A Guide to New Year’s Resolutions
December 29, 2012
“People don’t really change.” How often have you heard that phrase? How often have you said it yourself? I heard it a lot growing up, and so I was surprised when I met my teacher and he told me the opposite. “People really do change,” he said. “Not magically, not in a day — but in accordance with the actions they take.” Tolstoy once said that the greatest surprise in a man’s life is to find that he has become old, and the same can be said of all change. It amazes and dazzles us, but if we look, we will see that the magician behind our greatest transformations is none other than ourselves.
It always seems a bit arbitrary to choose January 1st as a day to start making changes, but that arbitrariness is no different than the arbitrariness of all beginnings. And the nice thing about arbitrary beginnings is that they remind us that the most important question is always, “If not now, when?” And yet, the way we relate to New Year’s resolutions most of the time is the way we relate to all change in our lives: we hide, either behind doubt, depression, or desire. Denial: “Resolutions never work.” Depression: “Resolutions — ughh!” Desire: “I resolve to always be happy, laughing, dancing, and joyful in 2013.” And so it is that the new year takes on the character of the old before even its first day is over.
So here are a few guidelines I’ve picked up over the years about how to make resolutions that actually lead to change. A lot of these guidelines come from the Buddha’s teachings (or at least my understanding of them,) but a lot of them are common sense. I hope they can be of some use:
- Pick one or two resolutions to work on at a time: Remember that your ability to keep one promise to yourself affects your ability to keep all other promises, so you want to do one or two changes well. Remember: You’re watching yourself, so try to set a good example.
- Make your resolutions specific and attainable: Don’t say, “I resolve to be more happy,” because you don’t have direct control over your level of happiness (though you do have indirect control over it.) It’s much better to make a list of qualities that you feel contribute to your unhappiness and work on one or two of them.
- Observe, don’t judge: New habits take root when you understand their benefit with all of your awarness, not just with your intellectual, thinking mind. This means that beating yourself up over, for example, eating too much junk food, is not only unkind, it’s also unhelpful. When you judge yourself, the mind sets up a screen, a partition, so that one side goes on calling you names and the other side goes on secretly telling you to eat more junk food. A wiser approach is not to beat yourself, but rather, to ask the question, “How do I feel when I eat junk food?” — and then to look, honestly and closely, with all of your awareness.
- Acknowledge your efforts and accomplishments: For all our selfishness, we actually have a very hard time patting ourselves on the back for anything. We think it’s vain or prideful to focus on the ways in which we’re improving. But the truth is, if you can’t acknowledge your improvements, you can’t improve. How can you weed a garden if you think everything is a weed? You end up uprooting the entire plot, flowers and all.
- “Trading Candy for Gold”: The Buddha said that you should never try to give something up until you can understand this sacrifice as a trade of a lesser happiness for a greater one. So don’t just say, “I resolve to give up smoking” until you understand the greater happiness that this resolution is aimed at. Happiness is not an abstraction, furthermore, so don’t say, “I’m going to quit smoking in order to be more healthy,” because your mind won’t understand that. Say instead, “I resolve to go for a long walk or eat some good food or listen to music I love every time I have a craving for a cigarette.” There has to be a favorable balance of trade, or else your mind, like all victims of oppression, will eventually rebel.
- Don’t throw money at things: If your resolution is to learn how to play the guitar, don’t begin by buying an expensive guitar. You’ll just see your new purchase collecting dust and curse yourself for having wasted money. Get a cheap guitar or borrow one, and tell yourself that once you’ve learned to play a certain number of chords you’ll buy yourself a more expensive one. One exception to this rule, however, is spending money on classes, because classes can actually help instill new habits. But even with classes, you have to remember that it is ultimately your inner qualities that are responsible for your external changes of habits, so avoid the habit of seeing money as essential for growth.
- Start with the top layer: Don’t say, “I resolve to be more confident,” because “confidence” is made up of many layers. Start with an area in your life in which you feel least confident and work with that. For example, if you have a lack of confidence because you feel unintelligent or out of shape, work with one of those areas first. What you accomplish with the top layer of your insecurity will automatically influence the way your deal with all the other layers.
- Thirty Days: This is very important. Don’t say, “I resolve to do __ daily,” because missing even one day will then throw you and you’ll be likely to give up. Tell yourself, “I resolve to do __ every day for the first thirty days of 2013.” If you can do something every day for thirty days, you can continue it more or less daily without a lapse of one day derailing your whole practice.
- Use a journal or some other tool of reflection: You can’t change a habit without seeing clearly whether or not you are following your resolution to change it. Keeping a journal really helps. For example, if you want to become more patient, you can tell yourself, “For thirty days, I will write down one time every day when I was patient and one time when I was impatient.” Doing that will create the transparency necessary to make the change. Otherwise your old opinion of yourself — that you have been and always will be an impatient person — will run the show.
