Americans seem to have an unhealthy relationship to mistakes, especially those of the younger generation. I happen to find myself in that often-maligned category—“millennials”—so I say this partly based on my own personal experience and also from observing what’s been happening in the media landscape. It’s quite possible things have long been this way and I’m only now becoming more aware, but the evidence seems to say otherwise.
This is how a sizable number of American millennials describe themselves: self-absorbed, wasteful, greedy, and cynical. It’s one thing to recognize traits we wish to improve, but these come across as decrees: We don’t do wasteful things. We are wasteful. Daily, we’re bombarded with messages that we’re not smart enough, strong enough, beautiful enough… Insert whatever characteristic that we should already be good at.
So we feel stressed, and our pursuit of perfection makes us suffer. Naturally, many Buddhist practitioners in the West turn to the Dhamma for refuge. The Buddha’s teachings welcome us with open arms and re-affirm what is clear from the outside: the world is insatiable, a slave to craving. Of course we will never live up to worldly standards.
But old habits die hard and the wounds of the world are real. (Though we would be quite content to ignore that). There is much work to do. Awakening is not sudden; it is hard.
How many times have I felt discouraged, wondered if I was even cut out for this? More times than I can count, that’s for sure. When I break a precept, is my immediate reaction one of shame and judgment or compassion and understanding? (More often the former, but I’m working on it.) These are leftovers from a mind and world that is quick to condemn and slow to forgive. What’s a practitioner to do? Well, listening to the Buddha is a start.
Recognize Your Mistakes, Deal With Them, and Grow
An astute person is known by three things. What three? They recognize when they’ve made a mistake. When they recognize it they deal with it properly. And when someone else confesses a mistake to them, they accept it properly. These are the three things by which an astute person is known. (AN3.4)
You made a mistake. It was foolish, stupid, and unskillful of you to act in that way. But since you have recognized your mistake for what it is, and have dealt with it properly, I accept it. For it is growth in the training of the noble one to recognize a mistake for what it is, deal with it properly, and commit to restraint in the future. (SN16.6)
It Is Possible to Change for the Better
Mendicants, give up the unskillful. It is possible to give up the unskillful. If it wasn’t possible, I wouldn’t say: ‘Give up the unskillful.’ But it is possible, and so I say: ‘Give up the unskillful.’ … Giving up the unskillful leads to welfare and happiness, so I say: ‘Give up the unskillful.’ (AN2.19)
Don’t Converse with People Who Mercilessly Tear You Down
When a person is asked a question, if they intimidate, crush, mock, or seize on trivial mistakes, then that person is not competent to hold a discussion. (AN3.67)
Associate with Good Friends
How does a mendicant with good friends develop and cultivate the noble eightfold path? It’s when a mendicant develops right view, which relies on seclusion, fading away, and cessation, and ripens as letting go. They develop right thought … right speech … right action … right livelihood … right effort … right mindfulness … right immersion, which relies on seclusion, fading away, and cessation, and ripens as letting go. (SN45.2)
Even if You Falter, All Is Not Lost
[Someone who does a bad deed and lands in hell.] What kind of person does the same trivial bad deed, but experiences it in the present life, without even a bit left over, not to speak of a lot? A person who has developed their physical endurance, ethics, mind, and wisdom. They’re not small-minded, but are big-hearted, living without limits. That kind of person does the same trivial bad deed, but experiences it in the present life, without even a bit left over, not to speak of a lot. (AN3.100)
Be Honest with Yourself
There’s no privacy in the world, for someone who does bad deeds.
You’ll know for yourself, whether you’ve lied or told the truth. (AN3.40)
After you have acted with the body, you should check on that same act: ‘Does this act with the body that I have done lead to hurting myself, hurting others, or hurting both? Is it unskillful, with suffering as its outcome and result?’ If, while checking in this way, you know [that is was], then, Rāhula, you should confess, reveal, and clarify such a deed to the Teacher or a sensible spiritual companion. (MN61)
And Begin Again
Someone who, with skillful deeds,
shuts the door on bad things they’ve done,
lights up the world, like the moon freed from a cloud. (MN86)