It’s that time of year again when many of us think of something new we can take on, be it a new pattern or goal like losing weight, sitting down to write that novel, eating healthier or being kinder to our loved ones. The new year is a great inspiration for starting over or trying again though as many studies have shown, we often fail to carry out our resolutions long term. I want to suggest that this happens because of HOW we approach setting our resolutions them rather than what we choose to do.
Resolutions often involve a great deal of striving, effort and self- expectation which are not bad things but we can burn out too quickly if we don’t balance these qualities with a bit of ease, gentleness and reality check.
Choose a goal but ease up on the outcome. How do you do this?
1) Set an intention rather than a resolution
In spiritual practice such as meditation, there is an emphasis at the beginning of any activity or exercise to “set an intention” which helps you keep your focus on the tone and gist of what you’re hoping to do instead of compelling yourself to get it exactly right. You choose an overall direction to move towards as you go along. Having an intention allows you to pick a goal but soften around how you get there (imagine holding onto the steering wheel on a road but not gripping til your hand hurts). It also protects you from immediate disappointment and resignation.
So for example, if you’re meeting up with a friend who you often become impatient with, you might decide to set an intention to open your heart a little more than usual this time and be compassionate with him/ her today. You don’t beat yourself up for not fully meeting your intentions if that happens, but you aim in the direction of that intention and allow room for something new to happen.
Setting an intention creates a larger context of what you’d like to see. It’s broader and gentler than just having a fixed goal. It leaves a bit more space around itself and leave room for imperfection.
So let’s say my new year’s resolution is “ I want to eat healthier this new year”. I could begin by cooking healthy every night by forcing myself to load up on groceries, download recipes and get cracking in the kitchen, though it’s likely that after a week of this slave pace I may start to feel tired and annoyed and burnt on my creative crash course. Another option is to set an intention which is a willingness to move in the general direction of health.
2) Lean into the new behavior and ease up on your expectations rather than diving in head first
How do you let up a bit on your goal? Begin by listening in to the language and feeling of your self talk (self explanatory: how you talk to yourself inside your head). Are you pressuring yourself? Do you sense urgency when you approach your intention or goal. If so, can you let go just a bit of the tightness of your grasp on things ? Notice your words. Are you saying: “I have to… My child has to… I must… He should.. You should” ..I must always.. “ “EVERY day I will……” “By this date I will have lost x pounds..” and if so, see how that feels when you say that. If it feels stressful, consider lightening up how you talk to yourself and change to: “I’d like to.. I intend to work towards.. I want to ease into this…. lean into that…..”
Your intention, if you take it seriously is powerful. If you let yourself soften a bit, keeping your eye on the goal while being kind to yourself , realistic about your abilities and not overshooting with demanding expectations- you’ll like yourself more in the process.
So back to eating healthy. If I begin to look at how often I expect myself to eat healthy and how quickly I expect to be IN that new place- then I might be able to manage my resolution better. After all- who’s doing the pace setting?! Changing 30 years of possibly unhealthy choices does not happen in 4 days and it’s even a bit masochistic to expect that of myself.
So how about if I set an intention to eat healthier over the next few months and let go of the expectation that by February 1st I will be the poster board for the Organic Living magazine cover? More realistic and less pressure = more likely to succeed.
Ask yourself: can I move TOWARDS or in the general direction of this intention rather than expect perfection right when I begin? Break down your expectations into smaller bits so they feel more manageable. When you take on a new pattern it’s a bad set up to expect success in pulling it off right away. You have to ease into the new pattern. Think broad brush strokes or macro vs micro.
Trying to making one healthier meal/ day or three per week might be a more manageable start. Or just deciding to cut out soda or cut down to a lower amount for a few days could be more realistic. Think harm reduction vs. sobriety as a beginning. Some people can do the radical change but not everyone succeeds that way.
It’s invigorating and inspiring to have something to work towards however don’t forget to be gentle with yourself. A famous Hasidic rabbi once said “ breaking one character trait is more difficult than studying the entire Talmud”: (and if you don’t know what the Talmud is -it’s 6200 pages of jewish text analyzing laws, ethics etc..… – quite the project to try to study it in its entirety requiring years of intensive focus).
Expect that real change takes time, perseverance and patience. Buddhist nun and inspirational author Pema Chodron, talks about leaning into difficult feelings and experiences that is easing into them inch by inch into them rather than flying head first. (ouch!)
3) Change is a process- not an immediate outcome. Open to the lessons and feelings along the way meant to inspire and guide you. They are the change!
If you’re too rigid or narrow in your approach to making a change, you leave little room for facing and negotiating unexpected obstacles and feelings which can help you get closer to your goal. As you work towards a goal, you DO learn new things about yourself even at your own protest or dismay if you keep your eyes open and allow your feelings to inform you. Every moment can be your teacher.
So, let’s say your intention is to get to bed earlier in the new year. If you shoot only from your mind “I must get to sleep early!!”, you leave little room for sensing how that process FEELS and to noting how realistic your expectation is to your experience. Whoops! you forgot you’re not JUST a mind! You also have a body that might not agree with your mind’s plan or cooperate right away if you’ve been a night owl for years. Make room for your feelings.
