1. Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life. –Anne Lamott

2. When I am flexible and forgiving, I am happy. When I am rigid and righteous, I am unhappy. It’s that simple. –Hugh Prather

3. There is no saint without a past. –Persian proverb

4. Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy. –Thomas Merton

5. Am I always, for example, too eager to admonish the sinner, or too ready to weep with the bereaved? Or is it always easier for me to bear wrongs patiently than risk conflict by admonishing the sinner? In God, justice and mercy are joined, but we find it difficult to discern ways to practice both. None of the spiritual acts of mercy come with ready-made patterns to follow. –Sidney Callahan, from her essay in the anthology, The Way of Mercy

6. Some things can’t be unstitched; but where they can, we should do it. Words like forgiveness, reconciliation, acceptance, kindness, goodwill – they’re all good stitch removers where we made false stitches that don’t fit the overall pattern of the life we’re trying to lead.

“Blessed are the peacemakers…the merciful…those who hunger and thirst for things to be put right (righteousness)” Words that unstitch our mistakes.

–Jim Gordon, Loving Wittily blog

7. It is comforting to me to remember that my very weaknesses form the tension that pulls me again and again to the Holy One, asking that my brokenness be made whole. Paradoxically, it is often when I feel most satisfied with myself that I find myself slipping away from the Holy. Self-congratulatory, I say to myself, ‘I’m doing great! Wasn’t I.’ Not that I want to bring on times of suffering and hardship so that I can ‘learn the lessons thereof.’ But I must say without a doubt that my greatest times of spiritual growth, and times when compassion seems most generous within me, have been times of suffering, or times when I have behaved in an unworthy manner and have had to face up to my failing. Humility, then, allows for the presence of the Holy in our lives; whereas, self-righteousness and judgment both alienate others and prevent learning.

It seems to me that forgiveness is all of a piece: when we are unable to forgive, we then perpetuate the fruits of non-forgiveness: anger, hatred, revenge, pettiness of character. And the fruits of forgiveness — humility, compassion, love, peace — are lost to us. The place to begin is not guilt, not self-condemnation, but the sincere desire to begin anew. If you earnestly seek to forgive, if you seek a change of heart, you will at some point have what you seek, for the nature of God is love, is forgiveness. We ourselves are forgiven even before we think to ask. We don’t have to earn it. We just have to be willing to receive. As we ourselves are forgiven, we can through that same fount of grace, forgive the injuries done to us.

–Marilyn Sewell, A Little Book on Forgiveness

8. So love is what I’ve focused on, because in social justice work the only option is loving everyone. Otherwise, there is no path to real change. Whether we’re leaning toward the spiritual community or the activist community, what we need is the combination of a mind that wants to change the world and a mind that is steady, clear–seeing, and seeks change from a place of love, rather than from a place of anger.

It’s important not to get stuck in your own views. Even if you think yours is the right way, there’s always someone else who has another way. Then you’re in an irreconcilable conflict that doesn’t get resolved except, I think, through love.

King and Gandhi understood that everyone holds some aspect of the truth. So when you’re in the pursuit of social justice, it becomes very difficult to hold onto your own idea of the truth. You’d think that the more you’re in pursuit of justice, the more you know what’s right. But it’s actually the opposite.

Happiness and suffering, right and wrong, like and dislike—these are the paradoxes that exist for all of us balancing the inner life and outer life. We think it’s one or the other: either we like and agree with people, or we’re against them and we have to hate them. The question is, how do we exist in the space that holds both of these dualities at once?

–angel kyoto williams

9. Poem

Myth of Perfectibility

I hang the still life of flowers by a window
so it can receive the morning light, as flowers must.
But sun will fade the paint
so I move the painting to the exact center
of a dark wall, over the mantel
where it looks too much like a trophy–
one of those animal heads,
but made of blossoms.
I move it again to a little wall
where I can come upon it
almost by chance, the way the Japanese
put a small window in an obscure place,
hoping that the sight of a particular landscape
will startle them with beauty as they pass
and not become familiar.
I do this all day long, moving
the picture or sometimes a chair or vase
from place to place. Or else
I sit here at the typewriter,
putting in a comma to slow down
a long sentence then taking it out
then putting it back again
until i feel like a happy Sisyphus,
or like a good farmer who knows
that the body’s work is never over
for the motions of plowing and planting continue
season after season, even in his sleep.

–Linda Pastan, Poetry, December 1989

10. Mindfulness and Self-Improvement

In the 1960’s Suzuki Roshi, the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center, looked out a group of his students meditating and said to them, “Each of you is perfect the way you are, and you can use a little improvement.” For me, his sentence wonderfully captures an essential perspective of mindfulness practice.

We are each perfect just the way we are. We are each the product of billions of years of evolution and of specific events that happened to us. Some of us are like straight white pines, just right for a ship’s mast. Some of us are like gnarled pines on a windswept peak. One is not more perfect than the other. Seeing ourselves as the perfect product of our nature and our conditioning offers us a sense of ease, relaxation, and contentment.

And also, each of us “can use a little improvement.” As humans we have preferences for how we wish to live and what we wish to accomplish. As practitioners we may aspire to embody mindfulness, wisdom, and love. The tradition of mindfulness practice teaches that in each moment, through our wise actions (thoughts, words, and behaviors) we can incrementally alter our situation and the situation of the world. Karma is both the process and product of intentional action. Understanding that we can all “use a little improvement” encourages commitment, self-discipline, and responsibility.

As we mature in our practice, we learn to hold each of these positions one hundred percent: that we are perfect and that we can use some improvement. Each points to its own truth and they are not in contradiction. In meditation, we fully accept the quality of each breath, each feeling, each mental state, and, by holding each with mindful awareness, we ever so subtly change successive breaths, feelings, and mental states, and, also, our lives and the life of the universe.

–Mitchell Ratner, Still Water Mindfulness Practice Center e-letter, May 3, 2012

For Reflection and Discussion

A. How do you understand “imperfection” as a spiritual theme? How does this play out in your own thoughts and actions?

B. How do you cope with your own perfectionistic tendencies and those of others in your life?

C. Do you understand yourself as “perfect the way you are” and “can use a little improvement”? Do you believe that holding both of these beliefs is important? Do you have a similar mantra, an affirmation, a prayer that you use to comfort yourself or others around issues of perfection and imperfection? D How does your experience at All Souls relate to your experience of imperfection as a spiritual issue?

Compiled by Mary Beth Hatem