Van Gogh’s Shoes

VG'sshoesVincent Van Gogh, A Pair of Shoes, 1885
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Van Gogh’s Shoes:
The Myth of Success & Failure

Feeling important makes one heavy, clumsy and vain. To be a warrior one needs to be light and fluid.
Carlos Castaneda, A Separate Reality

Failure is unimportant. It takes courage to make a fool of yourself.
Charlie Chaplin

Never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat.
F. Scott Fitzgerald

Slump? I ain’t in no slump. I just ain’t hitting.
Yogi Berra

On this path, effort never goes to waste, and there is no failure.
Baghavad Gita, 2:40

One of the more superficial suggestions for assessing people is to look at their shoes—though some of our most beloved heroes wore shoes you wouldn’t give a nickel for and chances are they didn’t care either way. (I’m looking at you, Harriet Tubman.) You can’t tell souls by their soles, or by where they walk, either. Chico Mendes walked through rainforests, Gandhi trod dirt roads, Emily Dickinson stayed in her room. Jackie Robinson ran around baseball fields, Thoreau and Rachel Carson preferred nature. Helen Keller traveled the world. They hit some rough spots, but they kept walking… And in our own lives—some days it’s through gardens of roses, some days it’s trails of horsesh*t (and bad metaphors). Either way, keep walking!


It is not the style of clothes one wears, neither the kind of automobile one drives, nor the amount of money one has in the bank, that counts. These mean nothing. It is simply service that measures success.
George Washington Carver

No man ever stood the lower in my estimation for having a patch in his clothes; yet I am sure that there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience.
Henry David Thoreau

If you wish to make progress, then be content to appear senseless and foolish in externals, do not make it your wish to give the appearance of knowing anything; and if some people think you to be an important personage, distrust yourself. For be assured that it is no easy matter to keep your moral purpose in a state of conformity with nature, and, at the same time, to keep externals; but the man who devotes his attention to one of these two things must inevitably neglect the other.
EpictetusEncheiridion, or Manual, translated by W.A. Oldfather

The infinite doesn’t take form in the finite. The temporal cannot reflect the eternal. Money is wholly and forever irrelevant to your spiritual progress. It indicates nothing about you or your “alignment” with God. Being without it doesn’t mean you’re a saint; having lots of it doesn’t mean your consciousness reflects divine “abundance.” Forget your wealth, your poverty, or your rise or fall from either state. That is not your story. You are eternal, spiritual, and beloved. You always were.
Hugh Prather, Spiritual Notes to Myself

Meaning in life is lost by striving after status and future glory; it is gained and realized by actions towards a common ideal, in serving the whole according to our physical, mental, educational and revelationary (understanding) capacities. It is never enough to mean well (“fair words plant no cabbages”), rather, it is necessary to ensure that it gets done.
Bill Mollison, Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual


The Myth of Success and Failure (excerpt from my “Choices” book)

One way to contract our journey is to submit our dreams, our Self, to the torture chamber of the myriad contracted beliefs of “success” and “failure.” They are merely our own or someone else’s preconception of what should or should not be. They are subjective, arbitrary illusions.


The question our culture asks about people’s lives is, Did they become someone important? Our culture doesn’t ask how often they turned in stillness to God. Stillness leaves no mark on the world. But it does unite all souls in a kiss of peace.
Hugh Prather, Spiritual Notes to Myself

Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.
Maya Angelou

Fame is the result of the matching of a personality with the national stupidity.
Charles Baudelaire, My Heart Laid Bare

For a moment, let’s stand on the edge of the river of life and consider the shallow depths of the status quo (and clichéd metaphors). You might spend some time in these murky waters as you prepare for your journey, but as you grow and become your authentic self, it is not a place you’ll want to hang out.

Much of society views success in the strictly safe and superficial terms of the status quo, which means, simply, the existing state of affairs. You might hear very little about authentic self-expression, fulfillment or individuality. It is usually about consumption, accumulation and exploitation—not the stewardship of the Earth. It includes the belief of material success as spiritual superiority, cousin to the belief of wealth (or poverty) as spiritual superiority.

