“Who is a spiritual person?” the guru asks.
Punnu Singh Wasu doesn’t fuck around. When he drops knowledge, souls quake. He’s staring into faces he’s never seen, yet somehow knows intimately. My eyes find the ground. I have no answer.
I flash back to a few months prior. It’s the first week of January and I’ve resolved to do whatever the fuck I want in 2016. I’m on my couch researching meditation retreats. I’m on a plane a week later to Joshua Tree. I’m sitting on a pillow staring off into space. I’ve been silent for four days and a teacher has just told me that he’s going to share a story about perfectionism. I roll my eyes in annoyance. “Waste of time. This has nothing to do with me,” I thought.
Ten minutes later I’d glimpsed my reflection in a shallow puddle, just deep enough to drown myself in. I was neck deep.
I’m in fourth grade. I’m laying naked in the grass outside my neighbor’s townhouse. It’s fall and the earth is cold. I’m shivering, but otherwise motionless. I’m protesting the unfairness of life and I’m not getting up until my mom comes home to save me.
“Where are your clothes?” she asks. “Keith and Kraig stole them and locked me out again,” I said. I don’t remember her reply, just the sound her footsteps made as she brushed past me.
l continued laying there in protest. I knew what she’d say if I went inside. “Nobody ever said life is fair,” was her favorite line.
My mom raised me to be self reliant. To take full responsibility for my actions and expect the most of myself and others. She’s the teacher every kid fears, respects and admires. On Teacher Appreciation Day her stack of presents rose taller than others. She was a single mom badass, working two jobs to make ends meet that never got along.
We had a teak desk she’d sit at for hours in the evening. Stack of bills in front of her, legal pad in hand, forever adding and subtracting to the sum of bad news.
She’d pick me up after football practice if she wasn’t working and take me to Roy Rogers to eat fried chicken. I’d gorge myself and we’d talk. She was never hungry. She’d just pick at the bones after I was done. My sister told me years later that mom was always hungry, we just didn’t have enough money for both of us to eat.
I wanted to cry, but didn’t because I’d been taught long ago that perfect is being strong and in control at all times.
“Perfectionism is a disease,” the teacher continued. “The love a perfectionist gives is always conditional, which isn’t love.” He now had my full attention. I’ve struggled with love my entire life and I knew this was a lesson my mom had never taught me.
My parents divorced when I was a baby and she never truly recovered. This and more is buried inside her at a depth light finds annoyingly distant to travel to.
As his prose reached conclusion my mind started projecting the sad way too many of my days have met their end – rolling to my side, turning my back to a woman I can’t will myself to love.
I started sleeping on my left side long ago. I tell myself it’s because of an injured shoulder, but I know better. All she wants is a kiss goodnight and I can’t bring myself to give it to her, again.
She’s asleep in minutes while I lay awake, trapped beneath an iron blanket of self-loathing, certain she’ll never be the woman I wish her to be and blaming myself for being a terrible person.
What my mom never taught me is that life will always be unfair as long as you expect too much of yourself and others – as disappointment will lay ahead no matter what path you take, decision you make or partner you choose.
And it’s this disappointment, the bastard child of lofty expectation and a judgmental mind that undermines our relationships and fuels our sense of failure – ultimately manifesting itself as the anger, sadness, jealousy, fear and doubt we suppress at all cost.
Forever frustrated, perfectionists become their own worst enemy – never seeing that their actions are driven by the very emotions they refuse to express.
Perfectionism is self-defeating and soul crushing not because those afflicted try too hard to achieve too much, but because their reality is tainted by the belief that there’s always more they could do, or others should do, which pre-destines every outcome to be perfectly disappointing prior to any decision made or action taken.
And thus, unable to feel contentment their internal battle rages on like a wildfire in August, leaping from branch to branch until the forest has burned and they’re left standing all alone – and it’s then, in this moment of true vulnerability that the perfectionist either chooses to believe that life isn’t fair, or let’s go of what “should be” and learns to accept what is.
Today I woke up at 4 am, alone, resting on my right shoulder, certain that life is neither fair nor unfair – before navigating a dimly lit hallway to give my mom her pain medication.
Yesterday the Oncologist kept closing his eyes, unable to hold my mother’s gaze. “It’s stage four pancreatic cancer,” he said. “You have a handful of months to live.” And with that, a lifetime of hope drained from her body and we made our way to the door.
Later that evening she awoke from a lengthy nap. We sat together. Quiet filled the room comforting us as it always had. “It is what it is,” she whispered gently. “I really get that now. Most people don’t.”
“A spiritual person is a happy person,” says the guru. “It’s that simple. The only difference between you and the enlightened ones: Buddha, Gandhi, Jesus” he says, “is that they learned to stop fighting themselves. Happy people spread happiness. Sad people spread sadness… So, which do you want to spread?” he chides mockingly, before breaking into a broad grin.
My gaze lifts, turning skyward.
I’m three years old and I’m half asleep in my mother’s lap. She’s running her fingers through my curly hair. The moon’s out and I’m home, with no one to be and nothing to do.
I’ve never felt more spiritual in my life.