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To Should or Not to Should

by Steve Vinay Gunther

To some people 'should' is a dirty word, tainted with negativity. Yet to others it seems harmless enough, even useful in the right place. Who's to say what is right? I believe the answer lies betwixt the realm of spirituality and psychology, the ideal and the practical.

The body is subject to universal laws which if transgressed lead to ill health, disease and eventually death. A healthy body is an important base to spiritual practice, thus the yogic idea of 'Prama' or balance as being essential on a physical level. The laws of health can be expressed as shoulds - e.g. you should keep the body clean, you should eat healthy food, etc. There would be little disagreement with these general rules, yet when it comes to actually applying them there is enormous variation, according to the factors of time, place and person. What is healthy food for one may be toxic for another.

Thus to prescribe specific shoulds , or rules of health, would only be counter productive, for it is up to each individual to find out these for him/herself. So it is that in this arena shoulds may provide broad guidelines, but when applied rigidly often result in the opposite of health. Think of the numerous health ideas that have been applied 'shouldistically': The Mucousless Diet, Jogging, Candida, Macrobiotics, Veganism.

Yet within each of these frameworks are useful rules which provide guides to good health. The problem when they become shoulds is the peculiar quality of the human mind to want to exercise choice. If someone feels something is being forced on them, they are likely to rebel, or if they follow now, to rebel later. The same thing happens internally, when our own 'top dog' forces notions which are 'good for us' onto our internal rebel. Witness this in many people who try to give up smoking.

Much more subtle and complex topic is the use of shoulds in the psychological sphere. In its common usage, 'shoulds' refers to the social norms and rules - whether they be from the larger society, institutions or the family. These shoulds provide general guidelines to what is 'proper', acceptable behaviour, and thus what behaviour is liable to lead to disapproval, punishment, or exclusion. Needless to say, these cultural values are extremely relative and may be totally opposite in different cultures. They may or may not reflect cardinal human values; primarily they are about achieving conformity, stability, normalcy.

In the early stages of childhood these shoulds are essential. They provide a stable framework to understand and move safely in the world. Yet the process of maturing is an ever increasing exercising of our ability to chew. Infants swallow milk at the breast. As they grow teeth they come to chew their food, thus breaking it down for digestion. A parallel process occurs with ideas - we learn to chew them over, to break them down into a digestible form that we may draw nourishment from, and then we expel the rest. Unfortunately this maturing process is often interrupted, the ability to discriminate is suppressed, and the development of conscience is forced along external lines rather than honouring internal experience. The child is made to swallow fixed ideas without question and this must surely be one of the original means for dogmas to be passed on.

Society must have its rules, its shoulds, or else we would have times of anarchy. Yet in order to function optimally, each individual must find a balance between their own needs and perceptions (time place and person), and those of society. Too much of the former leads to self-centred non-conformity and reaction, too much of the latter produces stifled, uncreative individuals. Thus great sensitivity is required when outlining socially based shoulds, as to impose these with no regard to the individual is often experienced as being oppressive. In order to establish Prama, or balance, on a psychic level each person needs to examine the shoulds they have inherited from family, school and peers. They need to discover whether at this point in their lives these shoulds are valid and useful.

'Should', representing a fixed view, can be dangerous psychologically by acting as a block to present awareness. 'I should not react' does not necessarily stop the reaction, only leads to suppression. More accurate and useful is the awareness 'I am reacting' : acknowledging what is . . .and a range of choices becomes available. I can express my reaction, or decide to deal with it later, or go and chop wood, or transmute it through meditation; lots of choices. "I should not react" leaves no choices, and while providing a guideline, does not speak to my present ability to follow that guideline.

I have addressed this very briefly, yet this phenomena is a large factor in dysfunction in both individuals and relationships. People interested in a spiritual way of life are not free from this area of difficulty, and may be more prone to it due to the increased discipline of the spiritual path. The proof is always in the pudding. If holding shoulds for oneself or others leads to increased vitality, inspiration and growth, then who can complain. If they lead to dullness, lethargy or resentment, then they need to be approached in a different way.

Choice is very important. In any movement there is attraction to move forward, and resistance or inertia holding one back. This inertia can be very strong, particularly with old habits or ways of thinking. Using 'I should' as an inspiration for the forward movement has a limited use as the response from our (or others) inherent resistance is usually to dig the heels in deeper. The reason for this is that in the form of 'should' the impetus for action appears to come from an external source. Contrast this to 'I want to' or 'I will'; these phrases provide much greater power for change as they arise from deep within, and are a way for me to take responsibility for my life choices.

Try it out for yourself. Think of a behaviour you want to change, and use the two phrases 'I should . . . .' and 'I want to . . . .' and notice if you feel any different. You may discover that in fact you don't really want to; this is the cause for the almost inevitable failure of grandiose New Years resolutions.

Spiritually there are indeed certain rules, shoulds, which can provide a map for us to successfully navigate the difficult way forward. These constitute the external framework of spiritual practices and philosophy taught in any particular tradition. But if these get applied in a mechanical dogmatic way, the result is politically/spiritual correct people who lack compassion - for themselves or others. The Indian philosopher P.R. Sarkar is a vociferous critic of dogmatism:

" If an idea is imposed on human beings as a dogma, crushing the victim under its heavy weight, people realise that a tormenting bondage has been imposed on them. They well understand that the dogma has immobilised them, caused retardation instead of progress, and brought them to a virtual standstill. They realise that what they considered to be dharma (truth) was actually nothing but a colourful procession of various superstitions, and lest they raise their heads against those superstitions and smash that house of cards built on quicksand, certain ideas are constantly whispered into their ears: "You shouldn't do this, you shouldn't do that - it will bring your ruin. If you do that, you will be doomed to hell, or if you do this, your tongue will fall off." People realise that their voices against dogma have thus been silenced by injecting fear complexes into their minds, and that they have been reduced to useless lumps of cow-dung. Nevertheless, since they lack proper initiative and drive, they willingly surrender themselves to fate, and accept their helpless shedding of tears as their appointed lot in life."

I believe that the process of maturing is essential for those following a spiritual life path. Initial contact with spiritual philosophy and practices often brings tremendous enthusiasm and 'going the whole hog'. The aspirant experiences the ongoing joy of discovery and surrender, as well as the hassles common at that point. Disciplines may be initially resisted, but are then embraced wholeheartedly.

After continuing the practices for some time a point inevitably comes, usually seven to ten years down the track, when the devotee realises some of the practices no longer hold their charm, they become aware of their own or others rigidity, they perceive that all is not 'as it should be', and certain underlying resentments and a feeling of rebellion may surface. A number of things can happen at that point. They might reject totally all previous beliefs as being simply things they 'swallowed without question', in the process becoming aware of a great many needs that they suppressed with 'I shouldn't want/need/have that'. The result may be a move right away from that path in search of something that better satisfies their current needs.

Or they may begin to really 'chew things over', seeing what is valuable for them and what they are either not ready to do yet, or don't understand. If this latter process occurs, a deepening of spiritual endeavour results, and the aspirant becomes more authentic and less dogmatic. This develops Prama (balance) in the psychological realm, without which Prama in the spiritual domain is impossible.

It is this latter approach which I believe constitutes the middle way, achieving a balance between the essential discipline and self-transcendence of the purist ascetic tradition, and the practical compromises and adjustment of the way of worldly spirituality.

I love the following quote from Carl Shutz. It has helped me accept certain spiritual ideas and codes without making them into yet another set of shoulds to rule me.

"Ideals are like stars; you will not succeed in touching them with your hands, but like the seafaring man on the desert of waters, you choose them as your guides, and, following them, you reach your destiny."