There's a Crack in Everything
Some days I think I will never get anything right.
No matter how many yoga classes I go to or how many hours I sit on my meditation cushion (OK, some of those moments are spent checking my Facebook page), I still manage to piss people off by forgetting to invite them to something or giving them advice when they don’t want it. I hate that I can’t stop rolling my eyes and being sarcastic, and I’m still mad at myself for telling a good friend all the reasons I dislike someone she adores. What is wrong with me?
The more I practice mindfulness, the more I become aware of the innate messiness of my life. I know that very first thing the Buddha taught after his enlightenment was that dukkha, or dissatisfaction with life is inescapable. But some part of me still wants to be able to get things right and avoid making mistakes.
Benefits of BEING Imperfect
Over the years, I have learned that there are often helpful sides of my unhelpful behavior. For example, had I not been struggling with the pain of my various addictions, I would not have spent countless hours and dollars studying yoga and meditation with spiritual teachers around the world. Without my perceived physical, emotional and behavioral imperfections, I would have been completely complacent. I wouldn’t have felt the need for a spiritual path, so I wouldn’t have sought one out. Having a spiritual path has given direction and meaning to my life and has gifted me with all of the incredible people I have met along the way. I wouldn’t trade that for anything, even perfection.
"There's a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in." --Leonard Cohen
A friend once shared with me one of her lowest moments in parenting when she lost it and yelled, "You're an asshole!" to her son. Her older child then said, "That's great, mom, you just called your five-year-old an asshole." She knew she was in the red zone, but couldn't stop herself from saying, "Well if the shoe fits..."
I love that story, because my friend is a very attentive and loving mother of four wonderful kids. But we all do things that wound others, make a mess, or otherwise trigger disaster. After her outburst, my friend had a chance to explain to her son the ways anger hijacks us, and the fact that she sometimes gets overwhelmed by his inattentiveness when combined with her work and parenting stressors. A moment of connection opened up within the chaos of imperfection.
The other surprising benefit of accepting that we aren’t perfect is that we also recognize that others can’t be perfect either. If I know a flawless week or day or even hour is impossible for me, I can’t expect my husband, family, or friends to be flawless either. That insight cuts way back on arguments when I can remember it!
We Are Less of a Mess than We Think
One of the 12-steps of recovery is an exercise in listing all of our unskillful behaviors. When I did this step and wrote down as many unskillful behaviors as I could remember at the time, instead of feeling more despair I paradoxically felt lighter. With my mistakes and harmful actions in ink on a single sheet of paper, I could see that all my imperfections were the natural outgrowths of the conditions of my life. And, contrary to my inner critical voice, the list wasn’t really that long. It could have been much longer! I made amends wherever possible because accepting imperfection isn’t a way to ignore or bypass mistakes. Sometimes we need to DO something to remedy our mistakes in addition to simply accepting them.
If we don't think we are capable of improvement, we won't grow, but if we think we are capable of perfection, we can end up missing too much life, lost in guilt and self-attack. Zen master Suzuki Roshi used to say, "Each of you is perfect the way you are...and you can use a little improvement." My mom, a Zen teacher in her own right, reminded me, "Don't be so humble, you're not that great." Getting stuck ruminating about our mistakes or imperfections may be a greater waste of time than the unskillful actions we have taken so far. Seeking perfection can steal our entire lives out from under us.
Each morning I try to remind myself that this is a day in which I will make at least one mistake and— let’s be honest— probably dozens. I will act unskillfully and my actions will trigger pain in myself and others. That's a given. I've been doing it every day of my life, and will continue to do it every day until I die. The more I can accept the flawed parts of myself, the more I take refuge in my spiritual practice. For me that means slowing down. Spending time listening to Buddhist and mindfulness teachers like Thich Nhat Hanh, Roshi Joan Halifax, Kaira Jewel Lingo, and Valerie Brown. Learning to act with conscious awareness in order to reduce the harm my mistakes cause, and recognizing the positive impact I can have on others as well. Meditating in groups along side other flawed people is also healing.
Accepting that we are destined to make mistakes actually liberates us from the secondary suffering of our inner critical voice telling us we are bad or messed-up or a terrible parent. We can answer back to that voice, “Nah, I’m just human, and mistakes are what we do.” Being aware of when I have acted unskillfully pushes me to learn and grow, while expecting that I will be free of mistakes sentences me to a lifetime of self-blame and shame.
So, when my mistake or messiness arrives, I celebrate the chance to lean on my spiritual practice even more. I’ll apologize, repair the wound I created, if possible, and try to learn something from my actions. I’ll take time to meditate and send loving kindness to myself and those I’ve harmed. I compost my critical voice into compassion for all beings because I know everyone is dealing with their own critical voice and everyone is suffering.
I am lucky. Every single day offers me a fresh chance for imperfection practice. Like everyone and everything else, I am broken, and that’s mostly a relief.