A New Year: Time moves on, or does it?

What, then, is time?  If no one ask of me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not. St Augustine

We cannot be separated from time…we ourselves are time.  Dozen

New Year’s Eve is one of the days when we can put ourselves under pressure by our understanding of time, which leads to judgmental thoughts.

Mindfulness practice emphasizes awareness of the present moment, without judgment, as being the only moment that we have to work with to produce happiness.  This is based on a frequent teaching in the Buddhist tradition, such as in The Sutra on Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone, where the Buddha advised his listeners not to dwell on the past and the future, but to live mindfully in the present. However, we can find a similar understanding in the Christian tradition from St Augustine, who argued that the past has no actual existence now,  and that the future has yet to come. We are subjectively alive and conscious only now, however much we like to run away from that.

A lot of stress this day comes from how we allow ourselves to see time as an external thing, which happens to us. Modern society likes to see time as something that has to be productive, provided we simply take better charge of it. Once we understand it this way we can easily fall into the fears associated with thoughts of it “being wasted”, “not being used well enough” or “going too fast”. These thoughts become judgmental on days like New Year’s Eve,  as we evaluate the past year and feel we have not used time well enough, or push ourselves with resolutions to “use” it better in the future. We even compare how we are using the minutes and hours just before midnight as some sort of measure as to how popular or successful we are.   This creates mental time zones in our heada future imagining of something better and a current dissatisfaction with aspects of our life now – which serves to make us feel misplaced in the present. We mentally want to relocate into the future and this creates a tension which can be felt in our body and in our emotions.

However, time is not something that exists independent to us. We create time and the sense of its passing in our minds. Therefore, it is linked to our inner contentment and gratitude more than to any outside, objective standard. The future exists mainly in our thoughts,  and is largely a projection of the fears and desires which exist in us now. Seeing this, we realize that the only place we can work on our happiness is not tomorrow or next week, but now. Most of the talk about future resolutions are rooted in some understanding of effort and pushing,  which only ultimately increase the tension they are designed to relieve.

On a similar level,  the past can also cause us suffering today.  One of the main ways is by replaying the events of the past year and repeating stories to ourselves about them . We seem to hang onto painful events just as much as happy memories; indeed we get some of our present identity from them and are almost afrauid to let them go.  Thus we lose the present moment by letting memories or events of the past year impact on us, turning into a fear, which we mask as judgment or contempt, thus creating discontent, striving, and comparing.  The best way to ease this suffering is to develop a compassionate understanding of oneself and others, softening the heart rather than hardening it.

Mindfulness practice is slowly accepting ourselves, without judgment, in the present, as it actually is. Suffering comes from demanding more choices than what the present reality is actually offering. The present moment then becomes problematic for us and we deal with this by wishing or dreaming, pushing or blaming. Accepting the present moment means allowing whatever emotions that arise on this day to arise, without seeing them as pointing elsewhere, or implicating anyone. In that way this day is like any other day: we have the choice to work with our reality with compassion or with fear. With compassion the fear of the future or the blaming of the past can dissolve; we are left with the ongoing unfolding of life itself, not our thoughts about it.

Distracting ourselves from where we are

We have all kinds of ways of imagining the future that distract us from actually living in the present.

What  sitting practice is really about, is living in the present so that we can actually manifest this precious life in a way that feels right.

Blanche Hartman, Soto Zen teacher,  This life which is wonderful and evanescent

Tonight we’re going to party….

The expectations which a new year creates can sometimes heighten the sense of  disappointment or insecurity which we feel regarding where our life actually is.

There are a number of ways in which we can respond to this insecurity. One is to say “Tonight we are going to party like it’s ….” In other words, focus on what needs to be added to your life and throw yourself into something different. Convince yourself that what is required is to go out and find a party or new friends and surround yourself with life and music, get a new look and start all over again. In this way you can leave behind the past year/ person/ relationship/ bad patch (insert your own version here……….) and break free, finally, once and for all.  Now,  this not the worst of ideas, and I too will celebrate the evening in a party with friends.  However, if the underlying causes are not faced most likely it just offers relief for a few hours. Most things started in haste or under pressure tend to pick up at the same level of development we are at when we jump into them, and thus can just prolong the same issues.

