Noticing the word 'should' when it shows up in our thoughts gives us creative opportunity for exploration. We hear the ‘should’ when we say it and we can pause to play with it. Yes, play!
So, for example, we notice ourselves saying, “I should do (fill in the blank). Ah, ‘should!’” Here we can recognize an opportunity to discover some inner resistance or ambivalence around the thing we feel we ‘should’ do. Noticing the should gives us the chance to sense into that ambivalence and resistance to discover what other thoughts or emotions are present. We might say, ‘Hmm, for some reason I have ambivalence or resistance to doing this thing since I am using the word ‘should’ around it rather than just saying I’m going to do it. What is my ambivalence? What is my resistance?’ This can be a very rich inner dialog, as long as we remember to set the intention to be respectful, curious and compassionate in the process.
Using the ‘shoulds’ we discover as opportunities for self-exploration is more useful and creative than creating another self-scolding ‘should’ level by thinking we shouldn’t use the word ‘should!’
One friend said that she didn’t use the word ‘should’ much. But then, as the conversation continued, she noticed that she was using ‘need to’ and ‘have to’ and other substitute words for should. And then a few shoulds cropped up as well. So we laughed about that! We all use this word or some variation all the time. So it’s not about eradicating the word from our vocabulary, but about noticing it, and then using that noticing to creatively question where we are feeling resistance.
Resistance and ambivalence leads to procrastination. You can look at the areas where you most often procrastinate and find a hornet’s nest of shoulds! Is it a pile of papers on your desk? A phone call you’ve been meaning to make? A party or trip you’ve been meaning to plan? A pile of clutter you've been meaning to sort? Whatever it is, it's clearly a 'should' that makes you shudder. Why?
After meditation, give yourself at least an extra ten minutes to perform this exercise if it is of interest to you. Have a journal or piece of paper handy to jot down anything that comes up that you might want to review later.
Pick an area of procrastination that feels pertinent right now, something you’ve been meaning to do but haven’t.
Just think about it in your usual way. You will have a recurring pattern of words that you use around this thing that you've been meaning to do. Simply allow it to play out.
Now notice the language you use as you think about it, just being curious and kind. (It's like trying to get a little closer to observe some very skittish little animals that will run at the first provocation. So notice but don't engage. Let them just exhibit their natural behavior.)
When you come upon a ‘should’ or similar word, pause to notice how it feels in the body.
Does anything tighten up, get closed off, get shut down?
How does this affect the inner conversation?
Does the conversation shifts energy on the pivot point of these should words?
If so, does it wind down so you just don’t want to think about it anymore? Or does it heat up in the form of anger, frustration, shame or blame?
Notice the emotions that arise.
This is an exploration. We are not trying to control it. There is no ideal outcome. There is just this noticing the habituated patterns in our thinking.
Notice hopefulness or expectation that this exercise will ‘solve the problem.’
Remind yourself to simply be present with the experience of noticing this pattern of inner conversation in order to learn more about it. This is not about trying to change it. When we are too eager to see results, our expectations sabotage the process.
Remind yourself to bring as much compassionate curiosity as possible to this exploration.
When you find yourself judging, be compassionate about that. This is also part of the pattern that you can explore.
We all have habituated inner conversations like this. I have several of them. I lurch a few steps forward on the project, then some chain reaction of inner events causes me to set it aside, sometimes for years. But even when I’ve set it aside, the 'should' is still there, running around in my head. When I pause and see what’s happening, I can choose to explore it, if it’s an appropriate time, or I can simply be present, noticing the thread of thought as it passes through and return to whatever activity I am doing with my whole attention.
One reason we are reluctant to explore why we procrastinate is the physical discomfort we feel when the subject comes up. Noticing the physical sensations is very helpful. Notice the sensations. Notice the desire to run away from these sensations. Set the intention to simply be present with them.
These sensations, when noticed, provide a lot of insight. The tension that arises in our body is the way we hold the past and the future. In meditation, in order to maintain a sense of being fully present, we can breathe into the area to release the tension. This also works well when we are feeling stressed in life. BUT when we are doing an inner exploration, these physical sensations of tension are valuable messengers, because they do hold information in the form of memories, hopes and fears.
We may be afraid to open this 'can of worms' or 'Pandora's Box' of memories and imaginings. In a post-meditative state we can be present with the fear as well as the images that arise. We are less threatened by them because we have developed the ability to observe threads of thoughts and emotions traveling through our open field of spacious awareness. There may be images of something painful, but if they arise they are here to answer a question only, not to cause more pain. After meditation we are better able to look at them with this fresh viewpoint rather than avert our attention in fear as we might usually do.
How is this image answering the question posed? How does it tie in to the excuses we make about why we procrastinate in this area? Staying curious, kind, non-judgmental if at all possible, we have access to the answers within us. Through meditation, we are able to see more clearly the tight fear-bound patterns of our thoughts and emotions. After meditation we can take the time to pose a question, then be quiet enough to allow what arises within to inform us.
So, what sits on your to do list year after year because it has a lot of unexcavated ‘should’ qualities in it? Is it something you could simply remove from the list, some leftover or borrowed 'should' that has no meaning for you? Or is it something that you want to do, but simply have not explored the resistance and ambivalence you feel around it enough to have clear intention? Perhaps like me you have a voice in there that demands 'Who are you to..' do whatever it is you dare to even think about the possibility of doing.
It really helps to get to know our inner cast of characters so that we can come into a healthier relationship with them instead of letting them shut us down so that we procrastinate endlessly, putting off activities we truly want to do, or loading us down with a sense we should do something that has no meaning for us. Life does not have to be this heavy! Some pain in life is unavoidable, but procrastination is one of the ways we cause ourselves and others additional unnecessary suffering.
So ask some questions, make a list, journal about why you want to do it and why you don’t. Notice if anything on your list come from somewhere else -- a leftover desire to fulfill a parent’s goal for you; a fear of being judged, etc. When we can see the source of our inner conversations, we can more easily let them go. If they hang around, at least we recognize them and can compassionately acknowledge them and even negotiate with them. But as long as we recognize them for what they are, they can never have the same power over us they did when we believed our thoughts defined us.
This exercise is something you can do whenever you notice your life getting full of ‘shoulds’ and feel anxiety about not doing enough. It is not meant to solve anything, but it will loosen the stranglehold of tight patterns and bring things to light of awareness. By actively exploring we create an energetic spin that gets things moving. We fully inhabit our one and only personal point of power -- this moment, when we wake to it.
[Read more about procrastination.]
[Read more about inner dialoguing.]