Seeking perfection is a trap. It leads to frustration and quitting.
Let’s suppose that you are thinking about fixing something in your life. Perhaps you are wondering about the best way to for you to establish a beneficial new habit or break a deleterious habit.
You might, for example, think of losing some body fat by regularly foregoing dessert.
You think: “It would be wonderful not to have to eat dessert. I’d really like to be free of the compulsion to eat something sweet at the end of meals. That would really help me cut carbs and lose fat.”
That’s true, but then you begin to wonder if you could really do it.
“However, I’ve been eating dessert all my life. Why, even after lunch today, I had to have a piece of fruit. I couldn’t go a whole day without sweets! What am I doing thinking about trying to go the rest of my life without dessert?” So you quit before you even get started.
Seeking it is not just a trap for those of us trying to lose body fat or increase our income or do better at dating.
Here’s my favorite Mullah Nasrudin story about the frustration such seeking causes (as retold by Jack Kornfield):
“One day in the marketplace he encountered an old friend who was about to get married. This friend asked the Mullah whether he had ever considered marriage. Nasrudin replied that years ago he had wanted to marry and had set out to find the perfect woman. First he traveled to Damascus, where he found a perfectly gracious and beautiful woman but discovered she was lacking a spiritual side. Then his travels took him farther to Isfahan, where he met a woman who was deeply spiritual yet comfortable in the world and beautiful as well, but unfortunately they did not communicate well together. ‘Finally in Cairo I found her,’ he said, ‘she was the ideal woman, spiritual, gracious, and beautiful, at ease in the world, perfect in every way.’ ‘Well,’ asked the friend, ‘did you then marry her?’ ‘No,’ answered the Mullah, ‘unfortunately, she was looking for the perfect man.’”
It’s also a trap for those seeking spiritual improvement.
Suppose, for example, that I am trying for an initial spiritual breakthrough. I’ve been meditating for many years and yet kensho seems as distant a goal as when I began.
“I can’t breakthrough yet. I’m still afflicted by inappropriate sexual desires (or I’m too aggressive or I’m too this, that, or something else). I need to eliminate them first.”
No! If perfection were required for improvement, improvement would be impossible!
Since improvements are possible, of course you don’t have to be perfectly disciplined to give up dessert. Of course you don’t have to lack lust completely in order to have a spiritual breakthrough.
If you think you need to be perfect before improving, you’ll stop yourself from ever improving anything.
To prove this to yourself, simply remember a skill you have improved. Suppose that you were the first-string catcher on your high school’s baseball team. Were you an excellent catcher the first time you played baseball? Of course not! What an absurd question.
You were terrible at baseball when you first started playing. You simply kept at it because you wanted to play better. You worked on the fundamentals and kept practicing. You must have had some ability at it or you wouldn’t have lettered in high school as a catcher.
Similarly, I remember as a boy wanting to play hockey. The first time I went skating, I took along a hockey stick thinking, foolishly, that I could play hockey my first time on skates. Guess what? If you can’t skate, you can’t play hockey. First you learn to skate and then you learn to play hockey.
There’s no such thing as perfection the first time you skate. You’ll fall and fall and keep falling before you figure out how to move even a little bit forward. If you quit trying after falling the first time, you never learn to skate. Or walk. Or read. Or ride a bicycle.
You’d never master any skill.
So let go of seeking perfection. Think instead of simply taking the next step right now. That’s the way to master any skill. Seeking to be without any imperfections is as foolish as trying to run to the horizon.
Here’s a related tip: you won’t ever succeed in the future. Stop thinking about the rest of your life. That’s because the future exists only in thought.
Notice that you always experience life now, in the present moment. You never experience it in the future (or in the past).
How could you obtain your goal in the future if you never experience the future?
Sengcan was the Third Chan [Zen] Patriarch in ancient China. He wrote, “The wise do not strive after goals; / the foolish put themselves in bonds.”
I never used to understand that. I used to be a very goal-oriented person. Now I understand what he meant: striving to accomplish future goals is a foolish way to live.
You don’t have to worry about not eating dessert tomorrow, because it’s not possible to do or not to do anything tomorrow. Just stop eating dessert now and the future will take care of itself.
If you think you may wake up spiritually tomorrow, you are wrong for the same reason. If you don’t wake up now, you will never wake up.
The idea is to stop using the present moment as a means to some future moment—as if the future moment could be better. The present moment is, most importantly, an end in itself. What matters is now.
So forget about future perfection. Focus fully on whatever you are doing now. That is perfection. That is living well.
As always, if you think someone might benefit from reading this, please forward it.