|Practice makes Perfect- or does it?
By Mary Jaksch
All spiritual traditions connect practice with some idea of perfection. In the Buddhist tradition, for example, with the advent of the Mahay'na, came the teaching of the paramita's, the perfections of morality, practice and wisdom. These teachings still undergird Zen practice and training to this day. In this essay I take a look at the mixed and sometimes painful responses we tend to bring to the idea of perfection and aim to show that it is useful to see 'perfection' not just as a pinnacle, but as a process.
What is perfection? When you track your internal response to this question, you may find a mixed bag of thoughts and emotions. Maybe you are transported back to your childhood days wanting to be 'good' or even 'perfect', feeling the pain of never quite 'coming up to scratch'. Or perhaps you react with irritation or even anger when you hear the word perfection. Maybe you experience a sudden sense of failure. Each person has their own response to 'perfection'. As one Zen student said, 'For me, it's not about perfection; that's completely out of reach. I feel I have to work incredibly hard at just being adequate!' (This is a person of outstanding professional excellence!) Another student said, 'On one hand all my childhood voices that speak of being good come into play; and on the other hand I find something wonderful about the thought of perfection, as a pinnacle of human beingness.' Some people respond with anger and even give up trying when they think about perfection. An artist said, 'In my family we have a saying, 'Nobody's perfect, so why try'? and I notice that I sabotage all my efforts at perfection.'
There is a yearning for perfection in all of us. It is a yearning to be complete, flawless, totally acceptable and lovable. Because this yearning accompanies us from earliest life, we all carry stories about perfection. Some of our stories are encouraging, but many others are negative, and the cruel ones deny us any hope of improvement, let alone perfection. Even at our best moments, our inner voices sometimes undercut the experience of competence: 'That was just a fluke!' or 'You're not the real thing!' we hear ourselves scoff. Such responses can be very discouraging and undermine confidence.
When someone takes on a rigorous spiritual practice, such as Zen, ideas of perfection can create inner turmoil and block the light of awakening. In the following, I would like to take up the human response to 'perfection' and look at the issues of shame and doubt, confidence and arrogance, and aspiration and ambition that cluster around perfection.
With high expectations comes the experience of shame. In fact, perfection and shame are often bedfellows, especially when perfection is seen as an expectation of excellence. In his book 'Shame and Pride', Donald Nathanson says: ''shame seems always to involve a more-or-less sudden decrease in self-esteem, a moment in which we are revealed as somewhat less that we want to believe.' The experience of shame comes in a wide range -from mild embarrassment to mortification. And it is accompanied by a characteristic response of body and mind. Our body posture collapses, our head tends to hang and we avert our eyes. There is a feeling of being diminished and of contracting. In a moment of shame we feel sharply separated and even isolated from everyone and everything around us. We suffer and this suffering makes us look inward and, in doing so, we lose contact with the world. Our ability to empathize with others and to feel compassion is sharply diminished. When we feel shame, we contract around our small, separate 'self'.
In Zen practice we often experience shame when we embark on koan study. Again and again we come to Dokusan and when the teachers asks, 'What is MU'?, we can't find anything with which to reply. A lot of inner stories can hook themselves onto that 'I don't know'; stories about 'I'm no good' or 'I'm hopeless at this', or 'What a stupid question -Zen isn't for me!' and so on. All these stories centre around 'I', 'me', 'myself'. It is only when we begin to relinquish our tight hold on the idea of a separate 'self' that the experience of shame diminishes and we begin to see koan study as a process in which not-knowing plays an essential part.
A true, quiet and unmistakable confidence emerges with the experience of awakening. Suddenly we cover our own ground and stand on our own feet! The first time I noticed this was many years ago, when I was at my first sesshin in Honolulu with Robert Aitken Roshi. After sesshin had finished I drew an old-timer aside and quizzed him about Dokusan.
'When you are on the Dokusan line,' I asked, 'do you think about your koan'?
Here is an example from the Zen tradition. It is the story of Huineng, the 6th Zen Ancestor, who, so tradition has it, was illiterate. His teacher Hungjen had sent him to work in the monastery rice sheds. Hungjen wanted to find a successor and asked his monks to write a poem that demonstrated their attainment. One day Huineng heard someone quoting from a poem that the Headmonk Shenxiu had written on the wall anonymously. Huineng immediately realised that the poem did not arise from intimate insight. He then asked to be taken to the auditorium where the poem had been written on the wall. Huineng's story continues:
In terms of the spiritual path, conceit is linked to ambition, whereas pride is linked to aspiration. Ambition is a wish to be better, more successful, or more powerful than others. In ambition 'I' is pitted against 'you'; it is a narrow state of mind and its close cousin is envy. Instead of being able to freely celebrate the achievements of others, we suffer the pangs of envy when we see others seemingly overtake us.
Aspiration is a wish to develop our fullest potential so as to be of use and service to others. Yamada Roshi said, 'I want to be a great tree, offering shade to all beings.' What a wonderful aspiration! You can sense that there is not the slightest trace of self-centredness here. It's easy to confuse aspiration with ambition. When I ask students about their aspiration, some hesitate to speak of their aspiration, in fear of seeming ambitious. However, it's useful to give voice to our aspirations; they are the light by which we walk our path. Nobody can fashion aspirations for us. They arise as expression of our deepest nature.
While it may be difficult to see both the peaks and troughs of spiritual practice as part of a process of perfection, there is a particular field of human endeavour where it is easier to find a new understanding. This is the field of creativity. Each person is creative in their own way and has their own experience of the creative process. However, I find that my own experience of the creative act as a path of disconcerting and sometimes painful peaks and troughs is shared by many other writers and artists.
Here is what the creative process is like for me. At first there is the flash of inspiration: 'Oh yes, I'll write about that!' This flash is rather like a bolt of lightning: for a moment the landscape is all lit up. And next thing I'm plunged into darkness and all my certainty disappears. I can sense forms and structures in that darkness but I can't see them or touch them. With the darkness comes a kind of despair that says, 'I just can't do this!' If I continue to struggle, against all odds, something begins to happen. An idea appears. And then, rather like flock of birds, other ideas or images begin to flutter by and settle beside it. And suddenly something has emerged on the page. Once on a roll, each thought seems to breed another and I end up in places I wouldn't have imagined at the start. I always want to avoid the dark phase of creativity, but I can't. I can't side-step the struggle or avoid it without losing inspiration.
If you look at the creative path in terms of perfection, you can see that each step on the way, even the dark not-knowing and despair, is an integral part of this process. And the creative drive does not arise from someone else's idea of perfection. The drive wants to make real that first flash of inspiration; to get as close as one can to the perfection glimpsed for a moment. In a way the creation is already there right from the start but we have to struggle to breathe life into it and to bring it into the light.
|© Mary Jaksch 2004
No reproduction without the authors permission please.