relationships

More Mindfulness, Less Meditation

wildmind meditation news

Tony Schwartz, New York Times: More Mindfulness, Less Meditation. Here’s the promise: Meditation – and mindfulness meditation, in particular – will reduce your cortisol level, blood pressure, social anxiety and depression. It will increase your immune response, resilience and focus and improve your relationships — including with yourself. It will also bolster your performance at work and provide inner peace. It may even cure psoriasis.

50 Cent meditates. So do Lena Dunham and Alanis Morissette. Steven P. Jobs meditated, and mindfulness as a practice is sweeping through Silicon Valley. A week from Saturday, 2,000 technology executives and other seekers will gather for a sold-out conference …

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What does your heart say?

Heart-shaped stone sitting on a pebble beach

The Practice
Choose to love.

Why?
Many years ago, I was in a significant relationship in which the other person started doing things that surprised and hurt me. I’ll preserve the privacy here so I won’t be concrete, but it was pretty intense. After going through the first wave of reactions – What! How could you? Are you kidding me?! – I settled down a bit. I had a choice.

This relationship was important to me, and I could see that a lot of what was going through the mind over there was really about the other person and not about me. I began to realize that the freest, strongest, and most self-respecting thing that I could do was both to tell the person that we were on very thin ice . . . and to choose to love meanwhile.

See also:

To my surprise, instead of turning me into a doormat or punching bag, love actually protected and fueled me. It kept me out of contentiousness and conflict, and gave me a feeling of worth. I was interested in what the other person was going to do, but in a weird way I didn’t care that much. I felt fed and carried by love, and how the other person responded was out of my hands.

I got interested in “loving at will,” in how to go to the upper end of the range of what is authentically available to a person in terms of feeling or expressing compassion, good wishes, and warmth. You shouldn’t falsify what’s truly going on with you, nor let yourself be mistreated. But whatever this range is for you in any moment in any relationship, it’s your choice where you land within it.

I became less caught up in how I wanted the other person to think and feel and act, and more focused on my own practice of finding and re-finding some sense of love. It felt kind of like I was strengthening the heart like a muscle. I joked with myself that I was doing love pushups (not the sexual kind!).

If it’s authentically within reach, you can deliberately, even willfully settle yourself in love as a central quality in your mind. This is not phony: the love that’s there in you is genuinely there. In fact, choosing to love is twice loving: it’s a loving act to call up the intention to love, plus there is the love that follows.

Looking back, my shift out of quarreling and into a healthy feeling of lovingness helped things get better with this person. And the relationship taught me a good lesson:

Love is more about us being loving than about other people being lovable.

How?
Start with someone that’s easy to feel love around. Relax a bit. Take a breath or two and come home to yourself. Sense into the area of your chest and heart. Be aware of what compassion and kindness feel like; perhaps call up the sense of a time when you felt very loving. Ask yourself, Can I feel loving now? Open to a natural warm-heartedness. Choose to love.

Take a dozen seconds to open to feeling as loving as you can in your body. Take in this experience, let it sink into you. This will strengthen the neural trace of the experience – a kind of emotional memory – and make it easier to call up the next time. Also register the sense of deliberateness, of choosing to love.

Then try these methods with someone you feel more neutral about, such as a stranger on the street. Eventually try this approach with someone who is difficult for you.

It could help to be more aware of the other person’s stresses, worries, and longings. Without staring, look closely at him or her for ten seconds or so. Can you let your heart be moved by this face?

Get a sense of the different external and internal forces pushing and pulling the other person this way and that – perhaps leading him or her to do things that hurt you or others. Let your eyes relax, and get a sense of the bigger picture. Disentangle from the parts, and open into the whole.

Let love be there alongside whatever else is present in your relationship with the other person. There is love . . . and there is also seeing what is true about the other person, yourself, and circumstances affecting both of you. There is love . . . and there is also taking care of your own needs in the relationship.

Love first. The rest will follow.

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The “magic ratio” of appreciation (Day 67)

shellAppreciation of others’ good qualities improves our lives and makes us happier. But it’s great for them, too, and it can also save our intimate relationships.

