Tonight is the eighth in a series of Dharma talks that present highlights from chapters of Jack Kornfield’s book, No Time Like the Present. Chapter eight is titled “The Elegance of Imperfection.” It begins with a quotation by Thomas Hardy, author of Tess of the D’Urbervilles: “It was the touch of the imperfect upon the would-be perfect that gave the sweetness, because it was that which gave the humanity.”
Jack says, “We have so many ideas about how we should be and how the world should be, yet none of these is the way things are. Human life is a tainted glory—messy, paradoxical, filled with contradictions.” The world is a mixture of magnificence and limitation, triumph and disappointment, loss and re-creation. When we seek perfection, we are in conflict with the natural ebbs and flows of life.
Recently Mark and I attended a memorial service for a relative who committed suicide. As we listened to heartwarming tributes about Bob’s loving service and generosity towards family and friends, we mourned his tragic inability to ask for the same kind of help that he had so often extended to others. With a reputation as a “Golden Boy” in his community, Bob could not face his own imperfections, although he readily forgave human failings of other people.
Brainwashed by the tyranny of perfection, most of us seek the perfect partner, house, job, boss, and spiritual teacher. If and when we find them, we want them to stay that way forever, never losing their glow or growing old. Advertisers preach that if we have psychotherapy, work out at the gym, eat a healthy diet, manage our cholesterol, and meditate, we will move closer to perfection.
We imagine that if we become really spiritual, we will never be angry, sad, or afraid. We envision ourselves flowing with life’s challenges, projecting a wise, loving, Buddha-like veneer, and living in perfect peace. We tend to glorify spiritual teachers and to resist facing aspects that don’t fit our idealization. However, there is a difference between an archetype or ideal and a human being. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Krishnamurti and Chogyam Trungpa had shadows. Lamas, bishops and rabbis all struggle with their own imperfections. Even the Dalai Lama confesses, “Sometimes I get angry, but then I realize, what’s the use, and let it go.”
In 1971, after Ram Dass published the bestseller, Be Here Now, his guru Neem Karoli Baba encouraged him to return to America from India as a teacher: “Love people and feed them.” When Ram Dass protested that he felt too impure and spiritually imperfect to teach, the guru inspected him slowly and carefully, peering at him from all sides before declaring, “I see no imperfections.” Even after a debilitating stroke, Ram Dass continues to teach pure love to millions of people.
It is only when we can let go of trying to perfect ourselves that we can focus on perfecting our love, allowing our imperfections to be an invitation to care, Navajos deliberately weave flaws into rugs, and the Japanese treasure imperfect pottery. It is a relief to honor our lives just as they are, with all their beauty and imperfection.
Jack tells the story of David Roche, a teacher who founded the Church of 80% Sincerity, based on the principle that being 80% wise, compassionate and celibate is good enough. David was born with a huge tumor on the lower left side of his face. Surgery and radiation left him without a lower lip and with plum-colored facial burns.
As an adult, David gives middle school students lectures about imperfection. When he enters schoolrooms, he notices that many self-conscious teens, obsessed about flaws in their own bodies, cannot bear to look at him. His greeting is, “Here I am, your worst nightmare!” David asks teenagers to imagine wearing his face to a party or on an elevator, where parents tell curious children not to stare. David’s honesty, humor, wisdom, and fearlessness about his disabilities win over countless students. Before departing, he asks the audience to see if he looks any different. Most students admit that they have learned to see his heart and his humanity. David shows people what it means to love their wondrous, imperfect selves.
Mara embodies forces of greed, hatred and ignorance that attacked the Buddha on the night of his awakening and for years afterwards. Each time his enemy arrived, the Buddha remained unmoved and simply stated, “I see you, Mara.” In frustration at being recognized, Mara would vanish. At one point, the Buddha was so unthreatened by his old adversary that he invited Mara over for tea.
Mara often appears to us in the guise of shame, self-doubt, and confusion. By practicing mindfulness and loving awareness, we can gain a perspective that is spacious enough to see Mara clearly. We learn to sense our ever-changing breath and to witness the body’s aches and pains with kindness and equanimity. We practice identifying different mental states such as fear and despair, gradually developing a capacity to sit with whatever state arises.
On long retreats, I experience how innate Buddha nature becomes visible. When I arrive, I sit restlessly with a busy, noisy mind. As my mind settles, my heart softens and opens. I slow down and become more present with myself and with the world around me. Jack jokes about the vipassana face-lift, because meditators leave retreats looking youthful and alive.
Mindfulness practice helps us grow comfortable in our own skin. Our sorrow teaches us compassion, our vulnerabilities lead us to tenderness, and the renewal of each day brings us joy. When we learn to appreciate our wonderful, messy failures, we gain inner peace. As we practice self-compassion, we care for and accept the precious life that we have been given. Zen Master Suzuki Roshi quipped, “You are perfect just the way you are. And there is still room for improvement!”
