Man from the back, sitting on a rock looking at cloudsAt the age of 19, I started on my spiritual path, believing that I’d become perfect. Boy, I was wrong. It took decades before I realized my goal was to be awake, not perfect.

Being the Virgo that I am, from an early age my perfectionistic tendencies were apparent. I wanted to do things right and do them well – all the time. I also noticed, however, that if it took a whole lot of work to do it well, I really didn’t want to play. Luckily, a lot of things came easily, but some things I just let go of – or gave up on.

I used to think this was laziness. Sometimes, it was, like when I got a D on a research paper in 6th grade about what career I thought I wanted to pursue when I grew up (at the time, I chose Zoology). I didn’t bother to do much with it – because I had no idea what I wanted to do as an adult! Even in college, it took my first two years to settle on a major (oh, the luxury of that – now, you have to know while you’re still in high school!), and even then, I really didn’t know what career I’d pursue with a Psychology major. Just that I definitely didn’t want to be a Marriage and Family Therapist (ahem, that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 27 years).

One thing that became clear, as I journeyed through college, was that I knew I was a spiritual person, and I wanted to explore that more. Although I had been raised Christian, my soul was called to a less-defined and more personal connection with the Divine than a traditional religion. And so I set off on my quest, exploring many different paths.

But something a little sly was going on in my psyche. You see, I had this idea deep inside that there was something wrong with me, something not quite good enough. And if I became enlightened, then bam! I’d be perfect. All of that stuff that I didn’t like about myself (or worried that was there, but really wasn’t) would magically go away. 

I wouldn’t get angry or upset anymore – I’d just be serenely peaceful. I’d be calm and relaxed always, and probably wear a lot of white. No, purple. Well, I’d wear a lot of colorful, lovely, flowy things (OK, I admit I do like them) that look super spiritual. I’d be the best yogi in class, and the deepest meditator. My words would flow effortlessly and pearls of wisdom would just be strewn everywhere. Glowing and always kind, I’d help countless others and awaken them to their true nature.

I’d finally be perfect. And it would be easy.

What a shocker was in store for me the next 30 years or so. I’d hit my limitations in yoga class, and get injured. As I became more aware of myself, my anger would surface more often, and the underlying anxiety was revealed. I’d grapple with depression and low self-esteem. Meditation was often a struggle, and because I felt I needed to do it “right” and that it should be easy, I’d avoid it. Sometimes, when I taught yoga class, I’d have word salad – things coming out of my mouth backwards, like “fend borward from the hips”, or I’d draw a blank and forget where we were in the sequence. I did, however, wear those flowy clothes and cool looking yoga outfits (but NOT Lululemon! Not evolved enough for me, no!).

Yep, I discovered that the spiritual path is not a very tidy, manicured, marble-stone walkway, but a messy romp through the jungle, with machetes, sweaty headbands, and bug spray. It’s the farthest thing from perfect.

Because the idea of perfection is a human idea, not a Divine one.

Seriously, who wrote the definition of perfection in the dictionary? Humans. Who wrote the sacred scriptures? People. I’m sure they were tapped into something. But it still got translated through our own perceptions of how things should be, the way we should act, what we should feel, and with a heavy dose of guilt if you didn’t meet those standards.

About 15 years ago, I looked all those perfectionist tendencies in the face. Are you really making me happy, or even a better person? More importantly, is this the aim of spiritual practice? I realized I was missing the mark.

The point of walking a spiritual path isn’t to become perfect. That implies an end point, where you’re “doing” and finally get the stamp of approval, the crown of “enlightenment.” Although self-realization of true spiritual awakening is transcending the ego’s attachments, the whole idea of becoming a perfected, enlightened person is definitely ego’s idea, not the Divine’s.

What, then is the path of spiritual growth? What do we aim for (notice that I left out the word “should”)? I think the Buddha said it best. 

They asked him: “Are you a god?” “No,” he replied. “Are you a reincarnation of god?” “No,” he replied.”Are you a wizard, then?” “No.” “Well, are you a man?” “No.” “So what are you?” They asked, being very perplexed.  Buddha simply replied: “I am awake.” 

What a big difference between perfect and awake. Perfect is an expectation, an agenda. It suggests “better than.” It also implies becoming something we aren’t already are, having to get rids of parts of ourselves that are less-than. It’s another cruel trick of the ego to make us feel important, special, superior (or inferior). That idea of perfection sucks us into a game we can’t win.

Buddha stepped out of the game. He realized that the path is to be right here, right now, without any of that going on. 

To be awake, according to Leonard Jacobson, is being fully present: in a state of inner silence, fully present with everything around you. So much so that you no longer think about “myself” and “other” – there is simply Oneness. It’s blissful, joyful, and the essence of Love with a capital L.

No mention of having to be perfect. That’s the ego’s game.

With that realization – that it’s all really about awakening – a sense of ease comes over me. Not that it’s easy, but that the internal struggle against myself softens. I can simply be.

It’s also a recognition, in my experience, that the path is ever unfolding. There’s no end-point to get to. Becoming awake is a joyful exploration of the infinite possibilities of each moment. Without agenda. In one moment, awake is simply sitting, nothing going on, looking at a mug on my desk. Another moment, it is feeling the sorrow of grief. The next, immense joy at the sight of a hummingbird. And yet another, the deep peace of quiet mind and open heart.

I also know that more will unfold; deeper levels of connection with the Divine and the Universe. But I don’t need to “get there.” Having a profound experience won’t make me any better than I am. I AM already that infinite Divine presence, as you are. We just need to remember, by waking up.

Let go of the ego’s need to become perfect. There’s nowhere to get to, and nowhere to run from. You don’t need to get rid of anything. Allow yourself to be fully here, right now, and more aware of who you really are. Become awake, not perfect. It’s a wonder-full place to be.


Discover more ways to overcome anxiety and perfectionism and embrace yourself with more compassion in my book, Awakening from Anxiety: a Spiritual Guide to Living a More Calm, Confident, and Courageous Life


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