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“It’s not happiness that makes us grateful but gratefulness that makes us happy.” – Br. David Steindl Rast

The Paradox: Perfect as You Are + You Could Use Some Improvement

A note from Carl:

The Paradox: Perfect as You Are + You Could Use Some ImprovementGreetings from Finca Mia! We arrived yesterday morning in Costa Rica and our Begin Again retreat commences this evening. As I sit here on the deck of the movement studio with the laptop, countless sounds of the living world surround me. The crickets, frogs, birds birds birds, and the the ever-present bass note of the Rio Talari winding its way through the canyon. I am grateful for the unmistakable call of life. Grateful that my phone, which has become such a surprising companion over these last several years, has been alone on the shelf since our arrival, and will remain there for the week. (We have needed a little space in our relationship.)

As Erin and I were clarifying our intentions for the retreat this morning, a famous line from Suzuki Roshi kept coming to me:

You are perfect as you are,
and you could use some improvement.

That line has such a sweet edge for me. How do I hold both of those? The beauty of the paradox is that is can’t be answered. There is no identity of mine that that line can safely land in and take root.

Through the years, I have noticed times when I leaned a little too far to one side or the other of that paradox. Resting in the “perfect as you are” which can lose its edge and drift into a kind of complacency or stagnation, a lack of clear unfolding and maturing.

Leaning more toward “could use a little improvement” can make life feel a bit like the Sisyphean task of self-improvement. Or, as Erin quoted last week from zen teacher Cheri Huber, “Self hatred uses self improvement as self maintenance.

This is the time of year, with countless resolutions already broken, many of us tend to lean more toward the side of improvement. I know some part of me wants to rally other parts to get their shit together this year. Yet as I enter the beginning of this retreat, and this New Year, I am holding Suzuki Roshi’s line as an open question- one to be asked lovingly over and over again, without expectation of landing on an answer. How do I enter my learning edges from a place of wholeness? Can I have one foot in my perfection, life’s perfection, as I explore the realms calling for improvement? Can I notice with kindness and humor when I lean too heavily to one side or the other?

One aspiration I hold is expressed in this poem of Mark Nepo:

Can I be a soft and sturdy home in which real things can land?

Having loved enough and lost enough,
I’m no longer searching
just opening,

no longer trying to make sense of pain
but trying to be a soft and sturdy home
in which real things can land.

These are the irritations
that rub into a pearl.

So we can talk for a while
but then we must listen,
the way rocks listen to the sea.

And we can churn at all that goes wrong
but then we must lay all distractions
down and water every living seed.

And yes, on nights like tonight
I too feel alone. But seldom do I
face it squarely enough
to see that it’s a door
into the endless breath
that has no breather,
into the surf that human
shells call God.

Wishing you well,
Carl

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