In contracted segments of Western society, some of the ephemeral status quo parameters for labeling someone a “success” might be delineated by the following questions:

How much money do you have?
How much power and prestige do you have?
Do you own a house? How big is it? How many houses do you own?
Are you in a relationship? How “successful” is your partner? How beautiful is your partner? How long have you been together?
How do you measure up to current standards of physical beauty?
Do you have children? Are they beautiful? Are they “successful”?
How many cars do you own? How expensive are they? How new are they? If not new, are they classics in the appropriate condition?
Do your homes, offices, cars, vacation homes and various possessions reflect classic style or the latest style and cutting edge technology?
Have you ever been a focus of the media—for any reason?
Do you come from a wealthy and/or famous or infamous family?
Where did you attend school? How many degrees have you accumulated?
Have you accomplished and accumulated the volume of things you “should” have for your age?
What kind of shoes are you wearing?

At some point in our lives, we might consider success in these terms. It may be especially comforting to define success in this way if we are able to respond with positive answers. But what about the times when we can’t? What about the times when we wish for these things and feel them beyond our grasp, or had them and lost them, or the times when we don’t consider these things as indicative of success at all? Do we really want to let society or anyone else define the objectives for our life, define our success or failure according to their terms? Are our feelings of success and fulfillment dependent on a consensus reality?


I didn’t sleep well. I made several mistakes.
Steven Wright

Never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat.
F. Scott Fitzgerald

I can be changed by what happens to me, but I refuse to be reduced by it.
Maya Angelou

My great concern is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with your failure.
Abraham Lincoln

We now know a thousand ways not to build a light bulb.
Thomas Edison

So go ahead. Fall down. The world looks different from the ground.
Oprah Winfrey

When Van Gogh was 13, he was sent to a secondary school in Tilburg, where the artist Huysman had set up a course in drawing considered ahead of its time. The author points out: “…as much as Vincent may have enjoyed this, the odd fact is that during his two years at Tilburg, he never mastered the science of perspective, despite all Huysman’s efforts, he just could not get the hang of it.
David Sweetman, The Love of Many Things: A Life of Vincent van Gogh

Failure. People flinch at the word. It is the ultimate contracted judgement—a nasty sword to slice with. But on closer inspection, the sword is a mist. It is only our belief in it that wounds. But how that belief does wound. It has broken many a heart—and how much energy we expend on the defense against it! To avoid it we may go through life as if wearing our Sunday best, living within the most narrow, confined parameters to insure our image remains spotless, for present security or some unknown future reward, review or judgement—afraid to fall down, afraid to be judged, afraid to lose control, and staying away from anything that isn’t safe, approved, protected, insured or guaranteed.

“Failure” means you haven’t met some predetermined standard—whether your own, or someone else’s or society’s. But it only stands to reason that if you’ve chosen to be authentic and follow your own unique path, you will not fit into society’s standard, or anyone else’s—nor would you want to.

There are schools and books and tapes that focus on how to succeed at just about anything. They’ll teach you how to avoid mistakes. How to avoid failure. But do you know how to fail? It’s an essential tool in the Hero’s bag of tricks—there can be no expanded journey without it.

An indication that you are focused on your own or someone else’s opinion of success or failure is found in the words, “should have,” “could have,” “would have,” “I wish,” “someday,” “if only,” “why me.” The subtext of these phrases may be that who you are or where you are right now is less than, is not good enough, and that is a limiting belief, a contractive beginning to your journey. Perhaps you have allowed someone’s pronouncement of failure to alter your perceptions of your self. Perhaps you have cultivated a sense of failure because you don’t think people have responded to you or some aspect of your self-expression the way you think they “should.”

“Failure” is just a perception—so it’s not “failure,” but a belief of “failure” that can be your greatest stumbling block. You may want to begin by releasing your own sense of failure, and figure out how to most expansively deal with others’ sense of what failure or success should be for you. That will allow you to move on—to your own sense of success—which is nothing more, or less, than finding and being true to your self, to your own path in life.

That is your heroic journey—uniquely yours. It is walking in the opposite direction of those who surrender their dreams, their self, to spend their life motivated by fame and fortune, seeking security and approval, seeking as much comfort as possible with as little effort as possible. You may face, at one time or another, any of the many emotions of perceived failure—the pain of another’s sharp judgement, the fear from an empty bank account and a pile of bills, the isolation of feeling rejected from some smug set, the abysmal freefall of a love dissolved.

