The Importance of Taking the “Should” out of Spiritual Practice

Steven Goodheart Essay

Steven Goodheart Essay

The more one does one’s spiritual practice with a sense that it should be done, the more one creates a sense of self. And the greater the sense of a self trying to become “spiritual” or “liberated,” the more suffering we experience. We suffer both when we “fail,” and we suffer when we “succeed,” either way reinforcing our false self-identifications.

So the koan is: how do we practice, without making it “practice?” How can one have what the Buddha called atappa, or ardency in practice, without reinforcing our sense of becoming? The answer to this koan involves, perhaps not surprisingly, paying attention ― paying real attention to our motives and to our habitual ways of doing anything worthwhile.

Paradoxically, real “self-improvement” naturally arises when we let go of all sense of self-improvement and simply open ourselves up to being really being present in each moment. There is a wonderful innocence in simply being present in the moment. There is great purity in simply paying attention of what is arising as simply what is arising, and then acting, or not acting, according to our best sense of wisdom, compassion, and insight into what is skillful and what is not, what produces suffering and what does not. When we do this, we are not trying to “improve,” or “be a better person” so much as making the right effort to see what is good and wise in the present moment.

Stone gardenWhen we get busy with being present, when we really pay attention to what arises in our hearts and minds, our sense of self naturally just falls away. We become, in the degree of our attention, an action without an actor, a doing without a doer. One doesn’t cease to be; one simply is. We get glimpses of this when we become fully absorbed in something, or “in the flow of things,” and no thought of self arises or can be found. But mindful attention is even better than absorption, which can make us oblivious to anything but what we are focusing on. With mindful attention, the sense of self falls away and we are fully aware of what’s going on without attaching to or clinging to sense contacts or to thoughts and feelings that arise and fall away.

The simplicity of this paying attention practice that is not practice is staggering, once you begin to understand it. You don’t have to be sitting on a cushion to pay attention, though that’s a good place to practice it formally. Each moment of our day is an opportunity to show up ― to be consciously present and aware. So much of the time we are so lost in thoughts, feelings, ruminations, and internal dialogues that we are not really alive, but just existing in a self-dream. Truly paying attention breaks the spell of “self” and helps us to stop “self-ing” and start “be-ing.”  It helps us see our connections and relationships to others and to all things.  We feel our true wholeness.

Sunlight on GrassLiving this way, “How do I make myself better?” isn’t even the question; the very thought of “self-improvement” is actually an impediment. The real question is: do I want to be alive? The issue is waking up, showing up, being present. There is no “should” or “must” in waking up! All beings naturally want happiness, and when we realize that we are truly happy to the degree we are truly present with our hearts and minds, then nothing can keep us from opening up.

Mindful attention is like sunlight, shedding light on what is dark and hidden and causing all the good things of our hearts to blossom and bloom into the possibilities of full being. There’s nothing we have to do to make this happen; it just happens when we show up each day, each moment, with no thought of self, but simply wanting to see what is what—as much as possible, without delusion, illusion or self-deception about anything. Yes, it’s a great work, but it’s such a freeing, happy one!  And it all starts in a moment, this moment. Why not begin?
Upward Path through Fall Leaves


About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza

11 Responses to “The Importance of Taking the “Should” out of Spiritual Practice”

  1. Reblogged this on *luz de atención constante* and commented:
    Nice article, although for me they always lack the point on opennng the profound-profound practice, the one that leads to path and fruition (which is should be the deep motivation to practice, not to be able to deal with situations in so called ‘daily life’ which should be an outcomming from the practice itself; otherwise, as expressed clearly in one of the Ayya Khema’s talks, all achievment of tranquility achieved in retreat, not supported my sati – presence or mindfulness- in daily life activities (part of body awarness instructions – kayanupassana) will be impossible o maintain coupled with daily life even if one sits daily. Good practice on all aspects! do not miss one!

  2. By the way, may I compliment the stunning photography and the photographer responsible for it. Depict a dream-like reality, almost more dream than reality, an idyllic dreamscape of the mind. That’s my impression for whatever that’s worth

  3. Stephen, thank you so much for sharing this. I love the idea of letting go of self-improvement, and the way you laid it out here made so much sense on every level. It’s nourishing to my soul. The awakened state is so close, no need for the carrot-and-stick syndrome. Peace, Dan

  4. This implies the effacement of self consciousness. When the self disappears action does itself by itself. Practice practices itself..There is no doer.Only what is done. Sounds easy? Another delusion.

    • Hello George! In your first sentence, I’m not sure what the “this” you are talking about is that implies the effacement of self-consciousness. “Self-effacemement,” whatever you might mean by that, certainly is not the point of this essay! The point is paying attention mindfully — and just what you say: when “self” disappears, action does itself by itself, and there is no doer, just doing, so I think we are on the same page here. “Easy” or not is irrelevant; that’s just a place to get stuck; just pay attention to the arising of “easy” or “hard” and just do. 🙂

  5. “Paradoxically, real “self-improvement” naturally arises when we let go of all sense of self-improvement and simply open ourselves up to being really being present in each moment. There is a wonderful innocence in simply being present in the moment.”

    It’s so wonderful to see that you’re still posting, Steve! This one happens to touch on something I just seemed to start to really realize (instead of just thinking about it) very recently. (For me, to a large extent, it’s been in terms of seeing that rather than always asking, “How should I love?”, I should just go ahead and love as the opportunities present themselves to me, without over-thinking it, or thinking about it at all!)

    I hope you’re doing well. Your blog looks really nice.

    Your old blog-friend,

    • Nancy! My gosh, it’s good to hear from you! It seems like an eon ago that we both took the leap into blogging, no? I hope you have been doing well; it sound like you are working along skillfully in the path, with the rest of us, day by day, moment by moment. Do you still have the “Holding Breath Memoir” blog — I think that was the name. I’ve lost track of a number of wonderful friends who supported my first efforts, so it’s so wonderful to hear from you. Glad you found me, and I, you!

      With warm metta,
      Steve ♡♡♡

      • I believe it actually WAS an eon :). Yes, my son and I are doing very well down here in Florida (although I miss NY and NJ), and I’m still doing the blog (it’s about my memoir, but lately I’ve been posting some old and new poetry, possibly in advance of publishing a book of that, too). And I still have my birds, and dog, and I’m making friends with a lot of lizards, snakes, and other wild critters down here!
        I’ve actually been getting your posts in my inbox since the old days, so it was pretty easy to “find” you! 🙂

        Take care,

  6. Nice Steven, very nice… ps. I begin every morning. Why? Well,as you so eloquently expressed “Why not?”..


  1. Writings: Taking the “shoulds” out of your spiritual practice, with Steven Goodheart | The World According to Brother Ian - 2013/11/11

    […] The Importance of Taking the “Should” out of Spiritual Practice by Steven Goodheart (here’s more) […]

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