The Western calendar is preparing to turn over to another year, and as a glance at any advertising medium will confirm, it’s time for New Years Resolutions. Time to promise one’s self to lose weight, quit smoking, perhaps even start a meditation practice. And we know the punch line, too; the health club that’s full in January starts to empty out before March. A year from now, many of us will be making ourselves the same promises once again.
There’s nothing wrong with making resolutions. If we want to replace unhealthy or unskillful habits with better ones, at some point we have to resolve to stick to the new behavior long enough for it to become habitual. The problem is not necessarily the resolutions themselves, but what’s beneath them. Our resolutions are often grounded in the old delusional narrative: there is something wrong with me, something that has to be fixed before I can be worthwhile and happy. When we pursue them this way, our resolutions just reproduce the narrative of the broken self chasing a perfection that never arrives; on some level, failure is inevitable.
Gotama taught that we can’t control the outcome of our actions; sometimes, we can’t even control our actions. What we can do, however, is shape our intentions. This is not a matter of thinking the right thoughts and forcing ourselves to do the right things. It’s a matter of learning to pay attention carefully to what’s really going on in our hearts and minds, tuning in to the wisdom that is always already there in our embodied experience. When we do that, we have the chance to recognize and cultivate what the body, mind and heart most deeply desire.
Before we can shape our intention, however, we have to be able to get in touch with it. This can be a challenge, because our broken self narrative tells us that our intentions are part of the problem. So we look away and pretend, we distract ourselves and dull our awareness in various ways. The mindful way to address this challenge is to practice letting go of the stories, quieting the mind, concentrating awareness, and listening to our experience as it arises.
At Practice Circle this Sunday night (12/28/2014) we’ll work with a couple of practices that can help us observe our intention. One is to “sit with a question.” After taking some time to let thoughts settle and to relax into our present moment awareness, we pose a question. What is my intention right now? What do I really want? What do I think is wrong? What am I really afraid of now? The form of the question is not important; what counts is that you use the words and phrases that resonate with your body, heart and mind.
Sitting with a question is not a matter of figuring out an answer. It’s a way to observe what happens in your experience, what sensations, thoughts and emotions arise. As much as you can, try to meet whatever arises with a sense of acceptance and kindness. Just pay attention, and try not to force or grasp at what you’re experiencing. Watch it arise and pass. Then let everything go, and pose the question again. Does your experience change?
I like the metaphor of posing the question as if you were dropping a pebble into a deep well, and then listening for the splash. It suggests the kind of receptive awareness we seek to bring to this practice – the same kind of easy, open awareness we bring to formal sitting meditation.
You can also practice posing a question as part of a mindful dialogue exercise. Partners take turns posing the question to one another; the answering partner observes how the question settles in their mind, body and heart, and makes whatever response that suggests itself, taking as much time as needed and remembering that silence is always an option. Then the questioning partner thanks the answering partner for the response, and poses the question again. After a period of time, the two switch roles.
We can have all kinds of experiences when we practice this way. Perhaps we will notice that our intention isn’t what we thought it was. We might see that beneath the fears and anxieties that drive our desire to fix ourselves is an underlying compassion for our own suffering and a desire to be happy. We might notice the judging mind activate again and again, and recognize the habitual story it tells. Or we might recognize the depths of our alienation from our own basic wisdom, and discover a desire to be more in touch with our own bodies and hearts. What matters is to be true to our own experience, whatever it is.
When we learn to connect with our intentions, it opens the possibility that we can ground our resolutions in our deepest aspirations: for healing, for compassion, for freedom. That will provide us with the wisdom to recognize what kinds of resolutions are skillful for us, and the motivation to keep going.
If you haven’t joined us for Practice Circle before, we welcome you to share your dharma practice with us. You can find out how here.