By Swami Asokananda

Swami Asokananda, a monk since 1973, is one of Integral Yoga’s foremost teachers, known for his warmth, intelligence, and good humor. His teaching comes out of his own practice and experience, having absorbed, from a young age, the wisdom of his Guru, Sri Swami Satchidananda. In this article, he talks about that journey and how it redefined his notions of success.

Recently, I read something in Inc. magazine that intrigued me. It referred to Tommy Caldwell, a 35-year-old Coloradan who is widely viewed as one of the greatest rock climbers of all time. Caldwell has attempted a number of times, so far futilely, to scale the Dawn Wall of El Capitan in a free climb—without any aid from climbing equipment or ropes. No one has ever done it. He was asked, “Why do you keep throwing yourself at this? All it does is give you failure upon failure. Why go back?” “Because success is not the primary point,” Caldwell said. “I go back because the climb is making me better. It is making me stronger. I am not failing; I am growing.”

In fact, Caldwell viewed failure as an essential part of his search for the outer reaches of his capabilities as a climber. “To find your limit and experience the most growth, you have to go on a journey of cumulative failure,” Caldwell said. “Even if I never succeed in free climbing the Dawn Wall, it will make me so much stronger, and so much better, that most other climbs will seem easy by comparison.”

In one sense, people like Caldwell, who are truly seeking mastery of a skill, seem to lack santosha—contentment. They’re never really content with success. They have a deep craving to get better and better, which often means repeatedly failing. In another sense, people like Caldwell have a deep sense of santosha: They don’t view failure as failure. They draw satisfaction from the fact that they succeed in doing their best and learning from that.

I love Tommy Caldwell’s perspective and like to think that I do my best to apply it to my life. But it wasn’t always this way for me. I grew up with the same idea of success as most people—what we call “the American dream.” As I reached the end of high school, though, things began to shift. After a year and a half of college, I had the clear sense that whatever I was supposed to learn in this life wasn’t going to take place in school. When I decided to drop out, my dad was understandably concerned; it didn’t sync with his vision of how his son was supposed to find happiness. So, he asked me to get psychological testing before taking any dramatic action. I did and my dad was told that I wasn’t totally out of my mind, so, with his hesitant blessings, I left school and moved into the New York Integral Yoga Institute. I was 19 years old. Four years later I entered the Holy Order of Sannyas.

What transpired during those four years, as I followed Sri Gurudev’s teaching as best I could, was a paradigm shift in my understanding of success. Before this shift, I thought success meant achieving the desired outcome that a person had set out to accomplish—winning the game, getting the promotion, marrying the sweetheart, having a blissful meditation. Some people call these things “good karma,” but yogis make a distinction between “good karma” and “success.” To a yogi, good karma is like a comfortable golden cage for the soul that only replaces our shabby plywood cage. In actuality, we’re not really in a secure situation because tomorrow we may not win the game, we may realize that we preferred our old job more, our sweetheart has somehow turned into a demon, and we can barely stay awake at morning meditation the next day. The one thing that we can say for sure about this type of success is that it will not last forever.

Convinced that the only “success” that couldn’t be taken from me was my innate happiness, I dove into my meditation practice. I began my practice with the understanding that success meant not thinking. And real big success would bring some altered state of blissful consciousness. The problem with this definition was that I pretty much always failed. And since I’m a persistent fellow, that meant 3 times a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year I was a failure. And since I’d given up seeking success in everything else, I was a failure at the only thing left that was important to me. I was persistent, but I didn’t have Tommy Caldwell’s perspective and resilient attitude. . .

Read the rest of this article in the Winter 2014 of Integral Yoga Magazine.