Judaism - Embracing Imperfection
When we ignore the creative conflict that is at the basis of life, it will always devolve into destructive patterns like actual war itself.
Our world continues to be in constant turmoil, though everyone says that peace is their objective. Is this sad state of affairs inevitable? Are there spiritual insights that can help us understand and perhaps correct this plague we bring upon ourselves?
Kabbalah - the metaphysical teachings of Judaism - offers a perspective that may be of help. A discipline that allows one to receive the present moment with growing clarity, Kabbalah helps us have an ongoing relationship with what we might call "the real," the "true self," "the origin," or "God."
In other words, Kabbalah helps us to see the world as it is, as it was made, with its true intentions, its glory - and its problems - intact. The Kabbalah also teaches us that when we see the world clearly, we see ourselves clearly, and vice versa.
If, for a moment, we allow ourselves to really think about the world without any preconceptions, it will emerge that war of a sort is built into all of us.
Creation and destruction, so carefully and plainly talked about in the Torah, are the fabric of the world. The world could not exist without this consistent unity between building and tearing down. This is the relationship between birth and death, mediated by growth.
At a most obvious level, one form of life eats another in order to survive. Strands of DNA swap material, break and re-group; galaxies collide and the dynamics of star-making and planet-making depend upon this destruction.
War of some sort is also constantly being waged inside our own body, mind, and spirit. It shows up in the play going on in our physical bodies... bacteria, viruses, our interactions with the physical world - and in the conflicting patterns of our hearts and minds and the ways we try to meet these inner demons and angels.
So why is it, despite the abundance of evidence, that we have developed a form of amnesia that says: "There can be a world without conflict, a world of utter peace, a world where the lion and lamb can lie down together without the lamb becoming lunch."
In this vision, there is no conflict. We have returned earth to an Eden. We hope for the end of all conflict and struggle and harbour a belief that some day this could be reality.
The same is true in our inner lives, how we view ourselves as spiritual beings. We believe that we can attain a variety of inner peace that does not contain large doses of conflict and turmoil. Our vision of an enlightened or God-surrendered life is one in which there are no problems. The appeal of fundamentalism is that its adherents can banish doubt completely.
The premise that conflict is fundamental to existence may be hard to hear and painful to accept. But implicit in our hope and yearning for a conflict-free existence is the truth that conflict is integral to life.
Does our idealistic clinging to the vision of a possible Eden-on-earth serve our cause? Or is it part of the problem, contributing to the very conflicts we are trying to avoid?
In the kabbalistic story of creation, the emergence of the created world from the endless oneness of God actually had to happen twice: the first time, it failed. This failure sets the stage for the emergence of a more deeply integrated reality, and has many important spiritual connotations, but nonetheless, it takes God two tries to achieve the desired aim.
If God is synonymous with perfection, why this failure? Contemplative study reveals that this failure is not worthless, but contains something of value that cannot be expressed in any other way.
In the creation of this universe, imperfection and perfection come into being at the same time; they have a common origin in God's creative activity. Imperfection is an important ingredient, not just so it can be corrected, but because of it's intrinsic worth.
This means that we ourselves, as part of creation, are inherently imperfect, and this imperfection has some bearing on wholeness, the creative moment and life itself.
The denial of imperfection, and all that imperfection implies, is really our deepest anguish, but we work very hard to keep it unconscious. It is our deepest anguish because by denying it, we are denying an important part of creation and an important part of our soul, a part that God sought to keep within Wholeness.
This notion of universal imperfection is so unnerving and hard to embrace because it is directly responsible for our personal suffering - the suffering caused by an imperfect world, imperfect parents, imperfect institutions, imperfect religious and philosophical ideas and so on.
Lest you get depressed reading this, let me assure you that I am setting the stage for the return of joy - but a joy that comes from true wholeness and not the fleeting joy that comes from keeping the wolf of suffering at bay.
We make life worse for ourselves and those around us when we fail to create a relationship with imperfection and suffering that is infused with the awareness and tenderness of the Divine. When we ignore the fundamental state of conflict that is at the basis of life, it will always devolve into even more destructive patterns, like actual war itself.
