As a psychotherapist as well as a spiritual teacher, I’ve had the privilege of sharing in the inner lives of hundreds of meditators and seekers—and what I’ve discovered, not surprisingly, is that we can be incredibly hard on ourselves, even in the seemingly beneficent pursuit of spiritual awakening. Most of us grow up with some version of the belief “I’m not good enough” and spend the rest of our lives attempting to prove ourselves worthy—in our work, our families, our relationships—while judging ourselves harshly if we don’t live up to some predetermined standard.
When we engage in spiritual study and practice, even if we’re counseled to be especially kind to ourselves, we tend to transpose the same perfectionism to our meditation, our contemplation, our self-inquiry. Nothing we do is ever good enough—we exert too much effort, we have too many concepts, our understanding never quite measures up. In fact, spiritual seekers can be even more self-critical than most, because we have the most exalted examples to compare ourselves to—the Buddha, Jesus, the great Zen masters, Ramana Maharshi, Nisargadatta Maharaj. We forget that awakening to our essential nature has nothing to do with perfection and everything to do with embracing life, including ourselves, just as it is. And we make the classic mistake of “comparing our inner to other people’s outer”—that is, comparing the public image that others project with the excruciating imperfection we constantly encounter in our own minds and hearts—and finding ourselves deficient. With so many different exemplars out there, we can become endlessly preoccupied with trying to imitate one and then the other, even though they express the truth in disparate ways, and end up losing sight of our own authenticity.
Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, one of my first teachers, once said, “We’re constantly losing our balance against a background of perfect balance.” As human beings, we’re imperfect creatures who stumble our way through life, doing our best and learning as we go—or not. But our essential nature—consciousness, timeless presence, the eternal ground of being, the One without a second—is inherently perfect, pure, and indestructible. None of our mistakes ever touches who we really are, and realizing this inherent perfection and embracing the non-dual paradox that we are both imperfect and perfect—or even more deeply, beyond any such dualities—provides the ultimate resolution to our endless self-criticism. In the words of Ramana, “Just rest as the Self and be as you are.”
Stephan Bodian is the author of Beyond Mindfulness: The Direct Approach to Lasting Peace, Happiness, and Love, published by New Harbinger Publications. Copyright 2017.