The questions that come with comparing ourselves to saints and redefining what it means to be "Perfect."
by Ariela Knoles
There’s a delicately beautiful portrait of Anandamayi Ma sitting on my dresser; a gift from a few sisterly friends of mine, all of them meditators and teachers of their practice. If you don’t already know who Anandamayi Ma was, she was a saint from Bangladesh and was prominent throughout the early 1900’s until her death in 1982. Her beauty was jaw-dropping. Sivananda Saraswati said about her, “…the most perfect flower the Indian soil has produced.” It would come as no surprise if she was, indeed, an avatar of Mother Divine.
I often catch myself gazing at the portrait on my dresser in moments when I’m feeling especially human — the exact opposite of what we’re to assume an ethereal saint like her has ever felt. When I gaze at her photo as I’m nursing my 2 year old, my head spins with ways I could be a better, more patient mom. As if nursing a 2 year old isn’t an act of patience on its own. Or perhaps I’m sitting in solitude, processing all the other emotions that come with being human. Whatever the scene is, the subliminal dialogue is always the same: “Sri Anandamayi Ma, I am human. You were not.” As if the human experience is “less than” that of a saint. She was perfect; I am not.
Indeed, the human experience is riddled with confusion, mistakes, regrets and an unquenchable thirst for sensory experiences. Ours is a bumpy if not wild ride. The Saint, on the other hand, is intrinsically satiated at all times which results in the ability to float through life. Though the romantic idea was put to bed by Google Images, rumor had it that it was questionable whether Anandamayi Ma even had feet or if she literally floated from place to place, for no one recalled ever seeing them. But just because she was graceful, beautiful and wise, does that means she was perfect?
In Sanskrit, the word “siddha” means “perfected one.” Anyone who’s even vaguely interested in their own spiritual, mental and emotional growth is essentially attracted to the idea of becoming a siddha regardless of their Sanskrit knowledge. When we practice our yoga asanas, we strive for perfection. When we meditate, we strive for a stress-free body and mind. When we pontificate, we strive for Guru status. When we relate with one another, we strive for harmony. Invariably, the goal is Perfection.
In my own spiritual journey, the idea of saintly perfection was as exciting as pursuing a new love interest and as annoying as trying to get straight A’s in school. Eventually, I came to learn the real meaning of perfection — not as it applies to the yoga-meditation teacher with 1.4 million Instagram followers, but as it applies to an actual Siddha like Siddhartha (the Buddha) himself. Throughout my studies, I learned that a Siddha doesn’t actually strive for perfection but rather balance, and that “perfection” spontaneously comes to mind when we see someone in perfect balance.
I know that doesn’t sound like much, but when we begin to replace the word “perfect” with “balance” it shifts us from Type A Fundamentalist Yogi (or just a Rigidly “Perfect” Person) to Someone Everyone Wants to Be Around. Think of Jesus and the multitudes who followed him. By the very definition of the word (a perfected master who may also have paranormal capabilities) Jesus was, indeed, a Siddha. What made him a Siddha, though, had nothing to do with mastering Judaism. On the contrary, his mystifying acts were so unorthodox that the bewilderment of the people is what got him crucified. Still, if you broke down everything he did, you can see it was all for the sake of bringing Balance back to Nature, and because Balance is like medicine to the soul, he was someone (almost) everyone wanted to be around. It’s most unfortunate that masters like himself eventually become overshadowed by their own followers who take their teachings to fundamentalist extremes. The antithesis of Balance. The Anti-Christ, if you ask me.
