The Great Failure: My Unexpected Path to Truth (Insight: the Spirit Behind the Words) Paperback – 1 Oct 2005
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"Wonderful, focused and thought-provoking." -- The Oregonian (Portland)
A searingly honest memoir. I read it and immediately started again. --Laura Davis, author of The Courage to Heal and I Thought We'd Never Speak Again
Wonderful, focused and thought-provoking. --The Oregonian (Portland)
Goldberg has taken readers into her world of raw feeling, real experience, and broad awareness...the path toward better understanding.--Booklist
The Great Failure is an important book important because it is true.--New Mexico Magazine
Natalie writes with Zen-like clarity and heartful depth of feeling in an account that is bravely honest. --Joseph Goldstein, author of One Dharma
Teaching by example, Natalie Goldberg has written a brave and turbulent memoir that is by turns luminous and gritty. --Julia Cameron, author of The Artist's Way
"Natalie writes with Zen-like clarity and heartful depth of feeling in an account that is bravely honest."--Joseph Goldstein, author of One Dharma
"Wonderful, focused and thought-provoking."--The Oregonian (Portland)
"A searingly honest memoir. I read it and immediately started again."--Laura Davis, author of The Courage to Heal and I Thought We'd Never Speak Again
"Teaching by example, Natalie Goldberg has written a brave and turbulent memoir that is by turns luminous and gritty."--Julia Cameron, author of The Artist's Way
The Great Failure is an important book - important because it is true.--New Mexico Magazine
About the Author
Natalie Goldberg is the author of ten books, including Writing Down the Bones, which has sold over one million copies and has been translated into twelve languages. She has also written the beloved Long Quiet Highway: Waking Up in America, a memoir about her Zen teacher. For the last thirty years she has practiced Zen and taught seminars in writing as a spiritual practice. She lives in northern New Mexico.
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I found this book so interesting, and could relate so much to Natalie
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Without sparing herself, and with a hint of irony, Goldberg writes of confronting her parents by letter. They react with almost comic bewilderment. Goldberg's mother, Sylvia, a child of immigrants, views the world literally: did you eat and sleep? Were you warm? Her father, Buddy, ran a "rough" bar for years. His response to Goldberg's accusations was, "Were you on drugs?" Psychology, the author summarizes, was developed in a country outside Brooklyn.
Even after the family reconciles - which means she begins speaking to them after three years - Goldberg's parents still don't understand her new life. When Goldberg offers to give them a Zen experience, her father begins singing along with the silence bell. In one of their last visits, Buddy whispers an insulting remark about Natalie's weight.
The author gets her second shock, as word spreads about Katagiri Roshi's numerous love affairs with Zen students. She begins to remember episodes she'd tried to ignore. She recalls Roshi's remarks about her beauty. And ultimately she recognizes that Roshi gave her a tremendous gift, regardless of his personal life. She writes (page 136) that both artists and religious leaders can be "enlightened" in their work, yet function "cruelly and ignorantly" in their personal lives.
Toward the end of Great Failure, Natalie writes about crashing her car while fiddling with knobs on her tape deck. She adds, almost casually, that she'd been given "two or three" speeding tickets in the past six months, including one where the police actually chased her down. These episodes were disturbing.
She realizes she's acting out rather dangerously, and she realizes she's in an in-between phase, losing Roshi but not finding another touchstone. She doesn't judge herself, just reports, and in fact people often do behave in unusual, even bizarre ways when they're in the eye of the transitional hurricane.
I think the key to this book is Natalie's wish to be remembered like her heroes, not just as a writer, but as someone who dealt with loneliness and made mistakes. Because she tells these stories about herself, that's exactly how she will be remembered.
To her credit, Natalie Goldberg is a fine writer, who manages to put her own frailties on the page for the reader's scrutiny. She deserves credit for this. The book will lead readers to question our own assumptions about teachers, about parents, and about the failure of those important people in our lives to be 'perfect'. Goldberg doesn't provide any neat and tidy epiphanies here. But in a sad and loving tribute to her teacher, she leaves the best lines about this matater for Katagiri, himself. In response to a question from a student, asking if "it's okay to just listen to yourself?", Katagiri responds: "Ed, I tried very hard to practice Dogen's Zen. After twenty years I realized there was no Dogen's Zen." Dogen was the 13th Century Zen monk who founded Katagiri's sect, and Katagiri seems to be saying that real spiritual growth involves taking responsibility for our own growth, and freeing ourselves from the grip of childlike fantasies of perfection. This by no means excuses expoitive misconduct by spiritual teachers or, for that matter, parents. It does mean that if, at least in adulthood, we know it's "okay to listen to yourself", the teacher's power to harm is diminished. While there is no sign the author has quite learned this lesson, she at least understands it well enough to make it available to the reader.