So what sorts of resolutions should you make? The best resolutions are the ones that come to you out of your own inner wisdom. On the other hand, it can be useful to see some examples. I’ve been asking everyone I know to share their resolutions with me, and so I’ve been able to assemble a community-based list of small actions and practices that have helped people make good changes in their lives. Feel free to adapt them however you like. And remember: work with just one or two!
(1) Daily walk: Take one long walk (minimum 45 minutes) every day. The easiest way I’ve ever found to make life better.
(2) Face your fears: For thirty days, do one thing every day that you either (a) are scared of doing, (b) have been putting off doing, or (c) have never done before.
(3) Count your blessings: For thirty days, keep a gratitude list. You can start with the gratitude you have for things and people around you, but make sure to include gratitude for your own good qualities.
(4) “Morning pages”: Every day for thirty days, write three longhand pages to clear your mind. (More info here: http://paperartstudio.tripod.com/artistsway/id3.html)
(5) Discover new music: Need a good place to start? Check out 1,000 Recordings You Must Hear Before You Die (http://www.1000recordings.com/)
(6) Art Galleries/Museums: Once a month, go to an art gallery or museum
(7) Go to the gym at least once a week
(8) Take a least one yoga class a week
(9) Stretch every morning
(10) Do one headstand/somersault a day
(11) Breath meditation: There are many classes in breath meditation. I’ll be teaching a beginner’s class in Buddhist breath meditation starting in January (http://www.dnymc.org/schedule.htm)
(12) Metta meditation: The practice of extending goodwill to oneself and others. Once a day for thirty days. There is a good guided meditation on Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s website (http://www.dhammatalks.org/mp3_collections_index.html#guided)
(13) Self-forgiveness meditation: Once a day for thirty days. Jack Kornfield has some good guided meditations (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P-7OzbeGud8)
(14) Tonglen: The Tibetan practice of taking suffering from others and giving them happiness. Once a day for thirty days. (http://www.naljorprisondharmaservice.org/pdf/Tonglen.htm)
(15) Active imagination and journaling: Jung’s technique of having a dialogue with oneself in journal form. Twenty minutes a day for thirty days. (http://www.jung.org/Staples.html)
(16) Give up the Internet one day a week
(17) Don’t look at a phone or computer for at least one hour before going to bed and/or one hour after rising
(18) Give up sugar (specify frequency)
(19) Give up bread (specify frequency)
(20) Give up meat (specify frequency)
(21) Spend one morning a week in total silence
(22) Fast one day a month
(23) One-year clothing rule: Give away any item of clothing you haven’t worn in a year.
(24) One corner at a time: Once a week, clean one corner or area of your house.
(25) Few bites to full: Try to stop eating when you are a few bites away from being totally full.
(26) Straight to the doggie-bag: In restaurants, ask the waiter to pack up half of your plate before you even start eating.
(27) Give to a charity: If you choose to do this with an “auto-pay” option, make sure to read about what the charity is doing, so you can bring awareness to your generosity
(28) Collect change: When buying something, don’t use exact change. Then, when you’ve accumulated change, give it to a homeless person or put it in a tip-jar
(29) Tip 5% more than you normally would
(30) Make I-statements: In speaking to others, try to replace judgments and interpretations with statements about “how I feel” and “what I need.” Learning something about Non-Violent Communication is helpful (http://www.cnvc.org/Training/nvc-chapter-1)
(31) Try to speak slightly more slowly and with more pauses: The more you pause and speak more slowly, the more chance you’ll be able to catch something you’ll regret saying before it comes out of your mouth.
(32) Make ammends: Once a week, think of someone to whom you acted badly and make a verbal apology to that person
(33) The old-fashioned call: Call someone (not text or email) you haven’t talked to in more than a month
(34) The old-fashioned letter: Write and mail one longhand letter a week
(35) Take a writing class
(36) Take an acting class
(37) Take a music class
(38) Study a foreign language
(39) Take a vacation this year: You might be able to afford it! Subscribe to a weekly email service offering the cheapest travel. There is Travelzoo and many others (http://www.travelzoo.com/top20/)
(40) Join Groupon etc., and do one new cheap thing a week
(41) Once a week, pick a new neighborhood or part of town and go there
(42) Save a certain amount every day/week/month: If you use an automatic withdrawal from your account into a savings account, review your balance regularly so you bring awareness to this process.
(44) “How much is in my wallet?”: This is a big one in Debtor’s Anonymous. Every day, for thirty days, try to know at all points in the day how much cash is in your wallet. This brings great clarity to the process of acquiring and spending money.
I hope some or this proves helpful. I wish you all a wonderful new year and the joy that comes from the changes we must, and can, make.
Love and light,
Paul Weinfield is the singer, songwriter, and founder of Tam Lin, a New York City-based band whose sonically-adventurous brand of folk music has earned it comparisons with Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake, Radiohead, and Talk Talk. Tam Lin’s newest album, Medicine For a Ghost, will be out in the Spring of 2013. For more information, please visit http://www.indiegogo.com/medicineforaghost