New Year’s Resolutions: Not For Everybody

nysOne year ends, another begins. “Now let us welcome the New Year, full of things that have never been,” the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote. His invitation to be open to receiving the New Year’s bountiful blessings inspires me to look deep within myself. I gaze with gratitude at a blank canvas, eager to begin painting 1997.

In the past, when I focused on perfectionism rather than possibility, I didn’t welcome the New Year with as much joy and good cheer. Instead, I greeted January with steely will, dogged determination, and a list of resolutions so demanding and daunting I was doomed to fail even before the first day was done. “This year I’ll earn one-hundred thousand dollars, write the great American novel, study sculpture, stop smoking, lose thirty pounds, learn to lambada, become fluent in French, build a barn, conquer clutter, hike the Himalayas, and still find time to master the stock market,” I used to promise myself.

By the end of the first week of January I was emotionally exhausted by my own unrealistic expectations. Year after year, no matter how hard I tried, I was never able to fulfill my ambitions. But who could? As the year progressed, procrastination (my predictable ally) and the daily demands of real life–dirty laundry, dental appointments, deadlines, faxes, and car-pool schedules–buried my personal passions so deeply, I became psychically numb to my own needs.

One New Year’s Eve, as I reviewed a decade’s worth of personal logs recording a litany of unfulfilled longings, I realized that I had woven a very subtle but strong pattern of self-defeating behavior into my life. By taking on too much at once-and trying for instant transformation–I was unconsciously engaging in self-sabotage. I realized that my annual resolutions were about achievement rather than authentic aspirations. I also recognized that I was unable to distinguish my needs from my wants. This meant I wanted everything the world tells us will make us happy: money, success, fame, recognition. But what I needed-the ability to reconcile my deepest spiritual and creative desires with often overwhelming and conflicting commitments to family, work, friends, and community–could only be found by embarking on a safari of the self. I knew in my heart that in order to go forward, I needed to come to a full stop.

For me, the New Year now begins with a ceremony of reverence and reconnection I call tabula rasa–a day dedicated to wiping the slate clean. Sometime early in January, I set aside a few quiet hours at home for a solitary interlude to silently reflect on the gifts and lessons of the past year. This ritual of renewal begins by putting the old year’s unfinished business behind me: mistakes, anger, regrets, guilt, shortcomings, and disappointments. First, I forgive myself for all the unfinished tasks, empty promises, and unmet goals. Next, I forgive other people, letting go of all the hurts–real or imagined–I’ve so carefully cataloged in my consciousness and carried in my heart. “Leave it behind, let the pain go,” my authentic self whispers wisely. “Make room in your heart for all the good waiting for you this coming year.” So I record on small slips of paper whatever it is that I’d like to forget or those I need to forgive, and place them in a small cardboard box. Wrapping the box in black or very dark paper, I seal in the sorrow, hard times, and bad luck. With a prayer of acceptance, I toss the box into the fireplace, saying “Good riddance, go in peace.” Silently I watch the pain of the past become ashes. This symbolic ritual is very healing.

But the old year brought many blessings as well, and I record them in my Gratitude Journal. One of the most valuable lessons the writing of Simple Abundance taught me is that real life’s true joys are revealed to us in numerous, almost imperceptible moments. We think our lives are shaped by the momentous occasions–the wedding, the baby’s birth, the big promotion, the move to the new house. But these events are the punctuation marks, not the narrative. The narrative is the “simple abundance” that surrounds each of us every day–the small, the sweet, the simple, the sacred in the ordinary.

Having let go of the past and given thanks for the present, I mentally move on to dream and draw up a blueprint for the next year. Now, curled up in my favorite chair, warm and content before a roaring fire, listening to some favorite music, glancing at the brilliant illumination of 12 large white candles–one for each new month–I welcome the future. As I sip a glass of champagne, I invite my Imagination to paint textured Technicolor daydreams. Perhaps you were admonished in no uncertain terms, during your wonder years, to get your head out of the clouds. I know I was. It’s taken me three decades to unlearn the impulse to be practical and learn to honor my creative reveries. Begin to honor your daydreams as the spiritual gifts they are. Let your imagination soar to a higher altitude where there are no limitations, only a boundless horizon of hope.

