Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Discipline of Vulnerability

"Desert Cactus"
- flowers and thorns -

Every evening, during the local news report I see the same TV commercial sponsored by “Perfect Smile Dentistry.” As the name suggests, a local “cosmetic dentist” promises to design a “perfect smile” for anyone who might take advantage of his services. The dentist shows “before and after” pictures of a patient - in one photo we see teeth that are crooked, jagged and covered in ugly stains and then in the next picture, the same patient sports a “perfect smile, glistening white and without any flaws whatsoever. All made possible thanks to the cosmetic magic of the miracle-worker dentist.  

Whenever I watch that TV ad, I am inevitably struck with how phony and fake that “perfect smile” looks.  I’m a big fan of good dental hygiene, but no one has teeth that white and so perfectly formed. In fact, that so-called “perfect smile” comes off as being somewhat ludicrous to me.

We live in a “culture of perfectionism.” We want the perfectly tailored gym-body, the perfectly coiffed hair, flawless skin and perfect teeth, the perfect job, the perfect family and the perfect house.

As I see it, this “culture of perfectionism” is perhaps no more clearly manifested than in the realm of religion and spirituality; but unfortunately, this need for perfection is perhaps the greatest pitfall anyone can fall into on any type of spiritual path.

Many people sit in a church and look up at stained glass pictures of great saints or perhaps they sit in a temple and gaze upon a statue of the Buddha in all his enlightened splendor and think that truly “spiritual” people are supposed to be just as perfect as all those holy saints and gurus. Many people believe that “God” expects them to live a “sinless” life and those who do not meet these high moral standards are unworthy believers who will ultimately be punished.

I know plenty of religious people who go to church and hide behind the expected perfect smile of a supposedly flawless life, too fearful or ashamed to embrace their “less than perfect” qualities, their doubts, mistakes, failures or their secret sins.

The problem is that, while we so highly prize flawlessness, when it comes to the human condition, “perfection” is an illusion and when you aspire to perfection on a spiritual journey, you inevitably fall under the sway of that illusion.

We are loving, compassionate and forgiving and we are also judgmental and spiteful, we have faith and we also have our inevitable doubts, we are hopeful and yet we despair, honest and yet we deceive, we live in the shadows and we live in the light.  Each and every one of us is a wonderful mix of light and darkness all rolled up together and paradoxically we need our shadows in order to walk in the light.

I am reminded of a line from one of my favorite Leonard Cohen songs:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

As I think about it, the goal of any spiritual journey is not to achieve perfection but rather to practice a “discipline of vulnerability.”  When we embrace our weaknesses and imperfections rather than hide from them, when we trust enough to become vulnerable by letting down the protective walls of our ego and when we reach out to others for healing, we are on the spiritual path.

Oddly enough, love can enter our lives most abundantly when we are broken enough to allow love to enter in, and so our vulnerability and not our perfection is the prize virtue on a spiritual journey.

In the Christian Scriptures Saint Paul says:

In our weakness is our strength.

The author, Paul Coelho, says something very similar:

The strongest love is the love that can demonstrate its fragility.

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