Aiming for an earlier bedtime, you might discover other things about yourself such as how hard it is for you to work on this goal. Maybe you find out that you feel sad about having to curtail your social life at night by getting to bed earlier or you work until very late so your body needs more than an hour to wind down so it’s unrealistic to go to bed as early as you planned. If you can respect your reactions and feelings about the process you may come to work more cooperatively with yourself and decide that first you need to figure out how to stop working so late so you can accommodate your intention. In time, you might find you’re where you hoped to be. Be open to what may emerge.
Also, what many people take for granted is the fact that just stating your intention is planting a seed and IS the entering into the change process. It’s your initiation into something important. Sounds obvious but if you don’t value THAT you’ve begun something important (eg by reminding yourself “I’m ON a path! I’ve begun”) – you might easily devalue your choice and even miss recognizing you’ve reached your goal when you actually get there. Sometimes my clients will say wistfully “I really want to be that kind of a person- someone who’s grateful for things” and just in saying it- they are already doing it. But if you’re so tightly wound around getting to your goal- you might miss seeing that as they say “goals are currently in progress”.
When you grasp too tightly, you also risk missing relevant information that might accelerate your reaching your goal sooner. So let’s say you decide “this is the year I’m going to get married” and you focus so much on this goal you miss the important scenery and lessons that come with the journey, for example how you feel as you work towards that specific goal. Maybe you start to see that you’re actually scared of getting close to someone, so the steps you thought you needed to take to meet that person now evolve into shifting your focus from the external (“where are the good men?!”) to the internal (your relationship to your own feelings). You won’t be able to see this if you remain narrowly focused on your designated goal.
I suppose what I’m saying is the journey is the destination (at least in part).
4) Set your intention and then let go a bit ; You may not get there via the road you thought you’d take
Sometimes you have a vague goal such as“I want to be more myself” and you don’t know exactly how that will look or how you’ll put that into action. See if you can pose the question and then allow it to just dangle out there for awhile in the universe. This doesn’t mean drop the ball. It merely means leave a little breathing room around your decision. Not having to push for how the answer will come. Remember these words? “There will be an answer- let it be.”
What this really means is that you are carried in a process. You do your part and then you let the process -or the universe- meet YOU. You co-partner with the relationship you enter.
When people struggle with getting over an addiction and enter a treatment program, they are often advised by their therapist to attend 12 step meetings even if they are not in the mood. To not wait for the mood to inspire them to go –but to just go to a meeting anyway.
The wisdom here- is that first of all- moods change and are not always so reliable but more importantly that in going you are entering into a process and you can’t predict how that will affect you. Behavior first, then feelings. It’s a form of surrender and not controlling the experience. Instead of getting stuck in your anticipation of what will happen when you go, you allow the process of going to inform, guide and carry you. You’re not alone in your work- you are met.
When you’re too rigid about your outcome, you also risk missing the new avenues that are trying to lead you towards your growth. You and the process are co partners- each affecting the other and shaping the path and the outcome. Be open to new information and your feelings and let go of the fixation and you may get further than you expected in a surprisingly new way.
Over the holidays, I went away for a few days to relax and I was suddenly overcome with shoulder pain that I thought had been resolved a few months ago. Sitting in the car with my pain, I kept trying to fix things by changing my alignment. “Is it this way? Is it that way?” I was caught in a ridiculous cycle of trying to fix myself to no avail.
Later when I got a massage, the therapist reminded me to let go of something being wrong with my shoulder and just allow things to be just as they were -which meant to me- to stop fixing it in the way I was sure it SHOULD be fixed. I remembered this suggestion later on in the car ride home as I was fussing and fixing (once again!) and I just finally let go of the fight to fix my shoulder. I decided maybe if I stop the fixation of fixing, something new would happen. And something did, as it always does when you allow yourself to let go and let it be.
In letting go, I could stop contracting around the pain and new information could emerge. My body could do what it wanted and it mostly took care of itself (some pain lingered- so it wasn’t foolproof but nothing like what was happening earlier). The pain subsided more readily than if I had persisted in trying to manipulate it. This is a metaphor you can apply in all ways to your life. Could you soften yourself just a bit in trying to get there and in your certainty about HOW you’re supposed to get there? Can you not know?
Most of us think we KNOW what is best for us and what fix we need. But what if you could let go of how (and when) you think the answer will come. We may wish for it, pray for it and say it’s what we want. But often, it’s in the letting go that what we need often FINDS US or a space opens up for that new information or new angle on things to reach us. When we’re pushing- we often miss the very thing we need to see.
Pushing on my shoulder I missed other things about what was happening like the fact that I was tensing up every other part of my body to get my shoulder to release. The same example could be applied with parenting. Suppose you want your child to master something new and you’re very invested in the outcome. In hovering and pressuring them, they may react more to your desperation for them to succeed and their fear of disappointing you than the new skill you’re trying to teach them.
It’s wonderful to set an intention to be more mindful of your eating, to drink less, dance more, love more or have a cleaner home. But begin gently. Open to what comes rather than striving for it all the time and you may be surprised by how the new year greets and meets you and that it’s not ALL (thankfully) in your hands.
Set your goal (or intention) in motion, and then try letting go just a bit trusting that the answer will find YOU. Let the universe support and surprise you.
“There will be an answer- let it be…”
Happy new year!.