If you’re like me, you’ve made plenty of New Years resolutions: I’ll lose weight, stop smoking, work harder, be more honest with myself, show more compassion, control my temper, take out the trash, be on time. The list goes on. Often, I’ve taken on these challenges with tight-lipped determination—a do-or-die attitude to do better this year than in years past—and usually my good intentions have lasted a few months, if that. My resolutions were good, but my methods weren’t effective. Then, at the end of the year, I’ve judged myself harshly for my failures.
Over time, I’ve come to recognize that when I achieve my goals for change, it happens in much gentler, organic way. For example, years ago after many earnest failed attempts, I stopped smoking. I imagined a time when I was happy before smoking became a habit. It felt so good, and I stopped. Whenever I wanted to light up, I returned to that lovely memory. I haven’t wanted a cigarette for decades.
Remembering that experience makes me wonder if approaching change with gentleness and compassion may be a more effective way to accomplish goals than my tight-lipped, determined approach.
I often read Thich Nhat Hanh’s (Thay’s) gathas for ending the day and waking up in the morning. They go like this:
The day is ending,
our life is one day shorter.
Let us look carefully
at what we have done.
Let us practice diligently,
putting our whole heart into the path of meditation.
Let us live deeply each moment in freedom,
so time does not slip away meaninglessly.
Waking up this morning, I smile.
Twenty-four brand new hours are before me.
I vow to live fully in each moment
and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.
What if I were to look back on the year saying, “The year is ending, my life is one year shorter …” and so on? Rather than being judgmental, this is a mindful observation that leads us to meaningful aspirations.
And what if I step into the new year saying, “As I enter the new year, I smile. Three hundred sixty-six brand new days are before me …” My resolutions become “living fully in each moment” and “looking at all beings with eyes of compassion.” These are lofty goals, and I probably won’t succeed one hundred percent, but as Thay says in his commentary on the morning gatha in Present Moment, Wonderful Moment:
What better way to start the day [or year] than with a smile? Your smile affirms your awareness and determination to live in peace and joy. How many days slip by in forgetfulness? What are you doing with your life? Look deeply, and smile. The source of a true smile is an awakened mind.
As Thay reflects on the evening gatha, he writes:
We can practice beginning anew at any moment of our lives. To be born is to begin anew. When you are three years old you can begin anew, when you are sixty years old you can begin anew, and when you are about to die, that is still a time to begin anew. When we look deeply, we see that beginning anew is possible at any time of our daily lives, at any age.
As humans, we make mistakes. Without these mistakes, there would be no way to learn to be more accepting and compassionate. We should not get caught in the prison of guilt. If we can learn from our mistakes, then we have already begun transforming garbage into flowers. It is always possible for us to begin anew so that our life is filled with meaning.
When your life is meaningful, happiness becomes a reality and you become a bodhisattva right here and now. A bodhisattva is someone who has compassion within herself and who is able to make another person smile or help someone suffer less. Every one of us is capable of this.
Instead of making resolutions, this year I’m going to use these gathas as the context for my evaluation of 2019 and my aspirations for 2020, taking Thay’s word that every one of us is capable of this, even me.
After Thursday’s meditation, we’ll reflect on what entering a new year means to us.
- Do you make New Years resolutions? Aspirations? Intentions?
- How has it worked out in the past?
- What will your practice be as we step into 2020?
I hope you’ll join us.
Below are two excerpts from Chanting from the Heart by Thich Nhat Hanh that might help us begin anew and fill our lives with meaning.
Wishing you a truly happy new year,
Excerpts from from Chanting from the Heart by Thich Nhat Hanh:
“Happiness in the Present Moment”
The past has already gone,
and the future has not yet come,
Let us not drown ourselves
in regret for what has passed
or in expectations and worry for the future.
The Buddha has said that we can
be peaceful, happy, and free
in this present moment.
Let us hear the Buddha’s words
and let go of our sadness and anxiety.
Let us come back to ourselves
and establish ourselves in what is present right now.
Let us learn to recognize
the conditions for happiness
that are present within us
and all around us.
From “Beginning Anew”
We come back to live in the wonderful present,
to plant our heart’s garden with good seeds,
and to make strong foundations of understanding and love.
We vow to train ourselves in mindfulness and concentration,
practicing to look and understand deeply
to be able to see the nature of all that is,
and so to be free of the bonds of birth and death.
We learn to speak lovingly, to be affectionate,
to care for others whether it is early morn or late afternoon,
to bring the roots of joy to many places,
helping people to abandon sorrow,
to respond with deep gratitude
to the kindness of parents, teachers, and friends.
With deep faith we light up the incense of our heart.
We ask the Lord of Compassion to be our protector
on the wonderful path of practice.
We vow to practice diligently,
cultivating the fruits of this path.