I remember one time my wife saying, just after I’d made a critical comment, that I criticized her a lot, which surprised me, because I didn’t think I did. I asked her as gently as I could when the last time was that I’d said something critical, and she couldn’t remember. I asked if it was within the last two weeks. No, it was longer ago than that. The last month? She was pretty sure it was longer ago than that.

So this is indicative of the way that the mind latches on to critical comments — a topic I’ve mentioned before. Criticisms sting, and they stick in the mind. They’re hard to forget.

And on the flip-side of this, it’s a reminder that we need to be very careful about the quality of our communication if we don’t want to create a sense that we’re nagging.

100 Days of LovingkindnessWhen critical or negative communications outweigh appreciative or positive ones, a relationship can become severely strained and distorted. It can become hard for people to have any appreciation for their partner, and neutral or positive statements (“Why don’t we eat out tonight?”) are interpreted as being critical (“Are you saying you don’t like my cooking!”).

Merely balancing a negative comment with a positive one doesn’t work. According to John Gottman, Professor Emeritus of psychology at the University of Washington, the magic ratio is 5 to 1. Yes, in order to have a healthy, mutually appreciative relationship, there has to be around five positive interactions for every negative one! This is the mathematics of marriage.

How accurate is Gottman predicting the success of relationships? In one study 700 newly-married couples were videotaped while being interviewed for 15 minutes. Simply by counting the ratio of positive to negative interactions that took place during that quarter of an hour, Gottman and his associates were able to predict — with 94% accuracy — which couples would divorce.

Interacting positively goes well beyond verbal communication, however. It includes behaviors such as touching affectionately, smiling, laughing, making friendly eye contact, showing non-verbally that you’re listening to a conversation, etc. And negative interactions can similarly be non-verbal. Some of the most damaging are indications of contempt, such as eye-rolling. The presence of contempt in a relationship, you may or may not be surprised to hear, is the single best predictor of divorce.

Couples can have many different styles of communication: some are volatile and prone to explosive outbursts, while at the other extreme some are conflict-avoiding, where the partners retreat into separate rooms until their emotions simmer down. Neither of these, Gottman has found, are necessarily problems for the long-term stability of a relationship, as long as the 5:1 ratio is maintained. As long as there are five times as many positive interactions between partners as negative ones, the relationship is likely to be stable in the long term.

Critical communications are not necessarily bad! They can help keep a relationship healthy, and help us to grow. The Buddha once said that not criticizing someone who really needed to be criticized was akin to destroying them. But it’s clear that there has to be a healthy basis of appreciation and affection in a relationship for it to succeed.

There are many ways of showing appreciation and affection, including showing interest by making eye contact and by engaging in conversations (rather than grunting as you read your email), holding hands, saying “I love you,” hugging, etc., doing little things for your partner.

But one thing I’ve been working on for a while is that when I find a negative thought about my wife cropping up (and it’s often something as mundane as not liking the way she’s stacked things in the dishwasher, I’ll switch to consciously rejoicing in her good qualities and reminding myself of my underlying affection for her.

So it might go like this. I hear myself thinking “Sheesh. This isn’t the most efficient way to arrange the cups! Doesn’t she realize that if you turn all the handles this way … wait a minute. I’m being critical.”

And then I’ll articulate positive comments, saying to myself that I love her, that she’s a wonderful mother, that she does way more housework than I do, that she’s very patient, that she has a great sense of humor, etc. That’s five positive thoughts right there, to balance up the negative one. I’d suggest you try this approach of cultivating a stream of positive thoughts when you notice a negative one. If you can’t immediately think of five, that’s OK. You can repeat the same ones. You can even say the same thought five times. The important thing is that you flood the mind with appreciative thoughts, and bring the ratio of positive to negative closer to five to one.

I’m not suggesting it’s enough just to think positive thoughts. We need to show affection in our body language, in the things we do, in what we say and in how we say it. But there are more opportunities to think than there are to speak or act, and cultivating appreciative thoughts makes it easier to speak or act in ways that show love and kindness.

