The problem of perfectionism
A Wildmind visitor called Kal asked some excellent questions about the potential dangers of perfectionism. I felt that his questions were too important to treat merely as one of the comments at the foot of a page and that a response deserved a page of its own.
This was a very good read. I appreciate you sharing such a personal story. But I think there may be some slight contradictions that deserve some attention. I believe that there are a good number of people out there who want to improve their lives. While improvement is good, it becomes bad when taken to an extreme. For example, I enjoy reading self-help books because my mind often quiets down after reading inspirational words of wisdom. But at the same time, a self-help addiction can cause people to focus only on their flaws and how to “fix” them, rather than accept who they are.
These are indeed dangers in any kind of spiritual practice — that we become focused on our shortcomings, that we judge ourselves harshly, that we are unable to accept and forgive our faults, and that we set ourselves impossible goals. I think each of these four is a somewhat separate problem, although of course they can combine to create a “perfect storm” of self-loathing.
I’m reminded of a study I read some years ago — alas, I’ve been unable to find a reference — which looked at people’s self-awareness and their level of comfort with themselves. The results of the study were rather disturbing since they suggested that for most people levels of self-awareness and self-liking tend to be inversely proportional.
The study showed that people were broadly divided into two groups. One group was very self-aware. They knew what their strengths and weaknesses were. They knew whether they were good or bad at their jobs. They knew what other people thought of them and whether those people liked them or not. And this group tended not to like themselves. They focused on their faults and were aware when other people disliked them.
The other group tended to think they were good at lots of things that they weren’t necessarily good at. They’d think they were super-competent at work even if they were mediocre or even very poor performers. They thought other people liked and admired them even if others actually thought they were pains in the butt. In other words they had very low self-awareness and were highly deluded. But they liked themselves! Lots! They had irrepressible confidence in themselves. They had high levels of self-esteem that were out of proportion to their competence.
So it seemed that it was possible for people to have self-awareness but not self-metta (lovingkindness towards themselves), or for them to have self-metta but little self-awareness. That’s the scary bit. The study does back up what Kal says about people getting fixated on their flaws. But of course this was with non-meditators.
It struck me at the time I read that report that this was one of the reasons why it is so important for us to practice the mindfulness of breathing and development of lovingkindness meditation practices together. The mindfulness of breathing meditation helps us to develop greater self-awareness, so that we are aware of our shortcomings (and virtues). The development of lovingkindness meditation helps us to like ourselves so that we can accept our shortcomings, forgive ourselves, and value what’s most worthy in us. So in Buddhist practice (as I had already learned when I saw this study) it’s perfectly possibly for us — through meditation — to develop self-awareness and self-metta at the same time.
“Do not accept yourself”
As Kal pointed out, “While improvement is good, it becomes bad when taken to an extreme.” This is true of anything, of course. Anything good becomes harmful when taken to an extreme, from self-improvement to breathing to drinking water. But that just goes to show that it’s not the desire to change that’s the problem — it’s over-doing it that’s the problem.
Having a desire to change is absolutely necessary in order that we suffer less. Some people (not Kal) say that it’s important that we should not want to change, that a desire to change is inherently unhealthy and a refusal to accept ourselves as we are. While I understand why they may say that, I believe this to be a mistaken view, and one that can’t be applied in real life. If you’re suffering, do you really want not to change? If you cause suffering for others, so you really want to stay exactly as you are? Isn’t wanting to learn to completely accept yourself a change that you want to bring about?
I also think that a desire for happiness and a desire to escape from suffering is natural, ethically positive, and spiritually beneficial. The whole Buddhist path is based on this. Think for example of the Four Noble Truths, which say (1) our lives are full of suffering and dissatisfaction, (2) that there’s a cause for that, which is craving, (3) that there’s a state called nirvana that is beyond suffering, and (4) that there’s a path which leads from suffering to nirvana. That scheme, which encompasses the whole of the Buddha’s teachings, is predicated upon the notion that we want to change.
So in short I don’t see wanting to change or improve oneself as being a bad thing in itself. Many spiritual teachers quite rightly say that we need to learn to accept ourselves. And we do! What that means, however, is not that we should decide to stay just as we are, but that we need to have compassion towards ourselves, have patience with ourselves, and be prepared to forgive ourselves. It means that we shouldn’t respond to our perceived shortcomings with aversion. We can both accept ourselves and want to change.
