A few Sundays ago I saw the Dalai Lama speak in Boston. What a surprise!!!
I had never seen him before, but based on what I had read I expected it to be inspirational, a real tune-up for the soul. So I waited in line with two thousand other people and herded through the metal detectors and body-friskers (no iPads allowed).
We finally saw him take the stage, a kindly-looking elderly man. Two thousand heads bowed respectfully and twice as many hands came together in prayer position. Then he dropped his body heavily into a chair and began to speak.
Well really, I thought he mumbled. Rambled. His translator had to remind him of the topic of the gathering – (ethics transcend religious belief systems). The thoughts that followed were touching and sweet, and they seemed very genuine. I loved his belly-laughs. But what he said struck me as self-evident, not at all the sort of thing I had come to hear.
My soul wasn’t revved up; the key wasn’t even in its ignition. I mentally fidgeted for an hour and a half until he finished, finally. The presence of this beloved man, who is revered world-wide for his leadership and extraordinary accomplishments, had left me cold.
Has this ever happened to you? It happens to me over and over. My prior experiences lead me to expect one thing, but the moment delivers something else. The event isn’t always as big-ticket as the Dalai Lama, but often what shows up on stage isn’t as pleasant as the marquee I’d had in my mind. I wanted to get my arm-balancing poses in shape this month, but I can’t because I’ve injured my forearm. I planned a romantic evening out with Fay, but she came down with a toothache. The list goes on and on. I think we’ve all been there before, in one way or another.
The opening lines of the Isha Upanishad put the experience of disappointment in a beautiful new light for me.
That is perfect, this is perfect.
Perfect comes from perfect.
Take perfect from perfect,
and perfect is the remainder.
May peace and peace and peace
(Tr. W.B. Yeats)
As a reflection of my Dalai Lama experience, the poem seems to say that both parts of it were perfect – “that” part (my expectations) as well as “this” part (the afternoon that didn’t fulfill them.) It reminds me to take a more holistic view. Both parts had intrinsic value, regardless of whether or not the Dalai Lama gave me goosebumps. In the larger picture, this is true of any wish the tooth-fairies in my life forget to grant.
The second line, “Perfect comes from perfect” is even better. Everything was perfect even before my wish-du-jour and its non-fulfillment came along. I had plenty of enlightenment before the Dalai Lama’s visit, was fine with my injured arm even without crow-pose, have a wonderful relationship even without that romantic evening I had hoped for. In fact, not only were things OK, says the sage; they were perfect!
What a heartening point of view. Despite its heartaches (or including them) my life passes like a song being sung. The bouncing ball boings along from one perfect moment to the next, and all I have to do is hear it that way.
But the point isn’t just to accept whatever comes along. The wisdom of the third line asks us to go farther than that, much farther. It says that you can remove part of something perfect without diminishing its perfection. If I remember my high school math right, only one number has this quality, the ability to stay the same when numbers are subtracted from it, even very big numbers. It’s infinity.
And this is where the verse points us. When something seems to fall short, it says, remember that every experience holds intimations of infinity. All we have to do quiet our minds, finding “peace, and peace, and peace”…and listen. No matter what ups and downs the performance of our life brings, it is all made of the infinite: the auditorium, the stage, the actors, and our observing eyes.
So….about those arm balances and the next romantic evening…I’m all over it, as soon as the occasion arises. And if (umm…strike that, “when”) they don’t come out as I expect, I’ll try to remember this verse. Although it won’t get me into that arm-balance I had hoped for, the words may console me with the reminder that what I consider incomplete is actually perfect. All it takes is a shift in viewpoint.