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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 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 / husband, 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.”