Messy miracles

I just returned from spending a week teaching at the Cape Cod Summer Institute where my course was titled, "Growing Up and Waking Up: Applied Mindfulness and in Psychotherapy and Buddhist Practice." It was a good week with a great group of students. The Institute gave me a lovely gift calendar for the coming year with a quote from an Institute teacher for each month. Mine was the July quote. I had forgotten what I had sent when they asked for a small teaching many months ago. I opened the calendar and there it was:
We are all messy miracles, but we deny the miraculous when we identify only with the mess.—Flint Sparks
Looking at the calendar and reading the quote again, I had a chance to reflect on what this statement brought up for me now.  There is a commonly told story about an old Tibetan teacher who came to the West to teach.  He was meeting with a group of psychotherapists who were interested in the potentials for dharma and therapy to inform each other.  The Tibetan teacher asked the Westerners what kinds of problems their clients brought to them.  After a short conference the group said that generally they would say that some form of low self-esteem was common.  At first the Tibetan teacher didn’t understand what they were talking about.  The idea was foreign and the translation difficult, but eventually it finally sank in.  With this dawning awareness he replied with something like, “Ah, yes, low self-esteem.  I can see how that would be a source of suffering — and, also high self-esteem.”  Of course this was an important and very direct overturning of the therapist's ideas about mental well-being.  Maybe the problem was not the ever-changing level of esteem that required continual maintenance, but something about the sense of self that was the very source of the problem.

There is also the oft-quoted statement attributed to Suzuki Roshi when he supposedly said to a group of students, “You are perfect just like you are, and you could use a little improvement.”  This statement and the story above both came to mind when I read a brief quotation in an interview with Jack Kornfield in which he referenced a Zen Master as saying, “To be enlightened is to be without anxiety about non-perfection.”  This is a lovely way of suggesting profound self-acceptance beyond conditions; beyond good and bad, right and wrong, achievement and failure.  Kornfield went on to say, “...the spiritual path is certainly not about the perfection of personality.  If it is about perfecting anything, it's about the perfection of love.”   His refinement of his statement points to our fundamental practice of zazen which has nothing to do with perfection of our personality or of the “self” to which we cling.

This is the paradox and the fruit of practice — profound acceptance of ourselves.  This does not mean that we don't work diligently to respond to what is needed, both on the outside and the inside.  However, truly seeing "what is needed" and acting as an "appropriate response," is wisdom and compassion in action, not the result of personal improvement.  This is simply wholehearted practice.

The very idea of “perfectibility” suggests a “completeness.” Finishing something might apply to a “thing” but not to our life, which is always changing and has no final completion, even in death.  When one looks out over a vast landscape or the ocean there is the appearance of an “edge” or boundary.  We call this a horizon.  But, a horizon is an illusion, just as perfectibility and self are both illusions.  If the observer moves, the horizon moves.  There is not fixed edge or place that one can approach and finally claim to have reached “the horizon.”  Peter Herschock uses this image to speak of three horizons that are relinquished as we realize freedom from anxiety about non-perfection.

The first horizon is for Readiness.  In an ordinary sense we find ourselves ready for certain things and events in life, and decidedly ill-prepared for others.  As we live our way into freedom we relinquish all horizons for readiness.  Instead, we manifest the potential to respond with something more like, “Ah, now this.”

In addition, we find that as we practice, ready for what comes, we also relinquish horizons for Relevance.  What we habitually and automatically attend to and valorize as important opens further with practice to reveal our unbound interdependence on, and with, all things. Every moment is relevant. Every relationship is an expression of relevance.  There is nothing to discard or dismiss.  We are invited into intimacy with all things, as Dogen suggested. Once again, we find ourselves meeting each moment as, “Yes, this.”

The third horizon that is relinquished with this non-anxiety about non-perfection is the horizon for Responsibility.  If we come to realize that we intimately arise simultaneously with all things, then there is nothing that we can sever from this moment and turn away from.  Sometimes we disconnect from ourselves and others. Sometimes we easily and warmly connect. We develop patterns in our relationships and we can learn to turn toward these habits patterns with Big Mind.  It is not that a separate self could be responsible for everything and everyone.  That would be an impossibility. This is the ordinary burden from which we shrink and the project we face if we believe in perfectibility. However, as the great teacher Uchiyama Roshi said, “ our daily lives we have to discriminate, but what we must not forget is the fundamental attitude grounding this discrimination: everything we encounter is our life.  This is the attitude of Big Mind.” [From the Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment: Refining Your Life, edited by Thomas Wright, 1998, p. 47].  Finally, we respond with, “And even this.”

Maybe this is love’s true function.  When we relax our habitual thought patterns and allow our hearts to be touched, what would we reject as unworthy? Wouldn't we, instead, discover that we are naturally ready for what is offered next, and seeing it all as relevant meet it with responsibility? This is profound acceptance beyond self, beyond anxiety about perfectibility.  This is a humble and wholehearted, “Now this.” This is simple human maturity.

Remember, We are all messy miracles, but we deny the miraculous when we identify only with the mess.