I want to say at the outset that I’ve never been big on New Year’s resolutions. It’s not that resolving to change old habits and develop new ones is not a worthy endeavor. It is, and I think it’s the most important work of our lives. It’s just that doing it simply because it happens to be the beginning of a new year seems a bit forced to me. I get the logic: new year=clean slate. But just because the calendar has turned over doesn’t mean we’re necessarily ready to change along with it.
Setting an intention to change a habit that no longer serves us is valuable. But it’s very helpful for us to spend some time getting to know our patterns and their physical/mental/emotional residue before we decide how to deal with them. Seeing what we’re doing, and observing the effects, can inspire us to start the process of unwinding deeply set patterns, but from a place of experiential knowing rather than from a place of coercion—just because it happens to be a particular day of the year.
Over 30 years of practicing mindfulness, I’ve found this way of changing my behaviors to be far more effective than attempting that change just because I read somewhere or was told that particular behaviors are unacceptable. While those ways of learning can be confirming, feeling the immediate “karma” of certain behaviors in my own physical/mental/emotional space has been much more compelling for me.
How Mindfulness Helps
In the early 1990s, I experienced a painful, multi-faceted betrayal from someone I had trusted. Following the demise of my relationship with this person, a whole lot of my mental space was taken up by thoughts of anger, disappointment, sadness and grief. I also spent a fair amount of energy thinking of ways I could hurt the person back. I never intended to carry out any of these ideas, but somehow the thoughts seemed justified and right.
A year and a half after the betrayal, I was sitting a 30-day Insight meditation retreat. Because the habit of angry, vindictive thinking was well-trodden territory by then, these thoughts naturally came to the fore while I was sitting in meditation. As I watched my mind churn away the same old thoughts and felt the heat and constriction in my guts, another thought spontaneously appeared: Who’s suffering here?
I realized that these ugly thoughts I’d cultivated were only serving to increase my own suffering. Yes, the situation was painful, but did I really need to increase the suffering by rehashing it for the umpteenth time? There were other choices. After a few days, I noticed that when the vindictive thoughts showed up, they no longer carried a charge. They were just habitual thoughts, playing themselves out. I can safely say that it’s been decades since I’ve felt victim to angry thoughts about that long-ago betrayal.
Had I resolved to stop thinking these thoughts just because it happened to be a particular day of the year or because someone told me they were not healthy, I doubt it would have been so easy. It was the act of observing and letting in the pain of this type of thinking that allowed me to understand—profoundly and viscerally—how damaging the pattern was. It was no longer a choice to keep feeding the pattern.
What Meditation Is
People often think that meditation is sitting down, stopping your thoughts and emerging 20 minutes later a beacon of inner peace. If you’ve ever tried to sit for any length of time, you probably already know that’s not what happens. If you’ve sat for days on end with nothing but your monkey mind to entertain you, you know that it can feel anything but peaceful.
But if you’ve stuck with it, you also probably have an inkling that the path to peace takes you through a lot of mental brambles—a slow, painstaking trudge that reveals the most joyous and most painful patterns you’ve cultivated in your life. There are places of light, for sure. There are experiences of inexplicable freedom that come from having begun to let go of the ideas and beliefs that have shaped your behaviors and bound you for so long. Meditation can indeed yield profound inner peace, but it comes from a rather humbling process of looking deeply at our “stuff,” and seeing how it operates in our lives.
Resolve to be Mindful
So here’s how you might approach your intentions for the new year:
- • Choose one habit you’d like to change and begin by simply exploring it. You can do this in sitting meditation practice or as an issue comes to mind.
- • When the urge to indulge that habit appears, look beneath your thoughts about it. Be aware of the feelings—emotions and mental states—that accompany your desire and tune into the physical manifestations in your body. For example, what are the sensations and where are they located in your body?
- • If you choose to indulge the habit anyway, what are the effects in the body/mind? Observe this with curiosity rather than judgment.
- • If you choose not to indulge, what are the effects in the body/mind? Simply observe.
- • Note if and when the urge to indulge passes. What’s going on in the body/mind when the urge passes?
- • Just observe. Be open to what you might find as you tune into physical/mental/emotional sensations. Let go of the “in order to” mind, the mind that agrees to submit to mindful attention in order to satisfy an agenda. Settle back and observe. Often what comes up is not at all what we anticipated.
Be patient with this process. And whatever you do, don’t flog yourself for not seeing immediate results. Changing habits is a process, and for some of them, the ones that have grown deep roots, it can take a lifetime. If yoga and meditation practices are about developing wisdom and compassion, the process of exploring and coming to terms with our most stubborn patterns is the path. A huge part of this process is simply observing. And this observation is the heart of the practice of yoga.