In the course of my ongoing self-growth work and spiritual practice, there’s one quote I come back to time and time again.
This quote is at the core of all my offerings, from meditation to coaching to being a friend. It captures the whole journey so beautifully, concisely and simply. It’s no exaggeration to say it’s my life philosophy. Here goes:
“You are perfect just as you are; and you could use a little improvement.” ~ Shunryu Suzuki
At the core of most spiritual teachings is radical self-acceptance and self-love, just as you are. However, there’s also something very intuitive about the need for change, growth and making the world a better place.
Intellectually, these seem like mutually exclusive goals, as if you just have to pick one (and, by default, most people pick I’m flawed and need improvement). And yet, on an experiential level, they are absolutely compatible!
The quick way to understand this is to get out of our head and dive inwards. There’s some deep yearning in us that simply says we must keep “showing up.” It says that we have to do keep doing our best, but also that we can’t control the outcomes (and so we let go of the need for certain results).
In other words, we learn to keep moving forward but do so in a very relaxed way.
And for a more in-depth analysis, I’d like to use the example of conflict. This could be external conflict, like tension with our partner or systemic poverty; or, it could be internal conflict, like the inner critic or the pains of aging.
Many people have some desire for life to be easeful with minimal conflict. However, let’s assume that we live on planet earth, which means that conflict will inevitably come up, no matter how evolved we are. Here’s three basic ways we could approach it:
1) Complacency. A step up from outright depression, we just “accept” all the conflict and assume it will either never improve or that it’s not worth the effort. Maybe we make slight gestures for change, but mostly we relax into surface-level contentment and avoid dealing with the deeper issues that are saying, “you could use a little improvement.”
2) Agitation. Every time a conflict happens, we become agitated because it’s a reminder that we haven’t yet attained our goal of less conflict. As long as we’re not perfect (and, of course, we never will be), we’re always pressuring ourselves to get better, to do more, to be more. Sometimes the agitation is on the surface, like bouts of anger or anxiety, but often it’s more of a background position that simply prevents us from ever truly relaxing.
3) Sincerity. When a conflict happens, we don’t check-out or get lost in anxiety; rather, we ground ourselves back in the present, back in our inherent perfection, and use the conflict-of-the-moment as one more place to find some self-improvement. We can hold both poles of self-acceptance and self-growth AT THE SAME TIME. Self-acceptance is largely about presence, and self-growth is about our deep current of curiosity and longing.
Another way of putting it is that depression/complacency doesn’t care at all about results—it has given up. Agitation cares only about results—until it’s got them it won’t relax. Sincerity move towards results, but like a forest hike headed towards a cabin, it’s so engrossed in the process of getting there that it doesn’t care too much if it ever arrives.
But how to do it? How to actually step out of our complacency or agitation and live with sincerity?
How to really embody, “I am perfect just as I am; and I could use a little improvement.”
I could give a simple answer like, go inside, or, meditate a lot. If you really do that, consistently over time, you’ll eventually totally understand this quote on a level way beyond speaking about it—that’s what I did, and so have many others; it works.
However, my simple answer is just a way of saying you have to study yourself.
In the poles of the quote, which one do you struggle more with?
For most westerners, it’s the perfect just as I am part. I found doing a lot of inner critic/shame work to be really helpful with this. I read things like Brene Brown, Byron Katie and Robert Augustus Master’s “Knowing Your Shadow,” and actually did the exercises (consistently over time). I spent a lot of time observing what agitation mode was like for me. I reached out to counselors and mentors for help exploring the inner mechanics of my self-hatred—and, most importantly, I used my meditation practice to watch these mechanics more closely.
The more I’ve done all this, the more the quote makes so much sense.
How to do it? This whole blog is devoted to how to do it!
You can trick yourself. You can reach out for help—please please please STOP trying to do it on your own. You can risk being radically authentic, and make some choices that will really shake your life up and force you to transcend your complacency. You can do anything other than just sit around and think about it.
Be vulnerable, be so vulnerable that it makes you shiver (and notice what that’s like).
How to do it? That’s for you to figure out!
My theory is only that the more you embrace this quote, the more and more radiantly you’ll shine your light on the world, and the less and less you’ll need philosophies (because you’ll have the thing they’re all pointing at).
One more time, just for kicks:
“You are perfect just as you are; and you could use a little improvement.”