As we approach the end of the year there is the all too often repeated ritual of making New year resolutions: made to be broken a few weeks into the New Year! Why is this? One reason might be that we try to create the ideal me in our resolutions. But this ideal me is not who I am right now so there is a conflict between how I am right now and how I think I should be, with the result that our resolutions do not celebrate us and what we have achieved but are like a teacher caustically saying “could do better” on our end of year report when we have done the best that we can!
Over the last few years I’ve suggested that we try a different approach. One that celebrates where we are whilst also acknowledging any change we would like to cultivate. Think of your life as being like a field you are tending. There will be some weeds that left unchecked may choke the growth of the crop we wish to cultivate. The Buddha encouraged us to reflect on what thoughts and actions lead us to greater calm, contentment and wisdom and which lead to suffering and sorrow. This is with the intention of identifying ways of thinking and acting that lead to our suffering, which then gives us an opportunity to choose how to act in ways that most lead to our well-being. But there is the risk of then trying to fix ourselves by making resolutions to be the opposite of the unwholesome self we have identified. In this way we are trying to get away from something rather than move towards what we are attracted by. The Buddha phrased it as seeing what thoughts and actions lead to greater peace and simply recognising those that lead away. Just as one would not touch a burning coal knowing it would cause suffering, the more fully one feels that certain actions lead to suffering one will pull away from them.
The dilemma is learning to open fully to the fact that certain actions do cause suffering rather than thinking they are a source of pleasure! Perhaps we eat more than is healthy for us. Or there is an addiction of some kind, or we sit at home on the computer rather than going out to the gym session or a walk in the park we know we ‘should’ do but do not feel drawn towards. If we then make resolutions based on what we should do, because it’s good for us, there is little emotional excitement in doing that rather than the thing we think we shouldn’t do because we know it is bad for us – but which we enjoy on one level!
How to make this switch from forcing ourselves through resolutions to do what is good for us but we do not feel an emotional pull towards and to cease to do the things we know are not good for us but we feel an emotional pull towards because they offer some sort of pleasure in the moment – even if afterwards we feel regret or shame? It’s something I’m still working on so I don’t have a definitive answer! The area I’ve been looking at in this regard is sleep. I feel great when I’m in bed and asleep by 11. I wake rested and early enough to meditate and do some exercise before breakfast. But so often I get caught up in distractions, looking at news reports on You Tube or checking Facebook, only to get lost in various posts and links to articles.
I might make a resolution to go to bed earlier, but this is trying to get away from the problem. How might I turn it around to approach the solution, to approach a way of being that the heart becomes excited by?
The Ulysses Contract in Action
The first step was acknowledging it as something that was taking me away from happiness. I was talking with a friend after last week’s Monday class and we talked of the things we were doing that were habitual and difficult to change. Once the neural connections have been laid down for certain actions it will be the default mode of the brain to make that choice, whatever ours might be: to reach for food when unhappy, to associate bedtime with watching news and distraction, to be lived by an addictive behaviour unthinkingly. How much do we live our lives, and how much are we lived by our habit patterns? Did we consciously choose these habit patterns or are they the result of life circumstances that have shaped our behaviour, but not our true being? To start to be conscious of them is to start to choose how we wish to live our life, rather than just going with what we have unconsciously picked up along the way.
By having this discussion with my friend I was able to recognise my own unaware habitual behaviour through seeing his. It’s so much easier to recognise someone else’s self-justifying behaviour than see one’s own! But then he said something that really hit home for me. We were talking about the Ulysses contract or accountability buddy concept that I wrote about a few weeks ago. The idea that one makes an agreement with another which then ties one to the intended action though checking in with each other to say if we have done it, or agreeing to meet to do an activity together so it is not so easy to make an excuse not to go. He said that during the week when he was feeling like acting on his habit he would think what would he say to me about my bedtime habits, and then turn that around to asking himself what is he going to do about his habit. Seeing how clearly he could see the unhelpfullness of my habits to me would then act as a reminder to him to see his habits more clearly rather than justify them. Likewise, I could think to myself, “what would I say to my friend about his habit” as I felt inclined towards clicking on You Tube late at night. It worked incredibly well. Often unhelpful habits arise out of a sense of loneliness and disconnection. By choosing instead to have it be a reminder to feel my connection with a friend who is also working on turning towards a way of being that is more nourishing for him it helped me to make a choice in that moment to turn the computer off and go to bed.