Gottman’s ratio, as far as I’m aware, hasn’t been applied in the context of friendships, work relationships, or parental relationships, but I’d be surprised if the same principle didn’t apply. So you can try being aware of the positive to negative balance in many kinds of relationships, and see if you can drive the balance toward the positive.

PS. You can see all our 100 Days of Lovingkindness Posts here.

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Put no one out of your heart

Colourful Crayon HeartWe all know people who are, ah … challenging. It could be a critical parent, a bossy supervisor, a relative who has you walking on eggshells, a nice but flaky friend, a co-worker who just doesn’t like you, a partner who won’t keep his or her agreements, or a politician you dislike. Right now I’m thinking of a neighbor who refused to pay his share of a fence between us.

As Jean-Paul Sartre put it: “Hell is other people.”

Sure, that’s overstated. But still, most of a person’s hurts, disappointments, and irritations typically arise in reactions to other people.

Ironically, in order for good relationships to be so nurturing to us as human beings – who have evolved to be the most intimately relational animals on the planet – you must be so linked to others that some of them can really rattle you!

So what can you do?

Let’s suppose you’ve tried to make things better – such as taking the high road yourself and perhaps also trying to talk things out, pin down reasonable agreements, set boundaries, etc. – but the results have been partial or nonexistent.

At this point, it’s natural to close off to the other person, often accompanied by feelings of apprehension, resentment, or disdain. While the brain definitely evolved to care about “us,” it also evolved to separate from, fear, exploit, and attack “them” – and those ancient, neural mechanisms can quickly grab hold of you.

But what are the results? Closing off doesn’t feel good. It makes your heart heavy and contracted. And it primes your brain to be more tense and reactive, which could get you into trouble, plus trigger the other person to act worse than ever.

Sometimes you do have to hang up the phone, block someone on Facebook, turn the channel on TV, or stay at a motel when visiting relatives. Sometimes you have to put someone out of your business, workgroup, holiday party list – or bed.

In extreme situations such as abuse, it may feel necessary to distance yourself utterly from another person for awhile or forever; take care of yourself in such situations, and listen to that inner knowing about what’s best for you. But in general:

You never have to put anyone out of your heart.

How?

When your heart is open, what’s that feel like? Physically, in your chest – like warmth and relaxation – and in your body altogether. Emotionally – such as empathy, compassion, and an even keel. Mentally – like keeping things in perspective, and wishing others well.

Feel the strength being openhearted, wholehearted. Be not afraid, and be of good heart. Paradoxically, the most open person in a relationship is usually the strongest one.

Get a sense of your heart being expansive and inclusive, like the sky. The sky stays open to all clouds, and it isn’t harmed by even the stormiest ones. Keeping your heart open makes it harder for others to upset you.

Notice that an open heart still allows for clarity about what works for you and what doesn’t, as well as firmness, boundaries, and straight talk. Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and the Dalai Lama are famous for keeping their hearts open while also being very effective.

Seeing all this, make a commitment to an open heart.

In this light, be mindful of what it feels like – physically, emotionally, mentally – to have your heart closed to a particular person. Be aware of the seemingly good reasons the reactive brain/mind throws up to justify this.

Then ask yourself, given the realities of this challenging person, what would have been a better path for you? For example, maybe you should have gotten more support from others or been more self-nurturing, so you wouldn’t have been as affected. Or spoken up sooner to try to prevent things from getting out of hand. Or managed your internal reactions more skillfully. Maybe you’ve done some things yourself to prompt the other person to be difficult. Whatever these lessons are, there’s no praise or blame here, just good learning for you.

And now, if you’re willing, explore opening your heart again to this person. Life’s been hard to him or her, too. Nothing might change in your behavior or in the nature of the relationship. Nonetheless, you’ll feel different – and better.

Last, do not put yourself out of your heart. If you knew you as another person, wouldn’t you want to hold that person in your heart?

