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Spiritual Perfectionism – And what to do about it

I've noticed something recently that I call "spiritual perfectionism" and I'd love to hear what others think.

My initial thoughts on this are that there's an unspoken expectation that spiritual awakening means looking and acting like Jesus Christ, the Buddha, Saint Francis, Mother Theresa, or [insert idealized spiritual figure].

When we fall short of this imagined perfection, our inner critic berates us. And we fall deeper into self-hatred, or unworthiness.

A part of us uses this psychological self-punishment to try and make us "better," (likely imitating the punishment of parents, teachers, or spiritual leaders) but in reality it pushes us further from true awakening, which is the total loving acceptance of ourselves and the world.

All perfectionism is based on the fear that if we are not perfect (or at least excellent) we will be unworthy of the love we so desperately need.

Because humanity unknowingly idealizes spiritual leaders and masters to such a high degree, perfectionism can be dangerously invisible on the spiritual path.

In other words:

Spiritual perfectionism is a spiritual trap.

The trap is set whenever we imagine that a spiritual teacher has become so morally perfect and divine that we could never attain that state ourselves. Jungian psychologists call this "golden shadow projection," where we "vomit" our own golden qualities onto another person, and denying your own divinity. This leads to a kind of spiritual infatuation.

Golden shadow projection may happen in any area of life: with your piano teacher, your college crush, a parent, or an internet persona or celebrity. But this trap is especially dangerous in spiritual life, where the student becomes enamored with the teacher and the teacher become enamored with their own apparent wisdom and ability to "light up" their students (not realizing that they are robbing their students the chance to exhibit their own light).

On a larger scale, this kind of golden shadow projection — and accompanying spiritual perfectionism — has been going on for thousands of years in the form of world religions. Jesus Christ and the Buddha are two of the clearest examples of this.

The lives of spiritual legends were often recorded and retold by people who likely had not achieved that state of consciousness themselves. And so when we compare ourselves with the Buddha or the Christ, Socrates or Confucius, we are comparing ourselves to a idealized myth—the aggregate of many peoples' conceptions, and misconceptions, of what an enlightened person is like.

This can also lead to beliefs and religious structures that are, tragically, anti-spiritual, suppressing rather than promoting awakening. Rather than helping people become like the Christ or the Buddha, etc. religions worship their chosen idol, or imagine they have to dress and talk like them rather than rising into their own authentic divinity.

Eckhart Tolle observes that many Buddhists believe enlightenment is only for the Buddha. Or place enlightenment many many lifetimes away, instead of right here and now.

Christians say they want to become like Christ, yet the greatest blasphemy is to proclaim you are Christ.

Psychology has inherited this prejudice and treats anyone who claims to be God as a psychotic. The true psychosis, it can be said, is that we imagine ourselves to be anything less than Being itself.

What is the way out of spiritual perfectionism?

It is the embodied understanding that we are always-already perfect.

Alan Watts points out that when you look at the ocean waves, they never make a wrong move. They are always aesthetically beautiful. They move in accordance with Li, a Confucian word for the natural order of nature.

When we enter into a "flow state" we move in this way. Our entire being flows freely and smoothly, doing exactly what needs to be done, effortlessly. In fact, the whole universe is already moving in this way.

When we drop our fear, our striving to be "right," our desire to please or succeed, and instead focus only on that which needs to be done, in love and joy, we drop out of perfectionism and enter into the natural flow of the universe. We move with the Dao, "the way."

It doesn't matter if we're dancing, lifting weights, doing carpentry, making tea, making love—any action can be done in effortless flow and thus be a gateway to and expression of the perfect dance of Reality.

When we "give up" trying to be perfect and simply flow like warm milk, we take part in the perfect motion of the universe. In giving up all striving, we attain the very perfection we once hoped to achieve.

It's not that we become individually perfect. That is impossible. Rather, we become part of a whole which is itself perfect.

Understanding that we are indistinguishable from that greater whole, we can settle into the deep knowing that we have, are, and will always be a perfect drop in a perfect ocean.


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