Fortunately, we can take the profound lives of Jesus and Buddha and apply their lesson of Balance to our relatively mundane existence. Like your diet. Let’s say you’ve been striving for the healthiest, most perfect diet. You try eating raw foods for a couple weeks, but you find that you’re constantly bloated and getting comments about your B.O. Then you try eating vegan for a couple months, but you find that you’re more forgetful and either gained weight from overcompensating with carbs or lost too much weight from lack of good fats. So, you try this Ayurveda thing and take a Dosha quiz online. However, your judgement of yourself is a bit skewed, so your results might only reflect what you want to see based on your own bias. The same results include a list of foods you should avoid and foods you should favor, but… even though the whole point of learning your Dosha is to balance your constitution, you take the foods list to heart and go to the extreme. After a year of striving for a healthy diet (a perfect one), you’ve forgotten how to listen to your body, yet all your body wants is Balance.
Why is it so hard to attain such a simple-sounding word? My guess is that it’s because we hardly ever give the word “balance” the time of day. We’re so focused on perfection, yet we don’t even know the meaning of this nebulous word, "perfect" — unless you know the Siddha’s answer: To maintain balance.
What makes a saint or a siddha’s experience superior to the human experience is that a saint knows in every cell of her body that everything is already in balance. That imbalance is a myopic mistake of the intellect and Balance is all that God sees. Because of this knowing, her body and her mind is impervious to stress. The human experience, on the other hand, is physiologically stressed from head to toe. We don’t possess the God’s eye perspective that everything is an act of Balance because our brain chemistry is fraught with a hodgepodge of stress.
I used to wonder what saints like Anandamayi Ma and Mother Teresa would be like after giving birth and raising children. Would they also wonder while nursing their little one, “Where did I go wrong? Did I break his spirit by disciplining him too harshly?” Before long, that thought would have me irate and I’d think, “Of course they were saints! They could afford to be because they didn’t have to raise children!” If I didn’t have any kids I might’ve been a saint, too. At least a nun. The world would be my children and all my sexual energy would transcend into spiritual coitus with the Divine. Just like Anandamayi Ma, my body would spontaneously electrocute my husband whenever he tried to touch me, defeating any chance of having children. But no, I’m not badass like Mother Teresa and Anandamayi Ma. I’m a mother of two outstandingly beautiful boys who have sucked the life out of me, imbalanced my hormones (I have a Kahlo mustache to prove it), deprived me of sleep (saints don’t even need sleep) and rigorously test my strengths, triggers and weaknesses on a daily basis without fail.
Is it possible that a mom whose body has undergone trauma and whose day-to-day involves constant self-examination all due to having children can look at a female saint and think, “That’s me,” instead of, “You’re perfect; I am not?” While I don’t encourage you to try that at home —because faking it ’til you make it was a failed experiment and only produced confusion at best and narcissistic psychopaths at worst — I hold hope for us moms. However, it would have to require fine tuning the way we think and speak. For instance, I went to an ob/gyn the other day and complained about my Kahlo ‘stache. She said, “Your estrogen levels may be low from breastfeeding, therefore pronouncing your testosterone levels.” I made the “Eee” face to which she shrugged, “I don’t think that’s a bad thing.” I went home wondering just how often I’ve been unjustifiably pegging things as “a bad thing."
Then again, perhaps if we collect enough “bad things” to our list, we’ll win a suffering contest. It’s that wee part of us that still holds out for an award given to those who suffered the most. Jesus Christ won the Messiah title for suffering, didn’t he? Or did he? A Siddha, after all, doesn’t suffer. Tell that to the Church. Yet, even the Catholic Church with over ten-thousand saints didn't always give the saint award by virtue of suffering. So, it’s not that us moms should be deemed saints for suffering through a constant act of surrendering our preferences. Perhaps "saint" just isn't a title for us to attain.
Unless, yet again, we fine tune our thinking:
A mother is a saint if she possesses the ability to give herself Grace. Grace after condemning herself, grace after hating herself, grace after troubling her own children, grace after desiring experiences outside her life as a mother. Only then can she move on (dare I say "float?") through the impossible amount of multi-tasking, the judgements cast from other people, her body morphing from seductress to deflated balloon and the tightrope tied from the beginning of the day to the end of the day with a drop of 5,400 feet below. Grace opens the door to Balance. Therefore, Grace is the key to Perfection.