Perfect is the enemy of perfection

As soon as the bus dropped me off at the peaceful Chinese village situated on the ascent of the Himalayas, I dropped off my baggage at the only lodge around and headed for Li Tzu’s house. I had gone to another brief period of studies guided by the Taoist master. When I passed the gate, Midnight, the black cat that lived in the house, offered me a bored look and went back to sleep. I waited until the end of one of Li Tzu’s meditation sessions, where he guided a class of students native from all over the world. His familiar serene joy welcomed me, and soon we were in the kitchen for tea. While the herbs awaited infusion, we started talking. He was quite happy, since he had recently seen the Elder, the oldest monk of the Order, at a ceremony for former academics at the English university where they had graduated. Although they attended different courses, this was where they initiated their solid friendship that spanned decades. He commented that it was particularly interesting to see the colleagues with whom he had shared those years of education. Each had followed a direction, all according to the circumstances of existence. He noticed that to some, time had been generous; to others, cruel. Several colleagues were undeniably better, despite their age, displaying the relaxed smile of those who bring happiness within, the gentle gestures characteristic of dignity, and the bright eyes typical of those who conquered inner freedom and peace of heart; others, however, were skeptical of humanity, disillusioned about life, with no hope in a different and better tomorrow. There were some who felt the need to brag vainly, an attempt to mask themselves into being more important than the others, or even to believe that they were, in fact, happy. I wanted to know why time doesn’t treat everyone with the same grace. Li Tzu shrugged, as if to say the obvious, and said: “Choices. They outline destiny and color in the plenitude”. As he transferred the tea into the cups, he added: “Those who tried to conquer the world lost themselves. Those who met themselves, won life”.

I said that, regarding all things, no one should be content with anything less than perfection. Li Tzu rested his mug of tea and said: “Tao teaches that perfect is the enemy of perfection”. I asked him to explain, since I didn’t understand. He broadened his reasoning: “Perfectionism brings suffering, for it becomes a prison, instead of serving as a tool for liberation. The search for perfection is the useless attempt to, having God as an archetype, live the unattainable perfection, at least in this moment of existence. The inglorious battle to achieve the impossible can cause great suffering; depending on how you are able to deal with this, you will become frustrated, and this frustration manifests itself through disbelief, discouragement, impatience, or aggression”.

I immediately disagreed. I quoted the Gospel of Matthew: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”. I asked if the found error within those words. Li Tzu arched his lips in a slight smile and remarked: “The text is impeccable in its wonderful teachings. Jesus is the master who perfected the rest. In the bible we will find the most valuable axioms of metaphysics that exist. The only requirement is precise interpretation, besides taking account the convoluted issue of translations into different languages stemming from a limited language such as Aramaic. Although the Christian tradition is not as common in the East as in the West, I believe that true wisdom is unique, regardless of its source. All nations meet on the Path. Love is where we meet.”

“Not by chance, the Elder and I discussed this very issue recently and we understand it the same way. When the master tells us to seek perfection, he is not referring to the denial or suppression of our defects and difficulties, but to the effort of our perfecting. He guides us to be whole and complete. With both the shadow and light that surrounds us, without hiding the edges that need polishing from ourselves. We must strive for personal transformation so that we can be different and better each day. However, this must be done slow and gently, with awareness that evolution occurs at slow paces in order to have solid footing. On the contrary, the perfectionist wants perfection immediately, at every moment, and at any cost. He does not allow one to walk, paced by their own understanding, as if perfection, be it in relation to himself or to others, had to always be ready for enjoyment. There is a lack of perception that the Path is a process, it’s a journey, that must be celebrated step by step with commitment, joy, and admiration. However, the perfectionist can only see the destination. And he gets lost for it”.

“The perfectionist individual, for being strict with himself, for not admitting imperfection, ends up being overly demanding with the world, becoming a flat and intolerant person. The perfectionist walks with a whip in his hand, flogging himself for the slightest mistakes, and all of humanity for theirs. If the sacred is conceived by its infinite wisdom, justice, and love, it will always be a friend and ally in our journey towards light, never an overseer. Therefore, it is cardinal that we exchange the whip for a flashlight in the journey to evolution”.

