Resolutions II: starting over

The cultural cliché of New Year resolutions is, however, based on a deep pattern, reflecting nature at this time. It seems evident that there is a need to mark change at this time, be it at New Year, the Winter Solstice or in Advent. We too look for the new to emerge from what is resting or decaying, just as nature does at this time. Unfortunately our need to participate in this natural rhythm can make us pressured and down, far from the natural growth it intends to imitate.

So how do we work with this good desire for change, without falling into the culturally-driven anxiety around our life or our career, our fitness, or our goals? How can we look at the desire for major life change without falling into self-criticism and judgement? We can best do this by bringing mindfulness and the attitudes which ground it to our desire for self improvement, to prevent us from running after something, no matter how worthwhile it seems, which will just substitute one form of unhealthy striving for another. Change which is not based on the attitudes of kindness and acceptance of self will only lead to a waste of energy and greater frustration.

Bringing mindfulness to our desire for change can help us focus on our intention. Is it to find greater harmony and balance in ourselves? Or is it focused on greater acceptance by others, or a desire to fit into an external story as to what is right, successful or happy? Looking at the story we are telling ourselves behind the desire for change is one of the gifts that mindfulness can bring. The possibility of genuine change begins with accepting oneself at the deepest level of one’s core sense of self. Befriending ourselves, not running away from ourselves, allows any change come in a natural way, and is therefore sustainable.

Thus any aspiration we make these day needs to be firm and realistic without becoming rigid. We can do this by not placing the emphasis on controlling the outcome, but focus on starting out and starting over and over again each time we falter and fail. We practice non-judgement towards ourselves and simply say when things go wrong, “I was doing well and I will start again”. In this way our desire for new growth proceeds in a steady but gentle way, and we do not waste time and energy on criticizing ourselves or getting discouraged.

This shift in focus is attitudinal: You simply do what you care about as well as you can. This is a humble attitude, but it is exactly what’s needed for you to sustain your resolution. In so doing, you free yourself from your judging mind that thinks it can control results and creates the grandiose expectation that you can do more than you can do in the present moment. You become a more effective person by simply learning to use your time and energy to do what you can do right now.

Phillip Moffitt

Resolutions I : Judging

In many ways celebrating the end of the year today is an arbitrary choice, having little or no meaning. We have seen that the Church calendar started New Year already four weeks ago, while the ancient Celts marked their new year at Halloween. For other peoples and faiths, the Winter Solstice on December 21st marks the turning from one year’s darkness into a new years light.

And yet this day can take on a lot of meaning for people and can provide fertile ground for the judging mind. It is true that discerning, comparing and evaluating are part of the function of the mind and necessary in many contexts. Discernment in particularly can be accompanied by gentle kindness and contains wisdom and openness. However, this is not always the case with judging which we get so used to that often we do not realise we are doing it. Whatever we are looking at, in every situation, there is a constant commentary going on in our heads – that is not good, she is wrong, that is ugly, what a rude person. We frequently notice the mind coming to immediate conclusions about people we hardly know; spontaneously finding some things wrong with this or that person.

Unfortunately, we tend to turn the judging mind on ourselves, especially on a day like today. We have not “achieved” as much as we wanted this past year, we do not have a good a social life as those who are going to nice parties this evening, we are not doing as well as we think we should be. These fear-driven observations then give rise to (unconsciously) fear-driven resolutions ” I will do such-and-such next year” “I will do better, do more…” If we look deeply we can notice a heaviness associated with these resolutions, a hint of pushing and impatience. This type of thinking is just another aspect of our inability to accept ourselves without the spontaneous wish to fix ourselves, and tends ultimately just to lead to more dissatisfaction. Pushing to change ourselves based on unwholesome motivations will not lead to greater contentment with ourselves or our lives in the long run. Furthermore, these motivations tend not to produce the commitment needed for real change so do not last.

What would it be like today just to have one resolution: to accept ourselves deeply as we are, dropping the judging mind which splits the world into “them” and “me”. If we stopped the mind’s continual question – “what’s wrong with me” – for a year, what type of change would that lead us to?

