Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Misery of Not Making Mistakes

The following little talk is from our center's monthly bulletin. It is from the same lay teacher, Ken, whose zazen in a chair I wrote about last week.

I began our conversation with a story, oh so important at the moment. Like many of our stories, a self-centered complaint: I had screwed up quite publicly in my sesshin assignment, just how I don’t remember, but it confirmed mistake-making as a tendency of mine, one I didn’t like. Tenshin-roshi’s response took me by surprise. “Are you OK with that?” That’s all he said.

I saw the reactions come up: “Of course not, why would I be OK with my mistakes? Why would I have brought it up?” But I heard him loud and clear. He had simply pointed out that I was only adding suffering to suffering with my story. I had set up camp in a notion of myself as a person who makes mistakes and I wanted to fix that.

We want to get things right, and with care we often do. My presence and clarity of mind are far from perfect, however, and my actions don’t always live up to my standard; I don’t always get it right. Moreover, I live in a radically interdependent way with all beings; “I” am not in control. I remember Katagiri roshi saying that because of our complete interdependence, we cannot live for a minute without forgiveness.

There is suffering in making a mistake: the simple realization that my actions didn’t measure up, and maybe my action caused discomfort for others. Oh, but I said public screw-up didn’t I; how about the everyday suffering of a little bruise on the ego? A mistake and its consequences need to be seen and felt, which is to say fully acknowledged, confessed. But then if I do not see its emptiness, how much suffering do I add by dwelling in the world of regret, by—and this is what it amounts to—hating rather than accepting what arises as the life of this moment?

Spending a lot of time on my own recently, I've been noticing some things about mistakes and my attitude towards them.

First, like Ken, I'm often not terribly happy with screw ups. Especially public screw ups that involve others. At the same time, I seem to be ok when a mistake doesn't appear to impact anyone but myself. Or if it's just a little screw up that doesn't "make much of a difference."

Second, I have a strong coward-bone that pushes me to do all sorts of things when I let it. Instead of taking a risk, I'll avoid something to minimize potential mistakes. Instead saying things directly and clearly, I'll try and soften my words, or make qualifications that will ease disagreements. Why? Because sometimes, my mind tells me that disagreements are mistakes, and sometimes I believe that mind.

Third, I don't regret very often. I'm not one to wallow in that kind of energy, or if I do, it's not too long.

Fourth, I'm coming to see that when you are always "trying to get it right" or "do it right," you are in a prison. Why is that? Because you believe you know where you need to go and what needs to be done, and then inevitably you'll fall short of the story. Living like this also saps creativity, spontaneity, and flexibility. It makes you heavy, anxious, and on guard towards others.

Fifth, I can feel the fears of being abandoned, rejected, and alone behind the concerns I have about mistakes. This isn't a little fear, either; it feels bone-deep at times.

To be honest, I find it challenging to be ok with the fact that much of life is out of my control. That even my best efforts might still result in mistakes. That I can extend all the kindness and generosity possible, and still might be met with abandonment and rejection. And that each of us is alone in a certain sense, even if we are also interwoven with everything else in the world.

The methods of damage control I employ around mistake making really are about avoiding these truths. And, also, fixating on them too much - as if I'm always going to be condemned, no matter what I do, which is just another story.

Most of the mistakes I have made over the years involving others have been quickly forgiven, or brushed off as not important or worthy of worry. In fact, as I have learned to tone my own reactions/judgments down, I have come to also be able to see when someone is over-reacting to something I did. Or over-reacting about something they did.

However, I'm still prone to wanting to "get it right," and might never be rid of that. And you know, I suppose I can learn to be ok with that wanting. It's not like I have to act on it.

Regardless, the way I'm starting to see it, it's kind of miserable to be one who puts extraordinary amounts of energy into not making mistakes. Perhaps you minimize some hurt doing this, but in the end, your life seems to be minimized in the process.


Anonymous said...

I appreciate your post. It satisfies my liking for posts about direct personal experience looked at from a zen perspective.

mistakes? As a painter, mistakes are the most creative source I have. They teach me lessons about technique and about what my paintings are about. what i mean is that sometimes the deep self is responsible for what i might intellectually tell myself is a mistake. looked at from this persective, the mistake becomes a door into clearer thinking about what really is happening.


Chana said...

From my experience there are no mistakes. We just latch on to some form of perfectionism that is idealistic. Now, the practice of mindfulness is important. But, we can break things, talk in an insensitive way to others, miss an appointment, fall on our face, tie a bad fishing knot, run over a good plant with our lawn mower, and the list will go on forever. Are we aware of our process uncritically? Can we let "mistakes" go and not cling to them? Can we make jokes about how enlightened we believe we are? :)
These are the questions to practice with, not trying to get everything "right". Thanks for the very insightful thoughts!


kevin said...

Thanks for the honesty.

I've often thought obsessing about mistakes is like intentionally poking a bruise or flexing an injured joint. Is it to see if it still hurts or what? Is there someway it can be touched or flexed that it won't hurt?

The only thing we can do is leave it alone and try to remember not to do whatever we did to injure ourselves in the first place.

But being too careful can result in injury as well by being more worried about messing up than doing it right. We get rigid and don't relax, resulting in injury.

My issue is usually the reverse and I can be come too laissez faire, having made a mistake. Rather than just letting go of the discomfort of having made a mistake, I tend to let the responsibility slip away as well.

I guess it's just like the old joke, if it hurts when you do that, just don't do that.

Nathan said...

Hey Kevin,

I think any messing around I do with mistakes is often about trying to "fix" what happened, or make it easier to swallow. I'm definitely more of the get rigid, stuck in fear type of person, not heading out of my comfort zone for fear of screwing up more. It's a foolish attempt to preserve a certain story I have about "myself".