Posts Tagged ‘without ideals or violence’

If you have looked closely at advertising copy, you may have noticed how often the word perfect appears in printed ads, whether the product be an appliance, an item for the garden, or a vacation rental. For only $18.97 you can own Black and Decker’s 2-Slice Toaster with Electronic Shade Control, which will provide you with “perfect toast and bagels every time”. If you would like to spruce up your lawn, Patch Perfect Grass Seed  will ensure “perfect even coverage every time”. If travel is on your horizon, Summer House on Winter Bay, a rental property on Prince Edward Island, offers “the perfect choice for your golfing group, family reunion, or destination wedding”. And if you would like to enhance your experience of Zen meditation, you can buy a Mountain Timer from Zen Mountain Monastery at a cost of $145.00, plus shipping and handling. Designed to free you from glancing at a clock, the Mountain Timer is the “perfect complement to the stillness of meditation.”

As these examples suggest, the word perfect (together with ideal, its first cousin) has become a buzzword in the advertising business, if not a mantra.  Presumably, the word has become prominent because it has proven to be effective. What does its prominence tell us about its targeted clientele, namely ourselves?

The most obvious answer is that advertising appeals to our desires, and we would like the objects of those desires to be perfect, or as close to perfect as possible. Why settle for burnt toast or mediocre bagels? Why put up with a spotty lawn or a less-than-perfect vacation spot? And why use a stick of incense (the traditional method for timing a sitting) when you can have the perfect complement of a Mountain Timer? Fueling our fantasies, the word perfect feeds and creates our appetites and longings.

At a more covert level, the word also sends the message that our present lives—and by extension, our present selves—are woefully imperfect. By buying the perfect toaster we will help to remedy that remediable situation. By becoming smart, informed consumers, we will fill the vacancies in our daily round. By investing in a perfect future, we will relieve our present suffering.

As can be seen in the ad for the Mountain Timer, American Zen has not been impervious to Western consumer culture. On the contrary, meditation has often been sold as a form of stress reduction or promoted as a mode of self-improvement. But the primary aim of Zen practice is not to reduce stress or to place new heads, as one of the teachings puts it, on top of our present ones. Rather, it is to cultivate a clear and stable awareness of what is going on, within and without, and to free ourselves from our negative conditioning. And if one persists in the practice, what one is likely to see, clearly and unequivocally, is the connection between our conditioned images of perfection and the suffering we inflict on others and ourselves.

“My love, she speaks like silence,” Bob Dylan sang in 1965, “without ideals or violence.” In the same song (“Love Minus Zero / No Limit”), he contrasted his lover’s serene self-containment with the dissatisfaction of “bankers’ nieces” who “seek perfection / expecting all the gifts that wise men bring”. Over the past four decades, we have witnessed the horrific violence that misguided idealism can loose upon the world. And in the past year we have seen the economic ruin that unbridled greed can foster. Looking inward, can we also see how unexamined notions of perfection lead us to destroy our happiness, impose unrealistic expectations on ourselves and others, and devalue our present lives? Can we learn to live more wisely?

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