Why resolutions can often just increase problems

Carl Rogers suggested that a lot of the distress or anxiety in our lives comes when there is incongruence between the ideal image of the self which we have,  and our actual lived experience. This anxiety is expressed differently in each person, due to the many ways that the self-image is formed. Around New Years Day we are encouraged, even on some well-meaning sites, to form resolutions for the coming year, to look at the many ways in which we need to change. Now,  reflecting on the discipline needed to establish healthy practices in our lives is a good thing, as is being inspired by other people. And there is often a desire in the winter months to reflect on what brought the deepest joy over the past year and  shed dead wood in preparation for new growth  – or symbolically throw old plates out the window, as the Italians do. So working at our edge gently is always necessary in our lives.  However, over the years, I have come to believe that, instead of helping, a lot of these notions –   and the pre-digested strategies offered –  actually feed the problem, by strengthening the thoughts about an ideal self which we wish to have, and our need to fix ourselves to get it. Ironically, continually setting expectations of sudden growth – frequently encouraged in today’s society – can introduce a subtle violence in how we relate to ourselves and prevent us from deeper happiness, because it feeds three tendencies which our minds have. The first is the temptation to believe that there is a magic time in the future – maybe next year – when we are going to get it “all together”, and our lives will be perfect,  once we do such and such a practice or adopt some latest idea. Second, it encourages us to move away from the life which we actually have , and spend our time in thoughts about the life we would like to have. And,  as we notice again and again in practice, the mind prefers to spend more time in thinking about life than in working with what is actually in front of us, right now.  Thirdly, it stimulates the “comparing mind”, which is happy to evoke a better version of ourselves, which seems a good thing but frequently triggers discouragement and fear rather than a real ability to change. Often making expectations for the future is just a way of running away from relating to the life we actually have.  So,  maybe the best “resolution” is to give up on this notion of fixing oneself, and  rather focus on how we can deepen our lived experiences right now, with all their imperfections.  For most of us, that is where we are called to grow, and our slow commitment to more conscious living is better served by that, rather than by seeking magic changes in the coming weeks which will bring us suddenly to perfection.

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

On not setting targets

Again and again I therefore admonish my students in Europe and America: Don’t aim at success –  the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run … success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Replacing our myths

Society today prides itself at times at having thrown out some of the outdated myths that guided our forefathers and grandparents. We have progressed and base ourselves on more rational forces now. However, we are always guided by some myths, whether we are aware of it or not. We simply replace one philosophy by another, and worship in a different type of temple.

The collective fantasies of the modern world are that the old myths can be revived by acts of will, or that by acts of will new myths will be generated. While we have suffered the loss of the old, tribal myths, by and large,  we cannot generate new ones – though for sure many have tried. We transfer the need for the experience of the transcendent onto persons, objects, and causes and wonder why they disappoint.

Another way of putting this is that when the gods are not experienced inwardly, they will be projected outwardly. The energy we project onto the things of our world – objects, causes, ideologies, relationships – possess a kind of autonomy, for they momentarily carry spirituality for us. As Jung warns “Our consciousness only imagines that it has lost the gods; in reality they are still there and it only needs general conditions to bring them back in full force”.  Whenever the level of personal attention is lowered…the tendency of the ego to project what is not addressed in the inner life increases its fascination with the outer.

James Hollis, Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life

An escape hatch from our fears

This word ‘meditation’ can mean all kinds of things. It’s a word that includes any kind of mental practices, good or bad. But when I use this word, what I’m mainly using it for is that sense of centring, that sense of establishing, resting in the centre. The only way that one can really do that is not to try and think about it and analyse it; you have to trust in just a simple act of attention, of awareness. It’s so simple and so direct that our complicated minds get very confused. “What’s he talking about? I’ve never seen any still point. I’ve never found a still point in me. When I sit and meditate, there’s nothing still about it.” But there’s an awareness of that. Even if you think you’ve never had a still point or you’re a confused, messed-up character that really can’t meditate, trust in the awareness of that very perception. This is something you can really trust. So in pointing to this centre point, to this still point, to the here-and-now, I’m pointing to the way of transcendence or the escape from it.  Not escape by running away out of fear, but the escape hatch that allows us to get perspective on the mess, on the confusion, on the complicated self that we have created and identify with.

Ajahn Sumedho, Identity

Not panicking when we cannot see clearly the road ahead.

