Not every year can be necessarily a happy one, but even an unhappy year can be a mindful one. So, instead of wishing you a happy new year, I’d like to wish you a mindful one; not a year of presents but a year of presence!
In reviewing my 2010 posts, I’d like to replay this one theme, that of redefining perfection and of noticing the ordinary perfection all around us.
The ideas behind this theme represent my most treasured thoughts, the thoughts that have allowed me personally and professionally to leverage most wellbeing out of this one and only reality that we have.
1. Life on Earth: Completely Incomplete and Perfectly Imperfect
The world is all that is the case. (Ludwig Wittgenstein)
Everything that can exist – at any given moment – exists. Reality is entirely complete. It has no holes. Nothing, absolutely nothing is amiss. The discrepancies that we see are the differences between the ideal reality that we have dreamed up and the actual reality that has manifested at a given moment. Whether we like what we witness or not, whether it matches our definitions of perfection or not, it is what it is and it is continuously changing.
This is the mind-boggling perfection of reality: it is ever renewing, progressing from one state of completion to another, with or without us, with or without our consent or approval. This stubborn independence of reality rubs you the wrong way. It threatens your sense of control. You don’t like this constant change (and resist it), you like status quo (and try to preserve it), and you struggle with constant succession of unfinished business (and seek closure).
Your boss tells you to drop the project you’ve been working on for months – unfinished! – and to start a new one. The car you just spent your Saturday morning cleaning and waxing is already covered with your kids’ palm prints. Your MBA night class professor puts you on the spot with a think-off-the-cuff question that you cannot possibly know how to answer.
Life on Earth is like a batting cage and each ball is a curveball. As you try to pause to analyze why you missed the previous one, the new curveball is already on a collision course with your forehead. You feel there just isn’t enough time to be perfect all the time at everything. And just being good enough isn’t good enough for you. So, you double-up your efforts, get up earlier, work longer, take care of yourself less often, doggedly trying to catch up with this incessant flow of reality, feeling that you are falling farther and farther behind your vision of how your life should be…
The challenge is to embrace this inevitable, unstoppable stream of life and to flow with it rather than try to swim against it. If reality is a story, it is narrated in its entirety and yet is never finished. It is completely incomplete, and so are you. This too is the ordinary perfection of what is!
2. Redefining Perfection
State (Static) View of Perfection: As an idealist/perfectionist, you think of perfection as a state. As you clean your kitchen or your car or your desk, you fantasize about preserving the state of perfection that you have accomplished. If you can only get it right, then it’ll remain perfect from then on. You believe that by tinkering with what is, by tweaking the reality, you can engineer a perfect or near-perfect state of reality that will enable lasting happiness and well-being. But remodeling reality is a frustrating prospect because reality isn’t a state.
Reality is change, a process, a constant flux. As a perfectionist, you reject this impermanence and yearn for a perfect status quo. This state view of perfection is an emotional set up: even when you achieve that momentary perfect state, the reality doesn’t pause to allow you to enjoy it – the moment of accomplishment evaporates as soon as it materializes. What am I telling you? You already know it.
Attachment to Permanence is Suffering: Buddhists call the impermanence of reality anitya. Physicists call it entropy. The former witness it, the latter try to control it. Both accept it. But not you. You strive to shape and form reality into what it isn’t. You see the natural flow of change as de-formation – as a frustrating loss of form rather than as a natural change of form. You’d rather solidify the river of change into an immutable state of perfection and freeze it in time, than to flow with it.
In trying to fix the imperfections of reality, you are confusing fluidity with flaws and the natural rusting with decay. You are, in a manner of speaking, a permanist. Trying to cast an anchor of permanence in a bottomless ocean of change, trying to attach your well-being to what once was creates attachment. Attachment isn’t only a loss of contentment, it’s also a loss of independence. By making your well-being dependent on the perfect circumstance, you lose the sovereignty of your well-being. Your inner life becomes dependent on the external, on that perfect state of affairs that you absolutely have to preserve. You become rigid and tighten up like an anchor chain without enough slack to deal with the ebb and flow of life. No wonder that sometimes, under this tension, you snap.
Process (Dynamic) View of Perfection: Say, you reach that final state of completion, that ultimate state of perfection that cannot be improved upon. Then what? Where do you go from that dead-end? The ideal perfection is the end of the line. Nothing follows it, nothing but emptiness. That’s why when you feel you’ve have finally reached the pinnacle, immediately after the triumph, there is a feeling of emptiness.
A process view of perfection has no dead-ends. It’s just a way. It’s open-ended. You go from one moment of perfection to another and on to another. The process view allows you to see your entire life as an unfolding work in progress, as an ever-changing blossoming of perfection. In a process view of perfection, failure is not an option. No, not in that perfectionistic sense of “you can’t afford to fail!” But in the sense that you are always succeeding since you are always doing your best.
After all, one of the meanings of the verb “to succeed” is nothing other than “to follow;” not “to do better” but merely “to be next.” On a recent tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water, the tour guide said that when Wright was asked “What is your best work?” he reportedly answered “My next one.” Wright, no doubt, understood the logic of flow.
In a process view of perfection, you are always realizing your potential. No, not in that perfectionistic sense of trying to be better than you are at any given moment in time. No. You realize your potential by realizing that, at all times, you are realized, fully and completely. The process view of perfection sees perfection as a one-way evolutionary process of growing.
3. Ditch the Comparisons: Similarity isn’t Sameness
When you compare yourself to somebody else, you are comparing you to not-you. But uniqueness is beyond comparison. Sure, you and so-and-so might be very similar, but similarity isn’t sameness. For you to score like they do (whoever they might be), look like they do, earn like they do, talk like they do – to be like they are – you’d have to not be you. But you are you: not worse, not better, just different.
To function as a society, and to function in a society, we have to play this game of comparisons. This game is useful but fundamentally absurd. After all, how do you compare apples to oranges? Is an apple better than an orange? It depends on the mouth, i.e. on somebody’s subjective taste. Is an apple better than an orange in any objective sense? Of course, not. It’s just different. When we say “it is what it is” we are also saying that “it” (whatever that “it” might be) is unique, i.e. different from anything else. Is so-and-so better than you?
That depends on a subjective point of view. No matter how similar the two of you might be, you aren’t the same and the difference between the two of you is what accounts for all the differences between the two of you. Embrace your uniqueness! Whoever or whatever you are, celebrate the uniqueness of your existence. It too is part of the ordinary perfection of all that is!
Be well. My hunch is that you already know how to.
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Last reviewed: 9 Jul 2011