When I was still practicing as a healer-counselor, I would often have people confess to me the horrendous abuse they suffered as children. Almost inevitably, each one, after the first time they made this confession, said something like, "Well, I really shouldn't complain. A lot worse has happened to other people." This is not an example of integrated or healthy behavior, but of the power of denial.
Imperfection leads to conflict and conflict leads to personal suffering. That will always be a part of reality. There is no perfect parenting, nor can there be. We will all grow old. There is no physical body that will not fall ill and die. There is no ultimate protection from earthquakes and seas.
When we can't bear to admit that this level of suffering is universal and eternal, we compound the problem and generate a parade of unrealities.
As children, we needed to protect ourselves from life's suffering because it truly was life threatening to us at that stage of our development. As adults, we continue to believe that we need to blind ourselves to it. In an effort to escape, we invent the myth of the perfect world, either through political means or religious belief in an afterlife or messiah who will eliminate all conflict from this plane of existence. We believe we can make this earth into a heaven.
In not facing reality, we also push our own suffering - by unconscious but active denial - into other people and into the world, and try to force the world to change to save our own psyche from having to deal with this reality.
For example, parents who cannot tolerate their own imperfections, criticise and alienate their child for its imperfections. On a larger scale, some cultures attempt to push away their own suffering by making their members all good and other people all bad. This happened in Nazi Germany, in Bosnia, and in Rwanda.
True heaven can only be found by being in reality. When we take the chance of accepting reality as it is, with its fundamental imperfection, we first reduce the extra suffering we cause ourselves through our denial. We open the door to something that cannot be grasped while we still are trying to split the world.
Accepting the fundamental nature of conflict, we accept the world and are more in reality. The nature of reality - also known as being with God, or surrendered to God - is fundamentally joyous. Wholeness itself, even with its imperfections and difficulties, is joyous. As Reb Nachman said, "The world to come is already here."
This can only be known as we surrender to what is. It is counter-intuitive to do this; our instinctual movement is to move away from pain. But to enter into the spiritual life, we actually have to accept pain or suffering as it is. This is the hope of our species.
Pain management physicians now know - through duplicable and controlled experiments - that opening to pain actually helps alleviate it. The more we fight it, the more we become locked into the cycle of pain.
All effective forms of meditation must deal with physical and emotional discomfort. The psalms, which speak of the darkness that David endured, confirm the fundamental truth of suffering in life. When David joyously opens to the Divine, embracing his suffering - but not wallowing in it - he is led directly to informed faith that demonstrates itself, not faith that is blind.
Many years ago, I was very ill for almost seven years. A major turning point came during that seventh year, when a helper I was working with asked, "What will you do if this is it? If you will never get any better than today?" I really had to stop and think. I thought that I could kill myself. It was a distinct possibility. Then I asked myself if I could live this way?
Strangely, knowing - or considering - that my health might never recover gave me great relief. There was nowhere else to go. Nothing to improve upon, nothing to change. When I decided to live with my sickness, rather than stand aside and view my afflicted life as if I were not part of it, I began to heal.
All illness does not, of course, resolve in this manner. We must always continue to do the work of healing in any way we can. But when we open to our suffering, our relationship to it changes, allowing for a healing of the soul, even when the body fails.
The world needs to heal. At the heart of government are people who are either willing, or not, to look at their own, real pain. Beneath all philosophical ideas, lofty or mundane, are people who think and act a certain way because of how they have negotiated this moment.
The inherent conflict of life is life-enhancing and non-neurotic. It is the creative foundation of all existence.
We will never have a world without conflict, but we can have a world...perhaps - without war. As we accept the smaller sufferings, the greater sufferings, the ones we cause ourselves, will naturally diminish. Then our true and generous light will shine. No more Dafurs and Rwandas, or Nazi Germanys and gulags and Jim Crow, because the unity of self and other will begin to shine within the illumination of the individual self. This is a possible and real peace, and it starts with me and you.
Jason Shulman is the author of Kabbalistic Healing: A Path to an Awakened Soul (Inner Traditions, 2005) and The Instruction Manual for Receiving God (Sounds True, 2006). He is the founder of A Society of Souls.
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