I have used this image of the tree and its roots system sinking deep into the nourishing soil to discuss finding balance in life. And it is an appropriate image to use again in our current discussion of words like should, shouldn’t, must, ought — the kind of words that may get us to accomplish something, but in the long run are ineffective and disruptive.
Using our tree analogy, should and other such words are like artificial fertilizers applied to the surface of the soil. They cause activity in the roots, but can’t go deep enough to strengthen and balance the tree. The roots stay close to the surface, causing instability.
The ‘should’ fertilizer we keep applying in our thoughts may have the temporary effect of causing us to leaf, green up more, and be perfect specimens. “Look here! I accomplished that goal. I did what I should and I’m proud of myself and glad that’s over!”
To be effective the fertilizer has to be applied again and again. It’s an artificial construct, constantly activating us to be ‘our best.’ That ‘best’ is determined by the internalized gardener (the set of ‘should’ messages we have internalized from external sources) who has certain preferences, like having us at the perfect peak of bloom, never dormant.
This goes against nature, the cyclical quality of life itself. When we force bloom ourselves through the repeated application of this ‘should’ fertilizer, we get stressed and out of touch with our own natural rhythms.
So where did this internalized gardener come from? We learned all the inner ‘should’ gardening techniques we use from our parents, teachers, schoolmates, friends and the culture we live in, all of whom learned the same ‘should’ talk as part of the cultural norms. As there are cultural shifts in the norms over time, the shoulds just change the formula on the fertilizer, so one generation may have a different set of ‘shoulds’ to deal with. And of course the ‘shoulds’ have variations in different parts of the world.
To continue our gardening analogy, think about how trees grow in the forest without a gardener to ‘nourish’ them. For the most part they do just fine, don’t they? And we, without all the ‘should’ fertilizer, are able to do ‘our best’ without relying on these internalized external messages constantly pushing us to do so.
If this sounds scary, it’s only because we sometimes don’t know who we are without these messages we have relied on so heavily. But this is the gift of insight practice, to explore who we are when we let go of all the ‘extra’ stuff, including the ‘should’ messages that bombard us and make it difficult to simply be.
I remember at one point in my life feeling so reliant on the should messages to get me through my day that I had no sense at all of who I was. I told a work colleague that I felt ‘totally separate from myself.’ I was lost in the shuffle of trying to live by ‘should’ messages, trying to be what I thought others expected me to be. I needed most desperately to be the best I could be in order not to disappear off the face of the earth. Or so it seemed. If this resonates in any way, please take more time for yourself NOW, not at some lovely later date when things are less demanding. It may seem like the only thing that is holding you up is the long list of ‘should’ messages, but in fact there is a powerful support system already in place if you just take the time for yourself in a quiet intentional way to notice.
This is where the real value of going on a longer retreat comes in. In a pared down setting with minimal instruction and lots of space and time to be in silence, we have an amazing opportunity to notice all the clatter. If we get caught up in fighting the clatter, we just make more clatter. But if we simply notice it, observing its ways, giving it a lot of space to show itself fully and our awareness space to hold it without getting tangled up in it, then we gain great insight. The ‘shoulds’ show up and reveal themselves as voices from the past perhaps, voices we can now recognize. We can question the veracity of their statements because we are adults now and can be more discerning. We can recognize the fear in which these ‘should’ messages are steeped. Patiently and respectfully, we can have an inner dialogue and address the fears skillfully. This is the great benefit of sustained and intensive meditation practice.
In our tree analogy, we can see that the constant shallow application of artificial fertilizer stunts the roots, keeping them close to the surface, unable to withstand a strong wind. Just so, we are unable to withstand the strong winds of causes and conditions — loss of love, position, power, possessions, health, etc. — if our roots are not deeply rooted in rich soil and the underlying aquifer of understanding our infinite connection to all that is.
So as part of your meditation, after you have developed a centering, focused awareness practice, allow time for insights to expose the ‘should’ patterns that rise up in your thoughts.