Psychotherapists, doctors, school teachers, college professors, and supervisors at work may represent parental figures from the past to their clients, patients, students or employees. These relationships may evoke yearnings and expectations in clients, patients, students or employees that may or may not be met. "I needed to be reflected in another," Goldberg admits (p. 101). This is what Freud had called "transference," and the relationships between spiritual teachers and their students are fraught with potential for sticky transferences that may become very difficult to work through-especially since they are rarely, if at all, acknowledged or commented on in the spiritual teacher-student relationship. "Unknowingly, Roshi became my mother, my father, my Zen master" (p. 102).
Not only do spiritual teachers represent parental figures for their students-in a very real sense, they represent, for want of a better term, the Divine. For example, Zen students may believe that their Zen teachers are deeply enlightened individuals who, because of their many years of meditation and training, and because of the authority vested in them by virtue of ceremonies that sanction the transmission of the Buddha's teachings, are infallible spiritual heroes. "I had made him [Katagiri Roshi] perfect," Goldberg confesses. "Because of my family abuse, I was driven to get what I had longed for in my family" (p. 101). "He spoke to me evenly, honestly. My hunger was satiated-the ignored little girl still inside me and the adult seeker-both were nourished" (p. 118).
As Goldberg looks back on her six years as Katagiri Roshi's student, she identifies moments when her idealization was weakened:
"I had a glimmer then of the chasm between the Zen master and the lonely, insecure man. That moment was an opportunity to hold contradictory parts of him, to understand life doesn't work in a neat package the way I wanted it to. I could have come closer to his humanity-and mine. But I wasn't ready or willing. I had a need for him only to be great, to hold my projections. In freezing him on a pedestal I had only contributed to his isolation" (p. 115).
As a former Zen student of fifteen years (eleven under the direction of one teacher), I recall how I, too, needed my former teacher to "be great." Would I have idealized her less if my own personal needs had been less, or if I had acquired enough perspective of how the Zen institution had contributed to mythmaking through the centuries? Goldberg was fortunate to have that glimmer. Was Goldberg an unusually perceptive student, or did her Zen teacher allow himself to be revealed in some ways, however small? Many Zen teachers in the west seem to do everything possible to avoid being seen as real people: they put on a façade that is impossible to live up to, or hide behind their role, or discourage reading and study about Zen-a necessary element for placing the Zen institution and the teachers who represent it in an appropriate historical and cultural context.
Sooner or later, façades come tumbling down, hypocrisy and secrets reveal themselves. One would expect that long-term idealization would come to an end, or at least be compromised. "Eventually, as the teacher-student relationship matures, the student manifests these [projected spiritual] qualities herself and learns to stand on her own two feet. The projections are reclaimed. . . . We close the gap between who we think the teacher is and who we think we are not. We become whole" (p. 91).
One would hope. Goldberg describes the best-case scenario, and rightfully points out the student's role in growing up spiritually. But spiritual teachers themselves have a part to play as well. If Zen teachers are savvy enough, their relationships with their students will become more down to earth and horizontal-and not just regarding the meditation practice itself. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. Many longstanding western Zen students are unable to reclaim their projections, precisely because their Zen teachers, threatened by such reclaiming, do not foster it and cling to authoritarian, top-down ways of relating to their students.
Goldberg describes her struggles with deep loneliness and lack of a sense of purpose after losing her Zen teacher and her father. Years after the death of Katagiri Roshi, Goldberg realizes that the "regimented practice" of formal Zen meditation no longer fit her (p. 97). Goldberg goes on to share her ongoing process of making peace with her Zen teacher's and her father's past in her journey toward writing as spiritual practice.
Although at times Goldberg leans a bit too heavily on the individual student's role in idealization and subsequent disappointment in Zen teachers, The Great Failure offers solid insights into the often problematic transferences that develop in students with respect to their spiritual teachers. Written with honesty and sensitivity, this book is recommended reading for anyone who has ever left a spiritual teacher for any reason, and for those who wish to understand the nature of the relationships between spiritual teachers and their students.
Goldberg describes her father (the bartender) as an old-fashioned man's man with fluctuating boundaries. In daring to capture the full bravado of her larger-than-life Jewish father, she illuminates the intricacies of a precarious father-daughter relationship. She writes about how she tried to teach her parents to meditate during one of their rare visits to Santa Fe from Long Island. Her father interrupts the session by launching into his personal rendition of "Hello Dolly" while accompanying himself with his daughter's meditation bell. This and other more inappropriate behavior by both of her parents led Goldberg to reduce their contact to letters for several years; this tenuous relationship also leads Goldberg ultimately to Dainin Katagiri Roshi, a dynamic, celebrated Zen master.
