Friday, October 30, 2009

To Hell With Perfection

I had a very short discussion with a few fellow practitioners before a class Wednesday night. Essentially, we were a bunch of zen students talking about yoga and yoga teachers. It was really enjoyable to share with others the blending of zen and yoga as a spiritual path, and to hear a little about other teaching styles than the precise, but balanced approach I have experienced. However, a few minutes before we all headed into the zendo, the discussion took a turn I wish we would have had more time to explore.

There was talk about a teacher whose approach included what sounded to me like harsh, command-like language. The practitioner speaking grabbed his foot, positioned it twisted awkwardly, and then said his teacher would say something like "Not like that. Wrong!" He quickly turned the foot outward as he said "Like this. I should look like this. This is correct." This isn't a word for word quote, but the words "wrong." "should," and "correct" definitely were in there. I felt a jolt through my stomach as I listened to this.

This morning, I stumbled upon the following post on Yoga Spy that speaks to the reaction I had during that conversation. These lines in particular struck a chord:

Just as straight A’s aren’t necessarily proof of smarts, perfect asanas aren’t necessarily proof of real yoga. Some with perfect asana skills are also true yogis, who manifest the philosophical and ethical teachings, while others are strictly acrobats.

Seeking perfection is a troubling form of attachment, as far as I'm concerned. There's definitely some of that attachment in my life, although less now than when I was younger. I remember as a 6 year old in 1st grade getting perfect scores on all the spelling tests we had to begin the year. It was, I think, some sort of badge of honor for me, proof to my little mind that I was a smart person. And then it happened: I got a test back and saw a single red mark next to a word. One wrong. Still an A, but not "perfect" in the technical sense. I had a fit. Tore the paper up, and even flipped my desk if I remember correctly. Not a pretty sight, and the spirit of that I took into my teens and twenties, as I got more and more wound tightly about succeeding, being liked by everyone, and not failing. It was a heavy burden, and ultimately an unsustainable one.

In Zen Mind Beginner's Mind, Suzuki Roshi writes the following:

“In your very imperfections you will find the basis for your firm, way-seeking mind. Those who can sit perfectly physically usually take more time to obtain the true way of Zen, the actual feeling of Zen, the marrow of Zen. But those who find great difficulties in practicing Zen will find more meaning in it.”

I recall a certain air of perfectionism that tainted our zen center during the first years studied there. We had a large community, lead by a charismatic teacher and his many well-seasoned students. In some ways, the energy and intensity of the place was exactly what I needed to start to break through my own addiction to perfectionism and it's cadre of emotional and behavioral followers. In other ways, I gravitated toward a community that was manifesting the very same issues I had, including especially that perfectionism. I can remember the days after the mirror cracked and shattered in pieces - how the disgraced departure of the teacher led to a hell of a lot of soul searching about what it meant not only to be zen practitioners, but also to just be healthy, balanced humans.

There's something violent about saying there is one correct way, or even saying that you have the "best" way. Even though I don't know anything about that yoga teacher my fellow practitioner was speaking about, I find myself a bit suspicious, perhaps because of my own experiences of perfection and "the correct way" to do things. When you do asanas, the physical poses of yoga, no matter what it will be an expression of you in the moment. It has it's own perfection contained in it, regardless of how technically correct it looks. And the same is true of zen practice - no matter what, each of us will be different in a certain way, even if we're all lined up and sitting straight and upright. How can it be any other way?

And yet how many of us are, on a daily basis, caught up in that mind that seeks the perfect? How many of us Buddhists condemn what we're doing now as "half-assed" practice that will only become "true" practice when we have attended long retreats and made some sort of earth shattering breakthroughs? There's a place for pushing yourself, and it's important to keep going beyond what you thought was your limits, but how much of our pushing ends up just being violence to ourselves?

In the end, one of the main problems seems to be that we don't even know what "perfect" is. Do you know? Can you really experience what perfect is without trying to push imperfect out in the process?

I'd like to think that I've grown up a bit from that little boy who tossed his desk to the floor because he missed an answer. I'd also like to think that convert Buddhism in North America has gone beyond that little boy energy as well. But in both cases, the reality seems to be mixed. Sometimes maturity, sometimes little boy who can't handle the truth of the present moment. Maybe that's how it is and will be. Or maybe we all just need to dig a little deeper, but in a more gentle, compassionate way for the truths of this life.


Adam said...

"yet how many of us are, on a daily basis, caught up in that mind that seeks the perfect? How many of us Buddhists condemn what we're doing now as "half-assed" practice that will only become "true" practice when we have attended long retreats and made some sort of earth shattering breakthroughs?"

So very, very true (for me anyway)

spldbch said...

So much suffering comes from the pursuit of perfection. It is an unattainable ideal. If one sets his standard as perfection he will always fall short and so will always consider himself a failure.

You are right -- there is no such thing as perfect. It is a concept that, like all concepts, exists only in the mind. The concept of perfection means something different to each person. How could we reach an agreement as to which definition of perfect is "right?"

Each moment is perfect just as it is -- I think you've captured that sentiment beautifully in this post.

Marguerite Manteau-Rao said...

Thanks Nathan. There is a book I read many years ago, by Marion Woodman, called "Addiction to Perfection".

May I share a different take on your story? How about accepting the yoga teacher with all his imperfections, "wrongs" and all? It's interesting I did not get same feeling from your story about him. I saw him more as a man concerned with helping his students attain correct posture, which in yoga is important for maximal benefits. Maybe his tone was wrong, maybe not, given the job at stake. I have heard similar stories about Mr. Iyengar. And also reputed zen teachers. Most important is to discern person's intentions. Lots of your friends' reactions seemed to come from an 'I', wounded place.

Algernon said...

What is perfection when there is no time? What is perfection when we know "I" is a shadow?

Some details of form can be very important, for avoiding injury or discomfort. Certain points about zazen posture, for instance, are important for beginners to know so they don't experience excessive back pain or strained joints, at which point they might give up on meditation altogether. In my own meditation instruction, for the very reasons you adeptly point out, I just offer the information and avoid telling people there is a "wrong" way to sit.

What is "should" when we rest on awareness itself, and nothing else?

When we just pay attention to everything, stay awake to every detail of our behavior, we might realize there are things we don't really want to do -- something that has nothing to do with ideas like "good," "evil," or "should."

neurobi said...

Thank you for this teaching.