Shoulds and Should Nots

authored by Jason Siff

     Everyone needs some sort of beginning instruction in order to get started with meditation. And meditation instruction, no matter what form it takes, causes the mind to develop ideas about what we should do and what we should avoid doing. These shoulds and should nots might be stated explicitly by the teacher or they might he inferred by the meditator from the instructions he receives. A common instance of this is found when the student is given the instruction to attend to the breath and let go of thoughts.   The student may unknowingly interpret this instruction to mean that he should not have thoughts while meditating and that he should always be following the breath. He may even start to believe that if he does this successfully, he will certainly reach the implied goal of being aware of the breath without the intrusion of thoughts. He may become frustrated and angry when his meditation is not the way it should be, and judge those sittings not to be meditation. This situation becomes an impediment to seeing things as they are.

     There are several approaches to avoid becoming enslaved by shoulds and should nots in your meditation, and I will mention three which have helped people I have taught.

     The first approach is to try a few sittings where you relax your attitude about meditation and let your mind do as it pleases. While allowing your mind to wander, every so often bring your attention back to the stillness of your body, and make a short, simple mental note about where your mind was before allowing it to go off again. This can be done very lightly, without the use of force or willpower. The purpose of meditation, done in this way, is to learn how to sit with and tolerate whatever arises, accepting your mind as it is instead of how it should be.

     The second approach involves looking back over a number of sittings. The idea here is to review the effectiveness of the instructions you have received and then evaluate those instructions in light of your experience. A touchstone for assessing your meditation practice is seeing whether it has led to the arising and cultivation of beneficial states of mind (such as awareness, happiness, wisdom, inner peace) and the diminishing of negative states of mind (such as self criticism, worry, anger, craving) or to the opposite, the cultivating and support of negative states of mind and absence of beneficial states. I would suggest that when making such an assessment that you discuss your practice with someone else who has meditated. Human feedback is important in such a process, even if it only serves to have us listen more closely to our own words.

     Looking at what has come out of practicing a particular type of meditation may indicate that you have more to learn in that practice; that, for instance, you may have become attached to a technique rather than developing the skills the particular technique was meant to engender. Evaluating the results may mean questioning the authority of your teacher and the validity (for you) of the type of meditation you have undertaken. On the other hand, it may reassure you that you have found an approach that is valid for you at this stage in your meditation practice.

     Another approach is to become curious about the internal mental conditions that support shoulds and should nots. In essence, a should or should not is an intention to eliminate something, either directly by stamping it out or indirectly by replacement, brought on by an awareness of the unsatisfactory nature of that thing. Even when the should or should not comes from an authoritarian inner voice, and seems to be less a response to a particular experience and more a judgment on how you are meditating in general, there is still the awareness of something being unsatisfactory and the intention to eliminate it.

     The awareness of a pervasive unsatisfactoriness is harder to sustain and tolerate when there is a strong intention to eliminate it. If one can stay with the pervasive underlying mood of things not being as they should (i.e.. being painful, chaotic, fearful, uncontrollable, unpredictable) there is an opportunity for understanding the conditions for the arising of shoulds and should nots. These conditions vary, and though they may not always be the same each time, one can usually begin the process by gradually becoming acquainted with the underlying mood, staying with it, and then working from there, becoming aware of the themes in one's thinking, of bodily sensations, and of reactions to sense impressions.

     What leads to the diminishing and eventual lack of intrusion of shoulds and should nots in your meditation practice is the cultivation of proper attending to what arises. It does not matter so much what you attend to in your meditation, but rather, how you attend to whatever you experience. It is the cultivation of discernment and interest that leads to understanding how all one's experiences come about through certain conditions, and are supported in the present by conditions. Proper attending does not lead to self-criticism, blaming others, attributing causes to gods and demons, or to any such handy answers as to why things are the way they are.

     All Vipassana meditation techniques are meant to help produce this kind of proper attention. That is the primary aim of learning them. The techniques are not as important as the skill in being able to properly attend to whatever arises. If the technique you use does not lead to this, but instead leads to the creation of shoulds and should nots in your practice, seriously consider using these three approaches to this impediment to mindfulness.

Copyright 1998 Jason Siff

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