The Incomplete Circle: Contemplating the Imperfection of Life


During the last week of his life, my grandfather lay in a hospital bed forced to contemplate the tilt of a poorly-hung cupboard.  It slanted on the wall like the whispering taunt of a backseat bully. Like a question whose answer is just out of reach.  Like the looming presence of death. Unable to be righted, fixed, resolved, or done away with.  Just there.  Always there.
Not everyone would notice such a slight error – or care if they did - but my grandfather was a lifelong builder and a German-Lutheran perfectionist.  Mistakes of that nature were an affront to his appreciation for excellence.  He was known to walk into homes or public spaces and, without asking, rehang doors and realign pictures.  It was not a service to others as much as to himself, for how could he remain in spaces that allowed such imprecision?

And yet in the last days of his life he came face to face with the fact that there were irregularities and imperfections that he could not improve.  The cupboard.  The cancer. The coming death.  He could close his eyes, but soon enough he had to open them again and see. Imperfection.  Asymmetry.  A job unfinished. A problem with no solution. 

I've always wondered.  Did the cupboard torture him more than the stage four cancer?  Did that practical helplessness irritate him and fill him with pain? Did it drive him to increase his morphine drip, tune out, zone, out, escape? Or, on the other hand, did the cupboard become an object of contemplation, inviting him to consider the nature of life and death, the inherent unpredictability of this existence, the truth of our humble, human condition? Did that, therefore, lead him to surrender to a deep, divine wisdom beyond his own?
Some years ago during a confusing break-up with a man who was almost just right for me but not quite, I went to my teacher Tias Little for advice.  A Zen Buddhist, he invited me to spend time drawing and contemplating the enso, a Japanese symbol meaning "circle".  While some enso are drawn as a closed shape, the kind he prescribed for me was incomplete with the two lines almost meeting but not quite.  

Done with one singular brushstroke that I was not to change or alter, the enso, he explained,  would be indicative of the state of mind I was in at the time I drew it. The space was there to remind me of the inherent nature of imperfection, to invite contemplation on all that is wild, open, unresolved and irregular.

“We strive for perfect alignment and a precise endpoint,” he said, shaking his head, “but it’s not possible.  In fact, it’s often in allowing and appreciating the asymmetry, the gaps, and the incompletion that we find insight. And then the courage to move through fear.”

Ever the perfectionist seeking a tidy answer, I frowned.  “So, you’re saying I should stay in the relationship and become comfortable with the dissonance?”

“Not at all,” he laughed.  “What you should do with your relationship is between you and yourself.  But also between you and yourself is what habit of mind you choose to practice.”

The enso became my tilted cupboard.  The more I drew it and the more I looked at it, the more intimate I became with my discomfort with space and uncertainty. With the imbalances, unpredictabilities and disconnections in my life.  So many things I had no control over!  So much of my past I wanted to edit and fix!  The contemplation aroused in me the sensations of irritation, restlessness, anger, and fear, and as I sat with this raw emotion I also began to see how often I closed my eyes and tried to escape. I grew to understand the toolbox of quick fixes that I opened whenever I wanted to change that uncomfortable energy.

Notice how I didn’t say that my contemplation caused me less stress or anxiety?  If only!  No, in fact, the more I meditated on the enso, the more intense and noticeable it became. But that was the point.  This practice – and meditation in general - is not intended to take us away from our raw emotional experience but to bring us into the heart of it.  To feel it fully without fixing or changing it.  My apologies to those of you who, like me, are not only perfectionists but also highly impatient joy junkies.  I wish it were easier.  I wish contemplating the nature of our discomfort brought immediate relief and an elevated mood.   But! I promise you… it’s worth it!!  Why?  Because we get to know ourselves really really well.  And when we get to know ourselves really really well we stop fooling ourselves, stop pretending we have it all together, and get on with actuallife. Real life.  Life that is courageous, authentic, and true.  Messy, too.  Honest.  Real.  Textured.   And over time, with patience and practice and the right mix of lightness and effort, we will, as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote to a young admirer, learn to love our questions rather than be tortured by them, learn to appreciate what cannot now be solved, learn to accept what cannot now be fixed.  

"Live the questions now," he wrote, "Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer."

It’s back-to-school, back-to-routine, close–it, fix-it, finish-it harvest season.  For me that means I have lists hanging from every surface.  Unfinished business confronting me at every turn.  Photos I’ve needed to frame for two years.  Drawers to clear out.  Tupperware to organize. Not to mention the inner heart-mind chaos I’d love to prune, mend, and clean.   I long for productivity and clear, clean, precise progress. This is not a bad instinct, but it is one to approach lightly and with gentleness and patience for what will likely be a longer process, a process that might never seem clear, direct, or fast.  

The other day my son grew frustrated as he attempted to draw triangles.  “Mama!” He cried, throwing his pencil across the room. “These lines are NOT straight!”

Given the family legacy of impatience and perfectionism it's funny how surprised I was by his sudden outburst.  I offered my years of wisdom to help. You’re doing so great!  You're learning. You’re only four.  Learning takes time.  Practice requires patience. Stay at it. 

He continued to sob, frustrated at his inability to close the gap between what he could imagine doing and what he could actually do.  My words were unable to fix his experience.  And of course they couldn't!  His experience did not need to be fixed.  When I accepted my own helplessness, I took him on my lap and held him close.  I slowed my breath down and he slowed his.  We did nothing but feel together the raw emotion that was moving through until on its own timetable it turned into something else. Only then was he ready to move on.
Can we be that present with our own experience?  Can we hold ourselves that gently and patiently?  Can we look at the enso - the unresolved business and open stories and lack of precision - in our life and let it be what it is, in all of its complexity and irregularity and raw wildness?

In this season that often whips up our anxiety and has us desperately seeking groundedness and balance, I invite you to turn to the gentleness of the teachings and the sweet ease in the practice. You know how to care for yourself and you’re not alone in the process of figuring it out.  Catskills Yoga House is here, ready to hold space for your process and your practice.  Stay at it. 
I am yours, imperfectly, in movement and in breath,