A New Year's Resolution
If you are like me, this time of year brings with it a host of feelings and cultural baggage. Fitness centers are no doubt filled with people who are doing their best to make good on intentions they've set to improve their health, grocery store runs include less junk food and more plants, and the yearly aspirational to do lists are longer than they've ever been. I have struggled with resolutions for quite some time mostly because I know myself well enough to know that self-discipline isn't my strong suit. Rather than creating an expectation or hope that I will inevitably struggle to meet, I haven't historically created any personal goals when this time of year rolls around. I know people who are great at creating new year's resolutions and following through with them with dogged persistence and proficiency. Their social media posts are littered with self-congratulatory statements about checking off each item on their to do lists, and if we're lucky we might even get a photograph documenting said faithfulness just in case we didn't believe them. #blessed
I don't like those people.
I can't identify with them, I wonder how in the world they find the energy and internal motivation, and I tell myself they're probably so focused on self-improvement that they would be awful to hang out with regularly.
The reality, however, is that the occasion of each turn of the page on the calendar from one year to the next offers us a delightfully scary opportunity to take stock of our present lives and to envision a different future. Culture tells the story that there are particular standards related to health, looks, material success, relationship status, lifestyle, vacations, etc. with which we should align our lives and decisions. It surreptitiously plants seeds of discontent in the soil of our hearts through commercials, social media feeds, music, film, television, and even books that fall under the self-improvement category. Each of these communicate implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) that the life you are now living is somehow missing that certain X factor. Books like Your Best Life Now! have within their title the implication that we are currently not living our best lives, are lacking the knowledge about how to go about doing that, and are encouraged to consume (in this case purchasing and reading) information to help us do the thing that we haven't been able to do in previous years.
The problem is that resolutions rarely fall flat because of a lack of information. We are overwhelmed with information in ways our parents and grandparents cannot even fathom. Our resolutions fizzle out because of a failure of nerve. We lack courage and are out of touch with a sense of our wholeheartedness. We desire that sense of resolve so much that we will travel to the ends of the earth to encounter its incarnation in holy people or other "thought leaders" who seem to have cracked the code for what it looks like to show up fully to one's life. These people are elevated to statuses that keep them in heroic positions relative to our own, and rather than becoming the embodiment of that inner fire that we see in them, we offload that work to spiritual gurus, famous bloggers, and other public figures who we unconsciously ask to hold and mediate that energy on our behalf in exchange for our worship and retweets. In so doing we remain bystanders to our own lives, permanent audience to the lives of others (most of whom we don't truly know), and fanboys and fangirls of people whose lives may be more charmed in some ways but who are no less subject to the vagaries that touch each of us regardless of social (media) status.
If my work as an adult educator and chaplain has taught me anything, it is that everyone wants to be different than they are today. It is almost axiomatic. In that desire for something else, there is an insinuation that we are perpetually fated to be estranged from our deepest desires, for there will always be a new gadget, a new house, a new trip, a new spouse, a new idea, or a new fad diet to enjoy. But these are external to the self. They do not speak to the level of metanoia or change we truly desire. If anything, our appetite for accessorized change is an echo of a deeper need to find contentment, acceptance, and self-compassion for who and where we are now. Placing the carrot on a stick always beyond our reach may provide motivation for movement, but it does not provide much in the way of discernment and direction.
Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön speaks about the language of self-improvement as essentially violence to the self, for if we cannot accept ourselves as is we send ourselves the message that there is something fundamentally wrong with us. We tell ourselves, "I will love myself when I get over this addiction," or "I will love myself when I lose x number of pounds," or "I will love myself when I have found the perfect partner," but while we're addicted, "overweight," or struggling in relationships are we not in need of that very love that we are withholding from ourselves? Sharon Salzberg talks about a question she once asked the Dalai Lama related to our propensity toward self-hatred, to which he responded confusedly, "What's that?" She said, "When I explained to him what I meant by the term — talking about the cycle of self-judgment, guilt, unproductive thought patterns — he asked me, “How could you think of yourself that way?” and explained that we all have 'Buddha nature.'" I want to experience that level of self-compassion.
What I have encountered in my own life and in the lives of others is that when we can accept and love ourselves where we are, change happens without our needing to control the process. The beauty of this time of year is that we have another chance to simplify our lives, to recognize that we have everything we need, and to embrace all of ourselves with profound lovingkindness. If we can do that we may find that gratitude becomes habitual rather than a task to complete, that sitting becomes an invitation to rest in the goodness of our own breath rather than a mindful means to an end, and that self compassion may reduce our resolutions to the one thing that truly matters today (and everyday): our wholehearted presence.