Embracing Imperfection

A Talk by Ines Freedman (IMC, September 22, 2010)
(Transcribed and lightly edited by S.C.L. Eiler)

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Good morning.

What I want to talk about this morning is the idea of embracing imperfection. There’s a Japanese philosophy called, “Wabi-sabi,” which is a philosophy that takes into account and appreciates the complexities of life, and at the same time values simplicity. It acknowledges and appreciates three qualities in life: that everything is impermanent, imperfect and incomplete. Instead of struggling with these realities it looks to be at peace with them. In other words, saying it is, is, nothing lasts, nothing’s finished, and nothing’s perfect, including ourselves. Life rarely works the way we want it to all the time.

This whole idea is very close to the Buddhist concept of dukkha, dukkha, The First Noble Truth that there is dukkha in life. Dukkha’s often translated as suffering but it refers to the whole range of experience, from the very minor annoyances, discomforts, things that aren’t quite just the way we want them; to the major sufferings in life of: grief, loss, death, illness. The Buddha spoke of three kinds of dukkha. The first one is dukkha dukkha, which is pain, the pains we get in life. You fall down or hurt yourself, ‘it hurts,’ the emotional pains, all the very obvious, very blatant pains that we have in life.

The second kind of dukkha is the oppressing quality of the continuous maintenance of life of: you have to get up in the morning, and you make breakfast, you clean up the kitchen, you go to work, you have to tune up your car regularly, your clothes wear out, you clean your house really well and it’s all down hill from there. That’s the continuous maintenance. I think of it as the dukkha of the Golden Gate Bridge: they start painting it and by the time they finish they have to start all over again. It’s this continuous cycle of: ‘it’s never done, never done.’

The third form of dukkha is the dukkha of change: that no matter how happy we are, how good things are in our life, it doesn’t last. Maybe we’re really very disciplined in our lives, and we’ve really worked hard at making our lives just the way we want them. We have a really great relationship, we’ve got a really nice home, we’ve got work we love; we do all these things, and we’ve got almost everything, but something happens. We strain our ankle, or something happens at work and this big project falls through. As Gilda Radner said, “it’s always something. If it isn’t one thing—it’s another!” And that’s the nature of life. You can’t just rest, ‘here it is, I’ve got it down, here it is.’ It’s always changing.

All three forms of Dukkha happen in meditation. How many of you have never had pain in meditation? There’s nothing more obvious about the maintenance than when you sit down each day: ‘got to watch the breath again,’ especially if you’re not settled. You have to start all over, get settled. The dukkha of change, of impermanence, even in mediation: you get really settled, you get really peaceful, feeling really wonderful; and that changes too, that goes away. So, the three forms of dukkha apply in all levels of life.

We all have some limitations, some areas in our personality that we may think aren’t quite the way we want them. We all have unfinished business in our lives. So, how do we deal with these things? Do we change ourselves? In Buddhism, some of the deepest concepts of Buddhism have the quality of paradox. I think Suzuki Roshi said it really well when he said that we’re all perfect just as we are, but there is always room for improvement. This is really what the practice addresses: both of those things at the same time.

We have to accept ourselves and we have to make choices to improve ourselves. For instance, maybe we have a tendency to get angry too easily. If we don’t accept that we get angry too easily we can’t even begin to work with it. We just repress it. We try to push it away. We try to hide it. The beginning of working with a tendency to be angry or a tendency to be afraid is to accept it, ‘ah, here it is,’ and the moment that you accept it, it already begins to change.

So that’s a huge part of the transformation, but that’s not all we have to do. For instance, what happens when we become mindful, like, here you are getting angry at your spouse again over the fact that they didn’t do the dishes when they said they were going to do them. You’re just about to be a little bit irritable to them, but mindfulness kicks in and we have that moment where we can make a choice. The anger may still be there, but we have a choice to restrain ourselves from snapping at them. And let’s say we do snap at them. Then we have the choice of whether we’re going to reproach ourselves or accept ourselves. Choice is always there at any given moment.

In an article that Thanissaro Bhikkhu wrote recently, he said that there was an experiment they did with students in a neurosurgery program. It was a really tough program; some of the students succeeded in the program and went on, and some of the students failed. They wanted to know what the difference was between the two groups of students; so, they gave them these really intensive questionnaires, but there were two questions that stood out. The first question was, “Do you ever make mistakes?” And the second question was, “What’s the worst mistake you ever made?”