“Perfectionism is the seed of intolerance, an immense and detrimental collective shadow, in which some criticize others for the same mistakes, for common difficulties, similar to us all. As if that was not enough, perfectionism becomes a factory of hypocrisies. Due to the difficulty in dealing with a level of perfection he can never achieve, the perfectionist must deny his own imperfections to himself. The most common way is through his incessant criticisms of others’ behavior. He also customarily dictates rules as if he were the lord of humanity; watches everyone as the sentinel of the world. Intolerance is typical behavior in those who live besides themselves, who have no idea who they are”.

“There are also those who, when frustrated due to not achieving perfection in what they are and in everything they do, hide from the world, ashamed of their difficulties and fearful of the criticisms they could, perhaps, receive. Gradually, their strengths are mined by the drains of existence and they forget their dreams, their gift, and all the wonderful things in life. They lose their liveliness. Liveliness is the strength of the soul. Therefore, they become unlively. Unliveliness is distinguished by the emptiness that settles in the heart of one’s being. Anyone’s heart needs to pulsate all the power of the universe that lives within it. This is how we find and drive the sacred in us”.

I wanted to know if every time we weave a criticism towards the behavior of others, we reveal the perfectionist side that inhabits us as a strategy to conceal our own difficulties. The Taoist master simply nodded.

I enquired if we should forget about seeking perfection to be content with being what we are. Li Tzu frowned and firmly corrected me: “That is not what I said. I said we should be complete and whole instead of being perfect. The whole individual knows their own shadows and light. They are completed by their own difficulties, which it works to overcome as they expand consciousness and enlarges their own capacity to love. The one who seeks perfection is different from the one who demands immediate perfection, because he is aware of the patience and tolerance required to move away from aggravation and refractoriness; his journey will be of joy for every victory achieved, despite the difficulties that still exist; he will be driven by the liveliness of overcoming, and not by the sorrow of the obstacles. It will be a life of advancement rather than an existence of stagnation. The complete being is conscious of his imperfections. However, he knows about his infinite possibilities of transformation to become different and better, bit by bit. The person who imagines themselves to be perfect desires perfection now, immediately. Because it is unattainable, the inevitable feeling of failure causes suffering. Perfect is the dark side of perfection”.

“The perfectionist suffers from God complex. He does not allow himself to be human because he wishes to be as perfect as God. So, he suffers from his human inhumanity”.

“When I wholly understand myself, I expand my capabilities. When I find myself vain, I seek the value of simplicity; when I find myself proud, I understand the power of humility; in the face of prejudice and envy, I rescue purity and sincerity; to cure myself from anguish, I forgive, with the immeasurable strength of love. The more I accept my shadows, the closer I get to the light”.

“Only by accepting my shadows I am able to illuminate them; I can transmute lead into gold. This is the sacred alchemy of life”.

We sat in silence. While I savored my tea, I took advantage of the quietude to concatenate Li Tzu’s words. That was when I was startled. I had always seen Midnight, the black cat who lived there, lying down. For the first time I saw it walking. It only had three legs. Despite this, it moved with surprising nimbleness. Upon noticing my amazement, the Taoist master told me he rescued it after being hit by a car many years ago. I remarked in jest that cats are a sorcerer’s animal due to their ability to transmute the energies of its environment. Li Tzu smiled and said: “We are good companions. Midnight, with its three legs, reminds me every day of imperfections; mine and the world’s. Despite his problem, he doesn’t give up walking. Thus, he offers me daily lessons in overcoming, humility, and compassion”.

He emptied his mug before concluding: “But that’s not all. By not allowing mutilation to get in his way, he encourages me to delve into my own imperfections to find those that keep me from walking. Within each one, and only there, will I find the best of me that I do not know yet”.

I interrupted to say his words were incoherent. It is impossible to find the best within the worst. To show me the obvious is not on the surface, Li Tzu elaborated further: “The supposedly perfect individual has no room to expand. They remain stagnant. In each imperfection is concealed one of the keys to evolution. Finding the key unveils the secret that inhabits me; when I turn the key, I drive the power of the universe that manifests itself through my infinite transformations. This happens when I become a better person; I aggregate a virtue to my way of being and living; I illuminate one of my shadows.  Do you understand that I need my imperfections to evolve?”

Then, he concluded: “I am grateful for my imperfections, for only they can lead me to Tao. Nobody touches light without first overcoming their own imperfections”.

Kindly translated by Júlia Reuter e Carvalho

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