A different response is to turn on yourself, focus on what is lacking, feel bad about who you are, dissect the reasons as to why you have reached the end of another year and yet are no further on than last year, and push harder. This pushing can take the shape of finding the root causes for your problems, such as having too many unhealed problems since childhood. Or it can simply focus on now, demanding more, pushing harder, renewing your positive thoughts or ambitions for the next twelve months. This is the way to be more focused/ more balanced/have a better body/ find a new relationship (insert your own version here………..) However, pushing ourselves towards perfection is unrelenting, and, as hard as we try, we are unlikely to turn off the critical messages in our heads that say “this is never good enough” or “what will those looking at me say?” And any desire for change which is based on unrelenting standards towards ourselves tends to maintain the same division between the “I” that observes and the “I” that is not good enough and thus just perpetuates the same perspective into the future.

There are some strange contradictions inherent in change and happiness. Change comes from accepting ourselves – resting with our imperfections and recognizing that we are already enough – and seeing that we are worthy of love and belonging.  All moving forward needs to be based on our capacity to sit still, accepting what we have. Happiness comes when we do not make it the focus of our efforts, but accepting that it comes even when we are not completely satisfied with where we are at any given moment.

Give up on yourself. Begin taking action now, while being neurotic or imperfect, or a procrastinator, or unhealthy, or lazy, or any other label by which you inaccurately describe yourself. Go ahead and be the best imperfect person you can be and get started on those things you want to accomplish before you die

Shoma Morita

Preparing for a new year

As yesterday’s post said, people begin to look forward to the new year as an opportunity to start again. This is natural, but frequently does not lead to any real change, unless we understand the patterns within our own heart. Any lasting growth comes from  an understanding of our heart, with all its needs and hopes, its vulnerabilities and wisdom.  This means that we can drop all pretense and the need to blame others for what is lacking in our lives.  In many cases the desire for change around this time is based on comparing our lives with others and feeling we are lacking.  Instead of looking outward, we turn within and gently look forward – not based on fear of where we are now or criticism of this past year – but rather accepting who we are and opening to the new opportunities which will unfold.

Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart.

Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens.

C.G. Jung

Throwing plates out the window

When I lived in Rome, New Year’s Eve was a noisy affair, with fireworks in most households and the old custom of throwing plates out of windows. This practice, more honoured nowadays in the South of Italy, was meant to get rid of all of the negative events and influences of the old year, so you could start the new one with renewed strength and enthusiasm. It maybe corresponds to a human need around this time of year, as we can see something similar in the Times Square Good Riddance Day which was held yesterday. People were invited to bring their worst memory from 2010, write it down and shred it, getting rid of it once and for all.

We probably all have some things from this past year that we are glad to get rid of. I know I have. It can be useful to consciously let go of those things and move on.  It may mean that you have to say yes to things that did not go as you wanted but cannot now change. This  does not mean that you are suddenly happy or at peace about everything, or have come to understand the meaning of any of it. You do not need to know all the answers.  It just means that at some stage you have decided to move on and find a new outlook on life, trying to integrate the losses and everything you can learn from them. You may have to live with some sadness, while trying to live without regret. You accept it and give yourself permission to move on.

The slight problem with the way that the Times Square event was named is that it plays into our need to blame others or justify ourselves when things do not work out. One way of dealing with  experiences we do not fully understand is to protect ourselves and ensure that we minimize hurt by needing to feel that we are in the right. Thus we may turn all our upset into anger towards the other and ensure that we “win”.  We blame them for the decision and freeze them into that moment.  However, what we need to realize is that we all get lost from time to time. Maybe we learn more about ourselves that way. The famous physicist Hermann von Helmholtz compared growing in knowledge to climbing a mountain. You do not proceed in a direct line up the mountain. You go round, crossways, zigzag, retrace steps, and on and on in this fashion until you arrive at the peak. From there you can see all the way down as if in a straight line.  But it was not that way coming up. Growth is that twisting path, those zigzags where we learn, the stumbling, the turning back. We are moving onwards, even when we feel we are not. Now that we have arrived at a point in the journey we may need to look at some of those twists and turns  where we got lost and simply let them go. There are more mountains to climb.