Thursday, March 31, 2011

Perfect Imperfection

I like to think of myself as being fairly competent, but underneath this calm exterior there are many, many cracks. As a home handyman, for example, I make a great philosopher. The very word “Ikea” makes me break out in a cold sweat. I don’t understand restaurants where you have to cook your own food and I don’t appreciate furniture stores where they send you out with a box full of wood, a wingnut and a prayer. Our home is full of reminders of my imperfection. We once bought an Ikea bed. It was called the BLAARKEN which is Swedish for “best of luck, you sucker”. After 6 hours trying to put together this Swedish puzzle, we gave up and decided to use it as a bookcase.

Another time, I was trying to assemble a cabinet and got trapped inside of it. I had to call technical support to help me get out. Once I tried to put together a bed side table for Meg. Apart from the drawers not opening and needing a block of wood under one corner, it works just fine. The coffee table in our living room has two massive cracks in it where I failed to properly install the storage compartment. Every time we look at the cracks in our coffee table, we are reminded of my glorious imperfection. This is why Leonard Cohen’s anthem is my personal theme song, “Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” Or as Groucho Marx said, “Blessed are the cracked, for they shall let in the light.”

The perfection of imperfection is comforting. It reminds me that what’s on the inside is perfect even if the outside leaves a little to be desired. The Bible used its own first century handiwork analogy for the perfection of imperfection-treasures in clay jars. The outer form, the container, is fragile but what it holds…now that is incredible. Don’t judge yourself, or others, for outer frailty and instead celebrate treasures that lie beneath the surface. These treasures come in the form of wisdom and experience and strength of character.

The Japanese Kimono gown is a beautiful symbol of this truth. Some Kimonos have very plain outer designs but immaculate and exquisite decoration on the inside of the gown. Some of them are even intentionally imperfect on the outside. The purpose is to remind the person wearing the gown that beauty ultimately resides within. Those who see the imperfections of the outer gown are reminded to appreciate the variety of the outer and look to the magnificence that lies beneath the surface.

It’s not that we just tolerate the outer while glorifying the inner. The imperfect outer form is where the light gets in. The perfection of imperfection reminds me that even on the outside I am becoming what I need to be. It makes me smile and drop a few attachments. As I watch my hair gray in funny looking patches and my gut hang like an awning over the toy store, I am reminded that everything is so changeable. My own body is a reminder of the wisdom of holding loosely to opinions and perspectives. Beauty and joy are so often experienced in the cracks of life, where the light gets in. Jack Kornfield tells the story of a Buddhist statue in his book The Wise Heart-

In a large temple in Thailand’s capital, Sukotai, there was an enormous clay Buddha. It had survived over five hundred years. At one point, however, the monks who tended the temple noticed that the statue had begun to crack and would soon be in need of repair and repainting. After a stretch of particularly hot, dry weather, one of the cracks became so wide that a curious monk took his flashlight and peered inside. What shone back at him was a flash of brilliant gold! Inside this plain old statue, the temple residents discovered one of the largest and most luminous gold images of Buddha ever created in Southeast Asia. The golden Buddha now draws masses of devoted pilgrims from all over Thailand. The monks believe that this shining work of art had been covered in plaster and clay to protect it during times of conflict and unrest.

If you are feeling frail or insecure in any way, let me remind you that you are exactly where you need to be and becoming exactly who you need to be in each moment. Start with a little self compassion. It’s like a flight attendant who gives instructions to fit your own oxygen mask first before helping others. It’s only when you learn to accept yourself that you can be of assistance to others. Forgive yourself for any mistakes, and accept yourself despite any limitations. You are the person you are with 24/7, so make sure its quality time with plenty of love and acceptance. Moments of insecurity are breeding some new truth in you if you can stay awake, stay open, listen, learn, and grow. Let a little light in, and don’t be afraid to let the rest of us see your glorious cracks.

Please visit Soulseeds where I post regular blogs, as does Meg. We also offer various mindfulness and affirmation resources.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Love Lessons From Nature

Barbara Kingsolver’s book “Small Wonder” opens with an amazing, true story about a missing child in the forest in Iran. The parents frantically search for 3 days to find their 16 month old baby. Without a single clue to guide them, and close to giving up hope, some members of the search party hear a cry from inside a cave 6 miles from where the baby had gone missing. Deep in the belly of the cave they find the baby nestled in the lap of a bear. You would have expected the bear to tear the baby to pieces. On the contrary, after rescuing the baby, they find him in perfect health and with signs that the bear has actually been nursing him. The bear that had likely lost its own cubs took the child as if it’s own, nursed and protected him from harm.

