There is a brief snippet of a story that introduced me to the subject I want to reflect on here. I was sitting in my men’s group many years ago when one of the men recounted this portion of the story. It seems a Zen Master was addressing his students, and he said, “You are perfect as you are” and “you could use a little improvement.” Hearing that story kicked me into a level of self-reflection that continues to this day. I have evolved since that time and so has my take on this paradox. Today, in this writing I hope to find out more about this on-going evolution. Bear with me, because I want this exploration to be more than merely an exercise in narcissism, I am hoping to touch what is universal about the task of loving oneself.
When I first heard this story I realized I had spent most of my life being on the “you could use a little improvement” side of things. I was a growth junkie. I had devoted myself to rooting out all of the ways I have holding myself, or anyone, hostage to my lack of development. Always, I was a work in progress. I still am. This wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t affect everything around me. At first, I was just aware of how it was a way I maintained a kind of perpetually inadequate self-image. Now, I’ve come to see it is more pervasive than that.
The remedy then was to shift my focus from “needing improvement” to “perfection as you are.” This provided an essential antidote. I was a lot easier on my self and slowly even developed more self-compassion. I remembered the story and maintained a kind of perspective on my self. My attitude towards me changed some. I say some because I have come back around to this little piece of wisdom and found myself fed anew by it. It turns out my happiness, and how I regard and treat others, is effected by how I hold the paradox alluded to by this little story. Here’s what I mean.
Until now, I have been a one-sided man. I haven’t had much capacity to hold paradox. As a result, even though I could relate to how this little story reminded me of the necessity of balance, I didn’t really have the capacity for paradoxical awareness, the ability to hold both sides. I got better, but I also got more sophisticated, and developed another thing to work on. I now, could strive for a new level of realization, and think myself honorable, while perpetuating my feeling of inadequacy. I was still a work-in-progress, I told myself, who wasn’t a work-in-progress, and that is true, but that belief only deepened my self-delusion. I knew I contained imperfections, which made it hard for me to settle down, and believe I was perfect as I was.
Lately, I’ve had a greater opportunity to be happy. The benefits of aging are setting in. Things like, more self-possession, less emotional reactivity, more interest in others, and a greater sense of connection with all of Creation, have altered my life. I’m ripening into somebody I’ve always wanted to be, but I still keep myself, and others, on edge, because I don’t hold the whole paradox fully yet. Recently, I became aware again, of how easily I let go of being “perfect as [I] am.”
I realized that my happiness hinges upon my developing, but still insufficient, ability to be “perfect” and to need “a little improvement.” Not only that, but I realize that holding myself hostage to my way of being one-sided, not only meant I couldn’t be happy with myself, but I couldn’t be happy with anyone else either. I have been a therapist, family counselor, community-builder and spiritual being, and always I relied on my ability to sense what was wrong with a situation. I have been good, and have learned how to promote growth. But, because of my one-sidedness, I have also promoted inadequacy and reliance on growth.
Now, I am becoming more capable of something I could only dream of before. Instead of seeing everything in terms of either/or, I am much more capable of both/and awareness. Thanks to the reminder of my friend Xan, I know I haven’t developed this capacity through my own efforts, instead it has been grown through me, by Life. I am ripening into a more complex awareness, that lets me see that I (like everyone else) am like Creation. Creation is perfect like it is, and it has the remarkable capacity to extend its perfection into improving/evolving.
As a self-identified change agent, I’ve come to a deeper level of this realization, that there is a wholeness at play, and that my best efforts only assist what is already underway. The best move I can make is to stay out of the way, and to dance happily in celebration of what is happening. Under these conditions, my happiness turns into happiness with others. Wow! What a good feeling follows!
Photo by Elijah Hiett