There is a strange paradox in the ideas we hold for ourselves in terms of perfection. On the one hand, when we expect nothing less of ourselves than perfection, we are often driven by the belief that achieving perfection is the only way we will be seen as good enough. We fear that anything less than perfect will reveal our inadequacies to others. At the same time, when we demand perfection from ourselves, we give in to a bit of self-aggrandizement, an egocentrism that we are above the standards of other people. Professor Mark W. Muesse, Ph.D. states in his Great Courses lecture on mindfulness that the desire for perfection can be in some sense a desire to be God-like, to be apart from the struggle of mere mortals.
Either way, the desire for perfection within ourselves inevitably leads to suffering -- from the pressure we put upon ourselves to do more and be more to the frustration we feel when we inevitably fail to live up to our unreasonable standards. Mindfulness meditation can give us a guide to letting go of our pursuit of perfection and to accepting ourselves as we truly are -- beautiful, messy, flawed, bright beings.
Perfectionism is not about having goals or even about having high standards for one’s performance. It’s not about achievement. Perfectionism is about comparing ourselves to others and ruminating on our inadequacies and our mistakes. It’s about setting such high standards that we are nearly guaranteed to fall short. Perfectionism leads to us looking for ways run away from our failings.
Often our pursuit of perfection is about striving towards an elusive standard of accomplishment -- neatly folded sheets and an impeccably clean home, flawless job performance, I-don’t-know-how-she-does-it feats of parental multitasking. What if we could think about perfection in a different way? In Japanese culture, the aesthetic principle wabi-sabi celebrates imperfections. Novelist and essayist Alice Walker’s famous quote embodies the principle of wabi-sabi:
“In nature, nothing is perfect and everything is perfect. Trees can be contorted, bent in weird ways, and they’re still beautiful.”
Why then can’t we see ourselves this way? Bent, crooked, weird and beautiful. Perfectly imperfect.
Mindfulness meditation provides us with practice in letting go of our expectations and our ideas of what should happen at any given moment. This practice of letting go helps us when we face the expectations we place upon ourselves. In other words, how we respond to the present moment during meditation can be similar to how we respond to our expectations for ourselves.
How does this process work? When we sit down to meditate, we may think, “Today, I’m not going to let my mind wander. I am going to focus on my breath. I am going to feel calm.” These are our expectations. Once we begin, our mind may not cooperate with what we think should be happening. It flits from thought to thought, worrying about work, kids, how many days until our next day off, how much we dislike the color of our bedroom.
The expectation that our meditation session is going to go a certain way flies in the face of what the practice of meditation is all about. It’s really not about achieving a state of calm, although that does often happen when we “rest in awareness.” Meditation practice is about being curious about what each moment has to offer or teach us. So, when we discover that our expectations have flown out the window, we bring our awareness to that, without judgment. “Oh, right. I thought I was going to achieve nirvana. Oh, well, not today.” Instead we notice that we’re feeling sluggish or agitated or overly warm or that we keep thinking that we’d rather our bedroom was slate blue instead of apple green. We don’t have to cling to any of the thoughts during meditation. We can let them drift by. Until they present themselves again and we practice letting them go again, without judgment.
We learn during this practice not to judge ourselves for not being “meditative” enough. We learn not to beat up on ourselves if we are not the picture of “perfect” serenity or our thoughts are rolling around like tumbleweeds in the wild west. We are practicing accepting what presents itself to us during our meditation. Thoughts coming in like a steam locomotive? Sure thing. Let them come in, let them go out. We are learning to accept the moment for what it is, not as we think it should be- and that is the beginning of accepting ourselves as we are. Not as we think we should be, but just exactly as we are.
Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Meditation is Not What You Think: Mindfulness and Why It’s So Important. Hachette Books, New York, 2018.
Brach, Tara. “Saying Yes to Life as It Is,” 2003“There is something wonderfully bold and liberating about saying Yes to our entire imperfect and messy life.” Tara Brach