How to Move Forward After You’ve Hit Rock Bottom

By Pema Chodron on Tuesday November 29th, 2016

The Raw Power of Vulnerability

Let me tell you a little story about Naropa University’s founder, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and my very first one-on-one interview with him. This interview occurred during a time when my life was completely falling apart, and I went there because I wanted to talk about the fact that I was feeling like such a failure and so raw.

But when I sat down in front of him, he said, “How is your meditation?”

I said, “Fine.”

And then we just started talking, superficial chatter, until he stood up and said, “It was very nice to meet you,” and started walking me to the door. In other words, the interview was over.

Alt text hereWhen you hit rock bottom it often feels as though nothing can pull you out of it.

Hitting Rock Bottom

And so at that point, realizing the interview was over, I just blurted out my whole story:

My life is over.
I have hit bottom.
I don’t know what to do.
Please help me.

And here is the advice Trungpa Rinpoche gave me. He said, “Well, it’s a lot like walking into the ocean, and a big wave comes and knocks you over. And you find yourself lying on the bottom with sand in your nose and in your mouth. And you are lying there, and you have a choice. You can either lie there, or you can stand up and start to keep walking out to sea.”

So, basically, you stand up, because the “lying there” choice equals dying.

Metaphorically lying there is what a lot of us choose to do at that point. But you can choose to stand up and start walking, and after a while another big wave comes and knocks you down.

Waves knock you down and you can lie there or get back up and keep going.

Riding the Waves of Life

You find yourself at the bottom of the ocean with sand in your nose and sand in your mouth, and again you have the choice to lie there or to stand up and start walking forward.

“So the waves keep coming,” he said. “And you keep cultivating your courage and bravery and sense of humor to relate to this situation of the waves, and you keep getting up and going forward.”

This was his advice to me.

Trungpa then said, “After a while, it will begin to seem to you that the waves are getting smaller and smaller. And they won’t knock you over anymore.”

That is good life advice.

Alt text hereThe storms of life keep coming and it’s your choice whether to sink or swim.

Failing Better

It isn’t that the waves stop coming; it’s that because you train in holding the rawness of vulnerability in your heart, the waves just appear to be getting smaller and smaller, and they don’t knock you over anymore.

“Fail better” means that you begin to have the ability to hold what I call “the rawness of vulnerability” in your heart.

So what I’m saying is: fail. Then fail again, and then maybe you start to work with some of the things I’m saying. And when it happens again, when things don’t work out, you fail better. In other words, you are able to work with the feeling of failure instead of shoving it under the rug, blaming it on somebody else, coming up with a negative self-image – all of those futile strategies.

Alt text hereFailing better means that failure becomes a rich and fertile ground for growth.

The Rawness of Vulnerability

“Fail better” means you begin to have the ability to hold what I call “the rawness of vulnerability” in your heart, and see it as your connection with other human beings and as a part of your humanness. Failing better means that when bad things happen in your life, they become a source of growth, a source of moving forward, a source of being able to touch the rawness inside you.

Your best qualities come out of that place because it’s unguarded and you’re not shielding yourself. Failing better means that failure becomes a rich and fertile ground instead of just another slap in the face. That’s why, in the Trungpa Rinpoche story that I shared, the waves that are knocking you down begin to appear smaller and have less and less of an ability to knock you over. And actually maybe it is the same wave, maybe it’s even a bigger wave than the one that hit last year, but it appears to you smaller because of your ability to swim with it or ride the wave.

And it isn’t that failure doesn’t still hurt. I mean, you lose people you love. All kinds of things happen that break your heart, but you can hold failure and loss as part of your human experience and that which connects you with other people.


Adapted from Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better: Wise Advice for Leaning into the Unknown by Pema Chodron. Copyright © 2015 by Pema Chodron.

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Words By Pema Chodron

Originally posted on




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One Response to How to Move Forward After You’ve Hit Rock Bottom

  1. This did not help me. I don’t think it would help many of the depressed teenagers I have listened to. It seems to be blaming the victim. I tried to tell someone this same kind of thing once. A woman I was in a relationship with. It did not help her. She did not feel understood by me. She did not feel cared about by me. She did not feel empaty from me.

    She had been abused in every possible way. I have also. Physically, sexually, emotionally.

    I have learned the power of emotional support and the importance of it

    It makes all the difference for me. Before I was really depressed and thought about suicide frequenly, this kind of article might have inspired me. But now it doesn’t and I see the danger in it.

    I feel protective of anyone who is really depressed and reads this and then thinks there is something wrong with them because they don’t have the energy to “pick themselves up”. The words “it is your choice. You choose to lay there and do nothing” might echo in their heads, making them feel even worse about themselves.

    It is easy to tell someone, “It is your choice”. It takes much more caring to offer to listen to them. It takes more time. I am not impressed by what this university founder did. I feel skeptical of him.

    I doubt he would have cried if the author of this article had killed himself.

    I feel bad to say this but there are 1,000 articles like this on the internet and very few that offer another perspective similar to the one I am offering. So I feel a need or a duty or repsonsibility to warn people. Please don’t say “It is your choice” to someone you love or care about who is very depressed. While it might help them, it might not. Listening to someone, though, really listening, has never led to someone killing themselves that I know of.

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