Sunday, 1 March 2015

Learning from the Imperfect

"Have no fear of perfection - you'll never reach it." - Salvador Dalí

Remember that whole month when you were just perfect? 

Those thirty long days when you made all the right decisions, achieved everything you planned, and were compassionate to everyone and stood up for all the things you value. 

That month when you looked amazing every day, ate the perfect food and trained like an athlete.

Perfection is pretty hard to come by, even for thirty days. Still, like many people, I've found myself unwittingly looking for perfection in others. 

Not from those I interact with on a day-to-day basis, we all know everyone makes mistakes and we're used to dealing with the little (or sometimes big) inconveniences that can cause.

But when I was looking for inspiration, or for people to learn big life lessons from, I realised that I expected those people to be perfect. I reasoned that I wanted to learn from people who had fully mastered every aspect of life, so that I could learn how to master every aspect of life.

Where are all the perfect people?
It turns out perfect people are hard to come by. There are great people, inspirational people, incredible people but perfect people? Not so many.

For instance, I came across people who had achieved incredible insights into the nature of the mind but had died of alcoholism. I came across great mediation teachers who sometimes looked nervous or uninspired. 

I discovered those who showed great compassion to thousands but who failed to show the same kindness to those closest to them. Clearly these were great people but they must have missed something, better not listen to them, I thought. 

Many times I discovered inspirational people who I felt I could learn a great deal from, only to be disappointed when I found out something about their life that was incongruent with what they taught. Such a disappointment, it seemed to be getting harder and harder to find those perfect people.

He looks happier
Then, quite by chance, something happened which completely changed my perspective. I was watching a talk by a famous Tibetan meditation teacher. Afterwards I glanced at the comments below the video and saw that someone had said 'It's great to see him looking so much happier'. 

I thought that was so strange. Happier? How could he look happier? Surely he was always an ocean of peace, well-being and happiness. Then it dawned on me - I'd been making a pretty crazy assumption to think his happiness couldn't fluctuate. Just because he was a Tibetan meditation teacher didn't mean he was always happy. 

Tibetan meditation teachers are just the same as everyone else, it may take decades to fully embody the things they speak of and they may never fully realise what they aspire to. That's the very reason why we can learn from them, because they are imperfect like all of us, wrestling with the same challenges.

Nervous, angry meditators?
Of course there's something very powerful about learning from someone who embodies what they teach but it's completely unrealistic to expect them to be perfect in everything and at all times. 

By discounting people on the basis of their imperfections we miss out on some of the great insights of human beings.

It reminded me of hearing the Dalai Lama recount how he'd felt nervous when flying through turbulence in an aeroplane and how he sometimes felt angry. An imperfect human being, just like all of us - or in his own words, 'a simple Buddhist monk'.

Imperfect teachers
In a surprising way, the best teachers are sometimes those who haven't achieved complete mastery. 

When someone is still wrestling with something it tends to occupy a lot of their time, they tend to talk about it passionately, think deeply about it and research it endlessly. We can learn a lot from people when they are at this stage, even if the information they impart may not be perfectly refined.

Interestingly, when someone achieves complete mastery, when it just becomes a part of who they are, the details of how they did it tend to fade to the background. The behaviour seems so obvious to them that they may not really think it interesting enough to share with others. They may skip over the details and forget all the struggles they went through to master it.

Now, when I look for inspirational people, I try to look less for perfection and more for those that are making a genuine effort. I think we can learn a lot from the struggles and challenges of imperfect people. 

And for those of us that are also imperfect, it's worth remembering that other imperfect humans can learn a lot from us too.

Image by Toni Verdú Carbó


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