My teacher, Sangharakshita, has stressed that we should not accept ourselves. By that he means just that we shouldn’t take the injunction to “accept ourselves” as a license to be complacent. We shouldn’t say “I’m going to accept myself, and so I’m not going to change.” He means that we should accept our desire to change. And of course he believes that we need to have patience, kindness, and forgiveness for ourselves as we bring that change about. Ultimately “accept yourself” and “do not accept yourself” are saying the same things: be patient as you work on changing yourself; don’t have aversion for those parts of yourself that are destructive or harmful; don’t crave results in your practice.
Accepting our innate purity
In your story you compared the true self to a soiled jewel whose inner radiance must only be unearthed / cleaned to be seen. However, this implies a very dangerous thing – the eventual awareness of perfection, not in the face of flaws, but in the elimination of all flaws that is only possible due to the resulting clarity of mind produced by meditation. I hope the last statement I made is just a misinterpretation on my part because the pursuit of perfection is the very thing that can cause people to lead miserable lives.
If I may enlarge, the jewel as a symbol of purity (and inner riches) is a common image in Buddhism. Often in the teachings we read that realization is like a blind man finding a jewel in a dungheap. Not only is the discovery unexpected, but an implication of is that the jewel can be in the dungheap and never be affected by the dung.
There’s also a story in the White Lotus Sutra where a rich man sews a jewel into the hem of his friend’s robe while the friend is in a drunken stupor — he obviously feels that his friend needs some help. But he has to leave on business and when the friend wakes up alone he has no idea he’s rich. He becomes a bum, and it’s only when his wanderings take him back home after months or years of poverty that his rich friend asks him the obvious but (to the bum) surprising question: “Why are you living like you’re poor when you’re actually rich.” The bum has no idea what the rich friend is talking about, and is shown the jewel that he’s been carrying around for all those months. Again the jewel is inherently pure and cannot be contaminated, no matter how much you drag it through pigsties and ditches. And its presence is a big surprise: What me, rich?
I wrote in my account of the discovery of my own jewel, that my task was “polishing the jewel of my own being to allow its natural radiance and beauty to shine through.” There is work taking place here from two directions. On the one hand we have to wipe away the dust and grime. We need to learn to let go of ill will, meanness, craving, deception, etc. We need to chip away at our bad habits.
How does one avoid judgment and criticality and at the same time strive to correct flaws and achieve perfection?
As well as working on our flaws we also have to recognize that we are inherently pure. We need to trust in our inner goodness. We need to let that inner purity radiate outwards. That’s coming from the other direction — our innate purity radiating outwards.
We’re inherently pure, but we have to work to reveal that purity
When we cultivate mindfulness we find that our negative thoughts and emotions start to settle down. It’s like a jar of water into which mud has been stirred. At first the mixture seems thoroughly disgusting, but if we simply wait and watch we’ll notice the mud beginning to settle and the water becoming clearer. The water is in fact inherently pure. If the mud was an inherent part of the water the water could never clear. But because the mud is extrinsic to the water the water can not so much become pure, as reveal the intrinsic purity it always had.
So when we’re working on the mind we have to remember that the disturbing thoughts and feelings we experience are not intrinsic to the mind. They are, as the Buddha said, “adventitious defilements.” The word adventitious literally means “coming from outside” but the Buddha didn’t mean that our thoughts and feelings actually come from outside of us. What he meant was that they are not an inherent part of the mind itself. Like the mud in the jar of water, they will settle out and the water can be revealed in its intrinsic purity.
This realization can bring us a great sense of self-worth and tranquility. We don’t need to strive to create goodness in the midst of our chaotic and unskillful minds. That goodness is already there. It just needs to be revealed.
This awareness helps to balance the work we’re doing on purifying ourselves, where we must of necessity be very focused on our shortcomings. We can be self-aware and have self-metta at the same time.
Of course we still actually have to do the work. We can’t just sit back and say that deep inside there’s purity and so we don’t have to do anything. That would be like saying “I know there’s a jewel somewhere in that huge heap of dung so — wayhay! — I’m rich.” You need to get to work on clearing away the dung and actually finding the jewel.
