Monday, October 23rd 2017

Why perfectionism is an imperfect goal

An alpha-male’s case study using sports, blunders and Buddhism

BY DANIEL WOO – Spiritual lessons don’t all happen in churches, Reiki sessions at a fancy California spiritual retreat or the Far East. I once learned a good one in the middle of a pick-up soccer game.

It was early 2005 and I was playing at the Queen Anne Bowl in Seattle.  For more than ten years it has been the gathering place for men and women who are international players, former professional players, college students, premier players and recreational players. We’ve had the MVP and some of her teammates join us from the Seattle Pacific University women’s team who were National Champions in their off-season.  We get tourists and business visitors from around the world who hear about the place and show up.

Queen Anne Bowl is next to a park, and surrounded by beautiful plantings and trees.  I’ve taken the time, during and after games to observe the seasonal changes among the foliage.  I remember one fall day when snow flurries came in from perfectly blue skies and puffy white clouds, while fall leaves blew around on the playing surface.

That day as my team was running up to the opposing goal, Alex, a former professional soccer player from Tanzania, yelled as he passed me the ball for a shot: “Don’t f__k it up Dan.” I didn’t know Alex very well at the time.

His words immediately flooded my brain and I mis-kicked the ball.

Alex yelled, “Didn’t I tell you not to f__k it up?”

I responded:  “Alex, I didn’t even think of f__king it up until you mentioned it.”

A number of other players around us who heard this exchange laughed.

Later after the post-game conversations, I sat in my car and thought about what had happened. I realized that once again my reaction was one based on perfectionism. When my voice says that I can’t make mistakes, at that instant moment, I will make mistakes.

I suddenly had a flashback to my own critical words to teammates when I played on competitive soccer teams, some of which I captained.  Although some teammates seemed to thrive in such an atmosphere, others just quit.  I did not see then how my words may have robbed some teammates of the joy of playing.

I also remembered playing board games such as Emperor of China, and how some friends would tell me I was too intense and they wouldn’t play with me anymore.

That day in 2005, sitting in my car, I resolved to bring joy into my playing. I would do so with encouraging words, accepting the varied personalities of the many players, adding humor to defuse conflicts, and just enjoying the moment regardless of how often I may touch the ball. That resolution led me over the years to quietly talk to some very competitive players about being kind to beginners or those who are not as competitive as the best players at Queen Anne Bowl. I became friends with a number of players, Alex included.

Another former professional player, a guy from Holland, later told me that he had never met anyone who loved soccer the way I did.  That was interesting to me – for I was learning that love comes from how one acts, not from comparisons and judgments and certainly not from winning or losing.

Kick perfection, not yourself

That moment with Alex in 2005 is one of many examples in my own life that lessons come from everyday activities.  It brought to light for me another element of the spiritual destructiveness of perfectionism.  Perfectionism shackles the heart against forgiveness, acceptance, compassion and love.  Such tension has bled into the way that I have treated life and can do so again.

Three years ago, a young beginner who was clearly out of shape told me his job didn’t pay enough for him to join a health club. He wanted to learn how to play and get back into shape.  One day he told me that others were making fun of him.  I told him to persist and ignore those people – that such words reflected the insecurities of the ones uttering them.  I said that the heart of Queen Anne Bowl soccer has been an openness to all players.

Two days later, I heard another player yelling and making fun of mistakes made by this young man when he was trying to play goalie.  I walked up to the yelling player and asked him to take a moment from the playing.  He knew me from when he was in high school, playing competitive pick-up games in the evenings.  I quietly explained what I had learned about the younger man and how he’d felt hurt and shamed by such words.  To his great credit, the player stopped his verbal conduct and started being generally kinder in his words and actions.  Since then, he too has become a friend of mine. (The newcomer played for several more months and then got a new job where he could not take the time off to show up at Queen Anne Bowl.)

Experiences like these have taught me to detect the earliest signs of physical, mental or emotional agitation.  Developing such awareness is like having the canary in a coalmine.  In contrast, being unaware of such agitation leads to wishing for time to pass more quickly, wanting to be anywhere else but where I am, being stuck in the quagmire of the past or attempting time-travel into a deluded future – in other words, to be generally dissatisfied.

In Buddhism, a state of awareness can be referred to as Dukkha. It is one of the Four Noble Truths.

The Buddha said:

“This, bhikkhus, is the Noble Truth of Dukkha:  Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, sickness is dukkha, death is dukkha.  Presence of objects we loathed is dukkha; separation from what we love is dukkha; not getting what is wanted is dukkha.  In short, the five clinging-aggregates are dukkha.”

Dukkha shows up in many ways.

One day last summer, I had a thought that everything would be better and I could be happier once some personal health and economic uncertainties ended.  But I caught that thought and said to myself, “Dan, these uncertainties may go on for far longer than you want.”

I knew that my unrealistic thought would lead to self-created suffering or Dukkha.  It would shrink my universe into a tiny black hole, sucking up all joy and emitting completely unnecessary anxieties, fears and other mental and bodily afflictions. Those afflictions would flourish and propagate into everything I touched if I stayed in the delusional belief that all I need for happiness is for this moment to pass.  This too is Dukkha.

The wonderful effect of daily practice using spiritual tools (in my case, they include Buddhist meditations and mindfulness practices) is that today I can catch those thoughts and quickly release them, whereas at one time, I was completely unaware of such thoughts.

Every day, I learn from everything and everyone I encounter.  In each moment I can choose joy or be buffeted around by whatever comes up internally or externally.  When I am aware, I can choose joy.

Daniel D. Woo woke up to an understanding that suffering is not ended until view, intention and action are changed. He continues learning how little he knows, and experiencing how kindness changes the universe. Dan also practices law in Seattle, Washington. You can reached him via Facebook or Linkedin.

Read Daniel’s previous columns on Soul’s Code: A West Coast lawyer’s tale of race and reconciliation, and Making peace with childhood ghosts.

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