Starting a new year with a big personal failure was demoralizing, but I learned something from the experience. Modern life demands us to tenaciously march toward success and "learn from failures," but an important element is missing: cultivating a specific kind of compassion.

Regular meditation practice has given me some profound insights and heightened perception of myself and others. Having some daily practice and a short retreat experience, I jumped on an opportunity for a silent retreat at a Zen temple, which comes with a rigorous daily schedule that begins at 3 AM. It was a challenge to further my Zen practice and quietly introspect. As calendar turns into a new year, I would come out of it having transfigured my transgressions of being unskillful, having transcended my own limits, and having transformed into a different person—an experience which many describe as simply not transcribable.

The whole experience was like a meticulous choreography, and the tranquility (silence and also no connection to the outside) was refreshing. However, I started to develop a severe back pain, which was a surprise since I'd been sitting regularly and went through a retreat without any issue in November. It was either a process of acclimating to a new sitting environment or a development of an actual problem. With a previous experience of agonizing lower back issue, I was frightened to risk my health. A funny thing is that it was my first time sitting with almost no distraction since only thing I could grasp was the pain.

Ultimately, I gave up—assertively enacted because I desperately needed an escape from the deafening distress signal from my body but with a reluctance because the act of abandoning would damage my self-esteem. Once I relinquished, I had to figure out how to leave the temple (the monks were very kind helping me sorting things out). As it turns out, I was able to share a cab with some folks from Germany to the train station. Once I figured out how to get to Seoul and purchased a ticket, I was greeted with hours of waiting—a complete solitude with a sense of being lost in the crowd—ironically in a location the purpose of which is to connect people and cities. With my mind constantly juggling between a sense of defeat and the physical torment, the waiting was infinite. Once I got settled with some snack and pain med, my mind wandered around how to handle the aftermath and analysis. How am I suppose to "learn from failure" and also brush it off and continue like Winston Churchill once said: "success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm."

Life is complex and prone to failure of both small and big, and there's another system bearing some resemblance: jet engine. Modern jet engines are complex and expensive (e.g. Rolls-Royce's Trent XWB or General Electric's GEnx run up to $ 30~40 million including support), and they supply a wide range of critical inflight necessities. Since engines are carefully engineered with redundancy and reliability, failure is rather rare today. So why do engines fail after all? We can classify into two cause categories:

  1. Controllable/internal factors such as improper maintenance (Air Transat Flight 236, incorrect part installed), design/manufacturing flaw (United Airlines Flight 232, fan blade material defects) , and operational error (Air Canada Flight 143, unit conversion error).

  2. Uncontrollable/external factors such as foreign object debris (US Airways Flight 1549, bird strike), volcanic ash (British Airways Flight 9, volcanic ash cloud), and weather condition (Southern Airways Flight 242, water and hail damange).

Borrowing some wisdoms from the aviation that are translatable to life (an interesting topic but outside the scope of this post), I commenced a rational analysis to "learn from my mistake." However, amidst my brain clouded by a dense fog of physical pain and an emotional defeat, an intuitive realization slowly emerged—an awakening from a relentless devotion to success and perfection and a liberation from the fear of failure.

Typically we're taught to perform a rational analysis in an attempt to reconcile and learn, but there's a missing element. Without an honest acceptance preceded, one cannot proceed to a truly sincere assessment; the first and the most critical step of failing well is embracing the situation as is while maintaining compassion to oneself. Without a self-compassion to ground to, any attempt to analyze and learn from failure becomes a distorted lens projecting our fear of mediocracy and complacency, our misguided love with success, and our unhealthy attachment to perfection—clouding our already nebulous and complex plight and hindering us from accurately perceiving ourselves and our circumstances.

When one is utterly vanquished, a kind encouragement from others can be helpful to jump start. A flamed out engine can also take a help from others like the plane's auxiliary power unit (APU) and attempt to restart. But since we can't always rely on others to understand our predicament, we need an internal pilot light, a tiny always-on flame, ready to start an ignition: self-compassion. Everyone has that small flame, brilliantly coruscating inside, ready to be discovered and cultivated. And if each of us can extend a kindness to one another and to oneself, we shall fly high and not fear flameout.