The Dis-ease of Spirituality

I was raised in a household devoid of religion or spirituality.

So, when in my twenties, I was struggling with PTSD and a growing sense of lack and dissatisfaction with my life, it never even occurred to me that yoga and spirituality might be the answer. But then, through a series of fortuitous events that I’ll share another time, I ended up studying at the San Francisco Zen Center.

Surprisingly, to many who knew me at the time, I took to the practices and the philosophy and, even the community, like a duck to water.

And what a blessing it was. In no time at all, my PTSD symptoms started to abate, I was able to finally sleep through the night, my anxiety all but went away, and I found myself more calm, more clear, and more connected than I had ever before felt in life.

I felt like I was home in my body. At home in my mind. At home in my life. That is, until it all fell apart.

It was at a time when I had become the most diligent of Zen students. I was sitting Zazen (meditation) twice a day, on weekends I would go to morning services at the center, I was studying the scriptures, and taking evening classes on Zen philosophy and how I should be living my life. And it was with that single word, that everything came crashing down: “Should.”

As I studied and practiced, more and more, I began to see the teachings through the lens of “should”. It infected everything.

  • I should be more compassionate. (And you should too. And so should she. And what about him? Oh, and those guys too!)

  • I shouldn’t be so impatient. (And you shouldn’t be either. And neither should they be! And what about her?)

  • I should meditate everyday. (And so should you! And she should be too. And so should Jen and Jack…)

  • I shouldn’t be so judgmental. (And you shouldn’t be either. Nor should they be. And, oh, look at them!)

And on and on it went. With every practice and teaching and spiritual idea.

Just like that, this single poisonous word turned all of my well-intentioned spiritual practices against me.

It was the irony of ironies, really... All of these teachings that were designed to fill me full of profound inner peace, were magically transformed into the very source of the frustration and disappointment and struggle and shame that was ruining my life. Before I knew it, I was feeling worse than I did before I started the practices!

It was a quagmire that I wasn’t sure how to get out of. But then I met an old Indian Guru. It was in the foothills of the Himalayas in the small town of Haridwar. Being hip deep in my new spiritual angst, I shared my story with the kindly old man and asked him what I should do.

(And yes, I was completely blind to how, even in this question, that malignant word "should" had again slipped into my world). The Guru smiled widely and said in his think Indian accent: “Whatever you want.”

“What?” I said, confounded by the answer.

I had become so accustomed to my strict Zen teachers who had a rigid prescription for just about everything that this laissez faire advice threw me for more than a bit of a loop. Recognizing my confusion, the Guru smiled widely through his grizzled beard and bobbed his head in that uniquely Indian way. “Everyt’ing is OK,” he said.

And then, as if for emphasis, “Everyt’ing…” He gestured and looked up into the cobalt-blue sky, “All God.”

“Should you meditate?” He shrugged and said, “If you want to be more calm, yes. If not, no problem.”

“Should you be more compassionate?” He shrugged, “If you want to be in harmony, yes. If not, no problem.”

"Should you do yoga? If you wish to open your heart, yes. If not…”

Yup. Again, he said, “No problem.” And that’s when it hit me. The antidote to my “should” problem lived in this new word: “If”