It’s an incredible story. There are three lessons that I take from this story that seem relevant at this time.

1. Miracles happen

Miracles happen. When it seems like all hope is gone, and when the cave of despair seems darkest, you find surprising hope sitting on the lap of a bear. We’ve seen it in the incredible stories coming out of Japan, with the recovery of people missing for days in seemingly impossible situations. We see it in the seasons. Even now we see it in the new buds of spring. When it seems like you can’t bear another cold, grey day of winter, nature reminds you that there’s always more to come.

Whether you believe in an interventionist God or not, and no matter what language you use to describe unexpected situations, believe in the miracle that hope and fresh starts are ALWAYS possible. The pattern of possibility seems to be built into the nature of life.

Don’t just believe in miracles. Live the miracle. Human beings are not unique among species in our ability to compete and destroy in order to ensure our survival. We are probably just the best at it. The true measure of our species is not so much in our ability to conquer as it is in our ability to care, even radical care for those outside of family, nation and species.

2. Sometimes the very thing you fear becomes the path forward.

The other side of hope is fear, and you can’t have one without the other. Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is the choice to proceed despite the fear. Susan Jeffers wrote the book, “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway.” In it she says, “Fear goes on every journey we take and always has bad advice.” I saw a televangelist describe fear like this. FEAR= False Evidence Appearing Real. At best fear takes an argument from silence or unknown outcomes and lives down to the likelihood of a negative outcome.

Again, learn from nature. Remember the cyclical nature of life, with its ups and downs, peaks and troughs. Every ending is preparing the way for a new beginning. Fear’s imagination may have a half truth about change that is looming. What fear doesn’t know is whether it’s going to be negative change. As Tom Stoppard said, “Every exit is an entry somewhere else.” Sometimes your worst fear actually becomes your greatest opportunity.

Where do you find the ability to deal with fear? This story might illustrate. A mouse was in constant distress because of its fear of the cat. A magician took pity on it and turned it into a cat. But then it became afraid of the dog. So the magician turned it into a dog. Then it began to fear the panther, so the magician turned it into a panther. Then it was full of fear for the hunter. At this point, the magician gave up. He turned it into a mouse again saying, “Nothing I do for you is going to be of any help because you have the heart of a mouse.”

Have the heart of a peaceful warrior and nothing outside of you can conquer you. Therefore there is nothing ultimately to fear. You nurture the heart of a peaceful warrior with the rock solid inner stillness that accepts change without attaching to outcomes.

3. Global healing.

The third lesson from the story of the bear relates to the current needs in the world. Kingsolver found the news story about the bear protecting the baby on the same day that America began bombing Afghanistan in 2001. The story is a parable about the challenges we face in our world today. The bear represents both the best and worst of contemporary culture. Our voracious appetite for power, control and possessions leads to internal and external wars. We tear ourselves and each other apart in search of the enemy. And yet the bear is also the answer. There comes a time to stretch across the boundaries that divide us and show compassion across lines of difference, even across species. When we do that we discover that there are no enemies, and fear disappears. A verse in the Hindu Scripture, Isa Upanishad, “Who sees all beings in his own self, and his own self in all beings, loses all fear.”

Eleven years later, civilians are still dying in Afghanistan and Iran remains a sleeping bear in a rapidly changing Middle East. 2001 was also the year that America withdrew from the Kyoto climate change agreement. Eleven years later, America still lags the rest of the world in “getting real” about global warming. A 2009 UN study showed that global warming is killing 300,000 people a year and affects 300 million people. By 2030 the same report predicts that half a million people could die every year as a result of climate change.

Think about the need for inclusive spirituality in this context. It’s not just a philosophical curiosity or a sociological experiment. It’s a matter of global healing. Inclusive spirituality is not just about the freedom to think for yourself and take from whatever wisdom sources make sense to you, although that is true. Inclusive spirituality is about reaching across boundaries and conquering the fear of difference. It’s about living in harmony with the earth and seeing the divine wisdom in the earth. It’s about not giving up optimism no matter what the setbacks and how impossible the problems.

Arthur Ashe, the great American tennis player and social activist who died of AIDS a few years ago was asked how does he get through the day when everything seems so challenging. Ashe replied with a profound formula for spiritual activism and I end with these words-

Start where you’re at… Use what you’ve got… Do what you can.