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Making Peace With Perfection

Our culture's obsession with excellence keeps us toiling under the tyranny of perfectionism. Yet perfection itself is not the tyrant—it's our notions about it that rule us.

By Sally Kempton

beach contemplation

Karen is a perfectionist. She's been a perfectionist all her life, she tells me with her slightly apologetic laugh. She works as a copy editor at a publishing house, and she sometimes goes over a manuscript 10 times to make absolutely sure she's caught every mistake. Her authors can't believe the things she catches-nor her habit of waking them first thing in the morning with anxious questions about the tenses in paragraph six on page 29.

Karen took up meditation to relax and reduce some of her anxiety. But meditation, it seems, brings up its own anxieties. In such a subtle practice, she wants to know, how can I ever be sure I'm doing it exactly right?

It's easy for me to recognize Karen's dilemma, being a recovering perfectionist myself. As a young journalist in New York, I used to rewrite my lead paragraphs over and over, looking for the perfect arrangement of sentences. In my early years of practice, I spent hours worrying about such an arcane issue as whether I could attain enlightenment sitting in Half Lotus instead of in the full posture. So I know something about the tyranny of perfectionism. I have seen the way it can creep into everything we do, replacing relaxation with anxiety and satisfaction with discontent, so that in the process of trying to make something better we actually destroy what we are trying to improve. As spiritual practitioners, we're supposed to know better. We're supposed to know that true perfection isn't something we achieve. It's a state that arises unbidden-a sense of fullness and unity that comes from the heart.

I was 10 years old when I had my first glimpse of what I call "real" perfection. It arrived in my backyard, quite unexpectedly, during a hot game of Capture the Flag. As I was running down the field, my sights on the flag, my heart suddenly exploded with pure happiness. It wasn't just excitement or the thrill of hard play. I had entered another zone of being. Everything I saw and sensed was part of a great field of fullness and joy that was also part of me. I contained everything I could ever want or need. This sense of abundance and unity arose out of nowhere. It came from the heart, but how had it come? What had I done to get there? How could I keep it?

I've experienced this state of fullness many times since then. It's for the sake of this feeling that I practice meditation and yoga, though even after all this time, it isn't something I can "make" happen. These days, people call this state "flow" or "the zone" because when you're in it, action is effortless and always unerring. You can't make a mistake. You can't dislike anyone or feel alien from anything. If someone asks a question, you know the right answer. You are perfectly content to be wherever you are. Even if something painful or sad happens, the feeling of perfection isn't destroyed.

In Sanskrit, one of the words for perfection is purna, usually translated as fullness or wholeness. Indian yogic texts tell us that everything in this world arises from and is contained inside one single energy, or shakti. This energy is always full, intrinsically complete, perfect, and joyful. What's more, it is present in all forms, thoughts, and states of being. That one energy is as much in the dirty dishes in your sink as in the notes of a Mozart violin concerto or the violet eyes of 19-year-old Elizabeth Taylor. When we are in touch with that energy, all dichotomies—light and dark, good and bad, male and female—are resolved, and all apparent imperfections are revealed as part of the whole. To celebrate this amazing fact, in India, a "fullness" mantra is frequently sung after auspicious events. Translated into English, it's "That is perfect. This is perfect. From the perfect springs the perfect. If the perfect is taken from the perfect, the perfect remains."

Contrast that to our ordinary idea of perfection. In our everyday speech, the word perfect means flawless. An A+ grade. The arc of a perfectly calibrated swan dive. In this particular view, perfection is a human achievement or (as in the case of Kathleen Battle's voice) a genetic gift. We live in a society in which every billboard, magazine, and TV show insists that we can and should pay the price to achieve perfection. If our teeth aren't perfect, we should get braces. If our bodies aren't perfect, we should diet or lift weights or have liposuction. If our relationship isn't perfect, we should fix it or look for another one. When we can't make things perfect, then there must be something wrong with us or the world.

