Sunday, 1 October 2017

On perfection

Zorba once said: “I always act as though I were immortal.” This is God’s method, but we mortals should follow it too, not from megalomania and impudence, but from the soul’s invincible yearning for what is above.
- Nikos Kazantzakis

When I was an adolescent and continuing into my 20s, I used to daydream. A lot.

At home, at school, in almost any circumstance when my mind didn’t have to focus too much, I would drift into a hazy zone of pleasure. Maybe most young people are prone to daydreams, unburdened as yet by the mundane realities of life that keep more mature folk stolidly earth-bound.

In my dreams I was invariably a hero of some kind: a rock star, a famous footballer or cricketer for Australia, a saviour who rescued beautiful women and people who were in trouble. There were times when I was possessed by the sweet oblivion of these fantasies; they would sometimes entrance me the entire distance of my walk home during my university days, the duration of almost an hour.

Looking back, I see the worth of this escapism that was so intoxicating. It held the promise, the ideal, the sense of perfection that I was to move towards once I threw off the layers of my childhood self and entered the tumult of the world as an adult. It signified the bridge between adolescence and maturity, and that I was ready to make the journey across. I was never actually to become a famous musician or sportsman, for the value of the fantasies was in their meaningful symbolism.

Just as birds, people and much of life on Earth awakes and rises with the appearance of the sun each morning, so as a youth I was "rising" in the direction of what I could be, towards alluring archetypes of realisation. And as the sun dispenses life-generating energy, so the archetypes heralded a new psychic energy that was available to me in my struggle to adulthood.

There’s a tendency in contemporary times to reject perfection and do away with ideals. We counsel ourselves to be realistic and practical and to drop absurd notions of the perfect. At times of failure we may draw out the truism that “nobody is perfect” and fight against the harsh demands of "perfectionism". It’s perhaps no coincidence that God, the ultimate perfection, has lost so much value in the West, as we increasingly look to the earth and less to heaven.

But what is problematic is surely not perfection itself but our relationship to it; namely to judge ourselves and others in relation to the perfect and to form unhealthy attachments to it. Perfectionism is a kind of enslavement in which a person has become driven by the perfect, the energy of the archetype corrupted and misused. For the ideal to have worth it acts as a guide, a motivator, an inspiration and pointer to inner realities of what we may be; not a dictator, demon or possessor.

The question of personal judgement in relation to the perfect has been one of the most troubling in the history of Western spiritual development. The wrathful God demanding obedience in the face of flawed, sinful nature has left a legacy of anxiety in the relationship between human and divine. But it need not be so: If perfection is seen and experienced without the baggage we tend to place on it, without projections, judgements, desires or demands, with only its numinous essence, its wholesome capacity to uplift, we align ourselves with it appropriately.

Likewise the so-called "realised" historical personages of Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad and others. Not only do these figures of perfection act as models, through what they did and said, for people in daily living, but their presence generated symbols of wholeness that continue to reverberate in the collective psyche to this day. As living, breathing humans they were subject to the successes and failures all of us experience, but their attainment to a certain degree of spiritual mastery marked them out; they rose higher than others and so were able to act as teachers and catalysts of profound change. Our attitude to their realisation ought to be one of gratitude not servitude, appreciating all the gifts that have come, and continue to come, for our improvement and that of the world.

Perfection is actually closer to us than we think. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says: "The Kingdom of the Father is spread upon the earth and men do not see it." With similar meaning Buddhism asserts that “every moment is perfect” – that reality as a whole, understood through the most refined capability of the mind, is just what it is and what it needs to be. The vital, intuitive capacity to see this is the very same that allows us to appreciate beauty. In beauty we are taken to a higher experience of being, we glimpse the divine. Yet this divinity is thoroughly present in myriad ways in the everyday world, for who could not say that the beaming smile of a child, the rosy blush of dawn on the horizon, the blossoming of flowers and the human form are not perfect?

Perfection does not cancel out the reality of the imperfect – the two co-exist in the paradox that is the universe. Pain, suffering, destruction, the various mistakes and limitations of human action and societies all must be reckoned and placed alongside the presence of the perfect. Reconciliation of the two is perhaps the cutting edge of the spiritual development of our species: God meets humanity, humanity meets God.

Whether we are comfortable with it or not, perfection is integral to life and our experience of it. It is the balance, the hope and the passing beyond hope that affords life’s essential happiness and unity. It is the call from the summit to ascend towards our seemingly unlimited potential, reflecting "the soul’s invincible yearning for what is above."