Many, if not most, of us come to the spiritual search bearing feelings of inadequacy, failure, and shame based on a tendency to judge ourselves harshly, which is usually rooted in childhood. In my work as a teacher and counselor, the most common core belief I encounter is some version of, “I’m not good enough. There’s something wrong with me. I don’t measure up.”
As a result, we can easily fall into the habit of comparing ourselves to the seemingly perfect examplars we read about in books or encounter in videos or satsangs. Instead of taking the “backward step that turns our light inward to illuminate the Self,” as the Zen master Dogen advises, we’re focused outward, as we’ve become accustomed to doing in the rest of our lives, efforting live up to some imaginary ideal. The great Hasidic rabbi Reb Zusya of Hanipol once said, “In the world to come, God will not ask me, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ He’ll ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’” Just substitute Ramana Maharshi, Adyashanti, Eckhart Tolle, or Mother Teresa, and you’ll have a good contemporary sense of what he means.
In the beginning, this ideal may inspire us to devote ourselves wholeheartedly to our meditation or inquiry. But at a certain point we need to shed it like an old skin, because it prevents us from embracing ourselves just as we are. Isn’t this precisely what the great sages that we so admire advise us to do? “ Just be yourself,” counsels Ramana. What a relief! Otherwise we’re just transposing the self-judgment that’s at the root of much of our suffering and turning it against ourselves in the name of spirituality. Believe it or not, the journey of spiritual awakening is not another self-improvement scheme.
Rather, the fruition of the search is not the achievement of personal perfection, but the ability to “live without anxiety about our imperfection,” as the Third Great Zen Ancestory Seng-tsan puts it—that is, to encompass our ordinary humanness in the nonjudgmental, nondual embrace of our essential nature. From the perspective of awakened awareness, everything is as it should be because everything without exception is the expression of consciousness or source, including what may be the most difficult expression of all to accept—ourselves.
But even knowing this conceptually, we may still be so invested in the ideal of perfection that we keep struggling to attain it, albeit in more and more subtle ways. In my work with students, even those who have experienced genuine awakening, I find this to be a recurring theme—the ongoing work of identifying and revealing the insidious voice of the inner critic that finds us endlessly lacking and seeks to control our every action. We’re so accustomed to paying attention to it that we may accept the suffering it causes as unavoidable, an inevitable side effect of being human.
At some point, however, as our awakening ripens and expands to the heart, we may find ourselves feeling overwhelming compassion for the years of pain it has caused us. Then, in a sudden epiphany, our hearts may break with the pain of how hard and unforgiving we’ve been with ourselves—and spontaneously open to our vulnerable, imperfect humanness. With this epiphany comes the profound realization that everything, including this vulnerable human incarnation, is both the inherently perfect expression of true nature, like every other being and thing, and at the same time constantly stumbling and bumbling forward.
As one great Zen master confessed on his deathbed, my life has been a series of countless mistakes—thereby skewering any attachment to the one-sided spiritual belief in perfectionOn the journey of awakening, which is about freedom from beliefs and identities, we may end up treating ourselves harshly in the name of some spiritual ideal. Here’s my latest blogpost, dear friends. Love and blessings!. Or as my teacher Suzuki Roshi used to say, embracing the paradox, we’re constantly losing our balance against a background of perfect balance.