Lessons of Imperfection

I’ve been thinking lately about the wisdom of imperfection. My writer friend Nicola Murray graciously shared a wonderful story about the lessons to be gained from imperfection:

In The Unknown Craftsman by Soetsu Yanagi, there is an essay about the tradition of making Japanese tea bowls with deliberate imperfections because it teaches us that we have things to learn. There is a beautiful description of the author visiting a wood-turning studio in Korea, where he noticed big hunks of very wet pine wood sitting around on the floor. He was thinking how those would not get used for turning because, of course, anything made with them would crack as it dried. One of the wood turners came into the studio, grabbed a hunk of the green wood and made a beautiful bowl out of it, misting the entire room with the aroma of the wet, resinous pine as he did so. The author admired the finished product but asked the artisan why he bothered when he knew the bowl would crack, to which the wood-turner replied, “Then I fix the crack.” Later, the author saw the bowl with the crack fixed and said it was even more beautiful than the original product, making him aware that there was much to be gained from imperfection.

It’s said that weavers of Persian rugs sometimes add in small and deliberate imperfections to reflect a belief that only God can attain perfection. The imperfections make each Persian rug special—each is precisely imprecise and has a story of its own, ready to be told.

Perhaps one of the lessons to be gained from imperfection is that we are all precisely imprecise and have a story of our own, just waiting to be told. Through my own experience with studying and writing different forms of memoir, I have come to know this firsthand. As I allow myself to open to those most tender and wounded parts of myself and share the stories and wisdom that emerges, those parts begin to heal and transform. When we share our stories in this openhearted way, something else beautiful and mysterious happens: we touch others in a way that can support them in their own process of opening to their own wisdom and healing.

Wisdom resonates with wisdom. It’s like when you add a log to a fire that is already burning, the new log automatically catches fire as well. It can’t do otherwise.

I hold this in mind when I sit down and face a blank page, often filled with self-doubt and uncertainty. I wonder, How can a story about a painful breakup, my father’s untimely death, or my history with anxiety and panic hold any value or wisdom for anyone, including me? And then someone who has read one of my stories tells me how it’s inspired her and helped her not feel so alone. Or I open an e-mail to learn that a story has been accepted for publication. Or has won an award.

It’s possible to make beautiful art that has meaning and value from something that could be viewed as meaningless, worthless, and flawed. Like a bowl turned from green wood. A carpet woven with a dropped stitch. Or a story written by a perfectly imperfect person.

Welcome to the Imperfect Buddhist

“I’m practically perfect from head to toe,
If I had a fault it would never dare to show,
I’m so practically perfect in every way.” —Mary Poppins

“If I were a saint—which maybe I want to be, maybe I don’t—I would be like Augustine. He knew there was good in him, and he knew there was some not so good. And he wasn’t gonna give up his earthly pleasures before he was good and ready. Make me good, God, but not yet.” —Nurse Jackie

“Each of us is just this paradoxical mixture of confusion and wisdom; of the ability to be very cruel and the ability to be very kind. We are just such a mixture of things.” —Pema Chödrön

What do Mary Poppins, a drug-addicted TV nurse, and an American Buddhist nun have in common?

You might say, “Absolutely nothing,” but I see a deep interconnection. These three divergent quotes each reflect a piece of a timeless, immutable truth: that to be human is to be imperfect. As Ernest Kurtz writes in The Spirituality of Imperfection: Humans  embody a paradox, for we are “less than the gods, more than the beasts, yet somehow also both.”

In other words, we’re just like the Taoist yin/yang symbol, the circle enclosing black and white. We contain both shadow and light, which combine to make the whole. We might consider that we will never eternally “get it together, get it right.” That to aspire to be “perfect” and cut away all that we deem as “bad” is to deny our very nature. By doing so we can spend a lifetime pushing the wrong rock up the wrong hill; a self-improvement Sisyphus fighting an uphill battle that we can never win.

I know this is true, because I’ve been pushing that rock for decades, and boy, are my arms tired. And I’m finally figuring out that I’ve been using a flawed strategy guaranteed to perpetuate my pain.

I’ve been trying to be perfect—with mixed results. So as of today, June 7—which also happens to be my birthday—I’m done with it. And I’ve created a new name to mark this major transition. I’m calling it my rebirth-day!

In “The Imperfect Buddhist,” I invite you to join me in exploring what it means to fully embrace our human being-ness. With all its contradictions and messiness and paradoxes and loose ends and cellulite and flabby arms. Don’t expect that we’ll actually end up at a specific destination, because on this trip, the journey IS the goal!

I believe there isn’t anything in our experience that can’t help us awaken to our true nature—our basic goodness—which is really what I’m talking about here. So “The Imperfect Buddhist” will draw upon a wide variety of sources in this exploration. Much of my understanding of who we are and what our place is in this world is informed by Buddhist teachings and practices. But I wouldn’t call myself a Buddhist. Just as I wouldn’t call myself a Sufi, or a Hindu, or a Jew, or a Christian—although these wisdom traditions and many others have provided invaluable guidance and inspiration along the way. As have poetry and literature and music and movies and twelve-step programs and circles of people just like you and me simply trying to figure it all out one more time.

I confess that I do have one goal in creating “The Imperfect Buddhist.” It’s embodied in my personal mission statement: “My mission is to write and speak with wisdom, heart, and humor to inspire, encourage, and uplift.”

So grab a snack and fasten your seat belt: It’s gonna be a bumpy—and fun—ride!