What is your perfect chair? Does life end in a “Lazi-Boy”?
When we think of a chair, we have a mental image of what it is. For most people it’s a four legged object with a flat seat and a back on it. In my mind, I see a chair of wood, the ubiquitous kind of my childhood forays through my father’s State Department government office. It was sturdy, handsome, fairly comfortable, and of minimal design. Any other chair could be seen as a variation on that theme. It’s no wonder it was so popular. Such a pure balance of many qualities is rare.
But it’s not a platonic ideal of a chair. That chair doesn’t exist. My father’s economical office chair may come close, but the true ideal is only in the mind. This is a good thing. If an ideal could be real, we’d have no reason to live, no reason to strive, no reason to create, no reason to learn. We’d just bask in the perfection we’d created for all time.
When I play clarinet, I’m striving for the ideal. But I never get there. Once in a great while I get close. Other times my perfectionist tendency clashes with this reality. I get frustrated when the ideal moment doesn’t last. My gusto deflates and my mere mortal body is repelled by the human noise emitting from my horn. But that’s not the ideal’s fault. (All wind players use the moniker “horn” for their instruments. And most musicians, winds and strings alike, will even use the word “ax”. What a word for a priceless violin!)
One of my clarinet students broke down and cried during his lesson yesterday. I wasn’t mean, but I was demanding. My approach is to present the ideals he needs to strive for. I emphasize that I still struggle with the same goals. But he confuses the ideals with reality. He believes he is supposed to achieve those ideals. I only want him to strive incessantly for them. The difference is subtle. I think it’s one of the more difficult distinctions to learn about learning. It certainly is for me.
We can apply this thinking to many things. Friendship for example. Don’t we all want a perfect friend? One who listens without judgment, speaks with selfless character, offers sage advice, supports us when we need it, laughs with us, cries with us, and only asks in return what we are happy to give. I know someone close to that, but he’s also human. I would be deluding myself if I thought he could be perfect.
What about ideals of some other things or activities? What about perfect sex? Or perfect gardens? Martinis? Weather? Work? None of these are real. But they give us reasons to strive. Or obsess.
How about the perfect spirit. Don’t we all strive to be perfectly balanced humans with ideal spirits? If not, then what are our goals? How do we live each day? I find it easier to balance my goals of perfection in a specific task, such as a chair or playing clarinet, than to define and aspire to a life arching goal of ideal spirit. That seems daunting. It would permeate every waking moment, like a camera watching and judging.
I think both Christianity and Buddhism have relieved this issue, in slightly different but overlapping ways. In Christianity there’s perfect forgiveness, which says you are loved no matter how imperfect you are. The release of guilt is a boon to positive motivation for most. If I am loved and my sins are forgiven, I feel freer to love and forgive others. In Buddhism, the illusion of the judging and separate ego is revealed as false. Emphasis is placed on connection and continuity, both physically and spiritually, allowing infinite room for compassion and love.
When the self-conscious weight of stringent goals is lifted, the spirit seems to know almost intuitively how to behave. Free of ideal constraint, it soars.
At least that’s my ideal. A chair without limits or constraint.