This year, I want to spend more time on what really brings me joy and on projects that are so exciting they terrify me. I’m going to “go for the jugular,” as Natalie Goldberg puts it in her coaching to writers, by pursuing ideas that are so terrifyingly good that I get a simultaneous “I have to do that” along with a pit of the stomach feeling that says, “no way, it’s too scary!” I am not going to let my to-do list, my list of tasks, push my list of soul-satisfying work to the side. I’m going to put the stuff that’s new, that’s big, and that makes me feel vulnerable first. I’m going to put myself out there, to share what I find beautiful and true and good with others. I think it’s time. It’s New Year’s.
Yes, here we are, at the cusp of a new year. I remain amazed by the felt sense of natural grace that seems to arrive each year on New Year’s Day. Every year, right on cue, a sense of easy, unforced wonderment and newness comes on January 1st. Why do I call it a grace? Because it comes without any particular effort on my part. What is the origin of this grace? My guess is that it comes from all the meanings our culture ascribes to this day, our first day of the new year. Whatever other functions the calendar performs for us, I think that giving us a sense of an end and a new start each year are beyond value.
Most of the year, we run around fulfilling the task lists that we’ve drawn up for ourselves some time in the past. And for the most part, those task lists generate further lists that give birth to further lists, so that many, many of our tasks get completely separately from their origins, from the worthy vision that originally informed their birth. I’m speaking of the moment when we conceptualized or realized something we wanted to create for ourselves and then created a plan to make it so. Somewhere in the middle of the process of bringing our vision to life things get so complex, so convoluted, that all of a sudden we’re doing all this work, maybe 70-hour long weeks of work, without the benefit of remembering the great thing that all this work is going to get us. It’s gotten lost and the tasks have become ends in themselves.
On New Year’s, we are invited to review that past year, to evaluate all our investments of time, energy, and attention, and to make course corrections. This is why I think New Year’s is one of our most undervalued holidays – not for the football or the eve that precedes it, but because it invites us to adjust our life’s course back towards what matters most to us.
Of course, anyone who’s taken up transformative practices like meditation and yoga knows that there are many ways to create moments for life assessment. Back in the early 90’s, when I routinely attended at two or more 5-day silent zen retreats each year, I became used to the fact that with each retreat I’d attend, there would be a major reassessment of my life’s priorities and goals. It was such a great way to make rapid changes in my life at the level of embodiment (not just in my mind, but penetrating into every aspect of daily life). It was also often upsetting. I’d come back to my post retreat life a slightly different person, as if my OS had silently updated to a major new version overnight. I’d have to rediscover how everything worked in the new Bill, version 7.14. More than once, I felt called to let go of something for a while: coffee, rock music, reading, television, cheese. You know, some of the “fun stuff” of my life. I would come back from each retreat with new resolutions, new goals to live into. Now that I don’t routinely go away on retreat, I sometimes miss all the good inspiration of those longer retreats.
One of the interesting things about the kinds of insights that come with a meditation retreat is that most of the revelations and insights come to you. It’s not like you set out to figure out the solution to a problem like how to create a new product line or how to live closer to your True Self. No. What happens is more like this: you are going about the day, living according to the retreat schedule and all of a sudden, wham, uninvited, you realize something about your life. Very often, it’s something unpleasant or unsettling. And for me at least it was usually big stuff, the kind of realizations that can leave you flattened or a day or two. Not, “OMG, I am almost out of toothpaste,” but perhaps, “I have been pretending to love my life when I’m actually sick of it!” And I think precisely because we receive these revelations in this way, as something that we “realize” rather than something we strategize, it is just so obvious that we must respond to the realization. And that’s where the post-retreat resolutions come in. Having realized that I’m trying to hide from the fact that I hate my life (let’s say), I have basically no choice but to face this fact and to begin doing something about it. “Painful it is, but face it we must,” our internal Yodas remind us.
When it’s time to make New Year’s resolutions, I think the ones that come from this kind of realization process are the best. There are always lots of seemingly good ideas for resolutions around, but most of them are straight from our super-ego, from our “should-system,” our internalized parental voice that is full of hard to implement good ideas. Yes, of course I should lose some weight, exercise more, take more time to meditate, work smarter, connect with old friends, etc. etc. etc, but at least in my experience, these things make lousy resolutions because we are already giving ourselves more “should” messages than we can respond to. We are shoulding all over ourselves and adding another “should” will probably get results only if we drop something else off the “should list.” Getting to the gym more often comes at the expense of stopping at Starbucks more often (to get lunch on the way home from the gym). I think we’re all doing 110% of what any human can possibly do.
