As a perfectionist, you think of perfection as a state. As you clean your kitchen or your car or your desk, you fantasize about preserving the state of perfection that you have accomplished. If you can only get it right, then it'll remain perfect from then on. You believe that by tinkering with what is, by tweaking the reality, you can engineer a perfect or near-perfect state of reality that will enable lasting happiness and well-being. But remodeling reality is a frustrating prospect because reality isn't a state. Reality is change, a process, a constant flux. As a perfectionist, you reject this impermanence and yearn for a perfect status quo. This state view of perfection is an emotional set up: even when you achieve that momentary perfect state, the reality doesn't pause to allow you to enjoy it -- the moment of accomplishment evaporates as soon as it materializes. What am I telling you? You already know it.
Attachment to Permanence is Suffering
Buddhists call the impermanence of reality anitya. Physicists call it entropy. The former witness it, the latter try to control it. Both accept it. But not you. You strive to shape and form reality into what it isn't. You see the natural flow of change as de-formation - as a frustrating loss of form rather than as a natural change of form. You'd rather solidify the river of change into an immutable state of perfection and freeze it in time, than to flow with it. In trying to fix the imperfections of reality, you are confusing fluidity with flaws and the natural rusting with decay. You are, in a manner of speaking, a permanist. Trying to cast an anchor of permanence in a bottomless ocean of change, trying to attach your well-being to what once was creates attachment. Attachment isn't only a loss of contentment, it's also a loss of independence. By making your well-being dependent on the perfect circumstance, you lose the sovereignty of your well-being. Your inner life becomes dependent on the external, on that perfect state of affairs that you absolutely have to preserve. You become rigid and tighten up like an anchor chain without enough slack to deal with the ebb and flow of life. No wonder that sometimes, under this tension, you snap.
Process (Dynamic) View of Perfection
Say, you reach that final state of completion, that ultimate state of perfection that cannot be improved upon. Then what? Where do you go from that dead-end? The ideal perfection is the end of the line. Nothing follows it, nothing but emptiness. That's why when you feel you've have finally reached the pinnacle, immediately after the triumph, there is a feeling of emptiness.
A process view of perfection has no dead-ends. It's just a way. It's open-ended. You go from one moment of perfection to another and on to another. The process view allows you to see your entire life as an unfolding work in progress, as an ever-changing blossoming of perfection. In a process view of perfection, failure is not an option. No, not in that perfectionistic sense of "you can't afford to fail!" But in the sense that you are always succeeding since you are always doing your best. After all, one of the meanings of the verb "to succeed" is nothing other than "to follow;" not "to do better" but merely "to be next."
On a recent tour of Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water, the tour guide said that when Wright was asked "What is your best work?" he reportedly answered "My next one." Frank Lloyd Wright, no doubt, understood the logic of flow. In a process view of perfection, you are always realizing your potential. No, not in that perfectionistic sense of trying to be better than you are at any given moment in time. No. You realize your potential by realizing that, at all times, you are realized, fully and completely. The process view of perfection sees perfection as a one-way evolutionary process of growing.
Pavel Somov, Ph.D. is the author of Eating the Moment (New Harbinger, 2008), Present Perfect (NH, 2010), and The Lotus Effect (NH, 2010). He is in private practice in Pittsburgh, PA. For more information visit www.eatingthemoment.com and sign up for Pavel Somov's monthly "Mindful-not-Mouthful" Newsletter
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