On The Road Less Travelled

On Natalie Goldberg's "The Great Failure: A Bartender, A Monk, and My Unlikely Path to Truth"

   Wed, December 27, 2006 - 4:26 PM
I received this book as one of my Christmas presents from my mother, and it took me all of two days to read it, all 192 pages of it. Natalie Goldberg, author of "Writing Down the Bones" and "Wild Mind: Living the Writer's Life," among others, once again shows herself at the top of her game in this poignant and heart-wrenching look at the lives and deaths of two great men: her father, the gambling, penny-pinching, life-loving Ben "Buddy" Goldberg from Brooklyn, and Dainin Roshi Katagiri, the Japanese Zen Master at the Minnesota Zen Center, Goldberg's spiritual teacher for almost twenty years. Both men taught her invaluable lessons, but ultimately betrayed her trust, causing Goldberg to tailspin into a vortex of anger and self-doubt. Goldberg captures her relationships with these two key figures in her life, interspersed with Zen koans that illustrate "a deeper kind of failure: the great failure, a boundless surrender."

Although the betrayals Goldberg unearths in "The Great Failure" would in some people's eyes constitute grounds for depression, or sufficient cause to repress and deny these painful discoveries, ultimately we find greater solace in opening our eyes and acknowledging the truth. Goldberg strives to recognize that failure should not drown us in misery any more than achievement should elevate the ego - they are, in Zen Buddhist thought, one and the same. To rest at zero, present in each moment, is the ideal: "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."

Indeed, Goldberg's authentic self reveals itself in the pages of this memoir. She forces her parents to acknowledge the real picture of her childhood, as opposed to the glossy airbrushed version they recall, and confronts former Zen colleagues when uncovering a scandal that shakes the very foundation of her core. "The Great Failure" succeeds in stripping the excess fat away from the bones, and stands in the cold, her naked soul wind-whipped and raw, unflinching as the onslaught of memories charges towards her. Goldberg releases the Pamplona bulls from the corral and faces them head-on, trusting that if she uses her intuition, follows the path of honesty and examines her fears, she will live to tell the story. And what a story she tells.

"The Great Failure: A Bartender, A Monk and My Unlikely Path to Truth" by Natalie Goldberg (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004), 192 pp.


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