Revealing the Magnificent Mural


In the shower this morning, I was noticing how the “shoulds” have a way of creeping and covering up my sense of clarity and purpose, like overgrown ivy on a beautiful mural.

Closely related to this is a habit of questioning myself, what I’m doing with my life, and whether I’m “on the right track.” This thinking is binary and constricting — right/wrong, clear/confused, all/nothing. It doesn’t leave much if any room for being, for process, and for just letting life and work unfold. For trusting myself.

Just when I think I’ve outgrown it, it comes tickling at my toes and threatening to climb up my bare legs. In an effort to cut it back before it can do this, I’m coming here to write. I’m interested in how things open up when we bring some breath and curiosity to what gets in our way.

How can some experimenting enable us to get clearer on our priorities, so that we spend less time pleasing others or repeating Sisyphean tasks and more time feeling purposeful and fulfilled by our actions?

Do questions like these occur to you too, while bathing or driving or writing or just going through your day? In the spirit of teaching what I have to learn, here’s an exercise for us to try.

You’ll need some paper and either markers or colored pencils. Two different color pens will do.

Make a fast and furious list of all the shoulds you’re carrying around, consciously or subconsciously. Don’t stop to evaluate, assess, analyze, or vote on any of them — just list.

What do you see?

Now, using a different color, circle the items on your list that are actually time-sensitive in some way or otherwise urgent. Pay attention to how you define “urgent.” (You might to read Seth Godin’s the why of urgent vs. important.)

Notice the different categories showing up in your list. For example, you might see things that relate to your physical health, others that have to do with relationships, and some that are vague and free-floating, with no real action attached.

On a different piece of paper, make three columns: At the top of one, write “need to.” The second is “want to.” Lastly, include a “not mine” category. This last one is where you can move all of the shoulds that don’t belong to you, i.e. the ones you’ve internalized that are in fact coming from outside sources.

When you’ve completed this step, how many items remain in the “need to” column? Are you seeing evidence of anything you WANT to do? How much of your life is shaped by other people’s expectations, how much by practical need, and how much by habitual striving and drivenness?

This can be a one-time thing or you could let it be a slower, longer-term exploration. Take your time playing with it. If you’re feeling pulled to take it in a different direction, by all means, do so. The intention here is to bring into focus what you can put down, as opposed to what you must and/or choose to carry.

Unlearning empty striving and returning to the power of who you already are isn’t a one-shot deal. Sometimes I forget this and think, wait, aren’t I supposed to be done with this already?

Then I remember, it’s like trimming back the ivy. You don’t just do it once. You come back, again and again, to revealing the magnificent mural of your life.

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