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The sacred art of listening – nourishing loving relationships

Tara Brach

To listen is to lean in softly
With a willingness to be changed
By what we hear
-Mark Nepo

What happens when there’s a listening presence? When we’re fully in that listening presence, when there’s that pure quality of receptivity, we become presence itself. And whether you call that God or pure awareness or our true nature, the boundary of inner and outer dissolves and we become a luminous field of awakeness. When we’re in that open presence we can really respond to the life that’s here. We fall in love.

This state of listening is the precursor or the prerequisite to loving relatedness. The more you understand the state of listening– of being able to have the sounds of rain wash through you, of receiving the sound and tone of another’s voice– the more you know about nurturing a loving relationship.

In a way it’s an extremely vulnerable position. As soon as you stop planning what you’re going to say or managing what the other person’s saying, all of a sudden, there’s no control. You’re open to your own sadness, your own anger and discomfort. Listening means putting down control. It’s not a small thing to do.

We spend most of our moments when someone is speaking, planning what we’re going to say, evaluating it, trying to come up with our presentation of our self, or controlling the situation.

Pure listening is a letting go of control. It’s not easy and takes training. And yet it’s only when we can let go of that controlling that we open up to the real purity of loving. We can’t see or understand someone in the moments that we are trying to control what they are saying or trying to impress them with what we are saying. There’s no space for that person to just unfold and be who they are. Listening and unconditionally receiving what another expresses, is an expression of love.

The bottom line is when we are listened to, we feel connected. When we’re not listened to, we feel separate. So whether it’s the communicating between different tribes or religions, ethnicities, racial groups or different generations, we need to listen. The more we understand, the less we fear; the less we fear, the more we trust and the more we trust, the more love can flow.

Isn’t it true to that to get to know the beauty and majesty of a tree
You have to be quiet and rest in the shade of the tree?
Don’t you have to stand under the tree?
To understand anyone, you need to stand under them for a little while
What does that mean?
Its mean you have to listen to them and be quiet and take in who they are
As if from under, as if from inside out.

Adapted from my book Radical Acceptance (2013). Available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

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Cultivate goodwill

Two young girls showing each other affection

As the most social and loving species on the planet, we have the wonderful ability and inclination to connect with others, be empathic, cooperate, care, and love. On the other hand, we also have the capacity and inclination to be fearfully aggressive toward any individual or group we regard as “them.” (In my book – Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom – I develop this idea further, including how to stimulate and strengthen the neural circuits of self-control, empathy, and compassion.)

To tame the wolf of hate, it’s important to get a handle on “ill will” – irritated, resentful, and angry feelings and intentions toward others. While it may seem justified in the moment, ill will harms you probably more than it harms others. In another metaphor, having ill will toward others is like throwing hot coals with bare hands: both people get burned.

Avoiding ill will does not mean passivity, allowing yourself or others to be exploited, staying silent in the face of injustice, etc. There is plenty of room for speaking truth to power and effective action without succumbing to ill will. Think of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, or the Dalai Lama as examples. In fact, with a clear mind and a peaceful heart, your actions are likely to be more effective.

Ill will creates negative, vicious cycles. But that means that good will can create positive cycles. Plus good will cultivates wholesome qualities in you.

How?

Cultivate Positive Emotions

In general, really nourish and develop positive emotions such as happiness, contentment, and peacefulness. For example, look for things to be happy about, and take in the good whenever possible. Positive feelings calm the body, quiet the mind, create a buffer against stress, and foster supportive relationships – all of which reduce ill will.

Practice Noncontention

Don’t argue unless you have to. Inside your own mind, try not to get swirled along by the mind-streams of other people. Reflect on the neurological turbulence underlying their thoughts: the incredibly complicated, dynamic, and largely arbitrary churning of momentary neural assemblies into coherence and then chaos. Getting upset about somebody’s thoughts is like getting upset about spray from a waterfall. Try to decouple your thoughts from the other person’s. Tell yourself: She’s over there and I’m over here. Her mind is separate from my mind.

Be Careful About Attributing Intentions

Be cautious about attributing intentions to other people. Prefrontal theory-of-mind networks attribute intentions routinely, but they are often wrong. Most of the time you are just a bit player in other people’s dramas; they are not targeting you in particular.

