It’s New Year’s Day for most cultures, and no doubt many of us have painstakingly worked on lists of all the things that we are going to do to improve ourselves in 2016. Most of those will be focused on all the “good” things we are going to nurture, and all the “bad” habits we are going to cast by the wayside.
Inevitably, we will fail in most of them. The reason is simple: such resolutions nearly always focus on the worst things that we believe about ourselves — habits, compulsions, ingrained ways of behaving — that are by definition the things that are most difficult to change. I’m not suggesting that they don’t need changing, but that taking on the most difficult tasks of our spiritual development all at once is a recipe for disaster.
Black and white, rigid thinking comes naturally to addicts, whether we have been plagued by chemical or process addictions like shopping, overeating, sexual compulsions — whatever. “Wearing life like a loose garment” is hard when we have spent entire lives convinced that we are either “good” or “bad,” (often by someone else’s definition). We have to believe certain things or our entire legend will fall apart, and we come to believe them to a degree that makes it pretty hard to become flexible. A list of resolutions based on good and bad, right and wrong, healthy or unhealthy is going to be an incredibly tough row to hoe, and most of us will crap out on it. Then our self-esteem and shame will tell us, once again, that we don’t measure up.
I suggest that, instead of a big list of promises that will likely sabotage the whole project, we concentrate on one (or at the most, two) things that we want to change about ourselves. Second — but no less important — we’ll stop thinking of those things as “good” and “bad,” but rather as “skillful” or “unskillful” things that we can change gradually.
That is an extremely important change in perception. When we are learning a skill, we expect to make mistakes — to be more or less unskillful — for quite a period of time. When we’re learning, we’re allowed to make mistakes. If you weren’t allowed to make mistakes before, I’m giving you permission to do so from now on.
We start each project as error-prone, unskillful practitioners, but doing our honest best. When we make the inevitable slip-ups (hopefully not slips, but even so…), we forgive ourselves, resolve to work at becoming more skillful, write in our journals the things that we have learned, hit some extra meetings if appropriate, call our supports, and go about learning our new skills.
Changing the habits of a lifetime is a big job. We wouldn’t start on do-it-yourself re-roofing, plumbing, carpeting and painting the house all at the same time, and it doesn’t make sense to take on too many major self-help projects at once, either.
In fact, it’s pretty unskillful.
Have a Happy, Skillful New Year, and know that I wish for you those things that I wish for the people I hold most dear.