This has been the first week in a long time that I have gone to bed at 11pm regularly and it happened out of feeling a sense of commitment to my friend, wanting to be able to see him and say “yes, I kept thinking of you and it helped me to make a choice that was more in line with my wellbeing”. It has been said that as social animals we can use shame to our advantage – the things we justify to ourselves when done in private finding it harder to do if it means loosing face in front of another by admitting to them. So making this public to a friend and agreeing to check in with each other may help to remind us of what our deeper wish is for ourselves, rather than falling into the automatic pattern of following the habit. Once we have done this for a while it becomes easier to see that we are not the habit. That it is living us and we have a choice to see it, name it and say yes to an alternative way of being.
This sense of saying yes to a life I choose rather than passively living out a habit pattern that has become established and routine makes me feel much more attracted to the behaviour that leads to being in bed at 11pm, as opposed to making a resolution that just says ‘go to bed early!’, which feels like a parent telling me what to do. I then feel the consequences of waking up refreshed, having time to meditate and exercise and how this sets up the day. This then gives me more of a feeling of attraction to the behaviour that leads to being in bed at 11pm.
“Friendship with the wise is the Whole of the Spiritual Life”
An oft quoted statement of the Buddha’s is that “friendship with the wise is the whole of the spiritual life”. Friendship with others who are becoming more self aware and compassionate is thus vital to our own well-being. Talking openly about the unhelpful habit with such a friend helps in letting go of shame around the activity. How often do we beat ourselves up about a behaviour that we know is not good for us? But would we treat a friend in the same way? We would be kind, compassionate and caring for our friend. We might hold a boundary for them and question their actions but we would not condemn them as being stupid or a failure. If the habit is living us and is simply the result of experiences in life that have given rise to a certain activity then it is not who we are. As such there is no need to condemn ourselves for our over eating, porn addiction, binge drinking or whatever it might be. Instead by sharing it with a friend we see it as it is, a behaviour that does not serve us but keeps us trapped in a repetitive cycle.
When we look with compassion at ourselves and see that this way of acting leads away from the peace, contentment and well being we wish for ourselves we have the opportunity to acknowledge to another that we see this and in doing so we have their support in seeing who we truly are, which is not the habit, but a being who is spontaneously manifesting every moment in the moment. Just as the sky is not the clouds, even if it is totally obscured by them, in the same way we are not our habit patterns, even if they seem to dominate. Habit patterns were learnt, and exist due to the neural pathways they have burnt in our brain, but they can be unlearnt. The difficulty will be letting the neural pathway dissolve as the brain will tend to go with the easiest route. So we need to make new choices that lead to no longer using that old neural pathway. After a while those synapses in the brain will disengage and what seemed like an impossible habit to break will no longer be an active pathway. The short video below gives a beautiful depiction of how this process works and hints at why, once established, it is so hard to break a neural pathway.
Celebrating our Achievements
Rather than wishing we were our ideal self we can end the year celebrating our achievements. Spend a little while reflecting on what actions over the last year have, in however small a way, taken you towards a greater sense of well-being, peace and fulfilment. Perhaps you didn’t go to the gym 3 times a week and lose the weight you intend this time last year, but what have you done that has in some way been in line with your intention of caring for yourself? Perhaps you did a course, or became a little more healthy in some way it would be easy to discount if it does not match with the total transformation you wished for last New Year’s Eve.
You may not have established a 40 minute daily mindfulness practice, but you have remembered to stop and take a breath at times of stress, which you now see helps you to return to equilibrium. Building on this breath you can move towards the daily mindfulness practice from an appreciation of what you have already established rather than feeling a failure.
New Year’s Eve Ritual
In summary, as you prepare to see in the New Year you may like to reflect on the past year in terms of your achievements and let this inform your list of resolutions rather than it being a to do list of how to be a better version of you! As part of this you may like to reflect on the following two points:
1. What have I seen in my behaviour over the last year that does not take me towards peace, contentment and a feeling of well-being? What actions have diminished my sense of self-worth?
2. What ways of being have there been in this last year that in some way, however small, have taken me towards a sense of peace, contentment and a feeling of well-being? What actions have contributed to my sense of self-worth? Celebrate these and resolve to live more fully from these habits and ways of being in the year to come.
You may then like to create a ritual around this based on what we did in the monastery at New Year’s eve. Write both down on separate pieces of paper. Keep the ways of being that you wish to live more fully from in 2017. Put them somewhere special so that you can refer back to them regularly. With the things you wish to let go of find a way of burning this list. We used to have a large steel pan with a night light inside. Light the paper and put it in, and watch the unhelpful habits of the last year burn away.