An Appropriate Perfectionism?

This article is written by Dennis Oliver…

The passing of another year leads many of us to review our past and renew our aspirations for the future.  Many will bring a determined, positive expectation that they will make significant progress on many fronts. Mine include decluttering (simplification), physical fitness (yoga or qi gong), and a new and improved pattern for my morning ‘devotions’. Could it be that 2018 will fulfill our spiritual aspirations, however they are conceived –  whether as mastering self-transcendence, achieving our human potential, or conforming to our ethical ideals? Will we  see significant progress?

Whatever our goals and however we conceive of the faith and discipline needed to achieve them, we are cautioned (and most likely caution ourselves) against an unrealistic and therefore unachievable perfectionism. “Perfection is the enemy of the possible” we’re told.  “We need to walk before we run”.  Great expectations are helpful – but not if they are enormous. So we are encouraged to take baby steps forward. 

The spiritual adepts, such as Socrates, Gautama Buddha, Jesus, (and your own favourite), emerged from a complex set of historical, cultural and personal conditions which we cannot hope to replicate. For some Western Buddhists this might include an incalculable number of rebirths. Others think the ideal requires additional evolutionary progressions, or a sweeping away of toxic economic and social forces before the ancient ideals become more commonly available. Those who are said to have achieved the goal are deemed exceptional. They have emerged from a golden age. They were spiritual giants, while we’re relative dwarfs. Only a mistaken arrogance would seek to be like them.

I’m not convinced by such pessimism.  I suspect the goal is much more achievable than most seem to believe.  I know Buddhism and myself best, so let me speak in those terms – while recognising parallels in other “faiths” and leaving you to make your own applications. The pragmatic and rather secular Buddhism with which I identify is a kissing cousin of other expressions of spiritual naturalism, so my analysis should (hopefully) prompt your own.

My post-modern  conviction is that the ideal humanity to which we aspire is more mythical and archetypal than historical – a bright morning star for the collective imagination.  If this be true, we need only to keep adjusting our aspirations to keep developing.  By upgrading our goals as we achieve our chosen targets, we can assure a continued growth.  Economic and physical fitness works that way.  So has my own spirituality.

How does this work? As I learned the generosity of charitable giving, I moved from a legalistic sense of quotas (10% of my income) to a realisation that we can never give “enough”, but we can keep expanding our response to the complex needs of our fellow human beings. I’m more comfortable now with a more spontaneous approach and with recognising that “giving ourselves” is more helpful than just giving our cash.  For decades I assumed that I would be stretched spiritually if I read a certain quantity of the Scriptures -first the Bible, now the Suttas- daily. Now I’m content to stop with just a paragraph or sentence of any helpful text, taking that into my reflection and contemplation.  “Tolerance” for me seemed to be limited to those who interpreted my approved sources of inspiration slightly differently.  Now I recognise how much I have to learn from those who draw their refreshment from radically different wells.  I’m sure you have your own personal examples.  If we are to grow, our sense of the ideal must ‘move on’.

But we all can benefit by taking our present ideals seriously, and by working to achieve them.  My favourite Bible verses include “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Jesus), informed by Paul’s injunction to “Do everything possible on your part to live in peace with everybody.”  I find them inspirational because I interpret them within my own understanding of what I can achieve – even if it draws me beyond my past and present accomplishments.

Pragmatic Buddhists speak of appropriate ethical standards – not abstract perfections but the perfect expression of what is possible for us right now, given all the circumstances and conditions of the moment. Thus, the ideal that I seek (“full awakening”) relates to my understanding of how I can counter (not completely overcome) the “three poisons” of greed, hatred and delusion – and the way I can counter my tendency to believe I’m at the centre of the universe.  I’m finding increasingly effective ways to counter my deeply ingrained self-referential consciousness – the ways I limit my own contentment by emphasising me&mine, us&ours.  I do not aspire to Buddhahood in terms of a “pure” mind that never thinks of its own advantage.  Rather, I’m learning to counter my natural selfishness with a variety of reminders and practices that counter my mistaken self-seeking. 

As I now see it, the key blockage to my becoming more like the Buddha is the concept of his perfection.  It seems to be widely assumed that Gautama, an ordinary man, was so transformed in mind and heart, that he no longer experienced greed, hatred and delusion at all. His life was lived with none of it. He has lost that aspect of our natural humanity.  But I do not claim enlightenment, but do experience contentment most of the time, and still seek more of it. That has not been helped by an imagined Buddha, perfectly free from the common poisons. I now imagine how the natural self-centeredness of our humanity might remain with a “saint” (an “adept”, a Buddha) but no longer have power over him, because he learned to counter and correct them.  

I’m sure we’ve all experience this at some time in our lives.  We learn the futility of reading unjustified and unsubstantiated motivations into the words and actions of others.  We ‘bite our tongue’ when we sense an angry word forming. We make a superficial judgment about a person or situation, and then correct it by considering the shaky grounds of our thoughts, or taking account of the relevant available data. We want a second helping, we fantasize about an inappropriate relationship, we lust after unaffordable and unnecessary “stuff” (some as large as houses)… but then think better of it.  Sometimes the correction is made before we say a word, or clench our fist, or buy that thing.  But sometimes we return the purchase, correct what we’ve said, and apologise for our anger.  It’s all part of the wonderful experience of being awake.

Any spirituality worthy of the name will give us the tools to fight our natural selfishness, correcting the negative (the “unskillful”, Buddhists say) with positive (“skillful”) alternatives. Developing consciousness of our self-defeating and reactive dynamics, together with growing our sense of how to be positive and creative – these can bring us ever broadening and deeper happiness.  

My guiding star is a  “nirvana” imagined as the ability to recognise the poisons within and to correct them before they do damage to myself and others. This will do me until this concept is swallowed up by a more helpful concept.  It assumes a continuity between my consciousness of awakening and the Buddha’s full awakening (whatever that is!).  It maps a route that I can identify with and (as long as I’m aware of the presence of the poisons) allows me to apply corrective action.

Enough of me! Whatever your ideal, your guiding star, my New Year’s wish for you is that you can avoid a discouraging and disabling perfectionism, while seeking to constantly better yourself.  If your chosen method works for you, it will be marked by a growing contentment. That’s sufficiently and appropriately “perfect”, and more practical than the idealised goals that can be so discouraging and disempowering. After all, when we stop finding them useful, we can exchange them for something better.


Learn about Membership in the Spiritual Naturalist Society

The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.


Dennis Seng Ting Oliver is a Pragmatic Buddhist novice monk, retired from a variety of community service roles (many religious), and a part-time Chaplain at HMP Kilmarnock and Dungavel Immigration Removal Centre. He lives in Glasgow, Scotland. 

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.