It occurred to me at stupid o’clock this morning when my brain had done its usual thing and whacked me over the head repeatedly to keep me awake, that the opposite of a Comedy of Errors would be a Tragedy of Perfections. That struck me as a nice idea, and I began to ponder what a tragedy of perfections might involve.
The crossword is a case in point. I may have mentioned before that I do the Guardian cryptic every morning to get – I was going to say, to get my brain in gear but as I said it’s already in top gear and revving hard – well, to get the verbal juices flowing and to sharpen my sense of what words are and how they work. Cryptic crosswords are very useful for poets, and if I ever teach a creative writing course I will recommend them to my students. But of course part of the joy of a cryptic is the puzzle. If it’s too easy it’s not so enjoyable: likewise if it’s too hard. Most of the time I get through OK but sometimes I’m stuck, and then those few blank spaces torment me. Oh, if I could only get this crossword finished! But here’s the thing: five minutes (or half an hour) later when I finally get it, my immediate reaction is disappointment. It’s finished. No more puzzle. Now I have to wait till tomorrow.
And I guess that’s what I mean by the tragedy of perfection. One of DH Lawrence’s characters (I think it was Birkin in Women in Love) said of the place where he was living: ‘Now that my rooms are complete I want them at the bottom of the sea.’ And that is the tragedy of being human; that we strive to complete things and when they’re complete we feel heartsick. It’s like that old Chinese curse: ‘May your every desire be instantly fulfilled.’ We must have something to aim for, else what is the point of our lives? Or, to put it another way, ‘a man’s reach must exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?’ (that’s Robert Browning, from this poem:
I like Robert Browning: he’s very direct and conversational. But I digress.)
What, then, is the answer? How do we deal with this utterly perverse tendency? I’m going to turn to yoga philosophy now and specifically to the concept of karma yoga. Karma is a term everyone knows nowadays – or thinks they know, anyway – and yoga is something every second person practises. But karma yoga has nothing to do with yoga postures; it is a way of doing everyday tasks which somehow helps you to wriggle free of this endless cycle of desire and frustration – the tragedy of perfection. For example: suppose I vacuum the sitting room carpet. As the machine hoovers up the dirt I feel a great sense of satisfaction at the instant swallowing of every bit of dust and fluff (and don’t get me started on the hair-balls which can only emanate from OH’s head). The task is done: I switch off the vacuum which dies with a satisfied sigh. I look around me. I see that it is good. But! five minutes later someone walks in with dirt on their shoes. The sofa is moved, scattering fine toast crumbs over a wide area. Snacks are eaten. People enter and leave. OH pulls out tangles of hair and drops them on the floor (and nobody can tell me otherwise). And in no time at all my (yes, MY) lovely clean carpet is covered in filth. And if I’m not careful I can get quite miffed about it.
Karma yoga gives a way out of this. First, when you undertake a task it is done without end-gaining; in other words, without attachment to the results. This isn’t the same as not giving a toss; it means that if the vacuum doesn’t suck properly or you get interrupted or if for some other reason the carpet is not as clean as you’d like it to be, you don’t sweat it. At the same time the job is done with focus. You’d be amazed how much more quickly a job can be finished when you focus your whole attention on it. Last year when digging the garden I was totally oppressed by how much work there was to do and was unable to concentrate on a little bit at a time. This year I have made a conscious decision to focus only on what I’m doing and to let go of perfection – and guess what? I’ve done four times the work in half the time.
That’s all for today folks. Now to edit this post and make it perfect…