Goldberg explores the link between her charming father and her charismatic Zen teacher when she learns a few years after Roshi's death that he'd had affairs with some of his female students. Faced with this truth, Goldberg's perceptions about her teacher are completely shattered. "I had the illusion that he (Roshi) was perfect," she writes. Complicating matters is the fact that she wrote lovingly of her devotion to Roshi's teachings (and about his death) in an earlier memoir entitled Long Quiet Highway.
Goldberg describes the betrayal she felt regarding Roshi's secret life, and how it mirrored the feelings of betrayal by her own father when she learned of his adulterous past. Ultimately, these two very powerful and provocative relationships in her life cast doubt on her understanding of herself.
In spite of her piercing honesty and elegant writing, Goldberg's latest feels self-centered and precious, like writings from a diary rather than a compelling narrative. Many readers may conclude that this story isn't so significant after all and will probably wonder about its relevance. Disillusionment is so very often the stuff of life and there are scores of brilliant books on the matter that stand out brighter than this one. However, the writing is provocative and straightforward and Goldberg's mission here-as it always has been-is personal. Full of Goldberg's generosity and trademark gifts for both humor and teaching, The Great Failure ultimately touches our hearts and minds as we come to recognize the ways in which each of us fails to confront our own illusions.
If you are looking for writing advice in The Great Failure you will be disappointed; however, Goldberg's fans will appreciate her dogged determination to get at the truth and to come clean about personal failings. This is the path Goldberg has unwaveringly navigated throughout her writing life. In The Great Failure, Goldberg puts her teachings to work.
Reviewed by Jeanie C. Williams
So like many memoirs before it, this one is filled with interesting anecdotes that don't fully add up. Take, for example, The Letter. When Ms. Goldberg realizes the impact of her father's boundary crossing, she writes him a scathing letter telling him exactly what she thinks of him. All well and good: we've all vented ink. But she mailed hers. I ask you: what could she possibly have hoped to accomplish? Was she that new to the process to actually think he might understand or apologize? She'd have had my pity if she'd mailed it in the heat of the moment, but she'd carried it with her for a month. All we're told is that she mailed the letter right after her Zen teacher's funeral, and we're left to infer that in her grief, she had nothing else to lose. Still, why make the reader guess? Ms. Goldberg may not have been able to articulate her reasoning at the time, but now it's 15 years out and she should know.
She also doesn't explain why three years after this, she decides to start talking to her parents again. She's in Prague and lonely, and this somehow translates to calling Daddy once she gets home. Fine...but we're missing a whole lot of steps here.
We're treated to a great deal of talk, but none of it seems to translate into practice. At the end when her dad is old and sick and she's been doing Zen for a million years, he makes a comment about her weight and she instantly turns sulky and childish. Hello? Has no Zen equanimity sunk in? Has there been no hardening by the fires of abuse? The real answer is "Forget you, I'll weigh whatever I want to weigh." Can't we at least have her awareness and humor about the infinite being no match for pre-verbal conditioning?
If only Ms. Goldberg had access to outside readers for this manuscript - people who didn't know her personally, had never read her other books, and didn't care if they were invited to the next retreat or not. They could have pointed out the fact that dad and the Zen master get reams of ink, yet the ex-husband is dispatched with a few bare sentences. Surely in a memoir about the important men in one's life - which is what this seems to be - the writer would mention what it was about the guy that was so attractive in the first place, and why she later left.
Similarly, Ms. Goldberg mentions that she's now living with a woman, leading me to wonder why, in a book about emotional honesty, is she drawing this line, too? We'd expect that her Zen teacher wouldn't care who she slept with, but a father who grew up during the Depression and served in WWII would not likely be so blithely okay with it all. Giving us her coming-out story would have rounded him out and shown us whether at the core, he really did love her.
The Great Failure apparently arose from Ms. Goldberg's need to update a previous book about a Zen teacher who after death had been exposed as less godlike and more like unto human. Her effort to bring balance to his memory is a noble endeavor, but would have been more forceful as an essay. His postmortem simply wasn't enough to sustain his half of the book, and her addition of a Zen teaching story further weakened the impact because it was too intellectual and "heady" and had no emotional resonance with a book that's intended to live in the heart.
The reader is left profoundly wondering what it all means. Ms. Goldberg is known for her interest in the process of writing, and it's disappointing that she didn't keep that focus in her memoir, too. I would have been interested to find out whether her desire to be a writer came from having this guy as a father. How different would her life have been if she hadn't met a Zen teacher who urged her to keep writing? Addressing these questions and others would have brought an interesting focus to the memoir, but alas, she chooses to dwell on the reconciliation aspect, and stays within the same old ruts that quickly become boring.
Expect a quick read and some comfort knowing that other writers have endured hellish childhoods, but sadly, don't expect any revelations that will mean anything in your own life.