Failures are the pillars of success

This is one of the stories in our Story-Gems project, a collection of our experiences with our Guru, Sri Chinmoy. Project homepage »


Guru had come to San Francisco for many things, but one of the things was to visit Ananda Fuara, a really good restaurant they have out there. There were many people there from all over the West Coast. Of course, not everybody could fit into the restaurant. It wasn't big enough. So I was standing outside with the group of people.

Finally Guru came out and he was blessing us with his hand and smiling. Everybody was really happy. Guru got into the car that was waiting. Then Guru got out of the car and started walking towards me. I actually looked behind me to see if there is somebody more important standing there. But there wasn't. Guru walked up about six feet away from me and looked at me with half-closed eyes. He said, “You will not swim the channel? You will not swim the English Channel?” Then Guru turned around and slowly walked back to the car and they drove away.

So I decided I should try to start training that day in San Francisco. The water in the bay is very cold. It’s the same temperature as the English Channel. I went down to the bay and left my clothes and my shoes on the sidewalk. I went in and I swam for about 15 minutes. When I came out, I saw that someone had stolen my shoes. I was absolutely freezing, I was shaking uncontrollably. I got into the car and turned on the heater and tried to get warm.

I just I had no idea how anybody could possibly spend… I mean, some people had taken 20 hours to swim the English Channel. I'm thinking, “How do they do it? How do they stay in that water for 20 hours?” Well, part of the secret is that you're moving and you're creating heat, like when you're out running in the cold. But still, it's really a mystery to me.

But Guru said, “You have to eat. You have to eat more. Eat more.”

So up above where I was swimming is a tourist area with many restaurants, like Taco Bell, Mrs. Field’s chocolate chip cookies and so on. I would get in the water for an hour, get out, go up to those stores and just stuff my face with food. Then I would get back in the water and do that a few times. And it was starting to work. I got to about three hours.

Then Ashrita came out there to do an aqua pogo record in the bay and he was in there for hours. I think he might have had a wetsuit on. I was with him, swimming around back and forth. This really inspired me, and one time I stayed in for five hours.

I did swim the English Channel in 1988. I was the seven hundredth person, which was a low number at the time to do it. And, you know, the real problem was that I didn't really know how to swim. It took me three years to succeed and make it across.

The first time I was in Dover, there was a big storm, a force 7 storm. After a certain amount of time, they made me get out of the water because the boat—which was a really big boat, about 50 feet long—was going up 10 feet and down 10 feet. They were afraid it was going to hit me. So I had to get out.

The second time I did a lot more training. But I have to say my swimming stroke really wasn't that good. The channel is twenty-one miles across, and my swimming stroke just wasn't good enough.

When I was training for the third time, I finally got some help with my swimming stroke. A lifeguard at a pool in New York told me a few things and said, “Come back in a week.” Then he told me something else. And finally, I had learned some secrets because a really good swimming stroke is actually quite complicated.

So here's what happened. I am over in Dover by myself. And when the weather looks like it's going to get good and the tide is low, the captain of the boat who is going to take you calls and says, “We're on for tomorrow. It's going to happen tomorrow.”  

It's pretty intense because then you wake up at maybe midnight and you get all your stuff ready. You call a taxi cab and then you drive to the top of a very high cliff, the White Cliffs of Dover.

It's quite a strange transition. You get out of the taxi with your helpers and a couple of boxes of food and things. Then you have to walk down about two hundred stairs. As you are walking down these really long stairs to get down to the beach, you have a lot of time to think. You're looking across. It is a pretty good day. You can see lights way in the distance. And again, the different parts of your being… Your mind goes, “Oh my God!” Your mind and your vital are kind of freaking out, but your heart and soul say, “Oh, it's not that far. I think it'll be okay.”

So I'm down on the beach and taking off my warm-up suit and everything, but it's pretty cold out. It's 4:00 in the morning and I've just got a regular speedo suit on, a small bathing suit, and the handlers start putting grease on me. The grease comes in tubs that you buy at the pharmacy. It is called channel swimming grease, something like one hundred grams of it. And they're smearing a couple of these tubs of grease all on you. You have to be very careful you don't get it around your head. It's very greasy. If your head gets greasy, your goggles might not be able to stay on. They might start rubber-banding off your head because it's too slippery. So, you know, I'm getting ready, and all of a sudden… I kid you not. A beam of light comes out of the sky and right through the top of my head. A column of light is coming down from above and through my head just as I was standing on the beach, getting ready to start.

So that lasts about as long as I could handle it. I am extremely charged up and the captain on the boat comes out on the deck. There's all these lights on the boat so I can see them him easily. He signals me to start. So I wade into the water and start swimming. I's about four, four thirty in the morning. I’m swimming out and the grease works pretty good for maybe an hour and I don't feel too much cold. Then it all starts to peel off.

