A little while ago a student at my former college called on behalf of the alumni association to solicit donations. In the course of the conversation she asked me if I had any advice for her and after talking with her a little about some ideas I have about how to benefit from education, it occurred to me to say, since she didn’t seem like a self-absorbed psychopath, “trust yourself.” Later, as I reflected on the conversation, it occurred to me that it might have been more helpful to say “trust yourself even after you blow it.”
When we make a serious mistake, especially one in which we get hurt or others get hurt, it can erode and undermine our self-confidence and this can be pretty painful; it can be painful, but there is still the possibility of going forward. Mark Twain said “Good judgement is the result of experience and experience the result of bad judgement;” he is pretty much correct if you add in a bit about being willing to learn from our mistakes, which most of us are. (If we aren’t willing to look at the results of our bad judgement, it is a lot harder to turn it into an experience we can use to inform good judgement.)
Sometimes I think of practicing the Dharma as being like building a supporting scaffold around myself that helps to guide decisions and clarify and illuminate the murky depths of myself where all manner of strange impulses lie. Those strange impulses that lead to mistakes are within me, within all of us, but there is also inherent wisdom, compassion and selfless love. From experience, I know that to completely shut down after a mistake, because I am afraid I will repeat it, is to risk cutting off those profoundly important aspects of myself.
In this, I am actually not saying something like “get back up on that horse you have just been thrown from” since part of trusting ourselves is giving ourselves the space to find our own way to understanding how to digest the consequences of our mistakes (or, come to think of it, the consequences of others mistakes, which we receive from time to time). We find our own way by taking our time and asking and answering some important questions like: “is it actually good to get back onto that horse?” or “I thought I was trying to ride a horse but actually, it was a rhinoceros, which I mistook for a horse, maybe I should find a horse?” etc.)
Dogen says, “that which recognizes error is not itself in error.” If we recognize that we made a mistake, we have evidence that there is more to us than we can easily see (often that part of us that knows that a mistake is a mistake, while really there, is not easy to see or hear). Because of that evidence, we can know that we have the potential to cultivate and grow that wiser part of ourselves. We can learn to trust and have faith in the potential and actuality of that wiser part of ourselves.
We make mistakes and we get the consequences and sometimes that is a bitter thing. Although we are told, and we can observe for ourselves, that everything is impermanent, sometimes it seems like the consequences stick around way longer than they need too. But if we can begin to learn to accept the consequences and let go of our self-judgement and internal recrimination, the consequences can begin to seem more like helpful reminders of what we are learning not to do, rather than punishment or an obstacle. In other words the consequences of our actions can become a helpful part of the foundation of our learning to trust ourselves again.