What was I doing standing up in front of everyone anyway? ... They had signed up for this lovely New Age weekend down in Florida -- what was going on with this Natalie Goldberg? I knew only a handful had read any of my books. How was I going to leap over this mess smoothly and talk about writing practice, where I was on solid ground? I mentioned the horses from the seminar title -- ahh, relief on their faces -- they had come to the correct lecture hall after all. Then everything dropped away. I had nothing to say. ••• So begins the journey by one of America's favorite writing teachers. Natalie Goldberg has inspired millions to write to develop an intimate relationship with their minds and a greater understanding of the world in which they live. Now, through this honest exploration of her own life, Goldberg puts her teachings to work. In this wry, nimble memoir, Natalie Goldberg candidly depicts her father, Ben, an old-fashioned man's man who knew no boundaries -- a trait that was at once his greatest strength and most profound weakness. In capturing the essence of this larger-than-life Jewish bartender, she reveals the intricacies of a precarious father-daughter relationship. The tenuous bond with her father leads her in many directions and ultimately to Dainin Katagiri Roshi, a dynamic, celebrated Zen master. In light of an eye-opening discovery that shakes her ideal of this beloved teacher, Goldberg revisits her many years of loyal practice under Roshi's guidance. Elegantly weaving these tales together, this story is finally a search for truth when there are no easy answers. Filled with Goldberg's trademark gifts for both humor and teaching, The Great Failure touches our hearts and minds as we come to recognize the ways in which we fail to confront our illusions.
Natalie Goldberg lived in Brooklyn until she was six, when her family moved out to Farmingdale, Long Island, where her father owned the bar the Aero Tavern. From a young age, Goldberg was mad for books and reading, and especially loved Carson McCullers's The Ballad of the Sad Cafe , which she read in ninth grade. She thinks that single book led her eventually to put pen to paper when she was twenty-four years old. She received a BA in English literature from George Washington University and an MA in humanities from St. John's University.
Goldberg has painted for as long as she has written, and her paintings can be seen in Living Color: A Writer Paints Her World and Top of My Lungs: Poems and Paintings. They can also be viewed at the Ernesto Mayans Gallery on Canyon Road in Sante Fe.
A dedicated teacher, Goldberg has taught writing and literature for the last thirty-five years. She also leads national workshops and retreats, and her schedule can be accessed via her website: nataliegoldberg.com
In 2006, she completed with the filmmaker Mary Feidt a one-hour documentary, Tangled Up in Bob, about Bob Dylan's childhood on the Iron Range in Northern Minnesota. The film can be obtained on Amazon or the website tangledupinbob.com.
Goldberg has been a serious Zen practitioner since 1974 and studied with Katagiri Roshi from 1978 to 1984.
Natalie Goldberg is at her best as a teacher of both writing and zen and of writing as a spiritual discipline and practice. I first encountered her books around 20 years ago. Writing Down the Bones was all the rage in writing groups and of course, being contrary, I avoided it for a few years and then read both that one and Wild Mind (basically a re-run of Bones, but enjoyable). I found them invigorating, and loved the spiritual aspect, though her favourite methods didn’t work for me.
The Great Failure, however, isn’t about writing nor is it about failure as a path to success. It’s a memoir about the two important men in her life and their failure to maintain appropriate boundaries, resulting in abuse of their positions, one as father, the other as teacher. It’s a divided book, not only in its subject matter, but in the success of the portraits.
Her portrait of her father is nuanced and vivid. He was, as one would say in Yiddish, “a grober yung,” a boor (literally “a gross boy”). He had little boyhood himself, and was little cared for. As a man he was crass and oblivious to his crassness. He commented on his pubescent daughter’s body, he held her too tight, he made her uncomfortable enough to avoid being alone with him. A bartender, he had no understanding of his adult daughter’s career as a Buddhist teacher, but he was earthy and without pretension.
