Practice Makes Perfect Imperfection


Often times when spiritual students observe their teachers they end up being disappointed at some point. They put their teachers on a pedestal based on the ideal that the teachers represent, not realizing that the teacher is not the ideal itself, but rather is practicing the ideal.

For example, a spiritual teacher who has a tense moment with a student, perhaps even becoming angry with the student, may still be practicing the ideal. Let’s say the ideal is unconditional love. The fact that the teacher has a moment where anything but unconditional love seems present doesn’t mean the teacher is not practicing the ideal. What we need to watch for is what happens next. With a teacher who is practicing the ideal of unconditional love, what we’ll see next will look exactly like unconditional love. An acknowledgment of missing the mark and an apology are likely, as is even deeper embodiment of the ideal, unconditional love in this case.

Where many err in terms of their expectations of their teachers (and themselves) is in believing a good teacher has already perfected the ideal. What is more realistic is to watch for what the teacher’s practice is.

With a dedicated teacher who is practicing the ideals set forth in a spiritual or religious teaching, we will always see them come back to those ideals, and usually rather quickly. The Catholic Church’s early response to pedophile priests within their ranks was a very poor example of practicing their ideals. The current pope is correcting that by acknowledging the problem, making corrections where needed, and taking steps to make some amends to those affected.

I knew a masterful spiritual teacher who would have her human moments, which would sometimes cause upset. What was amazing, and what stood out far more than the human moments, was her deep commitment to practicing her ideal of unconditional love, and how quickly she would return to practicing that ideal even when others were still being unloving toward her.

Practicing ideals not only applies to so-called spiritual leaders; it also applies to each one of us. Rather than being self-critical when we miss the mark, or holding ourselves to unrealistic standards, instead we can practice our ideals, acknowledging that sometimes we are likely to fall short of those ideals.

And when we do fall short, our response is not to judge ourselves, but rather to remind ourselves of what our practice is. In other words, we return to the ideal, with even deeper commitment to it. If our practice is to be a peaceful presence and we found ourselves fostering disharmony in a particular situation, the spiritual master makes amends where possible and then returns to the practice. There is no value in being self-critical or defensive. That will only delay our return to the practice and further exacerbate the situation.

Returning quickly to the practice, whenever we miss the mark, keeps us steadfast in our intention to embody the ideal, and, for all intents and purposes, allows us to consistently be the embodiment of that ideal.

With someone who is committed to practicing the ideal, we know what we can expect from that person. They may let us down for a moment, but we know who they are, and we know what will ultimately shine forth. They become defined by their practice of the ideal rather than the few moments where they miss the mark.

What ideals are you committed to practicing? How could you use your moments of falling short as a catalyst to go deeper into your practice? This is the invitation this week, to let go of questioning who we are and to keep remembering to practice our ideals. In this way, we become those ideals and our shortfalls are easily forgiven.

Enjoy the journey.

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