between huge coffee swigs and frustration welling around my eyes-is it possible we are all Zen failures? Could it be that the thoughts rushing through my head begging me to quit are also in the heads of these people heading for the mountains? Maybe they go there to chase after those demons, to hunt them down and assassinate them, to pluck off their heads and scatter them under the wide and forgetting Santa Fe skies. My God, what if they are even in a small way like me? What if we’re all in the same fight?

I come down from my white room with it’s small white bed on a low platform and spotless tile peachy brown floors brooding in neon blue flannel pajamas (the only thing not black I brought) and run into Canada Carmen. She’s a red haired fifty year old, with round bamboo glasses,watercolor blue eyes and freckles across her pale skin. She looks a little Irish but proclaims her self, “A big time Jew.” She’s smaller than me, about four foot eleven and less than one hundred pounds, tougher too. She rides her bike all over British Columbia and the United States and can tell you from memory all the best trails and racks in most North American cities. She also lives in a bus on deserted Cortez island in the summer. She doesn’t mess around when it comes to advice; “Get outside, take a walk or grab a loaner bike. Don’t just sit inside!” I hum and ha around and finally she gives me a sliver of warmth; “okay I’m going for a latte; do you want to come?” Thank god or Buddha or who the hell ever. I feel rescued.

We walk through little alleys and streets past dozens of apricot stucco houses and barking dogs, through scrubby lots and for sale signs until we reach her favorite coffee house which unsurprisingly looks like a place right out of Vancouver B.C. It’s concrete floors and simple tables are stacked with old newspapers and magazines. People are crouched into corners with laptops and notepads. We order our coffees and sit. Between us there is no pretense of being Zen Masters. Canada Carmen whips out the pictures of her lovingly decorated school bus called “The Green Turtle” and laughs about the fact that she’s worked as an activist against big oil and urged people to turn away from their cars and now finds her home is an old bus. It sits on a cliff over looking a pristine harbor; “I pay one hundred bucks a month for that spot. It’s got a water hose and a million dollar view.” She talks about her bucket toilet and shows me another picture of her “dining room” which is two Adirondack chairs over looking the water on a grassy hill. I tell her it’s perfect.

We kill the rest of the afternoon laughing at our failed relationships and the jobs we’ve blown holes through, about our dads and our disappointments and we feel all too human, all too female and alright. I share with her the story of one of my favorite priests here telling me the saying about settling my mind and feelings. He said in the old days teachers compared the mind to an ox and they would say; :”Tie your ox to a pole” in urging students to let thoughts settle. I wrote a small Haiku about it:

“I tied my ox to a pole.

it stood very still

It froze to death in the winter ice”

I felt irreverent and sacrilegious in writing it and especially repeating it. We laughed until we cried. We just kept getting the same chuckle out of this poor ox of a mind freezing to death because it was so still. That’s how sitting in meditation can feel, like being so tethered you’re going to die until it doesn’t-until it feels like being a bird and flying over all your thoughts, feelings, worries and life. It can be just that horrible and just that good all at once. 

It can be a lot like life-feeling angry, lonely and a failure until you see a friend, retrieve a smile or realize no matter what you think you’re probably wrong.



One thought on “Zen Confidential: How to Fail Without Even trying

  1. Your desire to live an awakened life is deeply courageous and admirable. When I read your posts, I can feel the tremendous challenges you are going through. I personally do not have the patience and nature to do what you are able to do. My own search for life’s deeper meaning began about 25 years ago when I bumped into a practice that I have found imminently practical–Nichiren Buddhism with its daily chanting of Nam Myoho Renge Kyo through the lay Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai International (SGI) that I credit with positively affecting every single aspect of my life– I came to the practice of chanting not to uncover any particular spiritual truth, but simply to deal with the overwhelming suffering in my own life and the lives of those I loved so I was drawn to a very down-to-earth practice that offered a way to become unshakably happy and help others do the same.

    After reading your blog posts, I was curious to know more about the differences between Zen and Nichiren Buddhism and I found this online to further my own dialog with others who pursue the Zen path.


    I also found this article in Tricycle Magazine: http://www.tricycle.com/interview/faith-revolution

    I’d like to exchange views more with you after your experience.

    … If you’re ever interested, you can learn more about the approach of the SGI Buddhist association for peace culture and education at:
    The UK site: http://www.sgi-uk.org/
    The USA site:

    I continue to learn from your heartfelt efforts and praise your strength of purpose. You are one incredible poet of a woman with an unmatched mission who deserves to be outrageously happy.

    Your former student and fan,


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