The irony is that our ideal of perfection—which arises from the ego's need to explain and control—inevitably keeps us from the experience of perfection. Like any construct, it clamps the lid on the bursting, chaotic, joyous mess of reality, substituting a rigid, artificial notion of what is appropriate or beautiful. Conditioned as we are by our upbringing and culture, most of us can't help living under the tyranny of perfection. Yet perfection itself is not the tyrant. It's our notions about perfection that tyrannize us. When we're outside the experience of perfection, we long for perfection while idolizing a standard that separates us from it. When we're inside it, the question "How can I keep this great feeling?" instantly removes us from the feeling we're trying to hold onto.

A good place to learn about perfectionism is in my friend Vicki's yoga class. Vicki studied with one of the great twentieth-century hatha yoga gurus, a man so terrifyingly precise that he has been known to throw students out of class because their arm muscles weren't sufficiently firmed in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). She internalized her teacher's style and sharpened it with her own gift for precise analysis and acerbic wit. I've seen Vicki stride between lines of students in Utthita Trikonasana (Triangle Pose), kicking their back legs to test their firmness, barking out commands like "Lift! Lift! You look like spaghetti." Her classes are dynamic and scary, and her students trade stories of their encounters with her like war tales. I've never heard her compliment anyone, even when the pose looked...perfect. Instead, it's "Turn your hand out two degrees." Vicki's students stretch themselves beyond their limits, do their best to achieve perfect lunges and impeccable headstands—and often limp out of class.

But the real casualty of Vicki's perfectionism is Vicki herself. She confessed to me a few months ago that she no longer feels she knows what yoga is. "I spent 23 years trying to become my teacher's perfect student," she said. "It was all about driving myself. I wanted to be in control of every muscle in my body. But recently I realized that I never relax. There's never a real release. Oh, I release in the pose. Sort of. But inside, I'm always tight."

Perfectionism makes us tight. It creates a pervasive wash of anxiety even when we're practicing relaxation. In fact, the quickest way you can test yourself for perfectionism in your practice—or in anything else you do—is to gauge your anxiety level. Does your stomach contract when you aren't sure that you're doing a practice "right"? Do you feel obligated to push yourself one more notch into the most lifted Headstand in order to feel that you've really practiced? Do you bring yourself out of a meditative state wondering whether the state you're in is actually the witness or just another level of discursive mind? Do you feel that if you don't have time to meditate for half an hour, you might as well not meditate at all? Are you afraid of making mistakes, of not being a good enough person, of your own thoughts or the manifestations of your dark side? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you're probably a perfectionist.

At this point, you might be thinking: Wait a minute. Perfectionism isn't always bad, is it? What about the musician who practices until his fingering is flawless, until he can forget about technique and let the notes come out of his guitar like honey? What about the scientist who finds a new anti-cancer drug by doing the same experiment over and over? What about the pursuit of excellence? What about the drive for mastery?

Positive and Negative Perfectionism

It's true: just as we have good cholesterol and bad cholesterol, we can have positive perfectionism and negative perfectionism. Not surprisingly, what makes the difference is how we feel about ourselves. In Perfectionism: Theory, Research, and Treatment, psychologist D. E. Hamacheck defines normal perfectionism as "striving for reasonable and realistic standards that leads to a sense of self-satisfaction and enhanced self-esteem," whereas "neurotic perfectionism is a tendency to strive for excessively high standards and is motivated by fears of failure and concern about disappointing others." Carl Jung went further—he said that healthy perfectionism comes out of the desire for wholeness and fullness, the fundamental human need for individuation and spiritual growth.

According to University of British Columbia, Vancouver clinical psychologists Jennifer D. Campbell and Adam Di Paula, a healthy perfectionist tends to be "self-oriented." She measures herself against herself, not against others. She sees perfection as the fulfillment of her own inherent potential. She sets goals that she believes she can reach, throws herself totally into whatever she's doing, and usually enjoys the process (though even healthy perfectionists get bummed out when they fail). Healthy perfectionists frequently may be more conscientious than other people, but they also feel better about themselves. When they finish something, they can pat themselves on the back—unlike "unhealthy" perfectionists, who tend to discount their successes and remember their failures.

