On Substitutions and Shoulds

Should I Stay Or Should I Go

Should I Stay Or Should I Go (Photo credit: Ian Sane)

When I first started this blog, I imagined that I would have covered this topic long before now. But for those of you have been reading here for a while, you know that I am not approaching this topic of learning to listen to soul systematically. That would go completely against the fundamental idea of doing it – you don’t systematically go about tuning into what is authentic. You don’t follow an outline or a specific series of steps. Rather, you notice one thing here, another thing there – what needs to arise will if you give your full attention and surrender your agenda. Things will gradually emerge and coalesce.

In that spirit, the idea of substitutions for (or “wrong” ways of) listening to soul has been simmering on my mental back burner for a long while, even trying to come up recently as a passing reference in another post. So I think it’s time to start writing about it and see if it really has some momentum to it or if it is a “should” topic – something I feel obligated to bring up, even though I’m not ready to.


“Shoulds” are themselves a particularly wily and toxic variety of substitution for truth and authenticity. In fact, it seems like they permeate the whole concept of substitutions (that there  is a “wrong” way) with “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts”, “cans” and “can’ts.”

I am suddenly thinking of a blog post by Alva Noë, a philosopher, that I recently read on NPR’s website. It was about the ethics of doping in sports. I don’t want to get too much into the details here (though I highly recommend reading it), so I’ll just say that he talks about constitutive rules and nonconstitutive rules in sports. He describes constitutive rules as those that mark a clear boundary – for example, everyone agrees, he says, that you can’t ride in a car to the finish line in a running  race and you can’t run from first to third base in baseball. If you break these rules, he says, you are clearly outside the boundary of the sport and really not even playing the sport. Nonconstitutive rules, he says, are fuzzier because they exist within the boundaries of the sport. And he argues rather convincingly, I think, that doping falls within the realm of nonconstitutive rules.


It feels to me like there are constitutive and nonconstitutive “rules” in listening to soul, in getting in touch with what is alive and true.

The constitutive limits are those that I think just about everyone would agree with. Though an admittedly dramatic example, killing a person is not a way of listening to soul. (Some ancient cultures practiced human sacrifice as part of worshipping the gods, but I feel pretty certain that almost everyone today would agree that this practice is wrong.) So I don’t want to get bogged down here in these types of rules because, as Alva Noë said in his blog post, the nonconstitutive rules are far more interesting.

In our case here, I think the nonconstitutive limits are intriguing because they are different for everyone and because this is where we can find ourselves leaning on substitutes. The ways in which I find and stay in touch with what’s authentic for me are not going to be the same as yours and can even have an opposite, adverse effect on you. Someone in a tribal culture uses intoxicants one time in an initiation ritual to truly expand his view of himself and the world; another person uses intoxicants over and over in an unhealthy, soul-numbing pattern of addiction. One person finds deep truth in religious ceremony; another person doesn’t but still clings to it because he doesn’t know any other way to access the divine. In both cases, instead of being a real path to truth, something becomes a substitution for it. (Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell both talked about this at length, how symbols can be a hollow substitute for the real thing.)


For a great read on the varying and seemingly inexplicable ways in which people can manifest their truth, read The Soul’s Code by James Hillman. In it, he examines the lives of different famous people whose gifts we today know and admire but who displayed those gifts early in their lives in sometimes unusual ways that their parents or others didn’t know what to make of.

What I am trying to say here is that each of us is the ultimate expert on our own “rules” for listening to soul. We all have the capacity to recognize when something resonates for us, even when we lose touch with it for various reasons or for long periods of time. And we all have the capacity to recognize when something is a substitute for truth and aliveness, even if it takes us a while to see it or admit it.

Our substitutions will inevitably and sometimes vocally be pointed out to us by others (sometimes it’s accurate and helpful, sometimes not), but we alone know our truth. And we alone are responsible to it.


From the wise poet, Mary Oliver:

Some things, say the wise ones who know everything,
are not living. I say,
you live your life your way and leave me alone.

I have talked with the faint clouds in the sky when they
are afraid of being left behind; I have said, Hurry, hurry!
and they have said: Thank you, we are hurrying.

– from “Some Things, Say the Wise Ones,” in her collection of poems, Why I Wake Early

© Amanda Norcross and Learning to Listen to Soul, 2012.

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