Archive for the ‘Natalie Goldberg’ Category


FROM The Great Failure by Natalie Goldberg


“She knows there’s no success like failure,
And that failure’s no success at all.”

Bob Dylan

After my Zen teacher died, a fellow practitioner said to me, “Natalie, your writing succeeded. You didn’t follow the teachings. Everything Roshi taught us was about how to fail.”

We both laughed.

But I think it was true that we were trained in defeat. Downfall brings us to the ground, facing the nitty-gritty, things as they are with no glitter. Success cannot last forever. Everyone’s time runs out. This is not a popular notion, but it is true.

Achievement solidifies us. Believing we are invincible, we want more and more. It makes us hungry. But we can be caught in the opposite too. Human beings manage to also drown in the pool of despair, seeped in the mud of depression. We spend our life on a roller coaster with rusty tracks, stuck to highs and lows, riding from one, trying to grab the other.

To heal ourselves from this painful cycle—the severe split we create and then the quasi equilibrium we try to maintain—we have to crash. Only then can we drop through to a more authentic self.

Zen transmits its legacy from this deeper place. It is a different kind of failure: the Great Failure, a boundless surrender. Nothing to hold on to and nothing to lose. Sitting still feeling our breath, we watch the electric animals of desire and aggression arise and pass away. Our arms spread wide, we welcome it all, In the Great failure we find the Great Success. They are no longer different from one another. Both dissolve into the moment. Illusions break open and we can be real with ourselves and the people around us. When obstructions are swept away, we can see clearly. Here we are with our lives in our hands. Who were we? Who are we?


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Recently, my cyber-friend Montucky tapped me for a ROAR award. Thank you, Terry! Now, the rules for being A Roar for Powerful Words recipient state that I must share three writing tips and pass the award on to three more bloggers worthy of recognition and esteem.

When it comes to writing, I turn to “beginner’s mind.” And really the only thing that I know for sure is this: you need a pen or pencil, a piece of paper and the mind.

While I use my iBook for blogging, I use a notebook to access the fresh and unedited part of my mind. For ten years, I have done “writing practice” a la Natalie Goldberg. She continues to be my great writing teacher and the lineage includes Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Suzuki Roshi and Danin Katagiri Roshi.

If you want to write, you need to read a lot and, oddly enough, write. And don’t get too attached to the outcome. Perhaps I should say, “practice non-attachment.” As Nike says, “Just do it!” If you’re new to “My Inner Edge” you’ll soon discover that I read a lot of poetry. I don’t write a lot of poems, yet poems inform my writing.

I like to write in different places–particularly in cafes that have just the right amount of ambient noise to occupy the judgmental part of my mind. I also like to write with a friend or a group of writers and then read aloud with “no comment.” Reading your work aloud is important and allows you to hear your own voice.

Here is one of my favorite quotes about writing–it’s from The Writing Life by Annie Dillard:

One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.

Having said what I know about writing, I bestow this award on The Dream Antilles, Bogs Darking and The Doughtie House Exchange

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Tomorrow, I will teach Write Into the Present Moment. It’s one of my favorite things to do…gather a group of writers and would-be writers and explore writing practice. Am I teaching writing because I am a published, noted author? No, I’m teaching because I love to watch how the mind works; I love to listen to what other people write; I love to read aloud and create a space for words, stories, memory.

Ten years ago, I began my writing journey with Natalie Goldberg…I haven’t been the same since. I no longer cringe when I face the blank page. I simply pick up my pen and go.

I hope you’ll join us–even if for only ten minutes. Get a pen, get paper, don’t worry about spelling or punctuation, or even staying within the margins or the lines. Keep your hand moving, don’t cross out and you’re free to write the worst junk in America. Begin with “I remember…” and keep going. Enjoy!

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Today, I am 59 years old. I wake up this morning feeling excited and happy–filled with anticipation. It’s raining hard…the air is cold, moist and smells like autumn. It’s dark when I reach for a white tee shirt with the word DISCIPLINE on the front, written in bold blue letters. Before leaving for the gym, I read the last ten pages of The Great Failure, by Natalie Goldberg. I read it when it first came out and it affected me deeply. This time was no different…I was sobbing at the end.

When I open my email, I receive this birthday greeting:


What matters most in life is often viewed as peripheral to the things that we usually focus on. Passion takes a backseat to production, wellness to working, and balance to busyness. The old adage that “like is not a dress rehearsal” is so true, and yet we act to the contrary by putting off what is truly important or indulging in things that are not. On your birthday, stop focusing on your age and start meditating on you life at this exact moment. How can you make it better? During the next year, reshuffle your priorities. Spend more time with family and friends, take care of your body and health by eating well and exercising regularly, and offer to help others in need. Discover what matters most to you, and make your daily life into a true reflection of those ideas, beliefs and attitudes.

Perfect, I thought…a perfect mirroring of my intentions! A year from now, when I turn 60, I want to be in top condition–physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually…attending to what matters most.

