Monday, April 5, 2010

Tough Shit! The Challenges of Giving Yourself Permission to Make Mistakes

For a variety of reasons, the following from a post over at Yoga Journeys struck me:

One of the hats I wear is that of ESL teacher. Last week in class, my students were struggling with a difficult listening exercise, and I found myself saying I give you permission to be wrong. I wonder if that shifted anyone's world the way it shifted mine. I give you permission to be wrong. How often do we explicitly receive or grant ourselves this permission? It's true that we are often told that it is OK to make mistakes as long as we learn from them, but in fact I think the overarching lesson of our society is that to be wrong is a terrible thing.

Giving yourself permission to be wrong is the first step down a path to unknown discoveries. It is the first step to learning, exploring, discovering and growing as a person. By not only walking that path fearlessly but also explicitly giving others the permission to be wrong, we can give the world a great gift.

Even after several years of Zen practice and even longer with yoga practice, I still get hooked pretty easily by mistakes. Sure, I think I can say that little mistakes, like bowing at the wrong time or forgetting to make enough copies at work, don't get to me too much anymore. But I sometimes find myself mired in fear of larger mistakes, larger wrongs that might occur. Being uninsured brings up a lot of this. There's the mistake of staying put in a job that doesn't offer heath insurance in the first place. And the mistake of being in the wrong place or doing the wrong thing and getting injured. And also the mistake of not getting some kind of medical help and getting sicker in the process. This is just one set of examples of potential trouble spots in life - difficult to "correct" mistakes and wrongs that society forgives poorly, if at all.

When I'm trapped in this kind of mindset, life is heavy and miserable. And I become more passive, more willing to believe all the bullshit our culture puts out about being self-sufficient and in control of your life at all times. People who know me know that when it comes to finances, and trying to be self-sufficient with not a lot, I'm near the top of the class. And yet, for all my frugalness, I'm still one step away from bankruptcy and yet another "burden" to the "taxpayers." The reality of that there's no way to be fully self-sufficient precisely because we don't live in a vacuum. In addition, there's no way to go through life without mistakes, including maybe some big ones that make things messy.

However, even knowing that, I still sometimes have a hard time giving myself permission to let go, live 100% alive, and maybe screw up a few things in the process. And why is that? Partly because I still can be a mirror of our wider society, terribly unforgiving, and relentlessly striving for perfection at the cost of my wellbeing.

I also find though that there's a class element to all of this. If you are a poor person, perpetually on the edge - your big mistakes easily can be your undoing. In fact, over the course of my lifetime, a sizable chunk of the middle class now hovers just above those at the bottom economically, and we, too, now experience the real perils that mistakes can bring. You put your retirement money in the wrong mutual fund? Tough shit! No retirement for you. You son got pneumonia and had to stay in the hospital and now the insurance company denies you coverage? Don't you fucking dare ask the taxpayers to bail your ass out. (Never mind that you are a taxpayer, too.)

Actually, this post is starting to piss me off. When you reflect on it, the lack of compassion and genuine concern and support for others in this country can be so astounding that you wonder how the hell we've made it this far in one piece. And I sometimes mirror this lack of compassion, pick your self up by your bootstraps mentality, mostly towards myself, which makes it all the more painful.

"By not only walking that path fearlessly but also explicitly giving others the permission to be wrong, we can give the world a great gift." I think we have to learn simultaneously step into our fears about being wrong, and making mistakes, and we have to figure out ways to wear out of some of this collective shame and blame in our society. How? I don't know exactly. This is where we have to start.


jmcleod76 said...

