The Great Failure: My Unexpected Path to Truth


One of America's favorite teachers, Natalie Goldberg has inspired millions to write as a way to develop an intimate relationship with their minds and a greater understanding of the world in which they live. Now, through this honest and wry exploration of her own life, Goldberg puts her teachings to work.

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The Great Failure

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One of America's favorite teachers, Natalie Goldberg has inspired millions to write as a way to develop an intimate relationship with their minds and a greater understanding of the world in which they live. Now, through this honest and wry exploration of her own life, Goldberg puts her teachings to work.

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Editorial Reviews

Julia Cameron
“Teaching by example, Natalie Goldberg has written a brave and turbulent memoir that is by turns luminous and gritty.”
Laura Davis
“A searingly honest memoir. I read it and immediately started again.”
Joseph Goldstein
“Natalie writes with Zen-like clarity and heartful depth of feeling in an account that is bravely honest.”
The Oregonian (Portland)
“Wonderful, focused and thought-provoking.”
New Mexico Magazine
The Great Failure is an important book – important because it is true.
Goldberg has taken readers into her world of raw feeling, real experience, and broad awareness...the path toward better understanding.
New Mexico Magazine
The Great Failure is an important book - important because it is true.
The Oregonian (Portland)
“Wonderful, focused and thought-provoking.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060816124
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 10/4/2005
  • Series: Plus Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 1,510,259
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Natalie Goldberg is the author of ten books, including Writing Down the Bones, which has sold over one million copies and has been translated into twelve languages. She has also written the beloved Long Quiet Highway: Waking Up in America, a memoir about her Zen teacher. For the last thirty years she has practiced Zen and taught seminars in writing as a spiritual practice. She lives in northern New Mexico.

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Read an Excerpt

The Great Failure

My Unexpected Path to Truth
By Natalie Goldberg

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2005 Natalie Goldberg
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060816120

Chapter One

With orange leaves still clinging to branches in that unusually mild stretch of late fall, on a sweet street in quiet St. Paul, I was about to slip my key into the front door of the apartment building. I was returning from Zen Center, where I came to study for two months. It was Monday at nine in the evening; no one was on the street. Suddenly I jerked my head to the right. One step below me in the entryway stood a beautiful man, shining face, almost clear eyes, in his late teens, aiming the barrel of a shotgun right at my neck. Feeling the small opening circle on my skin, I jerked my head.

"How dare you!" I was about to be outraged when he hissed, "Don't make a move. Give me your purse."

On my left shoulder dangled a small black backpack with three hundred dollars in twenty-dollar bills. Just that day I had been to the bank. To my chest I clutched my spiral notebook, the hefty 463-page Book of Serenity containing one hundred Zen dialogues, and a thinner black paperback, Transmission of Light.

On my right shoulder was a big blue plastic bag advertising a pharmaceutical company in white letters. My friend, a dermatologist, had picked it up for me at a medical convention. This bag held my old brown sneakers, black pants I bought when I returned a gift sweater that was too small, a Bob Dylan T-shirt a student had given me fifteen years ago, and a pair of good socks. I had gone to the gym only three times in the last month. That afternoon was my third time.

"C'mon, give it up."

I looked at him. He was nervous. Was this his first? Or was he on drugs? In a magnanimous moment I handed over my exercise bag.

"This is your purse?" He took a step back and surveyed me.

"Yes," I said emphatically.

"You sure?" I nodded my head up and down in earnest. We were having a fashion disagreement.

He turned and ran. I bolted through the front door. I had fooled him. He could keep those worn gym shoes. I felt a small victory.

Five days later I was standing on the podium during a conference at a Marriott Hotel in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Seven hundred people were staring up at me. The title of my talk was "Riding Your Wild Horses." I was supposed to be speaking about creative writing, but the night before I had decided to change the whole lecture. In St. Paul I'd been studying Zen koans, short interchanges between teachers and students from eighth- and ninth-century China that cut through conditioned ways of seeing, enabling a person to experience one's true nature. I wanted to talk about that in my keynote speech, then to link it up to my being robbed, another kind of wake-up experience. I was sure it would work. I loved giving talks. Eventually, I'd meander over and tie it up with writing to fulfill the obligation of my original contract. This felt adventuresome and I was pleased. I made three notes on the smallest torn-off corner of a piece of paper and went to bed.

A tall lovely man who had read my books introduced me. I stepped onto the stage and thanked him. I took a sip of water and began by telling an ancient teaching tale.

Te-shan, a learned Buddhist scholar, piled up all his sutras -- they weighed a lot -- put them in a bag on his back, and headed south. Te-shan thought the Zen practitioners in southern China who espoused direct insight not dependent on book learning had it all wrong, and he was going to set them straight. On the way -- of course he walked, maybe for a portion of the journey taking a boat down the Yangtze -- he met an old woman selling tea cakes on the side of the road. He stopped for some refreshment. But the old woman, instead of setting out the provisions, inquired, "What's on your back?"

"They are commentaries and teachings of the Buddha."

"They are indeed! Well, if you're so learned, may I ask you a question? If you can answer it, the food is free, but if you fail, you get nothing."

Our Te-shan with all his book learning thought this would be simple, like taking candy from a babe. He agreed.

The woman then asked -- and with her question I could feel my audience fading, that vital link between speaker and listener suddenly going limp -- "If the mind does not exist in the past, and the present mind does not exist, and there's also no mind in the future, tell me with what mind will you receive these cakes?"

What is she talking about? Before the old woman's question, the audience was willing to come along. After all, everyone loves a story, and certainly Natalie Goldberg was leading up to those wild horses advertised in the catalog. Maybe the old woman will even pull them out of her cakes. Oh, the audience was hopeful. I could feel it. This was a conference full of crystals, psychics, healing dances, drums, auras, afterlives.

The question stunned Te-shan. He could not fathom an answer. Speechless, he wasn't even a match for a roadside cake seller, no less an ordinary woman. He knew he had to abandon his bold decision to challenge the southern teachers of Zen. All his scholarly learning had led to nothing. No lunch for him.

Now, it was here in my talk that I planned to swoop down and point out that these unnamed old women in koans appear to have great wisdom, but they happen to be. . . what was I talking about anyway? Where did I think this was going to lead? Was I attempting to compare the old woman with my robber? The old woman had blown Te-shan's mind. My mind had been blown too, but it was only five . . .


Excerpted from The Great Failure by Natalie Goldberg Copyright © 2005 by Natalie Goldberg.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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  • Posted February 14, 2012

    A book I will pass on to many

    This wise, heartfelt and beautifully written book explores the complexity of humanity and relationships. I reread much of it immediately after finishing it. Highly recommended.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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