Bring Compassion to Yourself

As soon as you feel mistreated, bring compassion to yourself – this is urgent care for the heart. Try putting your hand on your cheek or heart to stimulate the embodied experience of receiving compassion.

Meet Mistreatment with Loving Kindness

Traditionally, loving-kindness is considered the direct antidote to ill will, so resolve to meet mistreatment with loving-kindness. No matter what. A famous sutra in Buddhism sets a high standard: “Even if bandits were to sever you savagely limb by limb with a two-handled saw… you should train thus: ‘Our minds will remain unaffected, and we shall utter no evil words; we shall abide compassionate for their welfare, with a mind of loving-kindness, without inner hate’” (Nanamoli and Bodhi 1995, 223).

Personally, I’m not there yet, but if it’s possible to stay loving while being horribly mistreated – and from some of the accounts of people in awful circumstances, it clearly is – then we should be able to rise up in lesser situations, like getting cut off in traffic or being put down yet again by a teenager.

Communicate

To the extent that it’s useful, speak your truth and stick up for yourself with skillful assertiveness. Your ill will is telling you something. The art is to understand its message – perhaps that another person is not a true friend, or that you need to be clearer about your boundaries – without being swept away by anger.

Put Things in Perspective

Put whatever happened in perspective. The effects of most events fade with time. They’re also part of a larger whole, the great majority of which is usually fine.

Practice Generosity

Use things that aggravate you as a way to practice generosity. Consider letting people have what they took: their victory, their bit of money or time, their one-upping. Be generous with forbearance and patience.

Cultivate Positive Qualities

Cultivate positive qualities like kindness, compassion, empathy, and calm. Nourish your own good will.

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Is your tone of voice blocking mindful communication?

Photo by Seiji Seiji on Unsplash

Try using a softer tone…

When our kids were little, I’d come home from work wanting some peace after the daily roller-coaster and often walk into a living room full of stuff – toy trucks, tennis shoes, bags of chips, etc. Irritated, the first words out of my mouth to my wife would be: “How come there’s all this mess?” Understandably, after a day chasing children plus juggling her own work, Jan would feel unfairly criticized and sputter back at me. Then there’d be a quarrel or a chilly silence. Not good.

And it all began with the tone I used. Linguists like Deborah Tannen have pointed out that most communications have three elements, which I’ll illustrate with the example above:

  • Explicit content – What led to these objects being on the floor?
  • Emotional subtext – Irritation, blame; startling, the first thing I said; no establishing first of a positive context (like asking about her day before mentioning the clutter)
  • Implicit statement about the nature of the relationship – I’m on top and get to judge how well she is doing her job as a mother.

Many studies have found that the second and third elements – which I define in general as tone – usually have the greatest impact an interaction turns out. Since a relationship is built from interactions, the accumulating weight of the tone you use has big effects. In particular, because of the “negativity bias” of the brain – which is like Velcro for uncomfortable experiences but Teflon for pleasant ones – a repeatedly critical, snarky, disappointed, worried, or reproachful tone can really rock a relationship; for example, John Gottman’s work has shown that it typically takes five positive interactions to make up for a single negative one.

As I gradually learned to use a softer tone, my wife got happier with me – and our living room became less cluttered.

How?

Be mindful of tone – Be on the lookout for needlessly negative tone: your own and others. And when it’s there – including in mild ways like an eye roll, exasperation, or subtle put-down – notice the results. Also track the results of neutral or positive tone.

Consider your true purposes – In an interaction, ask yourself if you’re there to be right, show the other person how he or she is wrong, vent, or work some covert agenda; these underlying priorities will lead to problematic tone. Instead, try to ground yourself in more positive purposes, such as find out what really happened in a situation, speaking from your heart, being empathic, strengthening the relationship, or solving a practical problem.

See also:

Lay a good foundation – First try to establish a frame of relatedness and goodwill, and that you are not trying to boss the other person around. You do not need the cooperation of the other person to unilaterally center yourself, clarify in your mind what it is you want to say, open your heart, find good wishes, and take a little time to get into relationship before launching into your topic.