Often, when viewing my life from this new perspective, I discover that inadvertently I’m headed in the wrong direction or I’m continuing, through habit, on a path that no longer nurtures me or encourages my personal or spiritual growth. I can see several choices leading away from my current circumstances, but I have no idea which one to take, so I stop. I’ve arrived at the final step in my tabula rasa ritual: the New Year’s questions.

How often in the past have you turned away from all that is unresolved in your heart because you feared the questioning? I know I have. The heart always knows what’s working in your life and what’s not. But we avoid scheduling a heartfelt consultation because we sense on a deep level that the answer will inevitably require us to push past our comfort zone, allowing change to move us toward the life we were meant to be living. Let’s be honest: Change–even if it means that a year from now we could be living our dreams instead of denying them-is scary. We resist any and all change for as long as possible, until life intervenes, propelling us forward through unforeseen circumstances.

But just as we can gently learn to exchange self-sabotage for self-nurturance, we can also come to accept the awareness that we no longer need to know life’s answers in order to proceed. In fact, I’ve come to believe that we’re not meant to know–we’re meant to trust that all will be well while we live the questions.

So I begin to ask the questions I’m ready to try living this year. Little questions. Big questions. Transformative questions. Silly questions. Profound questions. “Do I want to dye my hair red?” “Am I giving more to this relationship than I’m receiving?” “Is it worth it?” “Is it time to move on or stay put?” Although I might ask a trusted friend for advice, I know that only my authentic self can answer these questions.

How about you? Are you ready for a fresh start? Have you lost your way? Whether you’re going nowhere fast, looking for an exit lane, or hoping for a detour, it’s never too late to begin the exciting, exhilarating, and extraordinary journey to self-discovery. Life is generous, but you must know what you want before you can go after it, as well as what it is you need. Learning to distinguish between wants and needs is crucial if we are to lead happy, contented, and fulfilling lives. But to discover the difference between wants and needs you’ve got to be willing to turn away from the outer world to journey within. Use questions to jump-start your imagination, to inspire you, to motivate you, to help you discover what really matters to you. It’s impossible to love the way you live if you don’t know what it is that you truly love. To get in touch with your heart’s desires, give yourself the following pop quiz:

What single thing, if it were taken away from you, would you miss in life?

If money was not a consideration, where would you like to live?

What changes would you make if you found out that you had one more year to live but remained in good health?

If failure were impossible, what dream would you bring into the world?

Once you’ve asked yourself some provocative questions, decide which one you’ll try living until the answer is revealed.

For example, if you dream of owning a bookstore and wonder if you should quit your job and take the plunge, start to live the question slowly, taking small but significant steps but still keeping the safety of your current job. Schedule regular study sessions at the library to read such specialty publications as Publishers Weekly. Visit one new bookstore each week to browse, noting the ambiance, store layout, and stock. Record your observations in a dream archive. Attend meetings of independent bookstore owners; see if you can’t get a part-time position in a bookstore for on-the-job research; write out a business plan; attend workshops. Send. the Universe unmistakable signals that you’re serious about the pursuit of this dream, the living of this question, and not only will the answers come but you’ll also discover that a loving and savvy Source– the Sower of Dreams–is just waiting to be asked to help you deliver it into the world. But you’ve got to be willing to do your part.

Whatever you desire or dream about from writing a novel to becoming a pastry chef, take some small action every day that moves you closer to your goal. You’ll be amazed at the power of 30 focused minutes each day–enough time to make a telephone call, read an article, or follow a hunch. And remember: Birthing a dream requires a midwife–your authentic self. Let her wisdom, unconditional love, and support nurture you as you push past your comfort zone to take the risks so necessary for success.

This year, start thinking of yourself as an artist. Because you are: You’re an artist of the every day. Artists know that curiosity is the core of the creative process: Artists are always asking “What if…,” leaping in the dark, embracing experiments.

Artists also know that a work in progress can’t be perfect. But changes can be made to the rough draft during rewrites. The film can be tightened during editing. Another color can be added to the canvas. So paint 1997 with possibility. Paint with passion. Paint with perseverance. Paint with pleasure. Paint with patience. Paint at your own pace.

Art evolves. So does life. Art is never stagnant. Neither is life. The beautiful authentic life you are creating for your-self and those you love through reflection, questions, choices, change, and courage will reveal the answers when you are ready to live them. When we trust in the goodness of life, our timing is always perfect.


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