Is It Failure?
Ibn Khafif had two disciples, Ahmad the Older and Ahmad the Younger. He thought Ahmad the Younger was a better disciple, but everyone disagreed. So he set the two a test.
Ibn Khafif told each of his disciples to carry a camel onto the roof.
“But, Master,” said Ahmad the Older, “how can anyone carry a camel onto the roof?”
“That’s enough,” said Ibn Khafif. “Ahmad the Younger!’
“Here I am,” said Ahmad the Younger.
“Carry that camel onto the roof,” ordered Ibn Khafif.
Ahmad the Younger rolled up his sleeves and ran out of the house. Putting his two hands under the camel’s belly, he took a deep breath and heaved with all his might, but he couldn’t budge the beast. So he tried again and failed again.
“That’s enough,” said Ibn Khafif. “Now we all know who is the better of the two.”
Now what would we do if the Master told us to go back home and lift a camel onto our roof? Some of us might say, “Great! That’s got to be easier than meditating – than controlling our own mind.” And this just might be true.
But what if it wasn’t about getting a camel on the roof? What if it was about getting strong and obedient for an arduous spiritual journey? What if our failures to lift the camel were exactly what we needed to successfully move us to the next stage of our spiritual development?
What if our failures in meditation aren’t what they seem? When athletes want to strengthen their muscles, a good fitness trainer will coach them on what’s called, ‘working to failure’. This means they lift a weight that is heavy enough such that after a few repetitions they can’t lift it anymore. That’s the critical time. If the athletes stop at that point – if they give up then – they will not be very effective at building muscle. But if they struggle even for a few seconds in the face of failure, this effort sends a powerful signal to their brain telling it to build more muscle.
It is this very struggle while they are failing that is the real key to rapid progress in muscle building. The repetitions before the failure just serve to prepare for those few moments of struggle that produce the most effective growth of new muscle. It’s these last few moments of struggle that reveal the athletes’ depth of commitment to their training. Who knows, maybe it’s those moments of struggle in the face of failure during our meditation practice that are most helpful in our spiritual development.
Of course the struggle in meditation is of a different nature from the struggle of weight lifting. Weight lifting is pure force of will, whereas in meditation, force of will takes us only to the doorstep. Then we have to let go. Baba Ji says we have to sit down, say the names and let go. The first two of these take force of will at times. It often takes force of will simply to sit down – to get out of bed when we just want to sleep in. It takes force of will to go to bed early, not to overeat and not to let ourselves get pulled into the world so much that we move away from our meditation. It takes force of will to repeat the names when our mind wants to do anything but that.
But the third step, letting go, is very different. We have to let go even of our force of will at that point. It’s then that our meditation becomes, as Baba Ji has described it, like walking on the beach with the wind behind us.
Robert Fritz, author of The Path of Least Resistance, gives us another perspective on failure. He tells of his own experience as a music student:
When I first attended the Boston Conservatory of Music, the clarinetist Attilio Poto was one of my teachers. The first lesson he assigned me was a bit more difficult than I was technically ready for. After a week of diligent practice I still couldn’t play it well. When I went for my second lesson, I expected Mr. Poto would have me spend at least another week practising the same exercise. Instead, he assigned the next exercise in the book, which was even more difficult than the one with which I had struggled for the past week.
I spent the week attempting to play the new exercise, and when the time came for my lesson, I could not play it very well. I suggested to Mr. Poto that it was time to perfect my technique by focusing on that exercise for another week. Mr. Poto only smiled as he turned the page to the next, and more difficult, exercise in the book.
For three more weeks I was assigned progressively more difficult exercises to play, each of which I was unable to play well after a week of practice.
At the sixth lesson Mr. Poto turned back to the very first exercise he had assigned me—my exercise for the first week— and asked me to play it. Although I had not even looked at that exercise for the past five weeks, I was able to play it well. He then turned to the second week’s exercise and, again, I was able to play it well.
Had I spent six weeks attempting to perfect those first two exercises, I would not have been able to play them as well as I did that day.
This story offers us a valuable perspective, both on our lives and on our meditation practice. How many times have we felt that life has thrown us more than we can handle? We struggled and still felt like a failure. Maybe our struggles in the face of those failures were part of a larger learning pattern, helping us in the long run more than if the circumstances hadn’t been so overwhelming.
And in our meditation practice, how many times have we felt that we just couldn’t do it? What did we do when we felt that way? Did we struggle in the face of failure? Or did we give up? The Master has told us that if something is easy, anybody can do it, that it is a mature person who in the midst of adversity makes a success out of it.
So let’s embrace our daily ‘failures’ with perspective and acceptance and continue to struggle valiantly. In Spiritual Gems Maharaj Sawan Singh tells us:
We are not justified in saying that we cannot do it, or that it is impossible, or that it is useless. Here is a worthy pursuit for the application of our critical and other faculties.
There is no more worthy struggle than this to dedicate our lives to.
We have no idea how much effort our spiritual journey will take. But the rewards are unimaginable. As Great Master continues, “Those of you who remain faithful and go on working to the best of your ability must one day realize how great is the work you have done and how great is the reward which awaits you.” In answering a questioner who talked about how hard the path can be, Maharaj Charan Singh makes what may be one of the greatest understatements of all time. He answers very simply: “It’s a constant struggle with the mind … but it’s worth it.” (Die to Live).
It will certainly be worth the effort when we realize the ultimate rewards of everlasting peace, love and bliss that await us. But even the short-term rewards are worth the effort – the satisfaction of completing a good spiritual workout, the knowing deep inside that we are doing the right thing, the best thing for our eternal future, the feeling, however subtle, that we are with him, our one Friend – even if it is in the silence and darkness – the satisfaction that we are doing the one thing he has asked us to do, just to show our love for him.
The Great Master says it this way:
There is nothing equal to this way, and it gives more real joy and satisfaction than all else in the world. But to get that you have to go inside. It cannot be realized outside. All the world is seeking it in books, holy places, and association with people, but it has to be found inside. That is gained by steadfast meditation and holding your attention in the eye focus, without wavering. When you learn to do this, the treasure, which is yours already, will come into conscious possession, and you will realize more than you can dream of. Let nothing stop or hinder you. Let no earthly obstacles stand in your way of going inside. Set your mind steadfastly upon that and make all else subordinate to that, and other things will melt away and leave you free.