Unhealthy perfectionists, it appears, are driven less by the pursuit of excellence than by the fear of what might happen if they fail. They measure their performance by the approval and validation they get from external authority figures. And even though perfectionists can be quite tyrannical toward other people, they nitpick and micromanage not because they feel they know what's right, but because they are afraid they don't. Negative perfectionism can go along with hidden (or not so hidden) feelings of inadequacy or incompetence.

Some clinicians feel that unhealthy perfectionism is often the result of what they call "conditional acceptance" from parents or childhood authority figures. A perfectionist parent gives her kids the message that they have to perform to be loved. Then the child internalizes that parental judgment, which becomes indistinguishable from his own inner voice. Many of us live with that nagging inner critic all our lives without ever realizing that it is a foreign installation and not the voice of Truth. When we begin doing yoga as a spiritual practice, or sadhana, the inner judge latches on to spiritual teachings as a new set of rules. Now, in addition to pointing out how lacking we are in charm, parenting skills, and musical talent, he begins to nag us about our inability to get our knees to touch the floor in Padmasana (Lotus Pose) or to quiet the mind. Anyone who's ever spent time in a spiritual community has met victims of yogic perfectionism. When I first began going on retreats, in the 1970s, I used to notice two distinct types of perfection seekers.

Type A's were compulsive about their sitting and asana practice. You could identify a type A by his extreme thinness, his unfocused, indrawn eyes, and by the fact that he was always the first person to arrive in the meditation hall and the last to get up from his prostrations. One man confessed to me that he liked to pick out the most dedicated meditator at a retreat and make sure he beat him to the meditation hall. "At one retreat, there was this Japanese yogini who always managed to be in her seat five minutes ahead of me," he told me. "I had to get up earlier and earlier, until one morning I found myself on my cushion at 1 a.m.—and she was there first! That was when I realized there had to be an easier way to realization."

Then there was Type B—usually just as skinny, but noticeably more sharp-eyed and alert. Type B's were generally karma yogis, and they practiced their karma yoga as though they had no "off" button. I knew a Type B who could work 18 hours a day, day after day, rooting out every weed from the garden or every spot from the linen, even staying up late into the night to sift beans or sew. She was also an oppressive supervisor, masterful at inducing guilt in the rest of us. "Go to sleep; it's fine," she'd say, when she caught someone yawning in the midst of a sewing project. "Not everyone has the kind of devotion it takes to work all night."

Neither of these types of yogic perfectionists ever seemed to know when to stop—even when the guru of the ashram asked them to ease up. No matter how often the guru suggested they rest more, meditate less, or eat in a more balanced way, no matter how often he talked about balance, moderation and the importance of the middle way, they just went on pushing themselves and everyone else, getting skinnier and more spacy, or skinnier and more irritable, until the inevitable day of burnout arrived—the day they couldn't get out of bed for one more round of meditation or one more task. Often that was the end of their yoga sadhana.

Permission to Be Imperfect

Of course, like many extremists, these perfectionists were not totally off base. Transformation doesn't happen without effort, and many of us could benefit from a bit more yogic rigor. Ancient yogic texts recommend tapas, the heat created by rigorous effort, as a remedy for resistances, blocks, and negative tendencies. At the same time, the most venerable teachers, even those who have spent years practicing classical yogic austerities, often tell their students that the kind, not the amount, of efforts they make is what matters. They say intention and understanding are even more important than sweat.

Breakthroughs in practice do not always come as a result of sitting through aching knees or holding a pose until you're exhausted. They come just as often through subtle and delicate effort—the effort that it takes to be the witness through a storm of thoughts, or to notice the space between one breath and another, or to let your center of attention drop down into the heart. Sometimes the only effort that counts is effort that seems like no effort at all. Ramana Maharshi, the great modern Advaita master, used to give his students the cryptic, profoundly anti-perfectionist instruction: "Just be as you are." Swami Muktananda, my teacher, said something very similar: "When you get to the end of your sadhana, you will realize that everything you were looking for was already inside yourself," he would chuckle. "So why not start out by meditating with that understanding and save yourself all the trouble?"