During a visit to her home in the southwest, he sat outside to watch the sunrise at her command. When she asked him what he thought of it, he was nonplussed; it was a sunrise, it happens every morning. On another occasion she tried to teach her parents to meditate. After ten minutes of silence, she asked him if he’d noticed how busy the mind was, how many thoughts flit through it. He said he hadn’t thought at all, not a single thought. What was it like for him, she asked. It was like it always is when nobody is talking or doing anything, he said.
He was loud, he was busy, he was vigorous, he was insulting, a grober yung who loved his daughter with all his heart. His simplicity, his complexity, and her forgiveness for all of it comes through vividly.
It stays with me. And I envy her this possibility of forgiveness because, although her father failed in many ways it was out of ignorance, not intention, and there is all the difference in that.
Her portrayal of her teacher, Katagiri Roshi, a zen master and founding abbot of the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center, while sincere lacks the vibrancy and understanding she has for her father. Katagiri’s motivations and feelings in carrying on secret affairs with students are unknowns that Goldberg tries to fill in with guesswork. Her guesses are sometimes plausible and sometimes, for me, dubious. And the situation is different in another way; he was her teacher not ever her lover. The wounds are wounds of disillusion, and as disappointing as the disillusion is, it is a surface wound compared to what she experienced as a daughter.
Perhaps better writing comes out of deeper wounds. I wonder what, as a teacher herself, she would say about that.
This book never managed to enter my head somehow. It failed to engage me, but it was not a great failure, it was a mediocre failure. Perhaps one needs to be a long time fan of Goldberg's to be interested in the material. This is the first thing I've read; somehow I've managed to escape reading Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within.
So much about this writer, but so little was interesting. Her emotional reactions to events were imponderable — why so upset about Roshi? I failed to see how it was so transgressive (perhaps I missed the point where he was supposed to be celibate). She describes it as deceptive; also describes it as happening in plain sight in front of her, as something everyone knew about.
She dismisses those who wonder why someone would be upset about adults doing adult things. To me, this book is mostly about Natalie Goldberg, yet she tries to make it about others.
I love Natalie Goldberg. I cringe at giving anything written by her one star. I was eager to read The Great Failure when I stumbled across it. It was a huge disappointment. Perhaps the topic was simply too personal for her to write about in the intimate, engaging way I know she is imminently capable of, dealing as it does with the strange sexual undercurrents of her father's sexual attraction to her as a teenager, as well as her disillusionment with her Buddhist teacher and his sexual improprieties. It left me feeling she had hardly begun working through the issue internally and could not do anything but hold her nose and herself at arm's length in the writing. There was simply no life, no authentic investment, no felt presence in her telling of the story. Maybe she was trying too hard to be very Buddhist in her telling. To me, she was so far removed from whatever her experience was, that her telling was dry, an actual labor to read...as if she was just couldn't bring herself to go inside and be authentic about what this meant to her. I couldn't get past the superficiality, the hollowness, or the sense that she was going through the motions after signing a book contract for a book she thought she was ready to write, only to find out she didn't want to touch it. Everything about it felt tedious and obligatory, like a dead rehashing of a numbed-out memory. I will always love Natalie Goldberg. It must have been its own torture to write. It is understandable at a human level. But The Great Failure, to me, was a great failure at writing: it simply was not worth my time or the true discomfort I experienced as a reader. Goldberg was an icon for me. Yet I couldn't escape feeling ripped off, knowing what a brilliant writer she is. I was fighting my own judgment that she knew better and was using me as a reader. Was this a chit, a revered writer, using me a loyal fan, to earn a little extra cash? I wish she had just owned up to the truth of not being ready to write this one and refunded any advance to her publisher. I hope she doesn't read these reviews. I wouldn't want to hurt her. The value in reading it for me was a lesson in what not to do as writer. But this review is for other readers, and it is the truth of my reading experience.