I definitely feel where you're coming from. One thing I've been noticing a lot in myself is a deep sense of shame when I'm not well. Our culture is so unsympathetic to people's suffering, so victim-blaming, that it's easy to internalize that and feel like any kind of illness or problem is one's own fault. Case in point, I recently found out I'm anemic. I had no idea until nearly passed out during service at the Zen Center one morning. I went out to get some fresh air, prematurely decided I was OK, went back to begin sitting, and had to leave the zendo again a few minutes later when waves of dizziness hit me hard almost as soon as I sat down. The, as the ultimate act of self-betrayal, I sat outside feeling guilty for getting up during sitting (which, at my practice place, is really no big deal - we're not very militaristic and you get no points at all from my teachers for machismo), feeling embarrassed for drawing attention to myself and making my sangha mates worry about me, and feeling like I should have somehow been able to prevent myself from becoming nauseous and dizzy. I actually felt a lot better about the whole thing once I found out what was wrong, and that is was something easy to fix. Even though I know we don't have complete control over our health, there is a part of me that invest in the idea that I should be able to keep myself well, and that failing to do so is a character flaw of which I should be ashamed. In this case, it was actually kind of true. As a woman and a vegetarian, I really should have been taking an iron supplement, anyway. It's an easy fix. It will take a few months before I'm "normal," but the problem, and the solution, are a simple matter of cause and effect. What about next time I get sick, though, for no other reason than that my body is breaking down, because that's what bodies do? I'm pretty sure I'll still be wrestling with internalized blame. Hopefully, it won't blindside me, though, because we've already gotten to know each other.

Anonymous said...

My supervisor said to me this morning that she doesn't want to have to " health care costs for people who are sitting at home and not working." I guess she forgot that I support an adult who is bipolar with PTSD who can't work, who was denied payments for disability for mental health reasons twice (apparently a routine denial in the state of Texas), who can't be put on my insurance. The next step is to hire an attorney, which we can't afford. We've attempted to work with a couple of attorneys, but they drop the ball and don't follow through. I guess this is not a moneymaking kind of case. So yeah, I get pissed off about these issues, too. Hey, some people *can't* work. Should they just die if they have medical problems and thus spare you the burden of helping others?

Nathan said...

I do my best to take care of my health. Eat a vegetarian diet with lots of fresh fruit, veggies, and legumes. I've learned a ton about plant medicine, grow my own medicine herbs, and care for a lot of things in that manner. I exercise everyday - am an avid biker. The list goes on and on. But at some point, a lot is still out of my control, just as it is for everyone.

Being sick in a group, especially in the middle of a spiritual group, brings up a lot of stuff. I've gotten ill during group zazen a few times, and had similar mixed feelings to what you experienced JM. I wanted to tough it out too, and did so for awhile in both cases before I just had to get up and leave.

Now that I've been a member of my sangha for several years, I don't think I'd have the same reaction though because people know me - they'd probably know that if I get up during a sitting period, there's a good reason for doing so.

Anonymous, I'm sorry to hear about your situation. It sounds difficult, and sadly too common. I sometimes don't know what people expect those of us caught in challenges around health care, and issues like it, to do. Maybe one positive about things crumbling as they are is that more and more people are dealing with health care crises, which maybe will help soften their hearts towards the rest of us struggling out there.

Unknown said...

"Tough Shit"...LOL!I also write a blog myself.(LOVE IN THAILAND) feel free to "Edit" out my address if necessary.I stumbled on your bloc via buzz).I read your post and the three comments,all of which our completely foreign too the type of Buddhism practiced in my new home of Thailand."Theravada Buddhist"practice Vispassana Mediation,which is not followed by most Thai practitioners.I only can tell you that living in a Thai home completely out of my "Normal" western way of doing things,has indeed given me many opportunities to give myself permission to make mistakes.I am also 60 plus years,so mistakes our part and parcel of having survive all these years.I had to chuckle over the comments about being bi-polar and having PTSD,as i have both of those "Bad Boys" in my locker.My comments our not meant to be unsympathetic,really they our supportive of any person who is seeking a better way to fulfil their lives.My blog deals with this change.I have a very mixed bag on my site,which is not intended to deal with the many forms of the practice of Buddhism.I can tell you and your regular readers,that the Western style of group meditation as a whole,does not fly in "Si Muang Mai" Thailand.I have "Turtles"sitting in a bucket of water and vegatation,waiting to go to the local "WAT",so my wife and i can perform a very strange ritual,that i have no clue about.Two days ago,i went with my brother-in-law and nephew"Banker" too get the "Numbers" needed for the up coming birth of a baby and the teenagers "New lucky name" Chaisire!My blog is not about going to a group meeting,but living 24/7/365 in a very old Thai Buddhist Culture,and learning just how to go about it!It seems too me,that years ago during the late 60's,i read H.Hess/Siddhartha.I do remember in that story,"Buddha/Siddhartha" was told by his Teacher,"You can't save your son from his own sins".I think that is also befitting my life and most likely,the rest of Mankind."Tough Shit"is a good read!Luckkyybuddha999

Nathan said...