There is no better antidote to perfectionism than the knowledge that you already have what you're looking for. Just reminding yourself that perfection is inside of you—even if you do not happen to be feeling it just at the moment—can tip the scales and help you move out of a negative perfectionist spiral. Every time you make the effort to accept yourself and your situation, you loosen the grip of your addiction to making your practice, your body, or your life more perfect. This acceptance, though, has to be real. It does not work to say, "I accept myself as I am" when a part of you is resentful or grief-stricken about your perceived imperfections or the flaws in your particular circumstances. All that does is to impose a slightly different model of perfection upon yourself.

The first step toward changing any habit is to see where you are under its thumb. There are many different ways of being a perfectionist, and some are less obvious than others. Are you a neatnik? Do you compare yourself unfavorably to other people, or are you always noticing other people's faults? Do you do everything over four or five times, or are you the kind of perfectionist who is so afraid of failure that you won't even start? Once you've observed where perfectionism manifests in your life, explore the way your body feels when your inner perfectionist has the floor. Where in your body does perfectionism reside?

Perfectionism is a deeply ingrained way of being. And since it affects our thoughts, our emotions, and our actions, getting rid of negative perfectionism requires work on all these levels. It helps to have a quiver of strategies, so you can experiment and work with the one that works for you in the moment. Negative perfectionists nearly always hold themselves to unreachable standards. Then, when they fail to meet them, they beat themselves up. So remember, the first line of defense against perfectionism is to learn how to give yourself permission to be who you are and where you are. That level of permission, ironically enough, is often the best platform for change.

Retrain Your Inner Critic

This is a variation on Patanjali's "Practice the Opposite" sutra (II.33). When the inner critic begins his negative litany, talk back to him. If he tells you, "You will never get this right," you can say, "On the contrary, I often get things right and I'll get this one right." If he tells you, "No one wants to hear what you have to say, so don't even bother saying it," remind him that people often find your remarks interesting and illuminating. Find a positive counterstatement for every negative statement the inner critic makes. It may take a little time, but in the end you'll retrain him.

Allow Yourself Not to Be the Best

A college student I know recently stunned his family by announcing that he had decided to settle for Bs in certain courses rather than making the extra effort required to go for the A. He had discovered that it took him an average of three hours to produce a B paper for these classes, but in order to produce a paper that rated an A, he often had to work an extra three hours. He reasoned that he could be spending those three hours doing something he enjoyed more, and that a B grade was good enough. For him, this was appropriate and profoundly liberating.

But, if you are one of those people who feels driven to push yourself beyond the point where the effort is enjoyable, this approach can help you ease up on yourself. As a Japanese Zen master said, there are times when "80 percent is enough."

Give Yourself Permission to Do the Minimum

A most misleading notion is that if we can't do something thoroughly, there's no point in doing it at all. In yoga (as in housekeeping!) the truth is just the opposite. It is much better to plan five minutes of Pranayama and actually do it than to plan 30 minutes and feel so daunted by your program that you spend the evening watching re-runs of Friends. If you can't do your full hatha yoga practice, you can at least do one pose. If you can't meditate for a full 20 minutes, meditate for 10. Or seven. Or three. If you can't meditate sitting up, you can meditate lying down.

Instead of beating yourself up for not making a perfect score or the maximum effort, thank yourself for doing what you did. Every effort is worthy of self-acknowledgement. If you read just a few pages of an uplifting book, thank yourself. If you spent a few minutes practicing mindfulness while you drove to work, thank yourself. If you realize that you have spaced out during meditation or yoga practice, before you bring your awareness back, be sure to thank yourself for noticing. If you do something nice for someone, thank yourself. Even if you think your motives were suspect, thank yourself.

Acknowledge Your Mistakes and Failures

Many perfectionists are so afraid of making mistakes that they spend a great deal of energy denying mistakes and pushing away any suspicion that things aren't going as well as they'd like. "Maybe my relationship isn't going to work out...No, it can't be true, that would be too terrible!" Or "Maybe I just don't have the flexibility to get my thighs parallel to the floor!...No, it's just that I'm not trying hard enough." Acknowledging a failure doesn't mean that your whole life is a failure. On the contrary, it's often the first step toward freedom.

