Friday, January 1, 2010

Screw New Years Resolutions - Those Manifestations of Small Hope and Fear

At some point in my life, I remember doing New Years resolutions. Using this "arbitrary time marker" - as Barbara over at Barbara's Buddhist blog recently called it - I'd imagine everything was fresh and new, and that the past simply erased and gone. Sure, I got pissed off a lot last year, but now it's a new year, and so I resolve to end my habit of getting pissed off at every little thing.

From there, I would go trodding off into the new day, with my resolution tucked inside a shirt pocket, jacket pocket, or simply in the pocket of my mind. The act of writing it down, I thought, would help ingrain it, make it harder to ignore. And so I would go, and inevitably, something would happen, and I'd get pissed. Maybe not the first day. Maybe even a whole week would go by. But eventually, always sooner rather than later, the switch would flip, and that little ball would roll down the old mind groove, and take me back into the past. Isn't petty angers and frustrations always associated with something from the past, some experience or story line we have fixed ourselves on?

Last New Year's, my nation, the United States, was abuzz in hope. We had a new president, one that finally broke the racial exclusivity barrier and was promising to lead the country away from the misery of the previous decade or so. Lots of wild ideas were floating around. Savior talk was even fairly common amongst people who really should have know better. And behind all of it, the fear that something would derail this charismatic leader from fulfilling his promise. That something would keep us in collective misery, and sure enough, not much has changed here one year later.

But like those "little" resolutions to loose weight, or be a better parent, or quit smoking, or stop getting pissed off at silly things, the hope behind the Obama train was just the flip side of fear - a nice sounding rhetoric with an unexamined shadow ready to sink it at any moment.

Even though I think there is something in the spiritual life that might be called Great Hope, most of what we call "hope" - even in a spiritual context - is simply fraud by another name. If you can find a hope that is not intimately attached to fear, then maybe that is worth having. But be honest, have you ever made a New Year's resolution that wasn't laden with the fear of failure, or some other fear?

I like the idea of beginning anew. Of starting again and again - with fresh eyes. Beginning anew is akin to "don't know mind" in that both, in their process, breaking through fixed views of what is.

Resolutions, on the other hand, feel like sucking on sugar coated shit balls. You roll a piece of your shitty self, a part you really don't like, in sugar and then suck on it, hoping that you put enough sugar on to spur you to make the effort to change. I suppose sometimes it works, but most of the time, you suck through the sugar and are left with a mouth full of personal shit again.

Some of you might be saying by now - man, what a downer. Where's your good spirit on this first day of the year?

Well, I actually feel pretty good today. It's freezing outside. The evening darkness comes before the afternoon is over. My feet are wet from stepping into a deep snowbank. And I feel the joy of being alive today, of beginning anew. However, unlike a lot of people, I've been working on beginning anew every day. Sometimes, even every hour, and every minute, when things are really clicked in.

Beginning anew, unlike most New Year's resolutions, has space for the past, space for the shit of your life. There's no effort to disown, or transcend any of it. It's more like resetting your compass towards the most important thing in your life. What is most important? You answer that for yourself again and again.

This isn't a place of no effort. The effort is simply directed at something much larger than a bad habit, or character flaw. And in doing so, in redirecting your boat's sails again and again - like coming back to your breath in zazen - those issues in your life that you don't like, don't want, don't know what to do with start to resolve themselves. In other words, there's a resolution, but it's really not about personal willpower, shaming and guilt, or whatever else tends to drive us to change.

So on this first day of 2010 - I offer you this - Screw New Year's Resolutions! Go out and play in the snow. Or go to your cushion and do zazen. Or sit at your computer and check your e-mail. Or whatever. But resist the urge to suck on the sugar of small hopes, and instead try asking yourself - What is most important?

May we all begin anew again and again.


Anonymous said...

Peace be upon you. As I suck on the last of the festive chocolate, I thank you for reminding me/us of dropping the "sugar of small hopes." Such hopes as new year's resolution easily translate into disappointment, sense of failure, and ye olde suffering. Deep bow for your thoughtful posts. Peter (in Canada)

Buddhist_philosopher said...

Nathan, thank you for this very thoughtful post. I'll write more about this and other Buddhist New Years ideas soon, but want to offer some thoughts here too.

I like Barbara's phrase about the arbitrariness of the New Year; but in a cultural sense, going back to the days of Saturnalia, this isn't arbitrary.

The rest I basically agree with - better to seek change and awareness in every day, every moment, than trying to do it all in one year (and then failing and waiting to do it again the next year).

I'll still be making resolutions, and you'll see why, but I hope to follow your example of remaining more focused on the present than on some mythical dream tinged with fear of what lurks behind me...