Be careful about anger – I think there is a place for anger – it alerts you to wrongs and energizes you to deal with them – and for letting others know you’re feeling annoyed or just plain mad. But how you express your anger can have a lot of unwanted impacts. Humans evolved to be very reactive to tones of anger because they carry signals of threat; just notice how the background hubbub in a restaurant gets quiet when an angry voice is heard.

So slow down, do a few l-o-n-g exhalations to calm your body, put the situation in perspective, and try to feel down to the gentler and more vulnerable feelings beneath anger. Then choose your words carefully, and name what you’re feeling beneath the anger without blaming the other person (e.g., “When I see the kids’ clutter on floor, I feel unsettled and not cared about”). Remember that dumping your anger on others – including via little barbs – harms you, too, and sometimes more than them; as the Buddha said long ago, getting angry with others is like throwing hot coals with bare hands: both people get burned.

Gentle your body – Relax your eyes, throat, and heart. This will naturally soften your tone.

Don’t use inflammatory language – Exaggerations, accusations, fault-finding, words like “never” or “always,” insults, swearing, alarming threats, pathologizing (e.g., “you’ve got a personality disorder”), and cheap shots (e.g., you’re just like your father) are like gasoline on those hot coals. Instead, use words that are accurate and not provocative. Imagine that you are being video-taped and people you care about will be watching it later; don’t say anything you’ll regret later.

Say what needs to be said – A reasonable and civil tone actually promotes honesty and assertiveness because then you don’t need to fight side battles or back-track to clean up a mess. But if a softer tone replaces sticking up for yourself, that’s not good for anyone. So keep communicating.

* * *

May your good interactions build great relationships!

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The latest singles pick-up spot: Buddhist temples

RocketNews24, Japan: Most people go to Shinto shrines several times a year, like for New Years or to make a special wish or prayer, like before a job interview. But with Buddhist temples, it’s usually just for tourism and funerals – not that frequently, basically. But wait! Temples are transforming these days, more and more using their halls for activities such as yoga classes, group date venues (‘gou-kon‘ in Japanese – group dinners with single men and women, seeking potential mates), and even as concert venues!

The idea to use temples as group date venues came from the observation that of the people …

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Four ways to show love

In several places in the Pali canon, the Buddha praised loving families. For example:

To support mother and father,
to cherish wife and children,
and to be engaged in peaceful occupation
— this is the greatest blessing.

And this:

Husband and wife, both of them
having conviction,
being responsive,
being restrained,
living by the Dhamma,
addressing each other
with loving words:
they benefit in manifold ways.
To them comes bliss.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal emphasizes the importance of affection in relationships, and the advice comes, poignantly, from people who have undergone divorce, as related in psychologist Terri Orbuch’s book, Finding Love Again: 6 Simple Steps to a New and Happy Relationship.

In particular there are four components of affection that divorced people said were important:

  1. How often the spouse showed love.
  2. How often the spouse made them feel good about the kind of person they are.
  3. How often the spouse made them feel good about having their own ideas and ways of doing things.
  4. How often the spouse made life interesting or exciting.

The first of these, “showing love” includes “compliments, cuddling and kissing, hand-holding, saying ‘I love you,’ and emotional support.”

It’s the last three that are perhaps least obvious. It’s not hard to remember that a kiss or a hug communicates love, but helping someone feel good about the person they are is a very special and beautiful thing. And it’s something we might be inclined to forget.

One word of caution: when we see lists like this one of the first things we often do is to measure our significant other up against the criteria. This is not only unhelpful, it’s potentially disastrous. We need to focus on ourselves first. How do we measure up? What do we need to do more of, in order to be a more affectionate partner?

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Drop the “shoulds”

One time I watched a three-year-old at her birthday party. Her friends were there from preschool, and she received lots of presents. The cake came out, she admired the pink frosting rose at its center, and everyone sang. One of the moms cut pieces and without thinking sliced right through the rose – a disaster for this little girl. “I shoulda had the rose!” she yelled. “I shoulda shoulda SHOULDA had the rose!” Nothing could calm her down, not even pushing the two pieces of cake together to look like a whole rose. Nothing else mattered, not the friends, not the presents, not the day as a whole: she was insistent, something MUST happen. She had, just HAD to get the whole rose.