Every hour they come out and give you some food. Usually it's hot tea and some kind of pastry, and you literally have 10 seconds to cram this pastry in your mouth and drink the tea down. My helpers would come out on deck. We have many pictures of Guru and they stand out on the deck holding different pictures of Guru and inspiring photos. Whenever I would turn my head to breathe, I could see them. There is kind of an art to swimming with the boat. I get in sync with the boat and as I’m swimming along I am able to look at Guru. I realise that whatever I can do, I have to stay in your highest consciousness because that's where time kind of stands still. Time isn't this really long line when you're in your heart. So I would say for anybody, but especially for the disciples, to stay in your heart is to not have to fight the battle in quite the same way, certainly, that you would if you're in your mind or your vital.

After about six, seven, eight hours, I am getting some food next to the boat, and my handler points and says, “Turn around and look!” I can see it was daylight and I can see France. I can see a place there called Cap Vernet with a really big white house. It looks close, but I know that it is still pretty far away.

So I keep swimming, keep swimming. It is getting closer and I can actually see there's some high cliffs on the other side. But the problem is the land comes to a point. So if you don't hit that point or get inside the point, the land drops away and you keep getting farther away. Then the tide changes one more time and it is pushing me away from the land.

I can see on my right, when I take a breath, the lighthouse and the cliff getting closer and closer. But then sometimes I look and I am farther away. So I am caught right in the currents. Each tide takes six hours. This is my third attempt to swim the English Channel after training for three years and I’m doing okay. I still feel pretty good. I'm going to sit in here and just swim in place for six hours if I have to.

I absolutely do not want to do that, but I am prepared to do it if necessary. Then I start taking really, really long strokes and swimming as powerfully as I can. Some of the things that my lifeguard friend had taught me are absolutely, absolutely helping that to happen. Before leaving for the third time to swim the channel, I had trained in New York for six Sundays in a row. Each Sunday I would swim 16 miles. I would go to a reservoir every Sunday and swim 16 miles for six Sundays in a row. That was my training.

In the Bible, there's a famous saying that says the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. Guru had actually said something almost exactly like it. He said, “The souls are willing, but the minds and the bodies are weak.” I had taken that to heart and did all this long training. My mind at that point is thinking, well, I can swim all day because of these long training swims. And I keep swimming harder and harder. And then I actually notice that I am making progress. Probably Guru is totally involved with me being able to do that and not staying out another six hours. But I am making progress and I get inside of the point where the lighthouse is. I get inside of the land.

Finally, as I am swimming in, there is a boat there that has just finished a relay swim. These people have just swum as a team in a relay. They are celebrating on the boat, popping champagne and laughing and shouting and cheering. And I swim right by them. I think at that moment, that's the only time in my whole swimming career that I feel like my actual swimming stroke is really good. I feel very, very good, very controlled, very coordinated.

I tell myself I'm going to swim in until my hand touches. And then my hand touches the sandy bottom. It's almost impossible to describe the feeling. It's very electrifying. And I try to stand up. Of course, my eardrums are cold and everything. I fall over a couple of times but finally I stand up and struggle on to the beach.

There is a couple there with their children having a picnic. At that time, I am a little bit fat. I am over two hundred pounds, about two hundred and twenty pounds. This fat, really red guy covered with grease, all swollen… because when you throw your hands forward for 13 hours, all the blood rushes to your hand. Everything gets fat. So this guy comes out of the water and crashes their picnic, but they are pretty happy to see me. I think they realise what is going on. It is rather extraordinary for them. And the French coast is absolutely beautiful. It's like an impressionist painting.

It is four minutes after 6:00 when I get out of the water with an elapsed time of 13 hours and four minutes, which is a pretty good middle of the road time. It's not 20 hours or 24 hours. There have been people who have landed in the dark, right at the cliff. They had to get out of the water and walk across the rocks through tidal pools in the dark and touch the wall. That's the rule of the channel swimming association. I managed to escape that fate.

The captain of the boat that went with me and guided me is extremely happy. He is wearing a suit but he gets into this little dinghy that has a bunch of water in the bottom and rides to the shore. I meditate for a while, but then we start celebrating. I pick up a bunch of rocks on the shore to bring back and give to people as souvenirs. I'm not sure why I am inspired to do that, but I start loading these rocks into the little boat. Then we head out to the main boat and go back to England.

In the boat, I feel very happy. Finally, after three years, I have gone from a kind of non-swimmer to a pretty good swimmer. In the way back in the boat, something comes to my mind from inside of me. I think, “Oh, good. Now I can go mountain climbing.”

So on October 1st, 1988, Guru honoured me for crossing the channel. Guru said, “I am so proud of you. Failures are the pillars of success. My three hundred pound lift was the proof that failure is nothing, nothing, nothing.1 So please, if you have failed, never give up.  Here is the radiant example.”

Determination within,
Determination without
At every moment!
Lo, unimaginable achievements Are within your easy reach.

Sri Chinmoy 2