As we are able to notice the ‘shoulds,’ their hold on us lessens. We see how the sense of deeply-rooted connection inspires naturally arising loving-kindness and compassion so that we don’t need ‘should’ to know how to behave. If we sense our connection, we will be respectful toward ourselves, toward the earth and all life. Out of that connected respect comes a collaborative creative way of being in the world that no ‘should’ could ever force.
We will still be imperfect beings. ‘Perfect’ is a should-based concept that has no reality in nature. We will still have challenges and misunderstandings, but we will have the deep roots to keep us grounded, and that makes all the difference in the world.
I once said to my mother ‘I feel sad.’ She said, ‘Well, you shouldn’t.’
‘Should.’ It’s a real buzz-kill. It lops off any bud of potential exploration with an instant censor. Where did that ‘should’ leave me? Feeling not only sad but chastised, guilty for feeling the way I did, angry that she shut me down, and lost.
My mother was a wonderful, joyous woman. I adored her and have missed her every day of the decades since her death. She was a great mother in so many respects, but the term ‘emotional intelligence’ was not in common usage back then. She was operating from a level of discomfort around difficult emotions that was typical of the times. Had she been of this generation it seems unlikely she would have reacted that way. But she did, and that brief exchange has stayed with me. Perhaps it’s the pivotal ‘should’ of my life, the one that was so glaringly wrong that it stood out. So in that way she did me a great service! Thanks Mom!
Noticing the ‘shoulds’ is a challenge. Most are woven deeply into the fabric of our lives. But as we practice meditation the words we use to talk to ourselves and to others become more noticeable. When we notice a ‘should’ (or ‘must,’ ‘ought’ or similar words) this is a great clue, a key to unlock the tightly guarded doors of our habituated patterns of thought and emotion. Watch for them, welcome them, question them! Use this opportunity to consciously follow the thread of ‘should’ thinking that unravels before your awareness. See what you find. If you feel you shouldn’t, then explore that. If you judge your experience, then explore that judgment. Anchor yourself in the intention to be present with physical sensation and the intention to be compassionate with whatever you find. Then get curious!
We have relied on ‘shoulds’ all our lives to tell us how to be. If we behave according to our shoulds we often feel disconnected, inauthentic and invisible. If we don’t follow our shoulds we feel guilty, unacceptable and cast out of the tribe.
These shoulds were instilled in us by parents and other relatives, teachers and other authority figures, our peer group and the fear-based advertising and cultural messages of our social environment. Looking at the fear our parents had for us, we can see that probably not all of it was based in a desire to keep us alive and healthy. Parents may push conformity as a way of protecting us from emotional experiences. Often they pass on their own fears of being unacceptable in some way. Most of us grew up in a world of competing shoulds that had us in a quandary. Should we be ‘good’ for our parents and teachers or ‘cool’ for our friends and generation?
The answer is ‘Neither!’ A ‘should’ is an ineffective means to find our way in our lives. Caught up in the tight web of ‘should’ we struggle with angst and ambivalence.
“Should’ isn’t even effective in bringing out behavior that benefits others in our community. As we wander around trying to figure out what we should do, or railing against what it is we’ve been told we shouldn’t do, we are so externally oriented, so lost to ourselves, that no one can find us. We are too busy trying to please others, or too busy trying to prove others wrong, that we are simply not present in our own bodies, our own lives. This makes people uncomfortable around us.
Through meditation we quiet down, let the world go, and we come home to a sense of self that is in need of nothing more than this. We begin to recognize the intrinsic interconnection of being, and feel more able to let go of the fear of disappearing. All we ever wanted was to be seen, to be known, to be accepted as we are. Through meditation we come to know our fundamental okay-ness. Even with all our foibles, we are, have always been and will always be just fine — more than fine: Loved, celebrated, recognized as the brief spark of life loving itself that each of us is. We don’t have to work so hard at it! All that striving for recognition and love is counterproductive.
When we are able to see this, then the ‘shoulds’ start standing out more starkly against the backdrop of self-acceptance. That makes it easier to explore the threads of thought or emotion to which the shoulds are attached.
