A person on a spiritual path should not get angry, and certainly not furious. This was high on my list of spiritual “shoulds.” The problem was that I was on what I thought of as a spiritual path (and had been for a long time) and I still got angry and furious and still, sometimes even acted out of that anger. The combination of my actual reality and my spiritual “should” left me in a predicament. I still felt the feelings of anger that had caused the spiritual “should” to flare up, but now I was saddled with an additional anger, frustration and disappointment—at myself this time, for failing to become what I was supposed to be becoming on my spiritual path. What was clear was that none of it felt very spiritual—whatever that meant at the time.
I was recently meditating with a friend and after we were finished, she expressed great irritation about the heat in the room. And then she expressed great irritation and disgust at herself for being bothered by the heat in the room. When we explored it a little further, it turned out that on her list of spiritual “shoulds” was “shouldn’t be upset by mundane stuff like temperature.” Unfortunately, her spiritual “should” and her reality were also at odds.
As a psychotherapist and spiritual counselor, I hear a lot of spiritual “shoulds,” beliefs we have about what a “spiritual” person should or should not experience or feel. Here are some of the leading contenders…
A spiritual person “should” be:
Happy, calm, peaceful, grateful, compassionate, loving, generous, joyful, unflappable, even-keeled, fearless, non-reactive, patient.
A spiritual person “should not” be:
Angry, bothered by small things, selfish, anxious, irritable, depressed, worried, jealous, resentful, impatient, reactive, stubborn, bored, unsatisfied.
These are just a few “shoulds” that I routinely bump into, but there are many more. Most of us have spiritual “shoulds” whether we are aware of them yet or not. We are conditioned to believe that spiritual is an adjective that is defined by certain qualities (all good ones). While to some degree, living a spiritual path has a tendency to cultivate certain aspects in a person; it is not a ticket to freedom from the full cocktail of human experiences and emotions.
Attaching rules to what “spiritual” should look like and behave like turns the spiritual path into another opportunity to berate ourselves and fall short of an idea of what we should be. When we hold fast to our spiritual “shoulds,” we end up strengthening our sense of lack, and using the path as just another means to try to become a better version of ourselves, and solve our basic inadequacy. When we practice spirituality as another self-improvement plan, we defeat its purpose, by striving to once again not be who we are.
Furthermore, when we hold fast to our spiritual “shoulds,” we tell ourselves that what is happening inside us is not allowed. We reject the moment because we don’t like how it is presenting, and in so doing, we reject ourselves as we actually are. We say this being and this now are not welcome in this form. And yet, this being and this now are what the present moment are made of. The result is that we are pushed out of presence, out of our own being, out of here. It is we who have to go away, not reality. Reality sticks around whether we like it or not. If we are experiencing or containing something that we have decided presence cannot include, then for us, the portal to presence is closed.
It is only through the actuality of what is happening inside us, met with kindness and curiosity, that we can enter a space of loving presence. When we allow what is arising within us, in its full truth and without judgment, we are actually being that loving presence that we are trying to become. We are the spiritual being that we are searching for.
Clinging to a fantasy version of ourselves, and an idea of a magical moment in the future at which we will arrive, spiritually ripe, is fruitless. It won’t happen. We don’t become more spiritual by becoming better and more spiritual versions of ourselves. The only way to arrive at that magical moment and that spiritual you is through this actual now and this actual you. To be a spiritual being is to bring our attention right into this moment, and no matter what we find —beauty, ugliness, rage, resentment, joy, compassion, pain, desire, hatred—to say “yes, this too is allowed to be here.” (The truth is, allowed or not, it’s already here.)
Ask yourself, what’s on your list of spiritual “shoulds”? What qualities, thoughts, emotions or whatever else are you not allowed to have if you want to still consider yourselves spiritual? And on the flipside, what do you believe you are supposed to feel, think, or be as spiritual person? Pay close attention to your “shoulds” when they arise. When you notice one rearing its head, bring your attention to the feeling that is eliciting the “should” or should not,” whatever experience is supposed to or not supposed to be present. Then ask yourself (kindly), if you can just acknowledge that whether you want it or not, this feeling is here. If that’s okay, then ask if, just for a moment, you can stop fighting against it and simply allow it to be here. Can you be here with it? And then finally, notice what happens inside you when you stop arguing with reality, and yourself.
This exercise however, is not an opportunity to pick up yet another spiritual “should.” I am not suggesting that you “should” not have spiritual “shoulds.” Don’t get caught in that trap. When you experience the arising of one of your spiritual “shoulds,” ask yourself if you can acknowledge and allow not only the feeling you believe you shouldn’t have, but also the reactions you have to that unwanted feeling. Don’t resist the judgment, anger, frustration, disappointment, or whatever else arises as a result of your belief that you have fallen short of your spiritual idea (and ideal). These reactive feelings are also included in the space of awareness; give them all a seat at your dining table (as they are already eating!) The spiritual path is one of opening to include everything and spiritual “shoulds” are no exception. The spiritual path is not defined by the color and shape of the stones on the road, but rather by the attitude of the hiker. An attitude of “Yes… I am willing and I want to meet what is truly here,” allows us to drop the “shoulds” and the unending struggle to become a better and more spiritual being. And through that “yes,” to actually meet ourselves as what we are: spirit itself.