So we need to cultivate mindfulness and metta and insight, but we can know that what we’re actually doing is revealing our inner beauty — not importing good qualities into a mind that is inherently sinful (which is the assumption we tend to start with when we come from a Christian background, with its ideas of original sin).
In becoming enlightened you become more “you,” not less
While its true that some poor mental habits can be corrected by becoming aware of the Wildmind, what about physical “flaws” or genetic dispositions (personality traits, etc.) that serve to make us all unique? It seems to me that the end goal is really letting go of perfection in favor of truth. And more than understanding the truth and trying to change it, that truth must be realized and accepted.
I get the sense here that Kal’s concern is that we will lose our individuality as we reveal our inner perfection. I think that’s a natural assumption and one that troubled me many years ago when I was new to meditation and Buddhism. At one time I thought of “perfection” as meaning “flawlessness” and if everyone was flawless wouldn’t we then all be the same — complete, whole, uniform? But I came to see that many of our quirks are essentially neutral. If you’re good at playing the guitar, or love the movies of Woody Allen, or like spending time alone, then as you grow spiritually you won’t lose those traits (and not everyone else will gain them). As you grow spiritually you’ll become an increasingly positive, compassionate, aware, wise being who is even better at playing the guitar, is able to extract even more meaning and enjoyment from Bullets Over Broadway, or will be even more content in solitude (and probably more content in company as well). Our quirks aren’t faults. We don’t have to get rid of them. Spiritual practice isn’t going to take them away. In some ways we all become more similar to each other as we reach enlightenment. We all become kinder, more aware. But we also become more different from each other in terms of our personalities. Our talents become enhanced and we become more individual as we lose our fears and our desire to conform socially.
Kal mentions truth, and Buddhism is indeed as much about seeking truth as it is about seeking true perfection or seeking true happiness. In fact those words are all saying the same thing, but coming at it from different angles. Seeing truth means seeing that everything — our experiences, our self, the world — is impermanent and lacking in self-nature. We see truth when we watch the mud of our unhelpful thoughts and emotions swirling round in the water of the mind and notice that the swirling is impermanent, that it’s a phenomenon that’s coming to a stop. We find true perfection as the mud begins to settle and the natural purity of the mind becomes clear. Eventually the mind can be completely free from grasping, aversion, and delusion, and when that happens the mind is pure — or its innate purity is revealed at last. We find true happiness as we realize that the mud, which was causing our unhappiness, is not intrinsic to the water. True happiness is found when we’ve ceased the unhelpful activities of the mind that cause us pain.
Practicing with aspiration rather than expectation
That’s not to say that one doesn’t improve, but the improvement is more of an indirect effect caused by the removal of harmful mental habits – one of which, I believe, is the pursuit of perfection.
I’d put it a bit differently. I’d say that the improvement is that we’re removing unhelpful habits, not that it’s a side-effect. And I’d say that it’s grasping after perfection (or perfectionism) that is a harmful mental habit, rather than the pursuit of perfection itself. Striving to better yourself is healthy. Craving betterment or grasping after results is unhealthy.
Joseph Goldstein makes a neat distinction between sitting with expectation (a grasping mind) and sitting with aspiration (the healthy, nongrasping desire for change). Implicit in this distinction is the recognition that there are different kinds of desires. There is grasping, and there is healthy desire. It’s possible to grasp after perfection, but since the grasping mind is inherently unsatisfied and since perfection can’t arise on the basis of grasping, grasping after perfection just causes more suffering. The Buddha became enlightened because he strove for it, but he didn’t grasp after it, otherwise he never would have gotten there.
But then also there’s a healthy desire for perfection — no, it would be better to say that there’s a healthy desire for perfecting ourselves. The nongrasping mind is content with and accepts whatever change comes about in a particular meditation. Sometimes the mind seems to change a lot. Great, but we don’t get too worked up about it. Sometimes the mind doesn’t seem to change at all, or seems to go in the wrong direction. That’s fine — it’s the effort we make that counts, not the results. We’re content to know that by putting in effort to change we’re perfecting ourselves gradually.
When we grasp after perfection we find it difficult to accept our flaws. Grasping becomes frustrated when we don’t get enlightened on schedule and then turns to aversion. Perfectionism (which is what grasping after perfection is) also leads to an intolerance of others’ faults, so it leads to unkindness.
