Walking the Path of Imperfect Perfection
“When you realize how perfect everything is, you tilt your head back and laugh at the sky.”
As a human being, my life is marked by uncertainty, impermanence and stress. As a committed practitioner of mindfulness, this marked life itself becomes a profound path. No matter what’s coming up, when I can be fully present, these marks of existence become magically transformed into wisdom, compassion and insight, like discovering hidden treasure beneath the waves. And yet, being with the storms of life is not easy. I am on the brink of turning fifty, and it’s been challenging. The truth that my life will end is undeniable. When I look into the mirror, once firm skin is beginning to wrinkle and sag. In reaction, I was feeling unusually restless and anxious, and found my thoughts fixating on the elaborate construction of a “perfect” commemorative plan. I was happy that dates for a retreat with my guiding teacher, Trudy Goodman, coincided with my actual birthday. Perfect. Held at Vallecitos in New Mexico, my favorite retreat location. Perfect. My heartfelt wish was to be accompanied by my husband.
We have a joke in the family — Tim says to friends, “Lisa is the mindful one, and I am the mindless one.” We laugh, but deep down, he yearns to develop a committed practice. Tim is my passionate supporter, generously and graciously holding down the home front when I go on retreat. So, the perfect plan hatched — I would celebrate on retreat, led by my guiding teacher, in my favorite setting, practicing with Tim, at last — Perfect!
Then last week Tim sat me down, his head hanging low. He told me he could not go. Unavoidable work conflicts had arisen… not his fault. He was clearly crestfallen. I would have to go “alone.” I became flooded with intense sadness and anxiety. Why was I overreacting? Was this “perfect plan” just a flimsy buffer, an attempt to keep my 50th birthday existential angst at bay? Clearly it was. I tried to meditate but I felt like a small vulnerable boat bobbing helplessly on a tumultuous open sea. Unable to sit down, I quickly set out for a run to calm my nervous system, my head awash with the perfect birthday plan gone bust. I began to cry. With tears streaming down my cheeks, I ran up the final hill. What I saw next will stay with me forever. There, walking briskly ahead of me, was a solitary Tibetan Buddhist monk in his maroon robes.
I rubbed my eyes in disbelief. How could this be? I had never ever seen a Buddhist monk walking on Mulholland Drive! What are the chances? As I got closer and closer, I felt my heart instantly lift and lighten. Too raw and shy to speak, I looked right at him, and bowed repeatedly with my hands folded in prayer as I ran past him. When my gaze met his, the monk beamed in joyful recognition, smiling and bowing in return. We started to laugh — it was as if we had known each other forever. In that pure moment of no separation, the “storm” of my life was suddenly transformed into a sea of gratitude and joy.The “water” was crystal clear, and everything around me looked like “treasure.” As I floated up the hill in deep peace, I saw that nothing was “wrong.” The monk’s presence, just at that moment, was Perfect!
In the midst of this all too imperfect life, I returned home, and told my husband about the monk. I explained to him, deep smile on my face, “I will miss you so very much on the retreat, but I realize now that, on this path, I am never, ever alone.”
Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn
A cool breeze in summer, snow in winter.
If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things,
This is the best season of your life.
When I open to the unfolding of what really is, I connect to reality, and it just feels better, no matter what the situation or season. However, the tease of New Year’s resolutions can really mess with this experience of deep connection. On New Year’s Day, I awoke to all kinds of intense swirling mental patterns of striving and perfection. These patterns insisted that I needed to loose weight, to get organized and to work harder, and that somehow I was deficient in some way if I did not comply. Feelings of shame and fear instantly arose like familiar companions. I was surprised by the voracity of these mental patterns, and how easily they took hold, like a piece of duct tape, difficult to shake. Apparently, for me, New Year’s Day established just the right conditions whereby these kinds of patterns flourish. I immediately meditated, as I practice every morning upon waking. I simply settled into the truth of my sitting body, and allowed my awareness to stay with my actual felt experience, as usual. I rested in the reassuring rhythm of my breath, I felt the comforting warmth of my animal body, I received the early morning sounds of birds, I witnessed the first rays of morning sun, etc. Basically, I became deeply mindful. On this particular morning, my practice was quite transformative. All of the early morning New Year’s mental chatter completely fell away like a house of paper cards. I felt deep warm waves of gratitude wash over me. I was actually ok as I was! It was as if I had awoken from some kind of mental nightmare or broken some kind of bad spell. After meditating, I went for a run. Having just returned from a trip back east, I was a bit jet-lagged. I did not possess the usual energy. As I was running, I realized that I could simply turn back, and not run as far as I usual. From a mindful place, this choice to turn back was not an admission of any kind of “failure”, but was more an act of wisdom and true kindness. It struck me that if I had not mediated before I ran that morning, perhaps still caught under the spell of perfection in the mind, I would have pushed myself to run the usual distance, only exhausting myself further. Once again, I was awash with gratitude, felling so happy, whole and palpable “ok.” What a difference my practice had made. Happy New Year, indeed!