I read this after hearing Goldberg speak at a book signing recently. Someone said they'd read all of her books and she asked if the woman had read The Great Failure. The woman hadn't heard of it and neither had I, so I picked it up. It explores Goldberg's coming to terms with her father's mistreatment of her, revelations about her spiritual teacher Katagiri Roshi that come up after his death, and her continuing quest to find herself in the midst of the 10,000 things. She's honest without being cruel and though the book does share an understanding about human behavior and faults, the personal processing in The Great Failure did not quite have the objectivity or the insight that made The Long Quiet Highway, her last memoir about her experiences with Roshi, so powerful.
I was initially drawn to this book because of the evocative title. I thought Goldberg was going to investigate ideas of "noble failure" --about how in the greater scope of history our lives are like pebbles in the eddies of time and it is impossible to know how failures in our lifetime might be viewed differently from different points of view across time and space/ And also maybe to question ideas of success. But this book was actually, and perhaps not surprising given our culture, about the way certain people have failed the author and how that made her feel. I know: yawn. First, I have to say at the outset that I question her working theory that argues that feelings that bubble up in our minds lead us to what she calls Zen "big mind" and that writing itself is a path to higher truth. In general, I am not on board with her belief that a deep dive into one's own emotions leads to an authentic understanding of the self or the world since it could just as easily be considered a form of intense self-clinging. Even in the 80s, sociologist Robert Bellah talked about the new religions of the self, he called it the religion of Kathy.
Well, this book is the religion of Natalie.
Despite not being a big believer of the above, I listened to the story on Audible, narrated by the author, and wow, what a storyteller she is! Her writing is so filled with evocative details and humor and I found myself engaging in a big way with her writing. Mainly because she piles on details in a cinematic way, you start feeling yourself part of this story and thinking and engaging with her story. What is truth? What does she owe to others? Her father was so inappropriate and ultimately lacking totally in empathy. But then her letters to her parents were also so strangely one-way. I felt puzzled by her writing letters of accusation to elderly parents and when he tried to call her to talk she said, no calls. You must write me. Everyone needed to be on her terms. As a reader, what to make of this path of Natalie Goldberg? I found it interesting. And about her teacher. How awful and how typical too. As she says wisely, how human. But that teacher made money as a man on the Zen path, whatever that means to him, and yet to betray the community with affairs? And then the author, on her own path (path of Natalie as path toward honesty and truth and a better world?) wrote a book that will stain the legacy for his wife and kids... but didn't she have an obligation to tell the truth of Natlie Goldberg? A few years ago, at the Feynman celebration at Caltech, a very famous scientist lit into Feynman's memory over his indiscretions, which were not as bad as the Roshi's but till really disappointing. Daughter was in tears because it was the day to remember him, but I think the scientist felt she couldn't show up and not say something because it sends a message to speak against transgressions.
The end of the book on Audible has this absolutely amazing interview with the author in which the interviewer happily asks the questions most readers are wondering about... Why are the failures those of others and not of NG? What of consideration to others and this constant commitment to oneself as the bottom line? The interview was a fantastic ending to a wonderfully compelling book.
I loved the book but took off one star because her explanation of "Te-shan" 德山宣鑒 was almost impossible to follow. There was so much in the story of the monk of virtue mountain that she could have borrowed from to better illustrate her own project and it was such a great idea to bring the story in and yet it was really hard to follow that part.
++ An aside, one of the most interesting translations I ever worked on was about Naikan Therapy. As I was reading this book, I thought that in so many ways NG's approach was the precise opposite to that of Naikan, which is gratitude based reflection--has been successfully used in Japan to help people. Wish I knew more about it.
I reviewed her more recent book --also compelling --for the Asian Review of Books, publishing there soon.
If you are in any way associated with Shambhala, please read this book. Read all her books but most especially read this one. Her clear honest voice is much needed in the face of confusion, secrecy, denial. There are no answers, but there are stories.