On your journey, I wish you success, but even more, I wish for you to experience “failure”—that is, life not going according to your logic, or someone else’s. From this you will learn some of the most useful lessons in life—the getting up, the humility to begin again, the unwavering faith in yourself—even if no one else around you understands or believes or even cares. It is to face adversity, betrayal and setbacks, and to remain hopeful and compassionate; to fall and know disappointment and criticism—yet to be so strong within yourself that it is not an ending—it becomes an expansive tool for future growth and learning. It is to continue on your path, not forgetting your responsibilities, but keeping them, balancing them with your dreams, with a steady and light heart, with amazing grace. Experiencing anger, bitterness, sadness, and frustration, perhaps—but not giving up or giving in to them.

And at some point, you will “fail”—I guarantee it—if you are at all daring to live your life. You may feel rejected, humbled or despised—if you are at all following your passions. Follow them, wherever they may take you, but understand—following your own path can be the hardest, the scariest, the most courageous thing you can do. Living your life is your heroic quest—your life—not your parents or your friend’s or your partner’s or your boss’s—not anyone’s life but your own. It may take a lifetime to find out what your life is, and to separate your self from what is only the negativity, limitations, hopes and wishes of others and what they want to press upon you and what you have internalized as your own.

In “failure” is the gift of wisdom. If you are still, if you don’t run from it, it will teach you. Be grateful for that, but don’t pluck it and take it to your heart, or think for one moment it has anything terrible to say about you or who you are. It is only a lesson, a blessing, a breath, saying this is what happens when you do it this way—when you say this, when you do this. Sometimes it points out something you need to learn for further expansion, and sometimes it just points out that others will get angry when you are who you are.

If you let someone else’s idea of failure or your own fear of failure hold you back, if you let it take away your dreams, or carve your path, or cut short exploration and attempts and trying, then you will have succumbed to these limited beliefs, and perhaps that will be your only real failure.

And then there’s this: if, in seeking your success, or in expressing your self, you exploit the Earth or harm the people or creatures that dwell here with us, then perhaps consider a bigger picture that includes the intrinsic value of all creation. The Earth has become a very small home for all of us, increasing the necessity of honoring others in our actions. Just as you embrace how unique and essential and sacred your life is—so, too, consider the sacredness of all the Earth and every life on it.


Be like a bird who, halting in his flight
On limb too slight,
Feels it give way beneath him,
Yet sings,
Knowing he hath wings.

Victor Hugo

Success is how high you bounce when you hit bottom.
General George Patton

I had three mothers, five grammar schools and ten houses by the time I was ten.
Tom Hanks, Photoplay, November, 1988, quoted in Wordsworth Film Dictionary

I do not mean to imply that the influence of the illegitimacy on [T.E.] Lawrence’s development was altogether negative. Part of his creativity and originality lies in his “irregularity,” in his capacity to remain outside conventional ways of thinking, a tendency which I believe derives, at least in part, from his illegitimacy. Lawrence’s capacity for invention and his ability to see unusual or humorous relationships in familiar situations come also, I believe, from his illegitimacy. He was not limited to established or “legitimate” solutions or ways of doing things, and thus his mind was open to a wider range of possibilities and opportunities.
John Mack, A Prince of Our Disorder: The Life of T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia)

I had begun as an artist, as one who would manipulate the elements of a reality into a work of art in the image of my creative integrity: I end by recording, as humbly and accurately as I can, the logics of a reality which had forced me to recognize its integrity, and to abandon my manipulations. It was only after I had completely conceded my defeat as an artist—my inability to master the material in the image of my own intention—that I became aware of the ambiguous consequences of that failure, for, in effect, the reasons for and the nature of my defeat contained, simultaneously, the reasons for and the nature of the victorious forces as well. I feel that the fact that I was defeated in my original intention assures, to a considerable degree, that what I have here recorded reflects not my own integrity which, as an artist’s, had been overcome, but that of the reality that mastered it.
Maya Deren, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti


Entering Nirvana by Mistake

In The Empty Mirror, Janwillem van de Wetering writes about his time in a zen monastery in Japan. He personifies the endurance Caroline Myss talks about in Spiritual Madness, with both humorous and poignant results. Here is an excerpt that always gets me laughing and crying.