New Year’s resolutions can become subtle instruments of self-loathing and self-abuse, if we are not mindful. According to the Buddha, the origin of suffering is “tanha” or craving. In particular, “baba tanha” is translated as the craving for “becoming”. It operates under the delusion that right now who I am is not enough, leading to the downward emotional cycles of shame, suffering and self-loathing. This kind of delusion operates in this way- if I was more or less, this or that, then and only then, all would be well. All our hopes for happiness get pinned onto some imaginary self we may “become” in a future that never quite arrives. While there is always room for self-improvement, in the words of Carl Rogers, “the curious paradox is that when I can accept myself just as I am, only then I can change.” The fertile ground of any true and lasting change is kind self-acceptance. Perhaps I do need to loose a few pounds. But, through ongoing practice, I can come from a place of love and support, rather than from a place of punitive self-loathing. I tend to snack less and make healthier food choices when I am calm, at ease and feel supported and loved. Clearly, I experienced a “baba tanha” attack on New Year’s Day. Through my practice, I was able to return to the comforting embrace of “nowness”, the only true refuge I have found from the tormenting patterns of unquenchable craving. Over and over again, through mindfulness practice, I have discovered that if I can stay connected to what is real, in the actual moment, I suffer so much less. I also have come to realize that all craving feeds on disconnection. These states only arise when I am disconnected from the ongoing experience of what is real and true. If I can simply settle and align in awareness, all becomes clear, and as in the poem above, “my mind is no longer clouded by unnecessary things.” How wonderful to know that the moment never stops. The opportunity to reconnect, to “come home”, is always available. Now is always here. As John Kabat-Zinn says, “the funny thing with the present moment, it just always keeps happening, no matter what we do.” The key is to not forget. As I begin this year of 2013, I intend to simply surrender to and trust the ongoing and actual experience of being here now, letting go of “becoming”.
Now is The Time
Now is the time to know
That all that you do is sacred.
Now, why not consider
A lasting truce with yourself and the Divine?
Now is the time to understand
That all your ideas of right and wrong
Were just a child’s training wheels
To be lad aside
When you finally live
with veracity and love.
Now is the time for the world to know
That every thought and action is sacred.
That this is the time
For you to compute the impossibility
That there is anything
Now is the season to know
That everything you do
I love how my practice holds me close to the rhythms of nature. The days are growing shorter and cooler. Fall is having it’s effect. As I wrap up teaching all classes for this year, I notice the impulse to turn inward, to “hibernate”. I choose not to fight this, but to happily submit. This is what I am noticing:
I am going to bed earlier.
I am reading more.
I am finding more “downtime”.
I am writing my first Insight LA blog entry!
I am cooking dinners with sensual fall ingredients, such as persimmons, lentils and root vegetables.
I am dreaming more at night.
The walks I take with our dogs are getting longer.
Also, as I turn inwards at this time, I am doing my best to acknowledge the truth of the devastation on the eastern seaboard with equanimity. Hurricane Sally did not hold anyone close. She blew much to smithereens. I am haunted by the story of the mother who had to set out on foot in the storm with her two toddlers, only to have them completely ripped from her arms, loosing them forever. The natural world can give so much, but can also take so much away. How to begin again from such loss? A friend living in the upper west side of Manhattan, sent me this poem as a way to put words to her experience. I would like to pass it on to you, if it is helpful….
The Man Watching
Rainer Maria Rilke
I can tell by the way the trees beat
after so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far off fields say things
I can’t bear without a friend
I can’t love without a sister.
The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it has no age:
the landscape like a line from a psalm book
is seriousness, and weight and eternity.
What we choose to fight is so tiny!
And what fights with us is so great!
If only we could let ourselves be dominated
as things do, by some immense storm,
we would grow strong too, and not need names.
When we win it is with small things,
And the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers in the Old Testament.
When the wrestlers sinews
grew long like metal strings
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.
Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated decisively
by constantly greater beings.