"The Great Failure" is autobiographical and written by a woman whose earlier book "Writing Down the Bones" (which I never read) inspired many people to start writing. The book is about two male role models - her father and her Zen teacher - both who she felt betrayed her. She tries to reconcile their affairs, their abuse, and the ways they compromised her trust with two people she loved and admired.
The book begins with her being held up at gunpoint in St. Paul, Minnesota, and continues into an unsuccessful lecture the author delivers where she tries to draw a parable from this attack, Zen Buddhism and writing. Threaded through Natalie Goldberg's book is an initially annoying Zen "teaching story", the same one that failed in the lecture. The book has a sense of humor. I got a glimpse at these two men and their secrets. who Both her father and teacher die in the end.
One moment I liked in the book is when she tries to get her parents to meditate. In the middle of silent contemplation, her father starts to sing "Hello Dolly" and accompanies himself on the Zen bell. More substantially, I liked the attempt to contradict conditioned ways of seeing people and responding to their behavior in order to see people's true nature. This is a technique in reevaluation counseling I've found helpful.
Both were intense men - one a buddhist master and another a bartender, arguably a type of buddhist master. Both her father and her teacher had affairs. You had to wonder their motivation. Betrayal means breaking off and going into the unknown. I thought about the book in terms of desire, betrayal, creativity (all of which may involve intense emotions), and emptiness. She talks about leaving behind the rollercoaster of intense emotions. I tried to group activities in the book into these categories, but couldn't draw more out of this: Creativity: art, writing, music, enlightenment, lecturing Desire: affairs, gambling, success, loneliness Betrayal: sexual violation, hurtful comments, and the feeling of being hurt. Emptiness - her marriage, drugs, death, sitting, zen, surrender
In the book, I felt Natalie exposed private sides of these two men, without exposing her own failings. While she alluded several times to personal failings, she doesn't delve into herself. There are glimpses of them - a marriage she abandoned, speeding tickets, anger, depression. However, as she is the narrator, the seriousness of these failings is easy to miss. I wonder if she is implying she too has had affairs. Maybe she doesn't feel she needs to spell these out.
In the end, I was left feeling that she, too, is revered as a teacher by many people. One these of the book is (clearly) failure. She quietly shows that she has failings and failures. In the end, no one is a perfect teacher. Even the Zen teaching story she uses was a flop in her lecture, yet she tries again.
Questions for the book group: Why begin with a holdup? What was the motivation for Katagiri and her dad's affairs? In the book, she writes that "we are drawn to teachers that mirror our own psychology" Is infidelity a part of her life? Have you ever had a similar experience of having and leaving a spiritual leader? How she has failed?
This might be the greatest, most mainstream book Natalie Goldberg has ever written. I learned three good things on page 80 that makes this book worth its cost, and here are two: continue under all circumstances and make positive effort for the good.
I haven't read many memoirs but this one I couldn't put down. Goldberg's writing flows smoothly in and out of stories and stories within stories. I think I really enjoyed this book because her unravelling of the echoes of her teacher's and parents' own human imperfections were in parallel to my own experience. As she put it, we "[inherit their strengths, but also carry their shadows]".
Nearing thirty years old, I've come to see my parents in a real light, and appreciate them as the accumulation of their whole life, not just from the simplified perspective as I saw them in my youth. Additionally, I've established a relationship with a Buddhist teacher, and am navigating the tendency to want to put him on a pedestal, yet realizing he is no different than the rest of us. To say the least, the book was easy to relate to and her writing enjoyable to read.
Nestled throughout her book lies advice on honestly unravelling ourselves and our perceptions of others to see reality all the more clearly, and doing so without clinging to or avoiding strong feelings. Though the book's purpose isn't to push writing as a spiritual practice, my own journaling was validated and galvanized.
