Dropping the Struggle for a Perfect Life
An Excerpt from Dropping the Struggle by Roger Housden
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The Christian West, with its concept of original sin, is founded on the idea that something is inherently wrong with us.
We had to have someone die in order to save us from our sins. We have been reaping the consequences of that belief in a thousand different ways ever since. Essentially, we labor under the assumption that something is not well with the world and with ourselves—and that it’s our fault! So of course we have to strive to make ourselves worthy, to make ourselves spiritual and whole.
Yet there is another view, common in the Zen and Taoist traditions, that insists we are already perfect exactly as we are—blemishes and all. In ancient China holy rascals like Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu (a follower of Lao-tzu) assured us that everything is already as it needs to be. In The Second Book of the Tao, Chuang-tzu wrote,
Let go of all your assumptions
And the world will make perfect sense.
We are perfect as we are when we can acknowledge that our imperfections, whatever they may be, are part of the larger picture of who we are. But it’s not just a matter of sitting back and saying, after some outburst or reaction, “Well, that’s just how I am. I was made that way and it’s perfect just as it is.” What Lao-tzu and friends meant by perfection is that whatever arises in our life, from within or from without, is arising. It’s happening, and therefore has to happen—because it just did! That is why even our obscurations and blind spots are perfect—they have appeared, like it or not. When something appears in our consciousness, we have three choices:
- closed mind: Ignore it.
- lost mind: Identify with the thought and the feeling and respond as if it were true.
- open mind: Experience the thought and feeling without judgment or fear, and know it for what it is, a narrative imposed on reality and not the truth about reality.
I for one can still be upended by a thought or a feeling that will dog me for hours, snapping at my heels, insisting I not only listen to it but acknowledge the truth it is trying to convince me of.
Some years ago I went to a talk on a classic of English literature, and I found myself almost instantly feeling an aversion to the speaker’s ebullient, extroverted style. Underneath I could also sense that I felt contracted and inadequate in the face of his learning. I felt lacking in formal academic knowledge, even though I presumed to give talks similar to the one I was listening to. Why hadn’t I buckled down and taken that extra degree in my earlier life? Aware of my aversion, I tried to connect with the spaciousness I had known in meditation earlier in the day. Essentially, I tried to ignore my actual experience and substitute a feeling that might help me feel better. I wasn’t very successful. I could have remembered Rilke:
Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you?
But I didn’t remember Rilke. I was so distracted that at the end of the lecture I left my satchel by my chair, complete with the thumb drive containing my own presentation that I was due to deliver the next morning. I called the host when I got home, only to discover that she had already left and I wouldn’t be able to retrieve my satchel for a week.
Only then did I remember that whatever is going on in my head is always, but always, an inside job. My aversion, I realized, had nothing to do with the person I had been listening to. It was fueled by my own sense of inadequacy, my own version of a hole in the middle. That, and not anything about the lecturer, was the truth of the moment, but at the time I wasn’t able to embrace that fact. So during the lecture I had stewed in the reverberations of all these thoughts that were hanging on to each other’s tails and threatening to form a noose round my neck.
Forgetting my satchel was the catalyst that showed me my condition. I sat down with myself and let myself feel. I let myself open to the bodily sensations of feeling underqualified, poorly prepared for the next day’s two-hour presentation. I felt illegitimate, and that connected back to a vein that has run through my life, since I was born “illegitimate.” There was no need to follow a story about the feelings that were there; what I needed was simply to let myself feel them, beyond their names, down into the visceral contraction—feel them while not losing touch with the larger spaciousness that I also knew to be there.
The error I had initially made—one that is all too easy to make—was attempting to control the impact of my uncomfortable thoughts through bypassing them and replacing them with a feeling of spaciousness and calm. I know it doesn’t work that way; I know that both realities need to be embraced, but sometimes I forget. The only way through is to accept the gift of the moment, however it shows up. If what shows up is inadequacy, or illegitimacy, let it be so. This too. These moments were offering me the opportunity to accept my vulnerabilities and fragility. It’s this simple: I am not required to hold it together all the time. Unless and until I can embrace my imperfections, my incapacity in the face of life’s immensity, I will never be free of judging the imperfections of others. As for my own lecture the following day, it turned out to be far better—more able to fly free in its own authentic way—without the notes.
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