When you dwell in stillness, the judging mind can come through like a foghorn. “I don’t like the pain in my knee… This is boring…I like this feeling of stillness; I had a good meditation yesterday, but today I’m having a bad meditation… It’s not working for me. I’m no good at this. I’m no good, period…”

This type of thinking dominates the mind and weighs it down. It’s like carrying around a suitcase full of rocks on your head. It feels good to put it down. Imagine how it might feel to suspend all your judging and instead to let each moment be just as it is, without attempting to evaluate it as “good” or “bad.” This would be a true stillness, a true liberation. Meditation means cultivating a non-judging attitude toward what comes up in the mind, come what may.

Jon Kabat Zinn

Ways of seeing

I remember one afternoon as I was sitting on the steps of our monastery in Nepal. The monsoon storms had turned the courtyard into an expanse of muddy water, and we had set out a path of bricks to serve as stepping-stones. A friend of mine came to the edge of the water, surveyed the scene with a look of disgust, and complained about every single brick as she made her way across. When she got to me, she rolled her eyes and said, “Yuck! What if I’d fallen into that filthy muck? Everything’s so dirty in this country!” Since I knew her well, I prudently nodded, hopping to offer her some comfort through my mute sympathy.

A few minutes later, Raphaele, another friend of mind, came to the path through the swamp. “Hup, hup, hup!” she sang as she hopped, reaching dry land with the cry, “What fun!” Her eyes sparkling with joy, she added: “The great thing about the monsoon is that there’s no dust.” Two people, two ways of looking at things; six billion human beings, six billion worlds.

Matthieu Ricard “A Way of Being.”

Mindfulness and Social Anxiety

Most people get nervous when asked to give a presentation or meet a new group of people. However, for those who suffer from Social Anxiety Disorder, also known as Social Phobia, the idea of addressing a crowd often triggers more than just jittery nerves. Headaches, sleep problems and persistent thoughts of failure or embarrassment are common. This anxiety may be provoked by a variety of social situations, not just public speaking, but also by challenges such as participating or presenting at meetings or talking with a group of people.

In a study at Stanford University, headed by psychology researcher Philippe Goldin, participants with Social Anxiety Disorder underwent the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Programme. Results of the study were published in the Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy in early 2009. Goldin focused on the negative thoughts which dominate the anticipated future for those suffering from anxiety: “The idea is that if a person has the psychological flexibility to shift freely from one mode of thinking to another mode, then that is a sign of health, It’s when we get stuck in certain thinking patterns that our beliefs become maladaptive.“. The study found that mindfulness meditation helped patients develop this flexibility.

On a day-to-day level, Goldin encourages patients battling Social Anxiety Disorder to take “meaningful pauses” throughout the day as a way to monitor and take charge of their fears and self-doubts. “It breaks the circuit,” says one participant. “I always thought that anxiety had me in its grip, but I realized it’s the other way around. I have it in my grip. It’s a matter of learning to let it go.”


One reason we do sitting meditation is to strengthen our capacity to be with ourselves. It is, as has been said, a profound act of gentleness towards ourselves, because we allow ourselves to simply be, without any need to achieve or do. It is a calm moment, touching genuine natural calmness within. This development of our capacity to be alone with ourselves is a key to happiness, growth and to real relationships with others. It is not a surprise that all the major wisdom and religious traditions recommend setting aside time, or a day, to pause, rest and be with ourselves.

No other person will completely feel like we do, think like we do, act like we do. Each of us is unique, and our aloneness is the other side of our uniqueness. The question is whether we let our aloneness become loneliness or whether we allow it to lead us into solitude. Loneliness is painful; solitude is peaceful. Loneliness makes us cling to others in desperation; solitude allows us to respect others in their uniqueness and create community.

Letting our aloneness grow into solitude and not into loneliness is a lifelong struggle. It requires conscious choices about whom to be with, what to study, how to pray, and when to ask for counsel. But wise choices will help us to find the solitude where our hearts can grow in love.

Henri Nouwen

The Gift

For my Father, buried this day, 1973.

Did someone say that there would be an end,
An end, Oh, an end, to love and mourning?
What has once been so interwoven cannot be raveled,
nor the gift ungiven.
Now the dead move through all of us still glowing….
What has been plaited cannot be unplaited –
only the strands grow richer with each loss
and memory makes kings and queens of us.
When all the birds have flow to some real haven,
we who find shelter in the warmth within,
Listen, and feel new-cherished, new-forgiven,
As the lost human voices speak through us
and blend our complex love,
Our mourning without end.

May Sexton, All Souls