This internal deeply connected compassionate exploration is skillful. As we become more aware of the externally-driven habituated patterns of our lives, we become less reactive and more responsive. The freaked-out internal voices that are yelling ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ quiet down so that the wise inner voice, the one that is operating out of an infinite fearless joy of being, grounds our behavior. Without the rattle of the shoulds and shouldn’ts we are able to simply operate from a deeply loving ethical base. We are conscious, loving, listening, caring beings.
Even when we are unskillful, we can hold that unskillfulness in a way that is still respectful and loving. We can do this as well with the unskillfulness exhibited by others. So much more effective than rage!
This practice is not about wiping out the shoulds, saying, in effect, ‘There shouldn’t be shoulds.’ That kind of thinking is still operating on the surface, in the ever-dueling duality. Instead we sink deeper into an awareness of the oneness of being. We come to understand that although we are transforming always, that transformation is more about expanding our sense of spaciousness, our sense of the infinite web of being, so that whatever arises, even the shoulds and shouldn’ts, can be held — not evicted or expunged.
Historically, we have always struggled with the shoulds and shouldn’ts, and the resulting struggle and discomfort has been dealt with in a variety of ways. In Catholicism this is addressed with the confession booth. After confession, there is a sense of a fresh slate, the opportunity to adhere more carefully to the shoulds, and the humility to know that there will be more to confess the following Saturday.
Without a confession booth, some may try to cleanse their violation of all the ‘shoulds’ they carry within them through rituals such as excessive bathing or showering. I had a friend in high school who took seven showers a day. He later committed suicide. There was clearly some powerful inner struggle going on, some sense of violation that even seven showers a day could not cleanse. May he rest in peace.
More often we try to forget our violations by indulging in addictive behavior that numbs our minds. But, depending on the severity of the consequences of our addiction, being numb leaves us lost and feeling worse about ourselves than ever. It muffles the ‘shoulds’ but they are still there, still powerful.
Even when we are able to acknowledge that this life is a precious finite gift we are meant to treasure, we can turn this message into another should. We SHOULD feel grateful. We shouldn’t waste a minute of this gift. Maybe we are walking on the beach, enjoying the waves, the shore birds and the warmth of the sun. Then we say to ourselves, “I should do this more often,” and we are back in the ‘should’ mind, back in the turmoil. This is the human condition. We are not likely to escape it completely in this lifetime, and thinking that we should is just another mental struggle.
But it is possible and skillful to notice, to be curious, to access loving-kindness and to allow it to rise up as our way of being in the world, in our interior world as well as in our interactions.
We set the intention to be conscious, present and grounded in our body. We set the intention to be compassionate, sensing in to our connection to all that is, however we name it.
These paired intentions, if maintained, effectively inspire the kind of behavior that all the ‘shoulds’ in the world could not. The regular practice of meditation, based in these intentions, unravel the tight knots of negative emotions that we have been trying ineffectively to escape. We find our hearts open and our fears are calmed. We see the truth of life’s impermanence as well as the infinite quality of being. We see that we do not need to defend this separate self but can celebrate this gift of being through joyful interaction with others. Generosity and gratitude arise naturally as the tight tangle of should-based thoughts and emotions softens and becomes more spacious.
Okay, now you’re thinking ‘I really should meditate more.’ If that’s what comes up, notice it, explore it. Should you meditate more or do you want to meditate more? Does shifting the wording change the resistance that’s kept you from meditating more? This should you’ve uncovered is the key, the door, the way in. Take it!
Let your ‘shoulds’ show. We don’t need to evict them. Doing so just sets up the battle of the shoulds. Instead we want to be aware of them and know them for the ineffective internalized voices of unskillful others that they are. Let them talk, listen respectfully, and ask questions, follow the long threads to reveal whose voice they speak with. It could even be a reunion, a treasure hunt through the old family photo album or our mother’s button box, with all those memories. We can explore through art, through writing, through dance. We are not banishing anything, just becoming aware of everything. We are healing ‘should’ blindness!
Through meditation we create the spaciousness to hold all of our experience in an open loving embrace. In this way we can savor this fleeting gift of life.