The Value of Mistakes in Buddhism

No one remembers the Buddha as someone who made a lot of mistakes; they only remember his incredible kindness and wisdom. If we learn from the mistakes we make today, then we, too, will be remembered in the same light.
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Many people look to Siddhartha Gautama as an example of someone who attained nirvana, a buddha. Every other week in this column we look at what it might be like if Siddhartha were on his spiritual journey today. How would he combine Buddhism and dating? How would he handle stress in the workplace? "What Would Sid Do?" is devoted to taking an honest look at what we as meditators face in the modern world.

Every other week I'll take on a new question and give some advice based on what I think Sid, a fictional Siddhartha, would do. Here Sid is not yet a buddha; he's just someone struggling to maintain an open heart on a spiritual path while facing numerous distractions along the way. Because let's face it: you and I are Sid.

This week's question comes from A.L.: "How would Sid deal with lack of skillfulness when he blunders or makes a mistake? I often experience chagrin and shame, disappointment. I must have a harsh inner critic that is tenacious or something. Thanks."

We all make mistakes. Even the historical Buddha had a period when he made the mistake of over-compensating for his luxurious upbringing by becoming an ascetic and starving himself. He tortured himself under the name of spirituality. That's a big mistake. However, he would not have been able to find the middle way between the extremes of luxury and asceticism if he had not experienced both as something other than his cup of tea. In other words, mistakes are not a bad thing; they are the fodder for our spiritual journey.

We each have our go-to emotion when we make a mistake. It could be yours, that of shame or disappointment. Other people may get defensive. Other people try to place blame on anyone but themselves.

I imagine the first thing Sid would recommend is to take a long, honest look at your mistake. What factors brought you to the point where you made it? Were you speedy? Arrogant? What emotional and mental path took you to the point where you made such a blunder? Once you have figured that out, you can resolve to not make such an error again. Making the same mistake after resolving not to would be like walking backward down the spiritual path. It is also a sign that your regret was likely not genuine.

Sometimes when you make a mistake, you might feel like there are many other people to blame. For example, someone from work sees you acting the fool over the weekend with some friends, blows the whole story out of proportion, spreads it around, and the next thing you know, the boss is looking at you funny come Monday morning. You could blame your co-worker (and heck, that's easy to do) but you also have to realize that if you weren't acting foolish in the first place, then there would be no story.

The 11th-century meditation master and teacher Atisha is known for composing a series of pithy lojong, or mind-training, slogans. One of these slogans is "Drive all blames into one." Quite simply put, this slogan refers to the fact that instead of looking to external factors as the source of our mistakes, we need to own up to our experience. As Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche wrote in Training the Mind and Cultivating Loving-Kindness:

We could blame the organization; we could blame the government; we could blame the police force; we could blame the weather; we could blame the food; we could blame the highways; we could blame our own motorcars, our own clothes; we could blame an infinite variety of things. But it is we who are not letting go, not developing enough warmth and sympathy -- which makes us problematic. So we cannot blame anybody.

When we make mistakes, we often develop a sense of rigidity about ourselves. We either come down hard on ourselves or hard on others. We start blaming an amorphous "they" who ruin everything all the time. This is not helpful.

Instead, if you can look to your role in your mistakes, you can honestly see how to avoid them in the future. You can apply a gentle attitude to your exploration, suspending judgment about what a jerk you are. You can develop warmth and have some sympathy for yourself. Then you can acknowledge what you did and resolve not to do it again.

Furthermore, you can offset the negative actions you have done in the past by producing positive ones now. It may not be a one-to-one equation where you take your office out for pizza so that they think you're a swell gal. In fact, it may not be related to your mistake at all. However, you can use the knowledge that you have caused some form of harm as fuel for trying to cause some good in this world.

Over time, mistakes fade and people mature. Because we all have made mistakes, we all know that at some point we must forgive those of others. If you genuinely acknowledge your errors and work to produce positive actions, people will pick up on that. No one remembers the historical Buddha as someone who made mistakes; they only remember his incredible kindness and wisdom. Even though we make mistakes today, if we endeavor to learn from them, then we, too, will be remembered in the same light.

Have a question for this weekly column? E-mail it to this address and Lodro Rinzler will probably write about it in a future post.

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