Yesterday we saw a dense fog descend in these parts, reducing visibility and making driving last night a bit precarious, because of the difficulty in seeing signs and markings.  Today dawned bright and clear, even though snow is expected later. Easy to apply this contrast to how we work with emotions in our lives, especially around Christmas and New Year. What I have noticed in conversations over the past few days is that this period has a capacity to make people question where they are,  or to feel insecure in the direction of their lives. For some reason these dates become a time for measuring how we are doing, comparing our progress with either internal ideas or memories of a good Christmas or external images of what a successful or dynamic New Year should be like. We frequently have a concept of what success should be like and measure ourselves against that. And since we always like our mind to be clear and spacious, we get disturbed when some of the thoughts which pass through our mind turn our mood  judgmental or melancholic. And then a commentary can take hold, telling us we have not “achieved” as much as we wanted this past year, or that we are not doing as well as we think we should be.  And this tends to emerge in conversations as justifying – we hear why a person has done such and such or is going to change and do something else – reflecting an inner discussion about the “right” road towards progress.

However, such justifications are not really needed because passing moods are quite normal, and not worth taking too much interest in. Furthermore, realising that we have an underlying sense of dissatisfaction – more pronounced at this time of year – is a necessary stepping stone to wisdom. It is a mistake to think that we will always feel secure inside ourselves.  Even though we are adults,   a sense of feeling lost may lie close beneath the surface of our lives, and is quite normal. It is not an indication that we are doing anything wrong.  As the current weather shows, periods of fog and cold are normal parts of a cycle. Not seeing the road ahead clearly does not mean it is not there.

So what, practically can we do, when these moments of fog and confusion descend? Firstly it is good to notice the underlying tone. If there is a hint of fear in them, we are most likely in the unhelpful presence of forcing and fixing. The second step is to try to see them, like all thoughts, and subsequent emotions,  as things that arise and pass away, and not feed them by paying them too much attention. As always, our thoughts about our life are not the most reliable place to anchor our sense of self.  We cannot really see the road towards the future and we have a proven inability to predict clearly. Therefore we return to the only place we can be sure of, our  awareness of the present, and a curiosity about whatever is going on there, even if it is troublesome emotions. This refuge of awareness is normally much kinder than our fear-driven judgments about the future.

To look for progress is a setup — a guarantee that we won’t measure up to some arbitrary goal we’ve established. Traditional teachings tell us that one sign of progress in meditation practice is that our “kleshas”  – our strong conflicting emotions – diminish. Though the teachings point us in the direction of diminishing our klesha activity, calling ourselves “bad” because we have strong conflicting emotions is not helpful. That just causes negativity and suffering to escalate. What helps is to train again and again in not acting out our kleshas with speech and actions, and also in not repressing them or getting caught in guilt. Progress isn’t what we think it is. We are talking about a gradual learning process. By looking deeply and compassionately at how we are affecting ourselves and others with our speech and actions, very slowly we can acknowledge what is happening to us — which is one sign of progress. We then discover that patterns can change, which is another sign of progress. Basically this is instruction on disowning: letting go and relaxing our grasping and fixation. At a fundamental level we can acknowledge hardening; at that point we can train in learning to soften.

Pema Chodron, Signs of Spiritual Progress

No longer living on the surface

In personal practice we have a precise and potent way to understand the most important thing in our life, which is our mind and heart. We sit there day by day and watch something very private and intimate take place — the unfolding of our wisdom and compassion. Nobody else is watching.  We know there’s nothing more important we could do, and yet we don’t write home about it. We don’t need to boast. We can simply enjoy a quiet sense of contentment, knowing that we have set aside the time to do something incredibly kind for ourselves. Without meditation as the bedrock of our sanity, how do we avoid being overreactive, coerced by quick solutions to our problems? These quick solutions come in the form of anger and frustration that the world doesn’t act the way we want, simply because we ourselves lack patience. Our mind becomes irritated, consumed with trying to align the outside world with our desires. If we could simply develop a level of peace in ourselves, our relationship to the world would be that much more harmonious. 

As we deepen our mind through personal practice, we are able to dissolve our boundaries and rest in … the nature of how things actually abide. This personal time in which we experience the mind as fluid, unstuck, and without boundaries begins to affect our view of the world as a fixed and immovable place. We are no longer skimming life or our perceptions. We have broken through.

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche