Infinite Mistakes

I used to teach an undergraduate course that included nine hours of basic meditation instruction coupled with guided practice. Some of the students choose to meditate for thirty consecutive days and maintain a daily meditation diary as a class project. Their diaries reflected how difficult it was for them to understand what they ”should be doing” during meditation, despite repeated instructions. It was hard for them to let go of their culturally acquired ideas about meditation—ideas that meditation meant blocking out external stimuli, or stopping thinking, or becoming blissfully calm:

“It was hard to tune out sounds and noise around me. I was distracted by the singing of birds outside my window.  Feeling frustrated…”

“Today’s meditation wasn’t as peaceful and quiet as the previous day’s because of waves of thoughts…  In the beginning I don’t think every single meditation will be completely perfect.”

Their diaries illustrated the expectational sets they brought to meditation: expectations about mental control, goal-oriented striving, and dualistic thinking. They often felt like ”giving up” because their expectations set them up for ”frustrating” experiences that convinced them they’d ”never get it.”  Those misconceptions might have been nipped in the bud through more frequent check-ins and feedback, but that was hard to do in a class of forty students, and there’s only so much students seemed to learn vicariously through the experience of others.

How much of this kind of floundering goes on in the zendo?

Years ago, a wise mentor told me I was allowed to make every mistake twice.

”Why twice?” I asked.

”The first time, it’s because you didn’t realize it was a mistake; the second time it’s because you didn’t realize it was the same mistake again.”

I now think my mentor’s advice wasn’t generous enough. Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, paraphrasing Dogen, used to say that human life was shoshaku jushaku— ”succeeding wrong with wrong” or ”one continuous mistake.”

This seems more to the point.

As meditators, we’re allowed an infinite number of mistakes—recognizing the same mistakes over and again constitutes the essence of our learning curve—learning over and over how to let things be without intention; learning over and over how to be present with everything that comes without judging; learning over and over to open up to the world without dividing ”inner” from ”outer,” or ”me” from ”not me.”

If you’re just starting out, try as best you can to remember that meditation isn’t about control, or stopping thinking, or unending bliss or, arriving at a place of perfection. It’s about opening to life as it is. You will probably fail at remembering this again and again. Be patient with yourself and with the process. When it feels like you’re accomplishing nothing, know that meditation isn’t about accomplishing anything.  When dinner cooks in a pot, the dinner isn’t accomplishing anything. 

Nevertheless, it’s transformed.

3 Replies to “Infinite Mistakes”

  1. beautifully captured, thank you.

    though, i am not sure “mistakes” is the word i would use. There are no mistakes…only ignorant actions. “mistake” conveys something we are not supposed to do. It takes a position.

    ignorance also takes a position, but it doesnt mean one cant be ignorant…we are all born ignorant. The difference between ignorance and wisdom, is the application/expression. Otherwise ignorance and wisdom are no different.

    infinite mistakes ?

    1. I’m not sure “mistakes” is the right word either! The “mistakes” are grist for the mill–they are our teachers–we learn from them. So let’s keep on making mistakes. Keep on failing until you don’t!

  2. if you put it that way, “mistakes” do look good, indeed.

    But your article, i thought, was trying to capture the living-essence (meta/spirituality if you will) , or some sort of ideal spiritual living.

    One should get past the view of mistakes/non-mistakes/right/wrong etc. to a world where their acts are intentionally pure. It is the concept of birth-death-cycle. Everytime one fails to sustain their intentional existence .. they die, and have another chance at next intentional action/existence (aka birth). There is such a state where one could birth an intentional existence … never die, or get foreclosed ever. (aka nirvana, end-of-birth-death etc.etc). Of course i am not talking about physical birth-death.

    For us mere mortals, every moment could be such an opportunity (not composed of infinite mistakes, but of realized/intentional formations … not necessarily of perfect-bliss ). This puts one’s dukkha squarely in the hands of one’s self (aka karma).

    bodhisattva practices are such intentional births …moment to moment. If we go back to old literature, it reminds of the parable of the saw, empty space, etc.

    The idea is to be in full control of how you come into existence at any moment. Is there such a “bhavana” where one’s life can be 100% such an intentional existence (no death) ? Even if not, these bodhisattva practices will almost get you there. The clarity is unmistakable.

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