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Failed Success

They say failures are stepping stones to success. Lately, however, I’ve been thinking how success can be a slipping stone to failure! Swami Prabhupada once commented how he faced two great tests in his life. At one point he was stripped of everything, left penniless and alone, an unknown mendicant with no fixed abode. Later in life, however, he achieved unimaginable success and recognition as a powerful spiritual leader of an international movement. He saw both as divine tests. Both required immense equanimity of mind. Both were opportunities to draw closer to God. Dealing with failure is no mean feat, but maintaining spiritual purity in times of achievement and prosperity is just as tough.

Success can divert our attention from the internal journey we are on. If success gives birth to pride and breeds a mentality of looking down on others, then what have we really achieved? If success instigates complacency, inattentiveness and a false sense of security, then how bright does the future look? If we become intoxicated by success, enjoying the limelight and fame instead of using it for a higher purpose, then how long before we are humbled? It’s interesting that we often identify external success as a sign of spiritual vibrancy. But maybe it’s not.

External success is surely a gift of God, but those achievements must be kept in perspective. Real success is internal success. Sincerity of purpose, purity of desire, dependence on divine grace, dutiful and determined effort – these are the components of internal success (not necessarily detectable by external signs). In 1965, upon arrival in America, Swami Prabhupada made an incredible prayer: “make me a success or failure as you wish”. For most of us the thought of failure is scary, demoralising and humiliating. Not something we’d welcome with open hands. Am I ready to try my best, be an outright failure, and still remain happy and satisfied? That complete detachment from external results, however, is unimaginably powerful. It comes from a heart which values internal purity and recognises divine grace in whatever form it may come. Will I ever be able to submit such a prayer with genuine feeling? It seems a long way away, but I sincerely hope so.

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