Two Wednesdays ago, as I was looking for an image of Mu Qi’s “Six Persimmons” to attach to that week’s essay, I began typing “the six per…” into Safari’s search bar. The first suggested connection was “the six perfections.” The universe speaks in many ways. Like an embarrassed woman bumping into someone to whom you have owed a thank you note for a looong time, I recalled where I had first seen these words, how much they had taught me, and how little I had been attending to them of late. I had to admit that in the last several months, while I was initiating this blog about my spiritual path and practice, I had started to slide on actually practicing it. Oh Yeah! Spiritual practice! Something you DO! I DO have one, really! It’s around here, somewhere. On my desk, I think… right under those bills, that rough draft, these books. You know.
Six years ago, as I began the long walk across a soul’s ocean floor that is divorce, three books by American-born Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön were constant friends on my bedside table for four years thereafter—When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times, and Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living. These very easy reads about very tough things first gave me oxygen, then the space for a deep breath with which to breathe it, and then a complete re-conception of our existence, our purpose, and our potential for happiness, enlightenment, whatever you want to call it… with clear and practical, if not always comfortable, instructions included!
I retrieved each book from my library. The first two, I do not lie, fell immediately open to passages about these six ethical aspirations. The third one had a bookmark at a passage about training in “the three difficulties,” which are described as “seeing neurosis as neurosis, being willing to do something different, and the aspiration to make this a way of life.” The universe speaks in many ways, and She is not just making suggestions. Back to the meditation pillow pour moi…
The six paramitas, or perfections, are not about being perfect. They are about practicing compassion. For ourselves, and for every sentient being. Pema calls them “the six activities of the servants of peace. The word paramita means ‘going to the other shore.’ These actions are like a raft that carries us across the river of samsara [suffering].” Here is her full description:
Generosity. Giving as a path of learning to let go.
Discipline. Training in not causing harm in a way that is daring and flexible.
Patience. Training in abiding with the restlessness of our energy and letting things evolve at their own speed.
Joyful enthusiasm. Letting go of our perfectionism and connecting with the living quality of every moment.
Meditation. Training in coming back to being right here with gentleness and precision.
Prajna [meaning Wisdom]. Cultivating an open, inquiring mind.
Thirty-five years ago, my sixth grade teacher asked me to stay after school. She had something she wanted to help me with. She spoke considerately. She went on and on, building up to an apparently big point, which was that I was a perfectionist. I truly didn’t understand. Her apparent concern, I mean. A perfectionist? I thought it was a compliment. I thought it meant that I must be getting warm. If I were already a perfectionist at eleven years old, then, Wow! Maybe I could be perfect by as early as, say, eighth grade? First year of high school, tops!
I was only eleven. I didn’t know that the name of the unstable fuel lighting all of those rockets under my butt was anxiety. I had no idea that anxiety was nearly axiomatic in America in the mid-70’s. I certainly did not know that there was any other way to be. I also had no idea how dangerous was this root sense of being somehow flawed, even originally sinful. How destructive was this fearful need to atone, for seemingly everything. To placate, or be punished. To be perfect… or else.
Pema Chödrön teaches that it is our very imperfections, our weaknesses and our pain, which have the capacity to enlighten us. “When things are shaky and nothing is working, we might realize that we are on the verge of something. We might realize that this is a very vulnerable and tender place, and that tenderness can go either way.” Having been born a good Catholic girl in New York City in 1936, she also really gets the anxious tinge common to our oh-so-American pursuit of happiness. “The old joke is that a Buddhist is someone who is either meditating or feeling guilty about not meditating. There’s not much joy in that. Maybe the most important teaching is to lighten up and relax. It’s such a huge help in working with our crazy mixed-up minds to remember that what we’re doing is unlocking a softness that is in us and letting it spread. We’re letting it blur the sharp corners of self-criticism and complaint.”
The universe speaks in many ways. I hear Her right now. She is laughing with my girls. I want to laugh with them, too. I want to listen to them even more. Just be here with them. Be. Here. Now.
I will get back to ye old meditation pillow. After a nice long Thanksgiving break.