Monday, January 19, 2009

Kurt Barstow - Embracing Imperfection

Kurt Barstow has been posting a lot of good stuff lately, and as I have noted before (over at IOC), it's not the run-of-the-mill New Age crap you often find in spirituality columns. This one on embracing imperfection is no exception.

The ability to accept and embrace imperfection is crucial for men. We have often been raised to see mistakes or imperfections as failure, rather than opportunities for growth. No one can ever be perfect, but we can always be growing toward that impossible goal.

And yet, we are always already exactly who and what we need to be. Yes, we can improve our behavior and our understanding of the world (relative reality), but that doesn't impact our already perfected Buddhanature (absolute reality). Kurt looks at this issue in the column.

Embracing imperfection

Art Hit, Perfection in Imperfection
The psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach begins her book Radical Acceptance (Radical Self-Acceptance on audio CD), about the problem of self-aversion (apparently a uniquely Western phenomenon), with a quote from the Zen Master Dogen: "To be in harmony with the wholeness of things is not to have anxiety over imperfection." As the most imperfect sort of perfectionist--one who has a perfect ideal somewhere in mind but is either so scared off by it that I don't get beyond thinking to doing, or doesn't put in the time with detail to actually perfect something--I was very moved by this notion that trying to live up to perfection is one of the chief factors behind self-hatred. My anxiety has always manifested itself primarily as self-consciousness based in unexamined fears and limiting beliefs that have held me back and stunted developmental progress much of my life. I can't speak. I'm ineloquent. I have nothing to say. I can't express myself emotionally. If people really know me, they won't like me. I'm not good enough. I won't ever succeed. I have no power. My sexuality or my sexual orientation will be disapproved of. I am a failure. People will either think I'm crazy or an idiot. These ideas have lived so far beyond their time that I feel a certain amount of embarrassment in listing them, along with the relief that comes from recognizing them as, in fact, beliefs rather than realities. The defenses that provide the protective armor shielding me from experiencing these beliefs as actual realities--silence, inaction, isolation, not showing up--keep me from experiment, responsibility, and connection to others.

A few years ago I had a sort of vision of what I now take to be two types of consciousness. In one image was a long-haired barbarian prisoner in a dungeon with hands shackled, raging against his chains, struggling, spit flying, and hair whipping about. Almost immediately an alternative image came to mind of a farmer walking up a hill toward a gnarled oak tree at dawn. Dew was on the grass and mist rolling off the top of the hill. The air was fresh, the outlines of things had a crisp coolness. The farmer was a part of the landscape and the landscape a part of the farmer. The prisoner I have taken since to be an image of the separate self, which is what we feel most attached to when we have anxiety over imperfection, whereas the farmer is an image of the Self, connected to the oneness of things, in harmony with his surroundings. So it seems that the only way to remove the shackles of the prisoner is by recognizing the imperfection that is built into our very nature. Another way of talking about this would be to discuss our sin, or "missing the mark," although I am hesitant to do so or to use that word because of all the devilish uses to which it has been put. It is perhaps one of the most overloaded and unlovingly, divisively used words of the last millennium. But to paraphrase Dogen, to have anxiety about our sin (our imperfection) is to be out of touch with the wholeness of things. Once when I was behaving badly in some way or other and feeling remorseful, my partner looked at me and said, "Don't you realize that you are pre-forgiven." It brought me back from self-isolation into the community of human beings. Forgiveness is discussed today as a process that is as much about ourselves as it is for others, but we shouldn't forget that it is indeed for others too. We can all do that for each other. We should all be so generous.

Broken mirror

In our own times the urge toward self-improvement, toward perfection is great and can be almost overwhelming. But we are, in fact, perfect as we are in every moment. How could it be otherwise? This is not to say that we can't be lovingly self-reflective to help determine how we might be in the next moment. The anxiety over imperfection can keep us from looking at ourselves. I noticed the other day, for example, that I was falling far short of living up to at least half of The Eightfold Path of Buddhism. Right action, trying to do the right thing, and Right Speech, trying to say the right thing, realizing your speech affects the psyche of others, are certainly areas where I have fallen down, acting in self-interest or lying. And Right Thought, realizing that your thought is as important as anything else you do, and Right View, a correct understanding of how the world works, are areas in which I have probably been even weaker. (I am definitely one of those people who missed out on the rule book about how the "real world" operates). I realized in taking a look at this that I didn't hate myself because of it, but simply that there were some venerable moral guidelines that could help me to be more in touch with my wholeness and with my connection to the world. In addition to my moral failings, I haven't had money for months to pay the rent. I'm unemployed. I'm scattered somewhat in my job search. I can get depressed and procrastinate. I can be irritable. I can do the wrong thing for the right reasons. I am not a bad person because of this, however. In fact, my frustration with myself is entirely understandable if not entirely helpful. It took, in fact, just a little help from my sister, taking me by the hand, going to the computer, and saying, "You could try this and this and this," to help me get out of the circumlocutions and fears of my own head and to normalize the process for me of looking for a job. Sometimes it takes someone else doing the simplest thing to get us out of our own self-critical, anxious heads.

C Blair Howell, Perfection in Imperfection

The spiritual life is dependent on connection more than anything else. Being stuck in one's separate self sense is its great enemy. That separate self sense is very different than the hermit in his cell constantly praying to God, who presumably is connected to the wholeness of things. Connection can be found in sangha (or spiritual community), in family, in relationships, in friendships, in community, in work, in nature, in meditation or prayer, in reading, on the internet, in commerce. I have always been a slow learner. I only seem able to learn through, sometimes painful or difficult experience and it usually has to hit me over the head fairly hard. But Spirit is in all these manners of connection. Our isolation is a way of protecting ourselves. It is a defense of the ego, a way of hiding our imperfection. To embrace our imperfection is to see ourselves as whole and connected to the Kosmos. It also allows us to love others more perfectly.

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