When I was a child, my grandmother owned an old-fashioned kerosene "hurricane" lamp. It was probably an antique from the 1940s, when extended power outages were common.
My grandmother only lit the lamp once, to demonstrate how it worked. I remember the smoke from the lamp being very dense and thick – so thick that the glass around the light became streaked with soot.
The lamp required cleaning each time it was used. If the soot was allowed to build up, the light would appear dim and the lamp would cast only a very faint light.
Within each of us is a light like the hurricane lamp. Our inner, spiritual light forever burns bright. But without regular cleaning, the light can become muted – even hidden – by layers of soot.
The "soot" that dims our awareness of our inner light takes many forms. In this article I will focus on one of the most common forms, especially among spiritual seekers.
As many of you know, I work as a therapist. Clients of mine who are interested in spiritual and personal growth tend to have one specific type of soot that dominates the others. It is so pervasive in their thought patterns – and yet, so hidden from their awareness – that we spend almost all of our therapeutic time cleaning this particular form.
What is this form of soot? It is the self-pressuring should's, have to's, and must's – the thought patterns that say:
I should really make a good impression on these people.
I have to be friendly, positive, and polite.
I must not let this dinner get burned!
Self-pressuring thoughts like these may seem somewhat helpful at first glance. They appear to "keep us on track." However, they are actually a habitual form of self-attack.
Instead of leading us toward the light, these thoughts actually obscure the light. They dim our awareness of the wisdom, peace, and joy that lies within.
The Two Approaches
When I point out how many self-pressuring thoughts my clients have (usually dozens or more in a single session), they often say, "Dan – if I didn't think this way, I wouldn't get anything done in my life!"
This is a common misperception. We think that by continually pressuring ourselves, we keep life moving in a positive direction. But this is like saying that by whipping a horse we keep it moving forward. Whipping doesn't lead to true progress. It simply creates a temporary, painful stress response that gives a burst of adrenaline.
I often say to my clients: if a jockey whips a horse enough, the horse is going to revolt and throw the jockey off. In the same way, our minds will eventually revolt when subjected to chronic self-pressure. The "revolt" may take the form of anxiety, depression, rage, or guilt. None of this allows us to move in a positive direction.
So what is the alternative? Let me return to a framework that I often discuss in this newsletter.
When faced with a challenge, we can respond in one of two primary ways. We can draw on a threat-based fight-flight-or-freeze response. Or we can tap in to our inner light of wisdom, peace, and inspiration – and let that inner light guide our actions.
Our inner, spiritual light can give us divinely-inspired guidance on our decisions. It can fill us with a sense of safety and security. It can help us to feel connected to all life. It can replace a sense of threat with a sense of empowerment and strength.
Who wouldn't want to feel these things?
The problems is that, for many of us, the soot that surrounds the light has become so thick that we have forgotten that the light exists. Stumbling around in darkness, we become frightened and defensive – and end up layering even more soot upon the glass.
Many spiritual seekers have diligently cleared away layer upon layer of soot. They are kind to other people, having learned that what they give to others they receive themselves. They refrain from obvious attacks on themselves as well. But the "should's" often slip by unnoticed.
Recognizing that self-pressuring thoughts are a subtle form of self-attack is an essential step in clearing the lamp's glass. Having recognized this form of soot, we can then clear the way for a more self-loving alternative.
As an example, let's imagine a person who is dealing with a conflict with her boss. She is feeling stressed, and she falls into a self-pressuring framework. She finds herself thinking:
I really have to figure out how to resolve this conflict.
I have to figure out how to make her happy.
I probably shouldn't have said anything originally.
I have to do something to make our relationship good again.
Now, on first glance, these might seem like constructive thoughts. This person is very desirous of restoring harmony to her relationship – and that certainly is a loving impulse. However, because there is so much self-pressure (note the "have to's" and the "shouldn't have") it's likely that this type of thinking will simply lead to more anxiety and stress, rather than to constructive solutions.
These thoughts are the streaks of soot that can be wiped away, in order to reveal the inner light. The light of peace and wisdom within this person is what will restore her relationship harmony – not the anxiety-inducing soot.
As I mentioned, step one is to recognize that self-pressure is self-attack – and therefore, not constructive. This person might say to herself:
These thoughts are blocking my inner light.
I am willing to let them go.
The inner light of peace is what will help improve my relationship.
I am willing to release this interference to it.
Step two is to move into the sense of peace, wisdom, and inspiration that lies just beyond these sooty thoughts. To assist in that process, this person might say to herself:
I want to open to a sense of harmony between my boss and me.
I am willing to have the light illuminate it.
My goal is to experience a sense of peace.
I am willing to open my heart to that.
As she practices releasing the self-pressuring thoughts, and moving into the inner light, she may find any number of insights coming to mind. There might be specific action steps that occur to her: things to say or do. Or she might simply receive a feeling of peace and a sense of harmony with her boss. This is, perhaps, all that is needed.
A Course in Miracles calls this process the experience of a "miracle" – a divinely-inspired shift of awareness to the light. The light is always there; miracles are always available. Our job is simply to release the soot that hides the light from our awareness.