Welcome to Examined Life, our new column that explores the intersection between politics, culture, and living mindfully in the Bay Area and beyond.
EXAMINED LIFE No one knows exactly how long the concept of a New Year’s resolution has been around but evidence suggests the Babylonians, some 4,000 years ago, made annual resolution-like promises to the gods that they would clean up their acts in the year to come. Of course they wanted to clean up their acts—we all do. We all want this year to be the year we finally get out of debt, improve our health, get married (or leave the disappointing person we’re married to), have more sex (or less sex with the wrong people), eat fewer cookies, start the great American novel, or learn to paint/play foosball/play paintball.
Generally speaking, the resolutions people make at the beginning of the year are good, even if often self-centered. Sociopaths aside, we all have the same basic desires: safety, peace, and contentment. But instead of practicing feeling safe, peaceful, and content, we instead go after external goals that we believe—and often without evidence—will lead us to feel safe, peaceful, and content.
It usually doesn’t work. For one, our resolutions usually ask us to accomplish a large and significant thing, often without a realistic game plan, and without taking into consideration the conditions that have made this goal to date unachievable or the myriad of unpredictable obstacles that will arise in the yet unrehearsed year to come.
But let’s say you do actually “manifest” the thing you want—which means you applied some effort and external conditions (i.e., environment, societal privilege, upbringing, luck) were agreeable to your cause. You can be sure that, after you nail that resolution, another desire will immediately become apparent. I know people of all walks of life who have set intentions for the new year and, after dedication and hard work, achieved them only to realize that a) they didn’t actually want that thing, b) that entree came with unappetizing side dishes and/or c) that thing was awesome for a minute—or maybe even a year—but did not (surprise!) bring everlasting fulfilment or protection from suffering.
This incurable dissatisfaction you have with your life is not your fault—it’s part of your organism. You are wired with a nervous system that tells part of your brain to always be on the lookout for danger (i.e. finding a new problem once you solve the old problem). As such, there is a 100 percent chance that—even if you quit smoking, drop 50 pounds, stop recycling your exes, start practicing yoga, make gobs of money, or finally delete your Facebook profile—you will still find issues with your existence that need fixing. Your life will still be hard. You will still, at times, be lonely. You will still fluctuate between a desire for more stability and more freedom. You will still be afraid to die.
Does that mean we should just give up? Are resolutions a waste of time? Should we should just sit back, drink a bacon milkshake, and go through the motions as we pollute our bodies, the airwaves, and the planet with toxicity of every possible type? No, people. It’s a good thing to want to be better, do better, and, especially, create a more sustainable, kinder world. And the somewhat arbitrary marker of January 1 (no offense, Gregorians) is as good a time as any to take stock of your life.
Making resolutions (or intentions, as yogis and meditators like to call them) is not the problem. The problem is the type of resolutions we make and the unrealistic results we expect from them.
To start, we make grand resolutions. That’s because we don’t think that attempting to change small, unskillful habits or unhealthy mind states are resolutions worthy of a place on our annual New Year, New You Bucket List. But creating small skillful habits of healthfulness, cleanliness, and kindness have more impact on our daily well-being and are more likely to train the very circuitry of our brain that gives us any agency at all over our larger life situation.
On top of this, we subconsciously expect that if only we can achieve this one thing, our lives will fall into place. But the truth is that if we achieve this one thing, we have simply … achieved this one thing. The other areas of our life will still be whatever they are, and in flux regardless. If we want truly to be happy, we have to do more than achieve resolutions. We have to come to understand the part of us that wants, and will always keep wanting, no matter how much we have. We have to love that part. And we also have to see just how silly it is.
For a moment, pretend you are a cute little kitten. Now think of your ultimate happiness, the future result of getting all the things you want, as a laser beam cat toy. As the light keeps changing place and direction, you chase it all around. But even when you put your paw on it, it cannot be caught. That’s because, little kitten, it’s not even a thing. It’s just a light. There is nothing to catch. When you realize this, you will eventually get bored of the laser, which has no real promise, and start looking around at what’s actually in front of you. And life will suddenly get a lot more interesting.
During the last week of 2017, I set out on a solo road trip from Miami to Birmingham to see some friends, visit a retreat center, and get some reprieve from the cool Bay Area winter. I was met with a number of disappointments, including car rental troubles, poor GPS mapping, a bizarre cold front in the south, and the news of a cat-sitter gone MIA. In the planning of the trip, I never would have imagined standing in a two-hour queue to retrieve my car in Miami, driving through frigid rain in Central Florida, or having to secure a locksmith while in Alabama to break into my San Francisco apartment so my cat could be rescued from uncertain conditions one day before NYE.
And yet, each time I experienced some setback in my travels (and they frustrated me, for sure), if I stayed open, some unexpected delight eventually appeared. In fact, some of the best memories from the trip—swimming with manatees in Crystal River, attending a dharma talk with Michael Singer in the forests of Alachua, and running around laughing in below-freezing weather in Birmingham with a dear friend on New Year’s Eve—were unplanned, indirect results of not getting what I wanted.
So, I ask this question to you, to me, and to the aforementioned laser-obsessed kitten: What if we really never will get all the things we want? What if we won’t even get half of them, even the ones we think we REALLY want? Sometimes this feels like a scary thought, life being short and all. We want the things we want. And yet, if we sit with the unavoidable truth of this, some relief begins to arise. If the dangling carrot of ideal conditions is only an illusion, we can stop postponing our lives until the imagined day that every single thing lines up perfectly. We can resolve to open to the wildness of our lives, and travel through the unexpected detours with curiosity and wonder. We can live our lives in present moments … and not simply in future resolutions.
An Intention-Setting Short List
Instead of making your usual resolutions this year, consider doing just these 5 things.
Clean up your relationships. Take responsibility for your shortcomings. Replace resentment for others’ shortcomings with an understanding that “failed” relationships are simply the result of two people having differing needs in any given moment of time. Recommit to the healthy relationships. Let go of the unhealthy ones or, at least, let go of your unmet expectations around them. You’ll be amazed at how much space this opens up in your mind and heart.
Create intentions around ways you want to feel, instead of things you want to accomplish. For instance, instead of resolving to get a higher paying job, which may or may not be in your control, spend time contemplating, journaling about, or meditating on the quality of abundance. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still send out applications and go on interviews; it just means you’re not leaving the possibility to feel abundant in the hands of unpredictable conditions. (It also means you’ll show up to the interviews more confident and less desperate.)
Start a daily gratitude practice. Yawn, I know. But this is brain training of the highest order. At the same time each day, write down a few things you feel grateful for. If gratitude feels hard to muster, use the word appreciation. If that feels difficult still, simply write down anything you received over the course of the day, as minor as it may be. (A funny text from a friend; a smooch from the dog.) Noting what we presently have, even as those things change daily, tames the ever-wanting part of us and strengthens the part of the brain that experiences contentment.
Create a new skillful habit (or two). It can seem tempting to go big or go home. But grand or nonspecific resolutions don’t usually bring real transformation to our lives. Instead of resolving to be neater, consider starting a practice of making your bed each day, the moment you get out of it. Instead of resolving to start meditating daily for a half hour, consider doing it for three minutes right before breakfast. Small, specific resolutions like this—which are linked to things you’re already doing—have a higher success rate and have a positive effect on every day of your life. Check out Stanford researcher BJ Fogg’s new Tiny Habits program for more support.
Stay open. Be less attached to a specific outcome and more available to what life serves up. Some of the best things that happen to all of us are a result of not getting what we wanted.