Sesshins, the meditation weeks of a Zen monastery, fill the first seven days of six months of the year… Rohatsu is the sesshin which rules all sesshins. Fifteen hours of meditation per day… No human being can sit still for fifteen hours a day… I was a westerner of today—a restless, nervous, noisy seeker without insight, without power…
That day, I was called to see the head monk and two of his colleagues. They spoke to me at length, but I didn’t understand them very well. After several repetitions I nodded. I had understood that they weren’t very happy with my progress and that this Rohatsu would be a final test. If I managed to get through the week all right I could stay in the monastery, and the master would continue to receive me. But if I gave up halfway through Rohatsu I should have to leave the monastery. They even gave me the name of a small hotel in the neighborhood where I could go and stay.
I bowed and returned to my room. Very well. What has to be done has to be done. I swore that I would get through the week even if my legs were so stiffened with cramp that they would never be usable again, and even if my mind gave way. Even if I went insane I would sit it out, if need be as an idiot, dribbling at the mouth, but I wouldn’t enable them to chase me out of the monastery…

I had another two days to prepare myself. I bought chocolate slabs and ordered a large bag of the peanut and raisin mixture via Gerald. I bought an extra heavy jersey and six undershirts. I even bought the heating apparatus which most of the monks were using. It looked like a spectacle case but instead of spectacles contained smoldering sticks of charcoal.

When Rohatsu began the head monk locked my room. During that week we wouldn’t just meditate in the hall but sleep there as well, if sleep it could be called, for we were only given two hours a day, from midnight to 2 a.m. I came into the hall with my sleeping bag under my arm. A small cupboard would hold my chocolate, nuts and raisins, toothbrush, soap and small towel. The clothes I was wearing would have to last all week. I sat down, moved into the most comfortable position I could find and the head monk struck his bell. The spectacle-case glowed away, wrapped in a thin piece of cloth, against my stomach…

My belly was getting strangely warm. I didn’t understand it, couldn’t I manage this either? All the monks had these cases and I saw them sitting all around me, apparently at peace and quietly happy in their concentration… The feeling of warmth was slowly changing into pain. I had the unmistakable feeling that my skin was getting scorched. For the first time I felt no pain in my legs. It seemed as if I didn’t have any legs. But I did have a belly, and it was on fire.
When the bell was struck I… rushed out and pulled all my shirts out of my trousers. I had a burn of several square inches. Gerald, who came to see what ailed me this time, shook his head and looked puzzled.
“Did you just wrap the case in that thin piece of cloth?”
“…You should have wrapped it in a towel and then have stuck the whole bundle in a belly-wrap. You can buy them in any store…” He started to laugh but controlled himself. “That’s a nasty burn. It should be treated…”

The first day passed. The second day passed as well. The third day wasn’t too bad. The fourth day was one long interminable hell of pain and boredom and frustrated restlessness… The fourth day is the worst, the others confirmed later. Six laymen had come to join us that week… During the fourth day they all disappeared.
…more than ever before I had the feeling that I was crushing myself against a thick wall but that the wall, in some mysterious way, was trying to help me—that there was an opening, and that I could find that opening. The sixth day the pain became so bad that I began to groan and the head monk sent me out of the hall. I had to walk up and down on a slightly elevated stone-tiled path, and on both sides, some three feet below me, were low shrubs. I must have closed my eyes and suddenly I found I was lying in the brushwood, not knowing who I was or where I was. I hadn’t fainted, I had fallen asleep.

The seventh day passed reasonably quickly… Nothing irritated me anymore. The last day… At two a.m. the head monk struck his bell with force…We streamed out of the hall, after a last formal bow to the alter.
When the head monk told me again how pleased he was with my effort I said that I didn’t understand him. Hadn’t he told me that I would have to get through Rohatsu? That I would be sent down if I dropped out?
“What?” he asked. “What is this nonsense?”
Gerald was asked to join in the conversation and I finally realized that I had misunderstood the instructions which the head monk and his two colleagues had given me. They had tried to explain to me that they didn’t expect me to be able to get through the complete exercise. But I could, they had repeated at least three times, give up. Only, they couldn’t have me wandering about the monastery while the others were trying to get through Rohatsu. That’s why they had given me the name and address of a hotel close by.
Gerald sat down and laughed till he had tears in his eyes. I had to throw cold water over him to make him shut up. “You,” Gerald said,” are such a nitwit that you’ll enter Nirvana by mistake.”


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