What was really interesting was that the group that succeeded, they said that they made many mistakes. And they volunteered that with this mistake they should have done this; so maybe next time they could improve it, and they took full responsibility for the mistakes and how to do something about it in the future. The group that failed the program, they said that they almost never made mistakes, that they were really, really careful, and when the mistakes happened they either blamed it on circumstances, like that somebody made a lot of noise; they blamed it on someone. It was never their responsibility, or almost never. So, it’s a really interesting thing of how we treat ourselves that way.

Acknowledging our imperfections, which is what making mistakes is, right? This is the same quality, acknowledging that we may not do things the best way possible. Knowing and accepting that we do that is what allows us to learn how to do it better. It’s what allows us to succeed in whatever we’re doing because we can see honestly what’s going on instead of trying to push away: “I’m not good at that,” and trying to hide it. A huge part of the practice is becoming transparent, transparent to ourselves and transparent to others.

Can we let go of any defensiveness we have. If we’re not spiritual enough, or not strong enough or not smart enough, whatever the ideas that we may have, can we let go of being defensive about it. One of the qualities that has been a very strong difficult quality for me to work with most of my life has been that I have tended to be very pushy. I was my own boss most of my life; so, I could be as pushy as I wanted. There was nobody around to make me look at that in particular, until I started volunteering, quite a number of years ago, where everything had to be done through collaboration. Then suddenly I found myself, I’d push and people didn’t like it. At first it was, “well I have to push, they’ll never do anything, they’ll never get anything done unless I push.” That defensiveness, that defensive quality, over time as I saw that that didn’t work, and I allowed the gift of people in the Sangha who just showed me how I could be different with it, and with time I softened around that.

I still tend to be pushy, that’s just my personality; but it’s no longer something I’m embarrassed about, or something I hide or something I hold on to, and I will laugh about it. It’s something that I can feel completely transparent and comfortable with, and yes it’s changed, maybe it’s not perfect, but I’m at ease with it, I’m at peace with it. And that’s what we’re looking to do with our imperfections. It’s not something that’s a problem. How many of the little things that we see, we make a problem out of them? “Oh, I’m insecure, that’s a problem.”

One of the examples that I’ve used here before, it was actually a very key point in my practice. I still remember, it was in 1994, and I went to hear Gil speak. He hadn’t been teaching that long then, and in the middle of the talk he forgot what he was saying, and he looked around, and said, “oh, this feels awkward,” and then he just went back to his talk. And I remember that moment because I was mortified, ‘oh my God, he admitted that he felt awkward!’ It stuck with me, the way he could just be transparent and show that, and he didn’t have to be a hundred percent together all the time. He was just completely sincere, and it was a very powerful teaching for me, more than anything else in the talk. It was that example of how he could just completely be himself, not having to hide it, not having to be any different way.

So in this practice what we do, we turn towards our imperfections, we turn towards our difficulties instead of trying to fix them, trying to get them to go away; and we get to know them. For instance, one of the common things that most of us meditators experience is maybe a few moments of boredom, right? And so, we turn towards our boredom. One of the things that Gil said is, “boredom is a stepping-stone to realizing that life is enough as it is.” Can we turn to the felt sense of boredom when we experience it?

What don’t we like about boredom? Can you feel what that is? You’re feeling bored, what is it that you don’t like? How does that feeling feel in us? What is that experience? Can we get interested in boredom? In the same way, we turn towards our difficulties.

It doesn’t mean that that’s what we do all the time. Sometimes things are so difficult that we have to approach it just a little at a time. That’s okay. We have limits. It may be a huge fear and all we can do is just tap it. ‘Oh, that’s enough.’ It’s okay to back away, to have compassion for our suffering.

The last thing I want to say is that the Buddhist path really comes into fruition not when we get what we want, but when we don’t get what we want. That’s really where our growth flowers, when we face difficulties without adding to them with our attitude, without making difficulties a problem. If we value the difficult, every moment in our life matters. Every moment in our life is valuable. There aren’t any moments that we wish weren’t there if we turn towards the challenging moments.

And the quotation I want to end with, Ajahn Sumedho, one of the great meditation masters, who’s still alive today; when he was young and he was studying with Ajahn Chah, his teacher in Thailand, he got malaria. He had been really working hard at his practice, meditating regularly, being mindful, but malaria really wipes you out; so, he went to his teacher and he said, “oh! It’s so hard dealing with malaria. How can I practice?” And Ajahn Chah said, “Malaria is your practice.” In that sense, I‘d like to encourage you to embrace imperfection: to allow impermanence, incompleteness and imperfection, to let those be your practice.

Thank you.