Years ago I was leading a meditation session on the topic of forgiveness at Reciprocity Foundation, a homeless aide organization in New York City. Afterward a young man, perhaps 22 years old, approached me. His grandmother often talked about forgiveness and he wanted to share a piece of her wisdom with me, something that he had found invaluable while living on the streets. “One hundred of the same mistake is regressive,” he said, “But one hundred different mistakes is progressive.”
The words of this young man captured my heart, as I have found this to be true in my spiritual journey. If you ever crack open one of my books you will see that half of the credit for the meditation teachings goes to the brilliant teachers I have studied under and the other half is directly as a result of a simple fact: If there is a mistake to be made on the spiritual path, I have made it and, I’d like to think, learned from it.
We all make mistakes. Even the Buddha made mistakes along his road to enlightenment. After he liberated himself from a cloistered upbringing he spent years literally torturing himself through various practices in the name of religious awakening. That was a big mistake. Ultimately he found a practice that made sense to him, but first he tried out a number of ways of pursuing spirituality that caused himself harm.
I would argue that the Buddha wouldn’t have been able to discern that the simple breathing practice he engaged in was so effective if he hadn’t tried so many other things first and realized they were not for him. Mistakes aren’t a bad thing; if the Buddha’s story can tell us anything it’s that they are fodder for our spiritual journey.
Since mistakes occur a fair amount in our lives, we have a lot of fodder. Say you want to be a “good” meditator and sit a great deal all week but then Friday rolls around and you decide to go out with friends. You have had a hard week so you have one too many drinks, upset your friends, obnoxiously hit on a member of the sex you’re attracted to, and wake up hung over in awe of the carnage you have wrecked in your own life and relationships with others.
The first thing to do is think through how the mistake came to be. What are the causes and conditions for your faux-pas? Were you too speedy? Arrogant? Should you have had less to drink? Or not gotten drunk at all? Looking at the “why” behind your activity is important, and in particular when it comes to mistakes. Seeing our mistakes clearly and acknowledging how they arose is the first step in making sure you don’t repeat them.
The second step is to resolve not to do that particular thing again. It may even be helpful to stand in front of the mirror, look yourself in the eyes, and say it. “I won’t do X again.” If that’s too intense, place your hand on your heart and just say it aloud to the empty space in your living room. Verbalize your resolution to not make the same mistake twice. Repeating the same mistake one hundred different times is like walking backward down the spiritual path. By proclaiming aloud that you won’t do that, you offer a certain gravitas to your commitment.
I do want to inject a side of gentleness to this discussion. Most of us, when we make a mistake, spend the next week, month or even years beating ourselves up long after anyone else remembers what it is we did wrong. When you make a mistake, acknowledge it, resolve not to repeat it, and be gentle to yourself in offering a sense of forgiveness.
The next step is to visualize how you can avoid this mistake in the future. If you go out with that same group of friends next Friday, what will you do differently? Will you have less to drink? Take a nap first so you won’t be so moody going into the night? Figure out the best way to engage your life to insure you won’t repeat your errors.
Finally, think through if there are ways you can offset the negative actions you have done in the past by producing positive ones now. There will be some mistakes you can easily remedy. For example, you can buy your friends lunch and apologize. But there will always be mistakes that are not that simple. You may never see that person you obnoxiously hit on again, for instance. Offsetting our negative activity isn’t always a one-to-one equation. It may mean that you go out of your way to help someone struggling with groceries or stand up for someone who is being bullied instead. Find a method to produce positive activity in a way that feels meaningful to you.
Over time, the sting of mistakes fades and people mature. Because we all have made mistakes, we all know that at some point we must forgive the mistakes of others. This is the natural cycle of the mistakes we make. For me, the mistakes I have made on the spiritual path have been learning experiences for me, and when people see that I genuinely regret them, resolve not to do them again, and try to make up for them their hearts soften and they have, by and large, forgiven me.
No one remembers the Buddha as someone who made mistakes. We talk about the time when he starved and tortured himself in the name of spirituality as a learning experience that allowed him to get to the point where he could attain enlightenment. In the same vein, the more we learn from our mistakes and produce positive activity in this life, the more we will be remembered in the same light.