December 25, 2013

A Buddhist Approach to New Year’s Resolutions.

I recently read that out of the millions of Americans who set a New Year’s resolution for themselves,

only eight percent are successful at achieving them.

It’s not easy to intentionally effect changes in our life, yet through setting an intention and building a lifestyle around that motivation it can get easier.

Setting An Intention

If we want to create a change in our life, we can begin by clarifying our intention for doing so. Start by sitting up straight, taking a few minutes to check in with your body. Notice where you are tense and allow those muscles to relax. Once you are settled, turn your mind to the physical sensation of your breathing. Tune into the natural flow of both your in-breath and your out-breath.

After three or so minutes of this simple meditation, allow your mind to move on to the contemplation “What is my motivation for change?” When you notice yourself becoming distracted from this basic question, gently return your attention to the phrase, just as you return to the breath during formal sitting meditation.

You may feel some resistance to the idea of finding one set motivation. Notice that resistance; let it wash over you like a wave, and come back to the phrase just as you came back to the breath during the previous part of this meditative exercise.

Take a full five minutes to roll this simple question around in your mind. Then drop the phrase itself and just return to your breath, letting your mind ride on that natural reminder of the beauty of this present moment.

Are you surprised by what came up in these few minutes? I always am when I do this work. Sometimes my mind keeps returning to the image of a role model; someone who seems to embody the ideals I hold. Sometimes a certain quality that I have noticed about myself (or one that I wish to develop) comes up and I am left with a profound curiosity as to what it would be like to live my life with that at the core of who I am.

Discerning Your Personal Mandala

As a result of this contemplation, we can discern what we would like each of our personal mandalas to look like. The Sanskrit word “mandala” refers to concentric circles that form a type of organizational chart. In Buddhism, within the core of the mandala is a lineage figure or deity that one might meditate on. Around that central figure are several increasingly larger circles which contain its emanations, its associates, and so on to the point that all sentient beings are represented.

In the same way, we create mandalas for ourselves without necessarily realizing it. Whatever we take as our chief motivation is at the center. For example, if we put the classic American dream of “getting ahead in life” at the core of our mandala then our life will likely revolve around a job we may not find real meaning in. We may accumulate wealth, we may get a stereotypical “perfect” spouse who is, in fact, not perfect for us, and we might spend our time finding new ways to make more money until we retire or die exhausted.

Conversely, if we take the motivation that we want to be a kinder person as the center of our mandala, then that next circle around it might include how we could express kindness to our friends and family. Then it might include how to be kind at work, at social gatherings, or while traveling. If we put kindness at the center of our mandala then we will build a lifestyle based in that core idea of becoming who we want to be, as opposed to what we want to do for our 9-5.

Take for example my friend Adam Bucko. Adam is a naturally generous and aware person. I believe that these qualities are at the core of his mandala. Over time this aspect of who he is led him to certain activity: he’s a devoted son, a wise entrepreneur and he co-founded the Reciprocity Foundation, a homeless aide organization for youth in New York City.

I continue to be inspired by the work he is doing in working intimately with down-on-their-luck youth in a holistic fashion. He not only practices generosity in providing them with resources for work but is aware enough to know that they could benefit from care from social workers as well as meditation, acupuncture and mentoring. Adam has had a profound effect on hundreds of individuals through discerning these qualities of himself and moving them to the center of his mandala.

It is up to each of us as to what we would like our life to revolve around. Is it a career? A quality we want to cultivate? Meditation practice itself? For each of us, our core motivation for personal change will look different. That’s why it’s important to figure it out, and then intentionally develop a support structure, our own personal mandala, to support that endeavor.

As 2014 approaches, it is a helpful reminder that at any moment we can take a fresh start approach to our life. We can reflect on our intention for entering the new year, or even the new day, and see what aspects of our lives we want to cultivate through meditation and contemplation.

If we want to pick a New Year resolution that will last, best to look at the why behind the what we want to change.

Looking at our motivation will provide fuel to keep the fire of intentional change burning all year long.

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Editor: Rachel Nussbaum

Photo: elephant journal archives


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