If at First You Don’t Succeed
May 16, 2024

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” It’s an old saying, partly true, partly not. The true part is that there are many things that require continual effort. If you know that you’re on the right path heading to the right goal, and you fall off the path, or you get back on, you fall off again, you get back on again.

There’s that story told about a student of a Zen master back in the Midwest who was planning to come out to Hollywood to try his fortune in the movie business. His teacher asked him, when the student came to say goodbye, “What are you going to do if they knock you down?”

And the student said, “I guess I’ll have to accept that.”

The teacher said, “No! They knock you down, you get up again. They knock you down again, you get up again. You don’t accept failure lightly or easily.”

The part about the old saying that’s not true is that you have to check to make sure that you actually are headed to a good goal and you’re doing it the right way. There are a lot of times when you’re trying and trying and trying again, but you’re in line with that image from the Canon: You’re twisting the cow’s horn to get milk, and you’re twisting it again, harder and harder and harder—you’re not going to get any milk, no matter how much you try.

You’ve got to stop and take stock, “Am I working toward something good? Am I doing it the right way?” This is why the Buddha said that when you have a determination, you need four qualities.

They begin with discernment. Discernment is when you judge what is a good goal, what’s not a good goal, and then you check to make sure how to attain a good goal. If you’re twisting the cow’s horn, maybe you should stop twisting the cow’s horn and try something else. So the trying here is not just doing the same thing over and over again, it’s stopping and asking yourself, “Do I understand this properly?”

They’ve done studies about people have developed skills. They may not necessarily be especially intelligent, but they do have ability to plan out, to understand what they’re doing. In some cases, this involves visualizing, in some cases it’s simply having a correct understanding of what are the good goals in life and how you go about getting to them, how you break down the path.

Now, the Buddha has done a lot of this thinking for us. He set out as our goal, the end of suffering, and he describes it in different ways. There’s a passage in the Canon where he gives 33 different names for nibbāna: nibbāna being the image of a fire going out. Most of the names are metaphorical, either that or they’re negative descriptions describing what nibbāna does not have, because after all, nibbāna can’t properly be described. But you can get some idea through metaphors. But the quality of the goal, or the qualities of the goal that come out of these 33 different names come down to five:

One is that it is a type of consciousness, a consciousness without object, a consciousness without passion, a consciousness without limits. It’s not in space, it’s not in time. It’s something outside of the six senses. That’s one of the qualities.

The second is freedom. This is where nibbāna fits in. Because when, in those days, they saw a fire going out, they didn’t see it just going out of existence. Instead, it was an image for freedom. The fire, as it was burning, was clinging to its fuel. When it went out, it let go. It’s similar to the fact that when you’re attached to something, it’s not the case that that thing has grabbed hold of you, you’re the one grabbing hold of it. The fact that you’re grabbing hold is why you’re not free. But when you do let go, you’re free—free from the limitations even of space and time.

The third quality is happiness: bliss, peace, total freedom from suffering.

The fourth quality is truthfulness. It’s something that doesn’t change. After all, it’s outside of time, so nothing can affect it.

And finally, excellence. This is beyond anything else there is.

So that’s the goal the Buddha sets out for you. He’s already done the groundwork. He’s already scouted out the territory and said, “This is the best thing you can aim at.”

It’s up to you to decide, in your committee of the mind, whether the members all on board with going to this goal. Some of them will be, and a lot of them won’t. They have other agendas. So that’s the next aspect of discernment: figuring out how to get all of yourself to want to go to this goal.

The Buddha said this is a measure of the wisdom of your discernment, a measure of your wisdom in practical terms: When there’s something you don’t want to do, but you know it’s going to give good results, you’re able to talk yourself into doing it. Something that you like doing, and you know gives bad results, you’re able to talk yourself into stop doing it.

This relates to two of the other qualities the Buddha said are involved in a good determination: One is truthfulness—you stick with what’s actually in line with your goal. The other is relinquishment—the things you’ve got to give up, you’re willing to give up. But even though these are two different qualities, they all come under discernment because you’ve got to know how to psych yourself out. For instance, you’re sitting here meditating, other thoughts come up, and you realize that there will come a point where you just watch them come and watch them go so that you can understand them, but first you’ve got to learn how to step out of them.

