What is Perfection?
In the Buddhist tradition, “Samsara” equates to the suffering we experience as our ego strives for a state of permanent perfection. We suffer because we want to be perfect, but in spite of our best efforts, we cannot attain perfection.
And what is this elusive “perfection” we seek? Is it never making another mistake? Is it never offending another person as long as we live? Is it always making the “right” choices, being “successful,” and/or living up to a standard of behaviors we create in our minds?
Just reading that last paragraph makes me laugh at the absurdity of it.
In my own mind, I am the most imperfect creature I know. I determinedly decide to eat the right foods, avoid sugar, and exercise daily — and, to my chagrin, those choices are quickly cast aside at the sight of chocolate or a comfortable recliner.
Then I discover that, with the best of intentions, I’ve thoughtlessly said or done something offensive to someone, or an ill thought out action of mine has been misinterpreted.
When I find myself drowning in a sea of my own imperfections — the very epitome of Samsara — life itself can be a very depressing place to be. Yet, a part of me knows that life is meant to be experienced fully, and we learn from it constantly.
My cloud of depression begins to lift when I choose to objectively look with compassion at my imperfections and see them in the light of love.
The relationship I had with my father was a complex one, and I always had a feeling of dissatisfaction, as though I was being kept from truly getting to know him as a person, rather than just as an authority figure. When he died in 2004, he began visiting me in my dreams, and I began feeling as though I was getting to know him better after death than I had in life.
One night, I dreamt that I was sleeping in a friend’s apartment when I was awakened by the distinctive sound of my dad playing jazz piano. “That’s my dad!” I exclaimed as I jumped up and ran to see him. I knew he had died and that this was a rare opportunity.
Dad stood by the piano as I ran into the room, wearing his normal uniform of the white “wife beater” t-shirt, Bermuda shorts, executive knee-high socks and sandals.
“Dad! Dad! It’s me! Lori!” I exclaimed.
I could see by the confused look in his nearly 80-year old eyes that he wasn’t sure he knew me. Thinking that he had been away for a while in his ethereal abode, I patiently explained who I was — his daughter — and telling him about his life here on earth.
As I spoke, his eyes began showing recognition. He began to recall who he had been here, and who I was to him.
Then I noticed that he was getting younger and younger. We began to speak of many things. His eyes became vibrant and excited, and he spoke with passion.
Realizing the uniqueness of this opportunity, I said, “Ok, Dad, tell me how this works. I’ve been told that we reincarnate after we die. Some people believe in Heaven and Hell. What is the deal? What really happens? How does it really work?”
“You want to know how it really works?” he asked. “Ok, I will tell you.”
The next thing I remember was gasping and saying, “You are KIDDING me!!! That’s how it works???!!!” I was filled with amazement and a feeling of incredulousness, but had no recollection of what had just occurred.
At this point, Dad now looked as he did at around 15 or 16 years of age, yet he was still completely himself with all of his knowledge and personality. Then, to my surprise, he turned into a completely different 15 year old. Someone else, but still with my father’s mind and personality intact.
“I have to go now, ” he said with a wistful smile. “but thank you for being my daughter.”
“Thank YOU for being my father!” I cried, adding, “I wish I had gotten to know you better.”
“No,” he said, “Everything was just as it was supposed to be.” And with that, I woke up.
Nirvana and Compassion
It is said that one has attained enlightenment, or Nirvana, when one lets go of all the struggle and clinging, and through that letting go, attains perfect peace.
I have always thought of Nirvana as a state of eternal, unchanging bliss.
“Bliss” sounds nice… like a warm bubble bath that surround your body, creating an absence of pain. But “peace” sounds so calming… so blissful!
How do we attain peace in a world that is constantly changing all around us?
Lately, I have come to realize that much of my own suffering has been created internally through my desire to be perfect, and stems from a fear of change.
Life can change in an instant, and all that is near and dear to me could be lost. Clinging to that which I think I cannot live without, wanting to have a surety — a promise — that my life can be stable and dependable… those are the very elements of suffering, because constant change and instability IS life.
The key to Nirvana, then, begins with acceptance and continues with compassion.
For many years, I have hated the imperfection that is me. Slowly but surely, I am learning that compassion must begin within my own heart.
As a teenager, earning my money through babysitting, I quickly realized that I was not one of those “baby people” — you know the ones I am talking about — those people who just adore babies! Back then I thought, “I should never have children. I am just not naturally good with children.”
After spending 20 years in a religious group that did not believe in birth control, I ended up giving birth to seven children.
I dearly love my children, and strived to be the perfect parent. That was coupled with trying to raise perfect children. In so doing, I ended up making the same mistakes my parents made with me, and I became filled with regret.
Of all the emotions available to us as humans, regret is one of the most painful and perhaps even the most wasteful. What do we gain from regret?
Our children are mirrors, showing us the best and the worst of ourselves in their behavior and reflected in their eyes. They do not hesitate to point out our failures as parents and our flaws as human beings.
But compassion teaches us to stop looking so hatefully at ourselves; to stop seeing ourselves through the lens of how we think others see us.
Personally, I’ve come to recognize that I am impetuous, impulsive, moody, mercurial, emotional, driven, ambitious, passionate, loud and sometimes obnoxious. I am also selfish, narcissistic, anxious, and curiously both lazy and a workaholic.
At times, those negative characteristics and my recognition of them begin to drown me. I find myself hating myself because of them. Then I came to the realization that self-hatred is extremely devastating — your very cells hear that internal chatter and react with illness. The light within begins to extinguish as the darkness engulfs it.
Compassion sits quietly on the bench beside me and reminds me that I am also passionately loving, loyal, determined, intelligent, kind and generous at times. Curiously, there really is no difference between by flaws and my virtues. They are one and the same. Why? Because they are all transitory, fleeting, here today and gone tomorrow, blown apart my a mood or a circumstance or a word… and therefore, they are not real.
As the winds of life blow away the dried leaves of emotions and opinions that fill my thoughts, what remains is acceptance, love, compassion and understanding.
We are human. I am you and you are me. We are One and the same. We all struggle to do our best and to be as perfect as we can be — but we may be at our best when we let go of the struggle and just allow ourselves to BE.
I know that I will not ever be perfect. In the days and years ahead, should I be granted them, I will continue to occasionally offend those whom I had no intention of offending. I will be thoughtless and clumsy, and I will sometimes speak in anger and then be filled with regret. All of these imperfections are part of being human. We come here to experience these very things. Just as I cannot eliminate these things from my life, I cannot control how people react to me, my choices, or my personality.
We are who we are. And while I may not always like myself at any given moment in time, I am learning to feel compassion for the complex and earnest person that I am.
In loving myself and seeing my own flaws with understanding, I can accept and love others, too. Together, in spite of our many imperfections (and sometimes because of them) you and I can change the world.
So forget about being perfect! Let’s enjoy our many peculiarities and work together to make this life be all it can be.