Jack recounts the story of the great violinist, Itzhak Perlman, who was stricken with polio as a child. He wears braces on both legs and walks with two crutches. Moving slowly and majestically across the stage, he sits and lowers his crutches to the floor, undoes the clasps on his legs, bends down to pick up his violin, places it under his chin, nods to the conductor, and plays ethereally.
During a memorable concert at Avery Fisher Hall in New York City’s Lincoln Center, one of Perlman’s violin strings snapped, with the sound of a loud gunshot. The audience gasped, realizing that the renowned maestro could not play the piece as it was written. Itzhak Perlman waited a moment, closed his eyes, and then signaled the conductor to begin again. To the orchestra’s accompaniment, Perlman played on only three strings, modulating the piece in his mind to produce a passionate, steady and remarkable rendition of the composition.
At the end of the piece, an awed silence filled the auditorium. Then there a seemingly endless standing ovation. Perlman smiled, wiped the sweat from his brow, and raised his bow to quiet the audience. Then he stated, in a pensive, reverent tone, “You know, sometimes it is your task in life to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.”
Jack says, “Dedication and commitment are beautiful qualities that are best tempered by love and wisdom. You can set your goals, direct your energy, work with vigor, and try for the best, but the results are always uncertain.” The most magnificent performances are ephemeral, and trying to repeat them leads to suffering.
The Buddha taught that everything in this world is subject to change and renewal, like an ever-shifting river. He asked his disciples to relax and to hold the paradox of impermanence and eternity with grace rather than with judgment or fear. In this imperfect world there are many opportunities for joy. No matter what the circumstances, we have freedom to love.
Jack’s teacher, Ajahn Chah used to hold up his favorite Chinese teacup, proclaiming, “To me, this cup is already broken. Because I know this, I can drink from it and appreciate it fully. And when it falls off the table, I understand. It’s the way things are.”
Reality requires flexibility. We can backtrack, change our minds, try out new approaches, embark on unfamiliar paths, and learn to be curious about what might happen next. With freedom of imperfection comes forgiveness and compassion for oneself and others.
Jack tells the story of a young hot-tempered army officer who was ordered to attend an 8-week mindfulness training to reduce his stress levels. On his way home from one of the classes, he stopped to buy groceries and waited impatiently in line behind a woman who was carrying a baby. At the checkout counter, she passed the baby to the cashier, who spent a few moments cuddling the child. The army officer noticed his anger rising and his body becoming hot and tight. Instead of losing his temper, he applied his newfound skills, breathing into his unpleasant physical sensations. As he reached the cashier, he commented, “That was a cute little boy.” She responded, “That’s my baby. His father was in the Air Force, but he was killed last winter. Now I have to work full time. My mom tries to bring my boy in once or twice a day so that I can see him.”
We are so quick to judge. Jack asks us to look anew at the world around us. With mindfulness, we can see with the eyes of care and wonder. This is an invitation to freedom.
PRACTICING IMPERFECTION (adapted from pp. 149-151)
What if you could love yourself fully, including your imperfections?
What if you could love others in the same way?
You might fear that by loving your anger or laziness, your addictions or your anxiety, you would never change for the better, and you might even become more angry, lazy, addicted or self-centered.
But if you experiment, you will see that what happens is often the opposite. As you love and accept yourself more wisely, your fear, aggression, neediness, and inertia lose their hold. True love knows intuitively what is in your best interest.
Sit quietly with eyes closed.
Let yourself experience a sense of presence and loving awareness.
Reflect upon what you consider to be your imperfections and flaws.
First, focus on your body’s flaws.
Next, reflect on flaws in your personality and character.
Now contemplate any imperfections in your mind states and in your relationships with others.
Imagine loving yourself just as you are, with all of these human flaws. Human incarnation entails living with imperfections. Your task is to see them clearly and to love your imperfect Being.
Now imagine transforming yourself into loving awareness that can witness and hold your successes and failures in a sea of love. Your true nature transcends flaws, traumas, and fears. Let outer human struggles appear in pure consciousness. Remember that you are essentially timeless awareness, born as a child of spirit in the midst of a complicated human incarnation, like 7 billion other humans.
With deep acceptance and loving awareness, leave the judge’s court. Invite yourself to become quiet and kind, at ease with your whole self. With this accepting presence, you can imagine yourself making better choices—not out of shame or self-hatred—but because your loving heart teaches you how to care.
After you practice embracing your imperfections, you can choose other people with imperfections to include in this practice. Start with an easy person first, and then include some more challenging people. Nelson Mandela counseled, “It never hurts to see the good in [others]. They often act the better because of it.”
With profound loving awareness, practice noticing and accepting their imperfections. Notice how this acceptance softens your feelings for others. Recall that everyone is a learner, just as you are. Imagine how your loving gaze and kind care might inspire the best in others.
Finally, return to the sensation of breathing, and absorb what you have learned from this guided meditation. At your own rhythm, slowly open your eyes, and appreciate the support of our sangha (or meditation community) for your practice.