How to Find Faith in Your Fear and Failures

I thought I would tell you this little story about Naropa University’s founder, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and my very first one-on-one interview with him. This interview occurred during the time when my life was completely falling apart, and I went there because I wanted to talk about the fact that I was feeling like such a failure and so raw.

But when I sat down in front of him, he said, “How is your meditation?”

I said, “Fine.”

And then we just started talking, superficial chatter, until he stood up and said, “It was very nice to meet you,” and started walking me to the door. In other words, the interview was over.

And so at that point, realizing the interview was over, I just blurted out my whole story:

My life is over.
I have hit the bottom.
I don’t know what to do.
Please help me.

[Read more essays on Faith, by Deepak Chopra, Martha Beck, Panache Desai and many more Architects of Change, as part of this special series]

And here is the advice Trungpa Rinpoche gave me. He said, “Well, it’s a lot like walking into the ocean, and a big wave comes and knocks you over. And you find yourself lying on the bottom with sand in your nose and in your mouth. And you are lying there, and you have a choice. You can either lie there, or you can stand up and start to keep walking out to sea.”

So, basically, you stand up, because the “lying there” choice equals dying. Metaphorically, lying there is what a lot of us choose to do at that point. But you can choose to stand up and start walking, and after a while another big wave comes and knocks you down.

You find yourself at the bottom of the ocean with sand in your nose and sand in your mouth, and again you have the choice to lie there or to stand up and start walking forward.

“So the waves keep coming,” he said. “And you keep cultivating your courage and bravery and sense of humor to relate to this situation of the waves, and you keep getting up and going forward.”

[Read more from Pema Chodron: The Role of the Spirit in Facing Illness, Pain or Aging]

This was his advice to me.

Trungpa then said, “After a while, it will begin to seem to you that the waves are getting smaller and smaller. And they won’t knock you over anymore.”

That is good life advice.

It isn’t that the waves stop coming; it’s that because you train in holding the rawness of vulnerability in your heart, the waves just appear to be getting smaller and smaller, and they don’t knock you over anymore.

I would like to say that these transition periods where you’re groundless and fearful are for the spiritual practitioner probably the most fertile ground. Because of the fact that nothing is pinned down, there are limitless possibilities right there for you if you just kind of turn your head a little bit more to the right. You can have the sense of anything is possible, as opposed to “OMG, what’s going to happen to me?”

[Starting Over? While Healing Is Always An Inside Job]

Pema Chodron Fail Again Fail Better

Of course that shift in attitude is facilitated greatly by having some way of relating to fear. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche talked a lot about fear as being a positive thing. So again, this is having an attitude that allows you to become curious about exploring something rather than just committing for life to running away from the unknown because it’s so devastating or challenging.

Trungpa says that fear, unlike anger or jealousy or craving, is a very open and fluid state. It doesn’t necessarily have to be narrowed down into something solid. It has a very fluid quality, which is interesting to just think about. So, fear, when it comes up, can be a moment when you say, “Oh, here’s fear. This is a quality of awakened mind. This is a quality of open space.” Instead of calling it groundlessness or giving it a negative name, you could just rephrase it and call it ultimate possibility, because it’s unformed and open and hasn’t concretized into something that makes ego feel better.

And you can also say to yourself—this is like teaching yourself the dharma on the spot— “Yes, this doesn’t feel good, and yes, my knees are actually trembling, but I’m going to stay with this; I’m going to explore this; I’m interested in knowing this quality because it will take me in the direction I want to go, instead of back into the cocoon of shelter and ego-clinging.”

[Read Maria Shriver’s latest ‘I’ve Been Thinking’ Essay]

You are offered the potential of opening up into the as-yet unknown, the much bigger world where there are smells you’ve never smelled, there are sights you’ve never seen and there are sounds you’ve never heard. What you could experience is so much vaster than what you currently experience. Let’s go in that direction.

Adapted from Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better: Wise Advice for Leaning into the Unknown by Pema Chodron. Copyright © 2015 by Pema Chodron. Foreword by Seth Godin. Published by Sounds True in September 2015.

{Image credit: Jeremy Bishop, Unsplash}


About the Author

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Pema Chödrön is an American-born Buddhist nun and the author of many spiritual classics, including When Things Fall Apart (Shambhala, 2000) and How to Meditate (Sounds True, 2013). She serves as resident teacher at Gampo Abbey Monastery in Nova Scotia and is a student of Dzigar Kongtrul, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche and the late Chögyam Trungpa. For more, visit and

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