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You live in illusions and the appearance of things.
There is a reality, you are that Reality.
When you recognize this you will realize that you are nothing,
and being nothing, you are everything. That is all.



Yesterday marked the 411th birthday of Rene Descartes who considered himself more a mathematician and scientist than a philosopher. His impulse for philosophy came when he realized that some of his scientific ideas could be considered controversial by the church. In his book, Discourse on Method (1637), Descartes describes the development of his skepticism and capacity to doubt everything, including his own existence. The one thing he could not doubt was the existence of his own thoughts which led him to the statement, “I think, therefore I am.”

Natalie Goldberg, tells a story about her time with Katagiri Roshi that I absolutely love. She says that after spending a whole summer at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, NM studying Descartes’ statement “I think, therefore I am” and not drawing on any secondary sources, she attended a Dharma talk by Katagiri Roshi. He began, “I’ve been studying your Descartes and his idea, ‘I think, therefore I am.’ I’m sure he knew, but forgot to mention, ‘I don’t think, therefore, I’m not.” According to Natalie, at that moment the whole of Western civilization slid off a cliff and she was inspired to diligently explore the “underbelly” of life as she continued to develop writing practice.

At Yoga School, one of our meditation practices is to “be nobody and do nothing.” The first time I heard this, I almost fell off my cushion! How refreshing! At the end of a harried day, to do a strenuous asana practice and then simply let go of everything, everyone, any and all sense of identity, self-importance and thought…ahhh….”I don’t think, therefore, I’m not.” A little jolt of fear and excitement.

Whenever David Whyte recites his poem, Tan-y-garth–Elegy for Michael, he talks a bit about his friend Michael whose capacity for doubt was enormous. So enormous that if you started to say something, the furrowed expression of doubt on Michael’s long face was enough to have you begin to lose your own certainty. He describes Michael’s last days this way…

“…One man I know loved this place so
much he said he’d found his place to die, Years I knew him

here walking the high moor lines or watching the coals
of a winter fire in the cottage grate. And die he did but not

before one month’s final joy in wild creation gave him that
full sight he’d glimpsed in Blake, he too struggled with his angel,

in and out of hospital, the white sheets and clouds unfolded
to the mountain’s bracing sense of space, now he was ready,

his heart so long at the edge of the nest shook its
wings and flew into the hills he loved. Became the hills

he loved. Walked with an easy rest cradled by the faith he
nursed for years in doubt

Can we take our scraps of faith, our capacity to think, our capacity to not think, our practices of being somebody and being nobody and nourish ourselves with our doubts? Can we know and experience being nothing and being everything and become what we love in wild creation while we are here, living, breathing fully this moment? Can we hold the tension of opposites–faith and doubt–faith in our holy “yes” to life and and the doubt that says our faith may not save us; can we rest in that tension and savor our delicate position?

PS…On a less serious note, I also love the twist on Descartes expressed by Robin Williams in the movie, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Williams, in his role as the King of the Moon (Ray D. Tutto), says bluntly, “I think, therefore, you is!

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On Sunday, I’ll be teaching a day-long workshop on writing, Write Into the Present Moment. Is this because I am a great, renowned, published writer? No, it’s because I love to listen, I love to read and I love to contact the bottom of my mind through “writing practice.”

Ten years ago, I connected with Natalie Goldberg and “joined the lineage” of Zen writing practioners. I fell into love with her method of timed writing:

“Keep your hand moving; don’t cross out; be specific (not the tree; the magnolia–not the flower in the window; the geranium); use original detail; don’t think–don’t get logical; lose control; don’t worry about spelling or punctuation; go for the jugular…AND, you’re free to write the worst trash in America…start with, ‘I remember’ or ‘I don’t remember’ or ‘I’m thinking about’ or ‘I’m not thinking about’ and keep your hand moving–10 minutes, GO.”

Natalie’s great writing teachers were Katagiri Roshi and Allen Ginsberg. Katagiri Roshi taught her how to sit meditation and empty her mind in the sparse Minnesota Zen Center. At Naropa’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, Allen Ginsberg taught her that “when the mind is shapely, the writing is shapely.”

And what do you need to write? A pen, a few sheets of paper and the mind. You need to read a lot; to learn to savor different kinds of writing and different voices. AND you need to read your own work aloud to another human being.

The most levelling practice that I learned from Natalie was to listen and make no comment when someone reads aloud. The idea is that the writing is not good or bad…we simply need to let the words and images land in our consciousness. After many rounds of reading aloud, we learned to do a “recall.” To repeat exactly a phrase that caught our attention…I vividly remember a man from the mid-west describing a refrigerator as a “husky Kelvinator.” That image immediately put me in my grandmother’s 1950’s kitchen in West Pittston, Pennsylvania. It landed indelibly in my awareness.

So, wherever you are on Sunday, grab a pen and a piece of paper. Take ten minutes–take a half hour and meet us in the zendo of writing practice…remember, “keep your hand moving.”

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