It’s natural to move toward what feels good and away from what doesn’t, natural as well to have values, principles, and morals. But when these healthy inclinations become internal rules – “shoulds,” “musts,” and “gottas” – then there is a big problem. We feel driven, righteous, or like a failure. And we create issues for others – even a whole birthday party.

At bottom, “shoulds” are not about events. They’re about what you want to experience (especially emotions and sensations) if your demands on reality are met, or what you fear you’ll experience if they’re not.

Whether your “shoulds” are shaped by neural programs laid down when dinosaurs ruled the earth, or when you were in grade school, they often operate unconsciously or barely semi-consciously – all the more powerfully for lurking in the shadows.

Plus, in a deep sense, your “shoulds” control you. (I’m not talking here about healthy principles and desires, which you’re more able to reflect about and influence.)

Imagine what it would be like to drop your “shoulds” in an upsetting situation or relationship.

What’s this feel like? Probably relaxing, easing, and freeing.

You can and will continue to pursue wholesome aims in wholesome ways. But this time no longer chained to “shoulds.”

How?

As you explore the suggestions below, keep in mind that you can still behave ethically and assert yourself appropriately. Not one word in this JOT is about harming yourself or others, or being a doormat.

Bring to mind some situation or relationship that’s bothering you. Find a central “should” in your reactions to it, like “that can’t happen,” or “this must happen,” or “they can’t treat me this way,” or “I couldn’t stand ____ ,” or “you must ____ .” Notice that the “should” is a statement about reality, the way it is.

Then, facing this “should,” ask yourself a question: “Is it really true?” Let the answer reverberate inside you.

You could find that in fact the “should” is not true. Good things we “must” have – even a pink rose made of sugar and butter – often fail to arrive. And bad things that “must” not happen often do.

I don’t mean that we ought to let others off the moral hook or give up on making the world better. I mean that when we face reality in all its messy streaming complexity, we see that it exists independent of our rules, always wiggling free of the abstractions we try to impose upon it. This recognition of truth pulls you out of conceptualizing into direct experiencing, into being with “the thing-in-itself.” Which feels clear, peaceful, and free.

Consider again the situation or relationship that bothers you, and this time try to find an even deeper “should” that’s related to an experience you “must” have or avoid, such as “I’ll be so embarrassed if I have to give a talk,” or “I can’t stand to be alone,” or “I must feel successful.” Then, facing this “should,” ask yourself a question: “Is it really true?”

You’ll probably find that you could indeed bear the worst possible experience that would come if your “should” were violated. I’m not trying to minimize or dismiss how awful it might feel. But the adamancy, the insistence, built into a “should” is usually not true: you would live through the experience and get to the other side – and eventually other, better experiences would come to you. Most of us are so much more resilient, so much more capable, so much more surrounded by good things to draw upon, so much more contributing and loving than we think we are!

Also, consider the situation or relationship through the eyes of the others involved. Ask yourself if the things you think are imperatives, mandates, rules, necessities, etc. are like that for others. Probably not. And flip it around: what “shoulds” are alive in the minds of others . . . that you are violating. Yikes! When I think about this applied to situations I get cranky about, it’s very humbling.

A final thought: dropping the “shoulds” exposes you to a sense of vulnerability to life and the difficult feelings that come with it – and that can be hard. We use “shoulds” to try to hold at bay the pain and loss we all do or will inevitably face in full measure (some of course more than others). Yet the pain and loss that do come will come regardless of our “musts” and “can’ts” – which only delude us into thinking that this tissue of rules will somehow hold back life’s tide.

Paradoxically, by opening to this tide as it runs in your life – a deeper truer reality than can ever be contained by the nets of thought – you both reduce the uncomfortable friction imposed by “shoulds” upon those currents and increase your sense of opening out into and being lifted and carried by life’s beautiful stream.

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