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.
In a recent speech to a group of mostly non-mediators, I shared the story of an illness I went through in 1990, the intensive meditative ‘retreat’ I had during the nine months of my recovery, and how my book Tapping the Wisdom Within, A Guide to Joyous Living was written from that meditative expanded state.
As a prop for the speech, I used a red helium balloon to demonstrate the situation leading up to my illness. I had been overwhelmed with the responsibilities of trying to be all things to all people in my sphere: a good mom to my teenage children, a good daughter to my aging ill parents, a good wife to my husband, a good executive vice president for our company’s clients and employees. I was trying so hard to understand what it was that all of these people wanted me to be that I lost any sense of who I was. I only knew I was overwhelmed and exhausted.
The balloon, like me, was held up by a finite amount of energy, energy that was leaking. I held up another balloon I had purchased the day before. It was already flagging on the floor, having lost most of its helium overnight. I too was operating from a depleting source of energy. I was depending on will power, effort and determination to be the best I could be.
Just like the balloon, I was heading down, leaking energy. Like the balloon I was susceptible to sudden events that might hasten my deflation. For the balloon that sudden event was the existence of a pin. Pop! In my case it was the death of my mother, who was my dearest friend and the foundation of my life as I knew it. It was as if my world had lost its axis. And like that popped balloon in pieces on the floor, down I went, succumbing to chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome, and under doctor’s orders to quit my job.
The balloon seemed an effective prop to demonstrate how vulnerable I was. The pop was perhaps over the top, and could have caused heart attacks, but it certainly got the crowd’s attention! After the speech I received many enthusiastic responses, and it seemed that I was able to persuade many of them that they need to take quiet time for themselves to listen in to their own inner wisdom.
But several times people mentioned that they needed to re-inflate their balloons. While I am glad if that means they will be nourishing themselves, my analogy of the balloon was not to say we are balloons and we need to stop for a helium fill up every so often!
I was trying to convey that I had been functioning as if I were a balloon, reliant on a rapidly depleting source of energy. I had been unaware that I could access an infinite source of energy, that I wasn’t a balloon at all, wasn’t separate and vulnerable, but an expression of energy that is infinite and boundless. As are we all.
We can make a subtle shift of awareness to access this sense of being connected, not like Legos, separate but interlocking, but as energy – the buzzing life force — briefly communing in the form of a flower or a bird or me or you! The way an ocean wave rises and falls, all life forms rise and fall. Yet we are all one, all ‘water’ – even when being a cloud or a raindrop or an avalanche of snow — still inextricably one with life.
Though the balloon analogy wasn’t totally effective, it did what it needed to do by getting people’s attention. I wish some red balloon popping had gotten my attention back when I was feeling so overwhelmed trying so hard to be all things to all people. I wish I had been listening to myself when one day I said to a coworker, “I feel totally separate from myself.” I wish I had taken that as an invitation to question in about what was going on with me, instead of just laughing it off.
Perhaps reading this will remind you to listen for any messages that rise up from within you. The quiet wise whisper within always ready to guide you is patient, not pushy. It doesn’t tell you what you ‘should do’ or ‘must do’ or ‘have to do.’ It doesn’t insist on anything or set a deadline. It has no urgency. It’s never strident. That’s why it’s so important to provide a quiet solitary environment for it to be heard! It’s just a quiet patient voice that when asked what you need to know will most likely tell you, among other things: “I love you. I have always loved you. I will always love you.”
And really, when the infinite being-ness of life tells us that we are loved no matter what, then all sense of struggle to be something other than we are falls away. In its place an open-hearted peaceful love of life rises up to fully support us in whatever we do.
That’s what I wish for all beings. That’s what I wish for you.