Welcome Lukkyy and thanks for the comments.


Magpie said...

Ahh.. I'm still stuck in the "everyone else can have permission to make mistakes, but not me!" mindset. Working through it, but haven't quite reached it yet. I suppose that is why I practice, to extend my innate feelings of goodwill towards others to myself.

We all could use a kinder, softer touch with one another and ourselves.

Working in health care, every day I see the financial devastation that happens to people without insurance. One fall from a ladder can bankrupt a recently laid off young man. Health care reform has come much too late to America, but I consider it a very good sign that it has at least come.

Good thoughts for a future that brings you both joy and a bit more financial stability.

Anonymous said...

"In addition, there's no way to go through life without mistakes, including maybe some big ones that make things messy."

Ain't that the truth! The First Noble One, no less. Thank you for a fine piece of writing on one aspect of it - and something that I (fellow EFL teacher, uninsured, at any time days away from real poverty), can fully relate to.

Now, what was Truth Three and Four?


Nathan said...

Hi Magpie,

I think it's often easier to let others off the hook than ourselves. We can see others from the outside, but it's hard to let enough of our own mud settle to truly see ourselves fairly and kindly.

I'm not so optimistic about that health care reform bill. On the one hand, people in power are starting to see that the system as it is won't cut it. However, what they passed mostly is tinkering, and really doesn't touch the major money making players who are causing much of the trouble (insurance, big pharma, expensive medical device companies, etc) We need to move to a non-profit model of health care in my view.

Anonymous said...

Mmmm, I *so* hear this. Thanks for the reminder. It's interesting, too, to consider the differences and similarities among making a mistake, having an accident, and being a victim of a system stacked against you -- a system that 'bails out' some and punishes others. Seems like all three scenarios are represented in the comments.

The freedom to make mistakes and be wrong was one of the most exciting prospects for me when I graduated from college. Harvard was such an anti-wrong atmosphere that I was relieved for the breathing room of regular life, even though the consequences of messing up in the Real World are worse in many ways. But I guess that goes to show that the internal suffering associated with making a mistake is often greater than the actual consequences of the mistake itself -- which could even provide an opportunity, if we're on the lookout.

Magpie said...

I agree, the bill as passed will not fix the problem, merely scratch the surface. But it is a start, and for that I am thankful. Any change, even painstakingly slow change, is progress!

Unknown said...

In response to "Anonymous Said",I too went the full 12 rounds with State/federal agencies trying unsuccessfully to access my "SSD" benefits(3 years) and thousands of dollars.I will just say that my mental/physical health at a age close to retirement, precluded any employment options that i might qualify for.I am also one of the 'Survivors of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of the catholic Clergy"!All this being what it is"Karma",i can tell you i was compensated in the seven figures after a five year battle with both the State of Washing and the Catholic Church for my sufferings,and the loss of 25 plus years of my life from these injuries.I have spent tens of thousands of dollars fighting for my rights,and paying lawyers 40% plus expenses for this walk thru hell!I am healing,the same as my three siblings who also were exposed to the same abuse by the Church and state of Washington.Why am i telling you this story?It is not for sympathy for me,but to let you know that every person who deals with these hardships,has your spiritual back.I know how hard this road is to walk,and please believe me,you do not walk alone.Their was a certain man from India,who said,"some people suffer much,and others,who do not suffer enough!"Acceptance of your situation in life,does not mean you can't survive,and prosper! luckkyybuddha999/James

spldbch said...

I admire your passion!

I've struggled with giving myself permission not to worry about being "good enough." I became so worried about doing a "good job" that it was paralyzing. I'm working to allow myself to just do the job and see what happens. If I don't do a "good enough job" then I keep learning and trying to better myself.

Thanks for your post!

pwlsax said...

There is a deeply held American mindset that says that the price of a kind and peaceful society is having the will to do violence when necessary.

Applying the lesson to forgiveness: What if being forgiving of others is a right that must be earned by being unforgiving of ourselves?

We can suffer real pain for false reasons and beliefs. What if too much suffering - real or not - in our culture that comes from false causes such as being sheltered or self-centered? Would it not be a more urgent responsibility to not forgive people until the cause of their misfortune can be proven worthy?

What if, in the end, our failing is not being too callous, but being too kind to too many?