Practice of the Week
Relax Anxiety about Imperfection
Relax Anxiety about Imperfection
“Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.” (Lao Tzu)
Adapted from Rick Hanson, Just One Thing
In a nutshell, an imperfection—as I mean it here—is a departure from a reasonable ideal or standard (e.g., dog poop on your shoe is not ideal, nor is the hunger that afflicts one in six people worldwide). These departures-from-ideal have costs, and it's reasonable to do what you can about them.
But we usually don't leave it at that: we get anxious—uneasy, nervous, troubled, stressed—about imperfection itself, rather than recognizing it as a normal, unavoidable, and widespread aspect of life. Instead of dealing with conditions as they are—weeds, injuries, conflicts with others—and just handling them, we get caught up in worrying about what they mean, grumbling, feeling deflated, becoming opinionated and judgmental, blaming ourselves and others, and feeling woe-is-me and yet again disappointed/mistreated/wronged.
These reactions to imperfection are major "second darts" (as described in "Don't Throw the Second Dart"). They make you feel a lot worse than you need to, create issues with others, and make it harder to take skillful action.
Here's the alternative: let the broken cup be a broken cup without adding judgment, resistance, blaming, or worry to it.
Make appropriate efforts to improve things, but realize the impossibility of perfecting anything; even the most sophisticated technology cannot produce a perfectly flat table. You just can't perfect your personality, thoughts, or behavior; trying to do so is like trying to polish Jell-O. Nor can you perfect others or the world. Open to this fact: you cannot perfectly protect your loved ones, or eliminate all of your own health risks, or prevent people from doing stupid things. At first this opening could feel poignant or sad, but then you'll likely feel a breath of fresh air, a freedom, and a surge of energy to do the things you can now that you're not undermined by the hopelessness of making anything perfect.
We need standards and ideals—from the strike zone in baseball to the aspirations in the world's sacred teachings—but we also need to hold these lightly. Otherwise, they'll take on a life of their own in your mind, like petty tyrants barking orders: "You must do this, it's bad to do that." Watch out for righteousness, for self-important moralizing insistence on your own view of how you, others, and the world should operate. Know if you have tendencies toward perfectionism; I do, and I've got to be careful about them or I become a difficult person to live with or work for, as well as unhappy inside.
Further, many things transcend fixed standards. For example, could there ever be such a thing as a perfect rose or a perfect child? In these cases, anxiety about imperfection is absurd—which applies to trying to perfect your body, career, relationships, family, business, or spiritual practice. Nurture these, help them blossom, but give up on perfecting them.
Most fundamentally, all conditions, no matter how imperfect, are perfectly what they are: the bed is perfectly unmade, the milk is perfectly spilt. I don't mean morally or pragmatically "perfect"—as if it would be just perfect to tear a shirt or start a war—but that all conditions are utterly, thoroughly themselves. In this sense, whatever is the case—from dirty diapers and everyday hassles to cancer and plane crashes—is the result in this instant of the perfect unfolding of the entire universe. Try to see that unfolding as a vast, objective process in which our personal wishes are as consequential for it as a patch of foam is for the Pacific Ocean. In this light, perfection, and imperfection vanish as meaningful distinctions. There are only things in their own right, in and of themselves, without our labels of good or bad, beautiful or ugly, perfect or not. Then there is no anxiety about imperfection; there is only simplicity, directness, engagement—and peace.
"Instead of dealing with conditions as they are—weeds, injuries, conflicts with others—and just handling them, we get caught up in worrying about what they mean, grumbling, feeling deflated, becoming opinionated and judgmental, blaming ourselves and others, and feeling woe-is-me and yet again disappointed/mistreated/wronged." When was the last time you did this? Write about what it would be like for you instead to accept that condition with equanimity.
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Rick Hanson on relaxing anxiety about imperfection:
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