In my experience, the moment you truly surrender your hope that a situation will turn out perfectly or acknowledge a failure or fault you've been afraid to look at, you open up the channel to your essential self. When we give up holding onto the idealized reality, we make room for that elusive experience called True Perfection to reveal itself.

Keep Your Attention in the Moment

Perfectionism is a product of the grasping mind, the same part of us that compulsively looks for more of everything and also imagines that what we need is somewhere else. The best remedy for seeking is to consent to being where you are and to practice embracing your present experience just as it is.

Anchor yourself in the breath. Feel the energy moving in your body. Each time your mind wanders off, bring it back to your awareness of this moment. Then, welcome yourself and your experience, just as it is. As with all types of mindfulness practice, it helps to do this formally. Say to yourself (silently or even out loud), "I welcome you." Say to your thoughts, "I welcome you." Say to the fly hovering around your nose, "I welcome you."

You can also practice offering loving-kindness: "I offer love to myself. May I experience happiness. I offer love to the floor, to the walls, to my ex-wife, to my neighbor with the noisy TV. May they all experience happiness." Or remember the words of the Sanskrit prayer: "It is perfect here; it is perfect there. If perfection be taken from perfection, only perfection remains."

Practice tuning in to your awareness as the container inside which you hold your whole experience of each moment—your sensations, your breath, your thoughts and feelings, everything that is going on around you and all your reactions to it. When I practice like this, I become hyper-aware of everything that I do not like about my circumstances—everything from the temperature of the room to the state of my heart-energy. Be with your whole awareness. Stay with your experience until you start to feel the release that lets you know that you've really arrived here, inside this present moment.

Work With the Energy of Your Perfectionist Anxiety, Compulsive Striving, or Judgmental Resentment

This is the Hindu Tantric approach, which maintains that every feeling and thought is made of energy and that behind even the most negative manifestation of energy is the core energy of love. One way to get to that core energy is to get inside whatever feeling or emotion you are experiencing—in this case, the intense anxiety or dissatisfaction of perfectionistic striving—and stay with it until it dissolves back into its essence. Even the most uncomfortable feeling will do that if you give it time.

Every emotion—fear, anger, excitement, or peace-has its unique energy signature as it pulsates inside your body. Next time you feel frustration around your desire for perfection, zero in on that energy as you feel it in the moment. Stay with the feeling, and after a while you will notice it shift, dissolve, or otherwise transform. When it does, you'll be on the edge of—or deep inside—the experience of perfection itself.

Open to the Truth

The good news about all neuroses and obstacles, even the most stubborn, is that each of them contains the energy that takes us beyond the obstacle. Our striving for perfection blocks our view of the very perfection we are searching so hard to find—yet that striving brings a gift. When our perfectionism exhausts itself, even for a moment, it can leave us suddenly open to the startling truth of what we already have.

A young woman came to a friend's yoga class last year. He knew the moment she walked in that she was a striver. She listened carefully to each instruction on alignment, and he could see her eyeballs nearly crossing with the effort of getting it right. At one point, he walked over to look at her as she held a twist. She saw him watching and looked up inquiringly, waiting for a correction. Instead, he said, "Sweet pose," and walked on. A few minutes later, he looked back at her and saw that she was sobbing. Later she told him that his words had brought up a storm of remembrances: her parents scolding her for a bad report card, teachers who constantly corrected and adjusted yet never told her when she was doing fine. The bad memories rose up, then faded, and when they did, a love welled up inside her. Somehow, she'd seen the pattern of her perfectionism, and seeing it had released it. For that moment, at least, she was inside the perfection that no striving can reach and that no judgment can destroy. For the moment, she knew that she herself, just as she was, was enough.

Sally Kempton is a California-based meditation teacher and workshop leader. Formerly known as Swami Durgananda, she is the author of The Heart of Meditation.
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Reader Comments

fleur

Fascinating, inspiring and crystal clear as always Sally. Just what I needed to read today!

Dee Dee

Bravo! Bravo! Free at last.

shaniqua

there's moderator!? wow in my country people don't give a care! we also don't do the yoga.. but i like this! It very relaxing if people follw steps and go at their own rate

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