I enjoyed this, but not as much as I enjoyed Long Quiet Highway: Waking Up in America. This book is long-winded in places and Goldberg gets caught up in judgements. In long passages she appears to be trying to change her feelings by thinking. A repeating motive is that she spends effort digging into past events. I kept wondering why she did this. While it is interesting to follow her story and to relate to her struggles, in many times I wondered why she behaved as she did. Her descriptions of the people she related to - mostly her father and her teacher - are vivid, but her own psychology comes very short. It seems that there are parts left out. This leaves me with an interesting life story, and a more intimate relationship with the author, who I respect, but with very little inspiration.
This is a brief memoir of Natalie’s relationships with her father and her Zen teacher and her coming to grips with them being human, i.e. flawed. Essentially, it is about her figuring out whether she is able to admire/love people even when she feels that they have disappointed/betrayed her by their actions (or inaction, in the case of her mother).
The Great Failure didn’t resonate with me in the same way as her earlier work did. I think if you’re going to write about how people have disappointed and betrayed you, you also have to turn that around and dig into how you may have disappointed and betrayed others. She touches on this, but she doesn’t dig into it.
Great failure begins in relationships. First, with the bartender, Goldberg's father, Part I recounts the narrative of a convoluted relationship with an abusive yet loving father; that is, a broken relationship with a tormented man who was still loyal to his daughter. Second, with Roshi, the Zen monk under whom Goldberg studied as the ideal teacher and mentor, broke relationships around him by having affairs with his students. These two men hold a candle to Goldberg's search in the dark for meaningful relationships with men and with others--and then they blow out the candle as she searches for the truth.
Reading this affirmed for me that relationships begin and end in failure. I cannot rely on anyone anymore even to communicate in basic ways; who speaks the truth anymore? What was I thinking? Goldberg's rolling anecdotal narratives show how relying on others only shattered her until she learned for herself that it is her aloneness that is all she has left--so nourish that. Goldberg flips Descartes dictum: "I think, therefore I am," upside down when she says it should read, "I don't think, therefore I am not." There is a simple beauty in being dumb.
What do I do for myself when others walk away or ignore what I have to offer? Goldberg leaves three things behind in her basket for the reader [me]: "Continue Under All Circumstances," and "Don't Be Tossed Away--Don't Let Anything Stop Me" and "Make Positive Effort for the Good." It's the final one, the dedication to be positive for the good that is worth living for and dying for, regardless of the Fickle. I will be good for myself, with myself, to myself--this world of burlesque can pass me by--as long as I can hear the frogs croaking at night, I will be well.
Hell, the Cosmos was probably having a good day yesterday until I jammed it up! So what!
Make it good, I've learned from reading Goldberg. Nothing will stop me unless I let it. Continue and continue on. The truth for Goldberg can also be my truth and her lucid writing makes it easier to be my truth too.
I thoroughly enjoyed this work. I am ambivalent, however, as to the appropriateness of it being published. I considered writing a review based on why and why not that this work is ethical and suiting a practitioner of Zen to write - these are two different matters. Regardless, I much enjoyed the author's frankness in and intimacy with the narrative in her reading of it in the audio format.
In a concluding interview, Goldberg said she wrote the book, not for she wanted to, but the book had to be written. When she realized where this would lead, she cried while sitting in a coffee shop. So, possibly, the book did have to be written, and not so much for her, but to remind us of how we in the West have projected onto the "enlightenment marketplace' something it appears to be but truly is not. Seeing this, we can benefit from these wisdom traditions, yet remain wise to our own projections in regard to them.
This applies in many other domains, as we can use Zen, Christian, Tibetan, atheism, theism, Taoism, psychology, or whatever to hide from ourselves. That is, as the author clarifies, Zen succeeds in failure, for it is meant to lead us to the failure of our egoic expectations of others, ourselves, and life. When the game fails us, our projections burned and smoldering, we can make make love with the Life in life.
