The Perfect and the Good: Creating a Scalable Daily Practice
Perfection and Unrelenting Standards
I am the worst kind of perfectionist. In the pursuit of perfection, I have allowed many good ideas and opportunities to fall to the side of the road. Books remain unwritten and other work either unattempted or abandoned. I think of this wreckage as the fallout of a wanton shadow – the unconscious part of myself that wreaks havoc from the murky depths of my chaotic childhood. It wasn’t until I decided to call my shadow out as what it is – “perfectionist thinking,” – that I started to take it apart and reassemble it in a way that works better for me.
As a child, the line of “As” and the gold stars on my report cards represented a level of control I had nowhere else. Not at home – I had no control there. Not among my cruel and taunting peers – I was never in the driver’s seat there. These “As” were my little lifeboats until they, too, found themselves caught in the undertow of my chaos.
My desire for perfection morphed into a procrastination/guilt/shame loop that rendered me a miserable insomniac, crying over my unfulfilled potential. My goals and projects slipped further out of my reach. There is no hope for perfection when we start with this kind of deficit.
This pattern flows through all of the veins and ventricles of my life even and especially into the spiritual practices that I collectively term “witchcraft.” These pursuits are entirely of my own initiative. Nobody is grading me or giving me gold stars for a meditation well done. For many years it prevented me from creating the satisfying practice I now claim. If I couldn’t check all of the boxes each day, I had failed.
So many of us fall into the trap of perfectionism. This has been exacerbated by social media. Through these highly selective lenses we glimpse a camera-ready and perfectly lit perfection that most of us don’t have the time, energy or funding to attain.
“Don’t Let Perfection Be the Enemy of the Good”
This particular quote is often traced to the 18th Century French political novelist Voltaire. Voltaire gleaned it from a quote by Confucius who said “better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.” William Shakespeare said it a bit differently, “striving to be better, we often mar what is well.”
Recently, I bumped noses with this sentiment while watching the Star Trek series “Picard.” Without spoiling the plot, the show depicts an old man who sacrificed the possibility of properly saving a large group people in the pursuit of a political goal denied to him by the establishment – saving them all. He was not permitted to pursue the course he desired and instead took a hardline stance that left him powerless to help anyone. Many years later he faces the fallout of this choice.
I can relate. While I may not have the fate of an alien race on my shoulders, I do have regrets regarding things I have picked up and put down because of this all or nothing mindset. I have felt hopeless and at sea because of my inability to adapt a dream, a plan or a vision to the reality of my situation. I have met many people who engage in this form of self-sabotage. It seems exceptionally prevalent in the spiritual communities I inhabit. It also seems to kick in around the first of the year when resolutions form. The underlying narrative seems to be “if it’s not exactly right, then I have failed.”
The Omega Particle, pictured above, originates from another Star Trek series. It is the most perfect molecule in existence and a source of great instability. Capable of significant destruction, It can only be glimpsed, never captured. This too, resonates with my relationship with perfectionism.
Understanding the impermanence of perfection is extremely liberating. So is mentally “discarding” the red pen of our inner third grade teacher. That is not to say that we should not strive. No good can come from that. And it is not to say that procrastination is not also the enemy of the good. There is a balance to be found, a “golden mean” in the words of Aristotle. This represents our best efforts, which may be imperfect but are each shining gems nonetheless. Every once in awhile, after putting forth our best efforts, everything seems to harmonize and we perceive perfection, however fleeting. Like the Omega Particle, it is just too unstable to maintain. But we can bask in its moment and proceed to more best efforts.
This, to me, is a good life.
Perfectionism vs Scalability
“Perfectionist thinking” relies on mechanisms of self-sabotage. One of these, from my experience, is an unrealistic notion of how much time and energy we have in a day. I try to do an hour or so of meditation and devotional practice but what happens when it doesn’t fit? This is where “scalable thinking” enters the picture.
Some of us, like me, deal with chronic pain and illness that throws a spanner in the works on a regular basis. We can plan perfection in a neat little to-do list but when we wake up, nothing is as intended. Brain fog engulfs us in its mist, pain demands attention and action, fatigue sucks out the rest of the life that we had remaining. We might have to choose between doing the dishes and a nice hour of witchcraft practice. Other days we wake up and feel energetic and ready to tackle the projects. It is a vicious and heartbreaking cycle. These things can make a daily practice significantly less daily.
Or there are they demands of family and work that stomp all over our day planners. Maybe we didn’t factor for sick kids, demanding bosses, partners who need us and our time when we scratched out that to-do list. It all feels like failure when we can’t cross things off that list.
How to Scale Not to Fail
Over the last couple of years during which I’ve dealt with chronic illness and Pluto sitting on top of my Sun (serious business!!), I have developed ways to succeed at daily practice. I have written out versions of my practice that take anywhere between three minutes and many hours. None of them is “better” than the other and each one demands my full engagement.
As a result, some days I may spend a couple of hours in devotion, meditation or crafting something witchy. I may blend herbs and light candles for those who need an extra boost sent their way. Sometimes I take a trip to my inner space, summon up my guides and practice ways of seeing, hearing, sensing, feeling, knowing and being. I cleanse from the inside out and spend time empowering my jewelry. I will usually pick a few Tarot cards or runes and contemplate them as I lose myself in practice.
Other days, I spend about a half hour, sitting in front of my altar and connecting to deity, universal energy and my own body, mind, heart and spirit. I light herbs, do my devotional practice, meditate and possibly chant. I engage in a practice of catharsis, purging emotional, mental, physical and spiritual pain. All of this is part of one seamless practice that occurs in front of my candles, working with the three realms of being (heavenly, earthly and underworldly), for me, by means of the goddess Hekate.
Other days, I check in. I hold my prayer beads. Maybe I sit outside or do this as I start my bedtime routine. For me this means opening up to the heavens, grounding through the Earth and stating an intention (“I am doing my best,” for instance). I can practice this anywhere, with or without the trappings of my sacred space, with or without candles or tools or Tarot cards. As long as I engage fully as I do this scaled down practice, I feel like I have achieved my main goal: connection. Often this form of devotional practice is the most intimate.
Your Own Scalable Practice
This method is not intended to create a half-assed approach to witchcraft practice. It is intended to bring into focus the part of your witchery that is the most important to you. If you can distill that and make scalable versions of it, you will have the best chance of achieving success, connection and growth.
It is important to hold yourself accountable to your practice because nobody else will. That’s not the kind of pursuit this is. Do keep a journal. Write about how the various styles of practice work for you. Decide for yourself what the essence of your witchcraft is and pursue it vigorously. Just don’t let your inner third grade teacher write “not living up to potential” all over your inner narrative! Don’t allow missions aborted in the past keep you from trying again.
What is the absolute most important part of your practice? How can you achieve this in an hour? In a half hour? In three minutes?