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Sharon Salzberg Teaches Us That Letting Go of Conformity Can Reveal Our True Selves

There is a story I’ve heard various versions of from Ram Dass, over many years. I find it a wonderful description of our daily efforts to conform to the expectations of others, the stories they project onto us, our own assumptions of what perfection must look like, and where it can be found.

Here’s the story:

A man wanted to have a suit made. So he went to a tailor in town named Zumbach. Zumbach took his measurements and ordered very fine material.

After a while, the man went in for a fitting and put on the suit. One sleeve was two inches longer than the other. He said, “Zumbach I don’t want to complain. It’s a beautiful suit. But this sleeve is two inches longer than that sleeve.” Zumbach looked affronted. He said, “There’s nothing wrong with the suit. It’s the way you are standing.” And he pushed one of the man’s shoulders down and the other one up, and he said, “See, if you stand like that it fits perfectly.”

The fellow looked in the mirror again, and now there was all this loose material behind the collar. He said, “Zumbach what’s all this material sticking out?” Zumbach said, “There is nothing wrong with that suit. It’s the way you are standing.” And he pushed in the man’s chin and made him hunch his shoulders. “See, it’s perfect.”

But with his shoulders all hunched up there was another problem: “Now my whole rear end is sticking out!” the man complained. “No problem,” Zumbach returned. “Just lift up your rear end so it fits under the jacket.” Again the customer complied, which left his body in a very contorted posture.

“But standing like this the pants are too short.” Zumbach answered, “There is nothing wrong with the suit! If you’ll just bend your knees a bit, you’ll see the trousers are just right.” The customer tries it and, lo and behold, with his knees bent, his rear end lifted, his shoulders hunched, and one shoulder pushing up and the other pushing down, the suit fit perfectly.

The man paid the tailor and walked out of the shop in a terribly awkward posture, with his shoulders lopsided and his head straining forward, struggling to keep all parts of the suit in their right places. He was walking to the bus and somebody came up to him and said, “What a beautiful suit! I bet Zumbach the tailor made it.”

The man said, “How did you know?”

“Because only a tailor of Zumbach’s skill could make a suit fit so perfectly on somebody with as many physical problems as you have.”

I think of the moments we take off the suit we have often struggled to conform to, and breathe easy. We can stretch, we can relax, we can contemplate different approaches to our roles, our responsibilities, our tailor and our wardrobe. Sometimes this is going on full on retreat…a period of silence, social media withdrawal, and solitude. At other times, it is the introduction of greater simplicity right in the midst of our everyday lives. Can we let go, for example, of an activity that just seems to promote distraction? How many times do we need to check for email?

Or we might introduce a more regular meditation practice each day, even for 10 minutes a day, which is like a mini retreat, over and over. It’s such a relief to experiment in this direction, and the ground for greater clarity, creativity and joy. Think about trying it.

Sharon Salzberg is a New York Times Best selling author and teacher of Buddhist meditation practices in the West. In 1974, she co-founded the Insight Meditation Society at Barre, Massachusetts with Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein.

This essay was featured in the July 29th edition of The Sunday Paper, Maria Shriver’s free weekly newsletter for people with passion and purpose. To get inspiring and informative content like this piece delivered straight to your inbox each Sunday morning, click here to subscribe.




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