I think this book has been a bit unfairly reviewed as it was a little more insightful than I'd expected based on reviews. Yes, I do agree the book should have focused on her relationship with Roshi rather than her biological father (who came off as a Seinfeld character to me), weaving in the father's concerning behaviors as a backdrop to the attachment to Roshi. I think Natalie realizes her attachment to him was idealistic and unhealthy but she doesn't seem to move beyond that. For example, the dinner with the mistress was weird and a prime opportunity for digging deeper.. What was it like even getting dressed to meet the mistress of the man you turned down and yet so admired. Yet this scenario was so very short changed, it was disappointing. Natalie chose a different way to present the material, more story telling than insight sharing. Not my style, but still I found it compulsively readable if not completely enlightening. For a more depth digging memoir, I highly recommend Memorial Drive.
Like, apparently, so many others, I was captivated by the romance of Natalie Goldberg's zen center in _Long Quiet Highway_. This book is a companion to that one, written to all of us who might make the mistake of holding Katagiri Roshi as more than a man. In it Goldberg writes a parallel narrative of her two fathers -- her physical one and her spiritual one. At the time of _Long Quiet Highway_ she was just beginning to come to terms with the similarities of the two men and in the subsequent years she would learn the depth of those similarities.
In many ways this book finishes that previous work. It is hard for me to assess whether this one would stand alone. But in telling both stories Goldberg redeems her fathers and offers suggestions by example of how one might redeem their own father figures.
The book is heart-warming and heart-breaking by turns. It's also well-crafted and worth reading for the language and structure.
Really 4.6. A brilliant memoir, by a talented and disciplined writer. I'm struggling with why I didn't like it better. Goldberg is utterly free of hypocrisy, and clear about the paradoxes in her feelings for both her father and her teacher. Her very brief description of her failures within her marriage made me like her less than I had before reading it, and perhaps that's the problem - in me, looking at the choices she describes, rather than in her honesty in describing her actions.
There were moments of great clarity in the book, and other times when I felt it wandered. The author was betrayed by her teacher and abused by her father--these are connected in that she sought perfection in her Zen teacher because of her father's betrayal, yet the two betrayals were very different. And I didn't quite connect failure with these betrayals. On the other hand, her insight about her mother was profound and her emphasis on telling the truth was inspiring.
I worked my way slowly thru this book, which at first was more than I cared to know about Natalie, even though I'd loved Bones and Long Quiet Hwy. But glad I didn't give up... deep thought and no conclusions... but isn't that life? and the conclusion is only that things don't wrap up neatly in real life, but messages we need slither through the cracks. ("It's how the light gets in.")
I have been on a Natalie Goldberg reading binge.This is one of her more personal books. In it she deals with the relationship with her Father and her teacher, Katigari. Her discovery and final acceptance that neither one was perfect, did not live up to her idea of them but after all they were full fledged members of the mistake making human race. A good read.
Compelling memoir exploring universal themes of betrayal, family relationships, and finding meaning. It's all here ... Suffering, impermanence, no self. As someone who practices in the Theravada tradition, I enjoyed learning about the unique American Zen culture and Zen Buddhism more generally.
Beautifully, elegantly and compassionately written. I especially recommend this book to anyone on the spiritual path who would like to understand why great teachers so often fall into the trap of sleeping with their students.
Goldberg hints at some of these secrets in her other books, so I was excited to read more about them. However, she doesn't seem to grapple with the problems as much as I expected - it seems that she has accepted them before writing the book itself.
This efficient intimate vulnerable memoir asks big questions about projection and spiritual leaders. Do you inherit your teacher's shadow? There is real bravery is speaking about things people want to sweep under the rug.
Natalie is one of my favorite authors. I always love her books. She has an amazing writing style that draws you in and keeps you interested. This book, more than any other of hers, reminds me of what conflicted person she is, which just makes her so much like all of us. This was a great read!
It seemed uneven--probably because I read it in pieces with stretches of days in between. At the end I wondered what I had missed. It's well written, of course. Maybe I'll skim it again some day. The epilogue may serve as a good model to follow, imitate, consider.