I want I don’t want I can I cannot I be I not be


There’s a feeling or experience that is rarely discussed, even identified, and yet it’s running human beings. Much of the distress, agitation and busyness of the world arises from this one thought. Shakespeare saw it and put it at the centre of his profoundest work – “To be or not to be”. Mostly, it goes underground. That’s why I was excited to read a re-creation of it in a book of so-called Zen questions and answers.

In this example, the person asking the question feels helpless and frustrated about a situation involving his mother, but it could be any situation. The “answer” will apply. See if you recognise it in your own life. I particularly like the “forcing a way through the logjam with ought”. That’s very good …

I am in a complete impasse with my mother. She demands all the time that I be there to help her; but when I try to do anything she complains and says that she is better off with the nurse. How can I use this in practice?

… I sympathise with you in your feeling of impotence in the face of what does seem an impossible situation. So often we are caught up with the feeling that we ought to do something, and that feeling is always accompanied by the feeling that we ought to be able to do something.

Would it help at all if you were to allow the feeling, ‘I ought to do something’ to come up, and simply be aware of it without the feeling of being identified with it? There is a great difference between the feeling of ought and the feeling ‘I’ ought. The feeling of ought dominates our lives: there ought to be a solution to all my problems; there ought to be a way of living better; there ought to be a way of dealing with the world’s suffering, and so on. Unfortunately, because we can imagine an ideal situation, we believe that ideal situation ought to be ours. To stay with the feeling of ought without seeking for a way to realise the ought, is very uncomfortable, but it is a way through.

‘Ought’ may well come out of our contradictory nature, and this can be expressed as: ‘I want to do something and I do not want to do it; I can do it, I can’t do it.’ We try to force a way through the logjam with ‘ought’, and get frustrated and humiliated by the failure to do so. This feeling of ought, and consequent frustration it brings, may well be at the root of our need to find a ‘spiritual’ way … Basically we are all, all the time, on the horns of the dilemma, but some are more adept at pretending that they are not.”

~ From What More Do You Want? by Albert Low

Image: Cat and Bird, 1928, Paul Klee



4 thoughts on “I want I don’t want I can I cannot I be I not be

  1. Oh, very good. It reminds me of a course I took years ago where we wrote our “shoulds” on pieces of paper and then burned them in the fireplace. One woman said, “I’m exactly Sophia Loren’s age and I should look like her. . .”


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