And yet, we want to make changes. We know we could be more alive, could enjoy life more. We feel the newness of New Year’s Day and we want to invest this great energy in positive change. What can we do?
My suggestion is to find something that impacts you down deep. Go right past the list of “Top Five Things I Should Change About Myself” and head for the heart, the gut, the marrow of you. The ideal resolution should be something you so want to do that it awakens old dreams and aspirations. It’s something you are so excited about doing that you might lose sleep thinking about it. I’m thinking of the goal that is not an adjustment or a cosmetic touch-up but is a transforming goal, one that will in some way “change everything” in your life – or change your perspective on everything in your life. While it can be harder find such a goal, it will be infinitely more exciting to list a few transformative goals than to have ten tasks from the “should center.”
In my view, when transformative goals are embraced and pursued, suddenly the rest of the to-do list will automatically find its proper place. As we reconnect to our deeper values, aspirations, and goals, we become energized by the goal and the tasks that lead to it become pleasant steps along the way. Like a forest path that leads to a magnificent view, the steps along the way to our goal can now be enjoyed for their own sake, as will be the actual fulfillment of the goal itself.
- Interested in creating some goals for 2016? The best transformative goals are usually found very close to home. It might be about going somewhere or doing something, but it might be more important to think about transforming the self that goes places and does things. Here are a few ideas to help get your creative resolution juices flowing:
- Where are you when it comes to living your dreams? Is there a boundary you want to push this year? It could be in any sphere of life: physical, emotional, mental, spiritual. Perhaps in your sense of who you are and how you engage with the world? Is there a challenge that keeps inviting you to play, but which you have been turning away from rather than engaging with? How could you engage your dreams fully?
- Is there an adventure you want to have? Maybe you want to have it in order to get somewhere or achieve something, but it might also be an adventure in “being” that you wish to create for yourself just for the sake of having the experience. You can jump out of an airplane, give a talk to an audience of 10,000, or stay up all night connecting more deeply with a friend. What adventure is calling you?
- Have you dedicated your life to serving a cause that centers on your passions but transcends you? Are you contributing to a movement that will continue long after you’re gone? Finding ways to affirm your passion and commit to advancing it at multiple levels (for yourself but also for family and society) can be incredibly energizing. How would you like to change the world?
- Do you have a forgotten or suppressed work goal that would radically change your work experience or your entire career trajectory if pursued? What is your dream for your work life? Where would you like to find yourself ten years from now?
- Is there a creative pleasure you have been denying yourself for no reason other than that you’re too busy or it’s not “practical?” Sometimes there are precious gifts to be received in taking time away from the practical to pursue creative outlets, whether learning to draw, going on a solo camping trip, or writing poetry. What creative outlets are signaling to you that they’d like to play?
- Is there a conversation you want to have with a loved one this year, something you don’t want to put off, something that is just a little too important to wait? There are often hidden walls in our relationships and gently transcending the apparent boundaries we’ve been living with can be one of the most rewarding adventures of all!
Are you coming up with nothing, with no resolutions? Are you sick and tired of making resolutions? Has this goal-obsessed world driven you to exhaustion? Does the whole idea just leave you cold? Perhaps you are morphing into a new orientation to goals in your life? What might it be like to live without this type of goal? If you don’t have a goal, is there a vision that informs your life? Is there a peak experience in your felt-sense memory that guides you, perhaps a moment of oneness with all or a sense of gratitude for being alive?
In my experience, aligning our lives with our passion and our highest goals and values has such an enlivening, energizing effect that we just “know” when we’ve got it right. When the daily tasks are experienced as a meaningful, enjoyable part of the whole, we’ve realized the ideal of an integrated life. When we feel our future self, the one we were born to become, reaching back and encouraging us forward into the future that awaits us, we are in sync. I know of no more gratifying way to live. And in this time of challenges to us from every corner of life, I think there’s nothing more urgent than to reconnect to our true selves and our sacred purpose for this life.
Wishing you a rich and rewarding New Year, and many awakenings to greater life!