The New Year is a time when many of us naturally reflect on our hopes and intentions for the year to come. It is a season imbued with freshness, openness, and newness—much like the state of mind we cultivate in the Dharma. The Buddha, of course, did not encourage us to take up New Year’s resolutions, as far as we know. Rather, he wove the practice of inquiry about intentions into the fabric of the Four Noble Truths, naming Wise Intention (samma-sankappa) the second factor on the Eightfold Path. We can harness the wisdom of the Buddha’s guidance and join it with the seasonal focus on motivation and resolution to move toward caring for ourselves and others more skillfully. Renunciation, harmlessness, and loving kindness (metta) are all features of the Buddha’s teachings on Wise Intention that can inform the direction we set in the year to come.
Renunciation, or purposefully abstaining from something we would otherwise indulge in, is a common theme in New Year’s resolutions. For many people, this may take the form of giving up certain behaviors or habits that are harmful in some way. Examples include “going cold turkey” from a habit of over-consuming social media when we observe it overtaking our real, live relationships, eliminating reliance on manufactured convenience foods when we notice them sickening our bodies, or giving up alcohol if we sense that we have been overdoing it in the lead up to New Year’s Eve. We may feel a call to clean eating and detoxification as we move into a new season. This inclination toward simplicity can be supportive of our personal health, while simultaneously benefitting the environment as we move away from foods, beverages, and products that are highly processed and that tax global resources. Reducing consumption of these things is a fine place to start, yet we know that merely setting goals and exerting willpower while giving ourselves mental lists of what we “should” or “should not” do can backfire. It is when we meld these resolutions with the practice of Wise Intention that we develop the tools of mindful awareness that ultimately transform those lifestyle behaviors that keep us from freedom.
Becoming interested in renunciation, we may begin to explore whether our choices are aligned with the intention of harmlessness. Allowing awareness to gently suffuse our relationship with deeply ingrained habits, we may see behaviors that are causing harm and we develop space to consider new alternatives. For many of us, when we pay attention to what we put into our bodies, we see that the alcohol or highly processed, packaged foods we have consumed throughout the holidays are harmful to our physical health. Noticing our patterns in regard to sexual activity or shopping, we may see that there is harm being done to another person or to our bank account or to the ability of the Earth to regenerate from the impact of our lifestyle. The key to releasing these painful behaviors is not to beat ourselves up for any perceived “failures,” though. It is to bring our practice together with our daily choices, gaining more clarity into our conditioning and our relationships with unskillful habits. We then use loving kindness as a bridge to the transformation we seek.
With an attitude of gentle caring, we turn toward those places where we are “stuck” in harmful behaviors. We cultivate our intentions in our meditation practice, by reflecting upon the precepts or courageously sitting with the uncomfortable sensations that may arise when we shift to a new behavior from those old habits that drive us. With our heart-mind ready to release into freedom, we watch our reactions to those things that tempt us, whether it is a particular brand of packaged snack cake, a bout of “retail therapy” after a tough day at the office, or the lure we feel when an ad banner pops up on our computer screen promising us the latest juicy celebrity gossip or a free video game if only we click on the flashing link. Sometimes we will fall into those familiar patterns, and this is a time to especially lean on our intention to practice kindness with ourselves. We greet each “failure” with compassion and appreciation that we are waking up enough to see habits that may once have been invisible to us. Dedicated loving-kindness meditation can support our ability to respond to our own lapses with tender care, and it can also illuminate the way forward to meeting other beings with unconditional friendliness—a powerful New Year’s resolution indeed!
Focusing our Wise Intention around these qualities of renunciation, harmlessness, and loving kindness, coupled with a willingness to investigate with curiosity how it all unfolds, allows us to transform old behaviors that are in some way harmful. Rather than giving ourselves long lists of what we “should” accomplish or what we want to avoid in the year to come, we suffuse our daily intentions and choices with mindfulness. By contemplating where we are most tightly gripped by unskillful habits, and by committing to create more spaciousness and awareness around those areas with an attitude of gentleness toward ourselves, it becomes easier to identify when we are drifting away from our Wise Intentions, and to realign with a full, free expression of living the Dharma throughout all our daily activities.