When we don’t see the change we grasp after we’re led to judging ourselves harshly because we’ve “failed.” So grasping leads also to despondency.
The grasping mind sees perfection as a “thing” that can be appropriated to the self. That sets up change as an unattainable goal, because actually perfection is the gradual letting go of grasping. Trying to grasp after perfection causes suffering.
Being perfectly imperfect
Just one last thing. Kal talked about “a very dangerous thing” that he thought might arise from my view that within us is a “soiled jewel whose inner radiance must only be unearthed / cleaned to be seen.” The very dangerous thing is “the eventual awareness of perfection, not in the face of flaws, but in the elimination of all flaws.”
The traditional understanding of enlightenment is that it results in the complete eradication of delusion, grasping, and aversion. Those are the flaws that are eliminated (not personality quirks, etc). Of course on the way to that complete eradication and the “awareness of perfection” there’s the gradual awareness of perfection in the face of flaws, where we sense both the our inner purity and our flawed and harmful habits.
There’s one other stage that can arise in the relationship between our awareness of the mind’s inherent purity and our harmful habits, but it’s difficult to put into words because it arises in deep meditation in a way that’s beyond the power of words to adequately capture. Our conceptual understandings inevitably involve distortions of the truth because the most basic verbs we have — to have and to be — represent delusions. There is no being. Nothing is — everything constantly changes and evolves. And we can’t have, because we can never hold on to anything. Everything changes, including ourselves. Everything is in process, and you can’t grasp a process. In fact a process can’t grasp.
But here it is. Sit long enough watching the mud settling in the water and you start to realize that the mud itself is perfect. The swirling mud cannot be anything other than swirling mud in that instant. What else could it be? If the past had been different then the swirling mud might already have settled. But the past wasn’t different and to the swirling mud could only be swirling mud in that moment.
We watch the mind begin to clear and even when craving and aversion are present (swirling in the mind) we accept them completely. They couldn’t not be manifesting in the mind because they are the current form of processes that started endless ages ago and that have led up to the present moment. If anger is in your mind right now then nothing else could be in your mind at that particular moment. If craving is in your mind in this particular moment then the same is true. If the past had been different then the unhealthy thoughts and emotions in the mind would be different, but the past wasn’t different.
What can happen in meditation is that we come to realize that everything is perfect as it is. And here we have to remember how deceptive language can be: to say that things are perfect as they are may sound like we’re saying that things don’t need to change. But the verb “to be” is a delusion. To say that something is implies that it is fixed and unchanging. But of course everything is in a state of flux and change and so nothing is in that sense. So to say that everything is perfect as it is is to say that everything is changing, evolving, becoming something else.
A strong sense can emerge in meditation that as long as everything in the mind is held in awareness it will evolve in its own way, at its own time. At this point we don’t need to do anything but remain effortlessly in mindfulness, observing the beauty of the mud swirling and settling, with a strong confidence that everything is evolving in the right direction. We don’t need to “fix” anything, we don’t need to change anything. Things are changing on their own as the mind spontaneously self-organizes. This brings us back to the concept of the wild, where balance simply happens: “No one has to organize the wild. Trees grow beautifully, shaped by the wind and the limitations of the resources available. Where a rock lies is the perfect place for that rock. No one has to tell the water where to flow and where to sit still. Everything unfolds in its own nature, and does so perfectly.”
Although this may sound like a bunch of ideas, it’s actually a description of an experience. As a description of an experience, it may sound confusing, or confused, or abstract. As an experience it’s very simple. Everything is changing. Everything is perfect. There’s no need to change because you’re already changing. You’ve set up the conditions where the inner jewel is in charge and “you” don’t need to anything but let it happen. So in this sense, to use Kal’s very useful phrase, “Perfection exists in the face of flaws.” Actually, the flaws themselves are seen to be perfect.
In brief then, I’d say that perfectionism is an unhelpful habit, but that the response to it is not to abandon all efforts to change for the better. Rather we need to let go of grasping after progress and we need to let go of having aversion to those parts of ourselves that we want to change. Radical acceptance of ourselves has to go hand in hand with a healthy desire for change. But eventually, through that work of clearing away the muck that lies on the surface of the jewel, the jewel’s inner light shines forth ever more strongly and we can at a certain point just observe change taking place from within without having to make any effort to change.