It’s like when they teach Thai boxing. I took lessons in Thai boxing when I was a layperson. The very first thing they teach you is how to back away from your opponent. All the fancy footwork, all the hitting with your feet, hitting with your knees, that kind of stuff, came later. The first thing is how to get away from your opponent. In the same way, one of your first lessons in meditation is how to say, “No,” to your distractions and stick with the breath. So you’ve got to learn how to make yourself want to stick with the breath and want to say, “No,” to other things.

It’s built into the description of mindfulness practice: On the one hand, you stay with your frame of reference, and on the other hand you put aside greed and distress with reference to the world, and here the world means anything in the world that’s not related to what you’re doing right now. So you’ve got this double task.

So you have to make yourself want to do this double task so that you can get more and more members of the committee on board. This is why you’re trying to make the breath comfortable, why you’re trying to use the breath energy to deal with pains in different parts of the body. You learn to observe how your mental image of the breath—or the words you use to describe where the breath is going—can change how you actually experience the breath. That gives you something to take an interest in.

Normally you hear about breath meditation, and it’s just “in, out, in, out, in, out,” and the mind decides, “Well, I’m out of here.”

But here you’re trying to make it interesting. Being with the breath allows you to begin to learn how your body relates to the mind, how the mind has an impact on the body, how the way you breathe can really make a difference in your desire to go or to stay. You realize there’s a lot to learn here in the breath. As Ajaan Lee says, “The breath is a mirror for the mind.” You want to make the mirror flat, smooth. You don’t want a fun-house mirror.

The final quality of good determination is that you develop some calm. In other words, you learn some patience, you learn some equanimity. For a lot of us in the modern world, this is the hardest part. We’ve been trained to be demanding in how fast our computers respond to our wishes. We think back to how computers were like, say, thirty years ago, and how slow they were compared to what they are now. We’ve learned to expect things to be instantaneous. Well, the path is not instantaneous. There will come a point where there are moments where there are huge changes in the mind, quantum leaps in the mind. But a lot of that comes after the repetitive work.

Think of the continental shelf off the eastern coast of India. There’s a gradual slope, with a few canyons here and there, a few seamounts here and there, and then there’s a sharp drop-off. You don’t get to the sharp drop-off except by going down the gradual slope, because in the course of doing the gradual work, you’re going to be learning, bit by bit by bit, about your mind. There will be little lessons here, little lessons there, and you don’t want to dismiss them.

It’s like pieces in a mosaic. The individual pieces may not seem like much, but when you begin to see the pattern, you can see that they can be really impressive, very elaborate pieces of art. In the same way, your mind has these little insights here and there, and as you gain these glimpses over time you begin to see the mind as a whole, with all the different parts interrelated and how they influence one another—and it’s really fascinating. That comes with the patience. And where does patience come from? From knowing how to talk to yourself so that when impatience comes up, you can calm yourself down. This, too, is a function of discernment.

So all those qualities of a good determination—discernment, truth, relinquishment, calm—are really aspects of the first quality, the discernment. It’s just that your discernment gets exercised, and more and more precise, and more and more subtle as you apply it. So when you, “Try, try again,” make sure that you’re bringing discernment to your efforts, in your understanding of what you’re doing, in your ability to notice exactly what you’re doing and what the results are, and your ability to judge the results if they’re not good—and most especially your ability to talk to yourself, to motivate yourself, to keep on looking for where you’ve been ignorant, where you’ve been slipshod, and what you can do to change.

That’s where you “Try, try again.” Try to be more observant. Try to be more ingenious. These are principles that apply not only to the meditation, but also to everything you do. There are a lot of areas in the world where you “Try, try again,” and if it’s just brute effort, you just wear yourself down. But if you try to be more observant of what you’re doing and the results, then you’re bound to benefit.

That’s why the Buddha said that discernment comes first, right view comes first.” It’s also the last thing to let go.

So think of the image of discernment as a knife cutting through areas where the mind tends to glom things together, cutting through areas where it tends to be sloppy in its powers of observation, and make sure you keep your knife sharp. You sharpen it through mindfulness, you sharpen it through concentration, and then through asking the right questions about what you’re doing and how you can do it better.