Spiritual Practice Will Not Make You More Perfect

Let’s make good use of our suffering. This is advice that we can actually follow, if we know how to and if it seems worthwhile to us. It reminds us that our growth happens not through perfect practice but through the things that challenge us and create rise to big walls that feel, when we are up against them, insurmountable, but that with some perspective are the most effective ladders to the clear air of freedom.

Why is it that our challenges are the best substance for self-inquiry? For two reasons: one is that the suffering that we feel motivates us to change course in the first place. And also, it is by touching the wall of suffering carefully and intimately that we can learn the things that we need to learn about ourselves. We need to get close enough to the surface of the thing to find the footholds and handles that we can use to climb.

What happens when you push on a wall? It just pushes right back. But when you allow a softening and a deep investigation things begin to open, to reveal space in unusual ways.

This is not an easy skill to develop- like training for a long race or practicing your skills at baking, the effort that we put toward the investigation of our inner landscapes must be steady, consistent, and open to whatever happens, or whatever doesn’t happen. It requires commitment.

The lessons won’t look the way you think they will look. There is no such thing as an easy path. And most importantly, spiritual practice will not make you a more perfect version of yourself. It will likely make you more vulnerable, more honest, more compassionate. But it will not alter your life situations or challenges and turn your inner landscape into the garden of Eden.

There is nothing to gain from this process. There is nothing here for you at all.

This is a good thing.

There are two types of desire (or attachment)- one is helpful and the other is not. Helpful desire is what Nisargadatta Maharaj, the great Yogi saint, called “Earnestness,” and this describes the type of desire that years to find freedom and drives us on the path of self-inquiry. The “other” is almost all desire that we feel toward any life outcome, forward looking or past looking. Insert the seeker’s desire for perfect practice and understanding somewhere in this category.

But let’s talk about the helpful form of desire: for many of us there is a deep driving force that propels us on the spiritual path of self-inquiry.  Let’s adopt the beautiful term “earnestness” here. Isn’t this a great word? So our earnestness to find freedom will help us. I can do that.

Perfect practice toward a more perfect goal, no. Earnestness to stumble through the deeper layers of mySelf no matter what’s revealed today, tomorrow, and next week, yes.

Check your earnestness. Trust it and love it. What do you see? What do you not see?

In the world of yoga our core traits are sometimes referred to as samskaras- misunderstandings at a level before thought that cause us to live out our lives following this path or another simply because it’s the direction our toes are turned at the beginning of the journey. We have built the entire scaffolding our our characters out of our samskaras. Our samskaras are the brick and mortar of the walls of suffering that we are investigating.

Deeper still, but essentially the same stuff, are vasanas- meta level misunderstandings that are very difficult to identify.

In this analogy, vasanas are the scouts that checked out this land versus the one over there- before we put any currency down; before we unrolled the blueprint. This is the piece of land I will build the structure of my house upon. This is the foundation I will pour to support the build.

The only way to identify a vasana is to follow your motivation all the way home and scrape out the darkest and dirtiest nooks of yourSelf in your body, heart, and mind with courage, kindness, and honesty. Usually a vasana is a single shimmering thought. You don’t have too many of them. Each is extraordinarily powerful.

I have been reflecting lately on my personal vasana that has to do with perfectionism. The thought-phrase is actually closer to “I can fix it,” but you can see that this ties in pretty tightly with perfectionism. The samskaras born from this include my need to like and be liked. To be good.  To be right and to have an explanation for everything (this is my particularly obnoxious know-it-all samskara).  To be helpful and responsible in a way that spills way beyond the reasonable boundary of both helpfulness and responsibility. To coax love from your eyes because I said the right thing and achieved out of reach goals.  For me, perfectionism is how I try to express my human being to the world- it’s the way I believe, somehow somewhere someway, that I will be a successful person when ___.

For me the ideal image of the spiritual adept often looks like someone who is silent, patient, contemplative, and wise. Perfect stillness.

If you must know, I picture something of a Yoda-Ramana-Nisargadatta hybrid up in a cave somewhere.

Of course, I love these image-traits and seek them out precisely because I am engaged hopelessly with life, impatient, chatty, in love with my many character costumes, and very prone to rushing headlong into mistakes.

Thank you, Kali, thank you.

I feel a deep pain when I feel like I have failed at something.  Friendship; harmonious relationship with my friends, family, or a member of my community; my (in)ability to practice what I preach; my Practice and what I think that should look like.

Whenever these particular types of pain fueled by vasanas appear, usually vague and ugly and far away on the landscape, our instinct is to turn and run the other way. Well, the spiritual practice is the art of doing the opposite: turning and facing the thing that makes you queasy.  You will not become less impacted in this process.  It will hurt, and then it will hurt more, and then it will hurt until tears pour down your face and you say “thank you.”

We know how deep these patterns are because when we open the darkest nooks and crannies in our bodies, heart, and mind, they are they are coiled up, like the little compressed horrors in Pandora’s vase that are always yearning to fly out and consume us entirely.

And unfortunately, in this analogy, little fluttering hope is part of the same damn mob, no more or less painful than the monster of perfectionism or the monster of insecurity or the dread beast of shame.  These are all vasanas. All the material used to create our character structure must be kindling for the fire, for all of the aspects of our personal selves is created, maintained, and destroyed by the divine dance of emptiness.

That’s ok: concepts are simply the currency of the divine. They can be thought, written, heard, ignored, lambasted, or even become the flag in the ground that you stand next to and claim as your core belief. No prob. Wait a while, and it will pass.

Maybe someday I’ll be quieter and the luminous glow of silence will shine through my eyes.  Probably not. Maybe someday I’ll meditate, fulfilling my absurd image of the “correct” practitioner, though I doubt it- how can I sit and meditate when the whole earth sings the saturated song of meditation in every thought, dream, and tendril of emotion?

What is the antidote to perfectionism? It’s definitely not more perfectionism or striving in your practice, knuckling down for another immersion with this or that teacher. You will not find the antidote in your beliefs, in your body, or in your academic pursuits. It’s in unfolding into the beauty around you everywhere and becoming reverent. So very, very reverent.

Do you know why you are perfect?  Because right now you exist. That’s enough.  You are literally the currency of the divine being spent through your life. When there is nothing to gain from that currency, nothing to buy or sell, nothing to be or not be, you are free to exhale into the beauty of yourself- all of yourself. You may discover you are in fact perfect, and have been all along.