Oh how I love the moments of grace where thought becomes understanding that can be translated to action.  Those shifts are magical, and they can’t be forced.  So often, it’s just a twitch away from something you already know yet somehow haven’t been able to integrate.

This is the case with “should.”  How often have I heard “Stop shoulding all over yourself”?  And how often have I wanted to but could not figure out how to shush the shoulds?

Have you ever had a book on your shelf for years and then suddenly feel the impulse to finally pick it up and read it?  That happens to me frequently.  Maybe it only happens to those who collect books, as I do (I can’t seem to break myself of the habit).  The book that jumped out at me this week was Kurt Leland’s Menus for Impulsive Living.

These simple but potentially life-changing moments often happen, for me, with the sense of something getting rearranged in my brain.  That’s what happened when I read this:

What is an impulse?  In our view, it is a message sent to the ego either from the soul or the body.  This message indicates that a certain action is appropriate at a certain time.  When the message comes from the soul, the action will have something to do with the process of self-realization, of becoming who you truly are; when from the body, it will have something to do with physical survival…

…[T]here is no such thing as a self-destructive impulse…

From our perspective, actions motivated by such powerful emotions as rage or hatred are not impulsively but compulsively motivated.  There is a certain neurotic aspect to such behaviors, which indicate a severe misalignment of ego and soul.  The same would be true, but to a lesser extent, with individuals who feel the compulsion to shoplift or commit other minor transgressions.

… It is never appropriate to refuse or ignore impulses… True impulses have a certain persistence about them.  They will not vanish from your awareness until they have been acted upon.  In order to refuse or ignore them, the ego must talk itself out of noticing and acting upon them.  Whenever you try to persuade yourself to do a certain thing, you are ignoring and impulse against.  And whenever you try to persuade yourself not to do a certain thing, you are ignoring an impulse for.  A rather typical technique of persuasion is concealed in the word should.  Whenever you tell yourself that you should be doing a certain thing, there is always something else that you are trying to talk yourself out of doing.  If you say, “I should do X,” you are actually suppressing the second part of the sentence: “instead of Y.”  By reversing your position – doing Y instead of X – you will have acted on the true impulse.

Did you see the light bulb that just went on over my head?  I get so caught up in shoulds, my shoulds have shoulds.  Sometimes there are so many shoulds in my mind upon 2 minutes of awakening, I feel overwhelmed and want nothing to do with my day.  The list of shoulds is so long and impossible, and I can’t seem to choose which shoulds to address.  Even if I choose one or two, I tend to feel like the Red Queen – running, running, running and never getting anywhere.  Is there really a process so simple that I can turn these shoulds on their head?  Is there really a beacon inside me that guides truly to the things that most benefit myself and those around me and which things might be rejected because they are best left for another time… or best left undone?  Is there really a way to know, in each moment, which action will lead me to wholeness and true balance?

The questions above help me see that I’ve been pretending my whole life.  I pretend I know how to be a responsible adult.  I go through the motions.  Sometimes they feel good and other times they feel horrible.  I have trouble believing I’m the only one who has looked for a formula or a routine that will make things easier.  I suppose I’ve concluded more than once that I’m a flighty person for needing different things on different days, that a strict self-imposed routine has never worked well for me, and that while self-flagellation does not appear to be particularly effective, I’ve found no better approach.  Passion is unreliable, “laziness” too powerful.

Stress could be described as the state of being in need of something that you purposely deny to yourself – by telling yourself that something else is more important.  To live impulsively requires that you get rid of the system of values that supports this kind of thinking.

The details beyond these introductory ideas are interesting.  Things are broken down into categories and specific advice is given for various types of impulses.  The focus is on paying attention to the pull to do something or not do something instead of sticking with your ideas of what should or should not be done, in what order, and at what time.  From the basics of bodily functions to various activities, explanations are provided regarding the importance of structuring your life to accomplish ready response to impulses as they arise.

Whether the details about how to structure response to impulses speak to you or not, I find the concept of simply paying close attention to my impulses – all of them – to be a new and valuable tool.  I spent the day at work yesterday doing my best to value the bodily impulses.  I peed when I felt the urge, I drank water the moment I realized I was thirsty, I ate what appealed to me among the available options, and I stopped eating when the impulse arrived. (Okay, I admit, I did eat an extra 2 bites of pasta salad after that point – what can I say?  I’m learning.)

This morning, I woke up with my overwhelming list of want-to, need-to, and should-do items running through my head.  As usual, the mental list was superhumanly long and complicated.  As usual, I felt my anxiety rising.  As usual, I opted to lay in bed for many long minutes rather than greet my day with anticipation.  And then I began to breathe, and I reminded myself I am human, and I asked myself what my first impulse was.  So I started my day with a trip to the toilet (Leland claims that your body will tell you it’s time to wake through your bladder – if you have to pee, it’s time to get up… hmmm…) and I did not eat an early breakfast because I did not yet feel the impulse to eat, and I accepted that I can work with this concept of one moment leading to the next and embrace these impulses with joy and appreciation.

After driving kiddo to school, the impulse came to make a list of leisure activities that I feel may bring interest and joy into my life, regardless of whether I feel I have time for them.  Then the impulse to write appeared, and so that’s what I’m doing.  And the next impulse is to grab my mat and go to yoga, which I will also do.  I suspect the impulse to eat will follow that, but we’ll see… and then my afternoon may be taken up with any of several activities, but for now I’m trusting that there’s no need to plan.  The list will remain, but if I follow impulse to impulse, I won’t get paralyzed and I won’t feel the need to go to bed and pull the covers over my head.  Maybe I’ll play with the dog.  Maybe I’ll do the laundry.  Maybe I’ll lay in bed and read.  I won’t be surprised if the list gets done on its own if I respect this process.  It’s an experiment I’m willing to try.  In this moment, I sense the wisdom in this approach… let’s see if I can live it.