Mindful Behaviorist – An Acceptance and Commitment Therapy story about dealing with “should” thoughts.

dealing with 'should' thoughtsThis afternoon I am writing about a ordinary burden with which I and many of my clients struggle  – “should” thoughts.

Readers of previous blog posts will recall my writing about the grimmer thoughts that plague us – thoughts about being inept, life being meaningless, etc.  Today we are looking at the stuff that gets in the way of our being happy, not in a dramatic way, but like a slow and constant drip of anxiety that drains the juice out of life.

There are situations where we follow other people’s values because we don’t know or can’t stand up for our own.  My problem is usually not being able to figure out what’s most important to me at a particular time. What “should” I do?

It’s always worst on unstructured days like today when I get out of bed later than I “should” have, and skip meditating because having so much time with my eyes closed will supposedly stop me from getting to sleep that night.  (How do contemplative monks and nuns and people on long meditation retreats sleep then?)

We are in between seasons; it’s not yet spring.  Feet of icy, grubby snow are still lying about and closing off most walks.  It’s a bland, ordinary early March day in New England, an uninspired kind of day.  I want to write but nothing much comes, want to hang out with my family but everyone’s busy, want to go shopping but fear it would be “retail therapy”.

Should I go to the Boston Flower Show, go to church, stay home and do laundry or rearrange my house? The part of my life that was filled every minute with children and household necessities is over, which grieves me but also frees me to do….what?

The only “activity” that always works out feeling OK is being mindful.

Feel the keys clicking so satisfyingly under my fingers.  How blessed I am to have had my education and my life experience (even the parts that hurt to look back upon, that I would change if I could.) I am here now and that is good.

Years ago I read a biography of J.R.R. Tolkien – of course I can no longer recall which one – which cited criticism a journalist had directed at him.  He never went anywhere. He didn’t travel.  It struck the biographer – and me – as a ridiculous way to think about a man of such epic imagination.

Perhaps the years in the trenches during World War One made him appreciate home.  He had explored in his study and teaching great swathes of the past – the worlds of the Anglo Saxon poets and the writers of sagas – which were far more gloriously strange than anything likely to be encountered in 1950s Europe.

Perhaps he didn’t need the endless stimulation we tend to crave. That enormous creativity had to come from an ability to just be, to sit with whatever he needed to bear, difficult marriage, war trauma and all. Nothing so new and compelling could have come out of restless activity.

One of my clients recently let me know about Pico Iyer’s TED book and talk, “The Art of Stillness”, a beautiful meditation on “Going Nowhere” by a man who has traveled the world.   He writes about a book containing many photographs documenting the same view, taken over the course of a year.  (“Motionless Journey” by Matthieu Ricard.) He sees this as an inner journey through time.   He makes me think of Tolkien and his explorations, guided by Anglo Saxon and Old Norse and Old Icelandic.  I am grateful for my own education in history, which set me on a road of joy and delight that I have followed ever since.

Underneath the “shoulds”, when we sit in silence, we unearth our lives.

Pico Iyer, “The Art of Stillness”, TED talk and TED book, 2014.

Matthieu Ricard, “Motionless Journey,” Thames and Hudson, 2008.