It’s Friday, January 07, 2011. I am flying over the Atlantic Ocean on my way to London and Israel where I am scheduled to be through the end of the month. This piece was going to happen last Friday. I had thought of it a few days earlier. It was going to be my piece for New Year’s Eve. Instead of which last Friday and for several days afterwards I thought my sister had a recurrence of ovarian cancer (which for now we think she hasn’t) and life took an entirely different direction. And by the time the medical scene cleared itself up I was already in high gear for this trip. Which is just one particularly glaring instance of the radical and irreducible unpredictability of life. Which is one reason why I don’t make New Year’s resolutions.
Relating to the Future
One of the deepest forms of learning and integration for me has been micro-practices, especially those that hinge on a turn of phrase. My first one was catching myself when I said I “had to” do something, and reclaiming my choice by expressing what I wanted that led me to make the choice I was making. Nowadays this practice is so integrated that I hardly ever even catch myself thinking it.
Some time ago I added a new practice: whenever I remember to do so, I replace language about the future with language about what I know in the present. As with so many of my other practices, the first thing I learned is the pervasiveness of our habit of predicting the future. Even a simple and innocuous line such as “I will call you back in 20 minutes” is a prediction which isn’t always borne out. Since taking on this practice I have become so aware of the many times that I say I will do something and then don’t. I don’t think of myself as particularly unreliable. In fact, ask anyone who knows me and you will discover (at least so I believe…) that I have a reputation for a high degree of follow-through. Nonetheless, once I started noticing, I saw just how often unforeseen, even unforeseeable circumstances, intervene in all of our lives. And so I don’t say “I will call you back in 20 minutes.” Instead I might say “I just wrote myself a note to call you back in 20 minutes.”
If I can’t predict, let alone control, what will happen in 20 minutes, I find the idea of predicting a whole year hard to imagine. How can I, on the first day of the year, know enough to make a New Year’s resolution? I worry that I set myself up in this way, which brings me to my next concern: what happens when (more often than if) I don’t keep my resolutions?
Relating to Myself
My relationship with myself is of supreme importance to me, and especially the aspect of it that has to do with self-acceptance. Whenever I act in some way that’s not in line with my wishes, decisions, or values, I am presented with the challenge of relating to this gap. The template of how to address such a gap that’s been given to us in many of our cultures has been to judge ourselves. Someone asks for critical support and we say no – we are “selfish.” We take a cookie when we’ve decided to lose weight – we are “weak-willed.” The examples abound to a degree that makes them part of the landscape in which we live.
However prevalent such ways of relating to ourselves continue to be, I want to increase and increase my capacity to meet the gap between my actions and my values with self-acceptance. This is also what I have been teaching others. The basic premise is simple: any action that I take, no matter how much it aligns with my values, is an attempt to meet some basic human needs. If I can identify and connect with those needs, I increase my self-acceptance. With self-acceptance comes the possibility of learning and growth, which don’t tend to happen within the context of self-judgment. As I understand and connect with all my needs, I more and more learn to include in my choices both the values I have and the many other needs that might interfere. I love the creativity that arises from that kind of exploration.
To nourish this kind of openness, one of the earliest practices I took on was replacing “should” with language that connects to choice and to what I want. I have noticed that grounding my choices in my needs leads to more felt freedom than attributing them to external forces. This simple practice radically transforms my inner experience. I find more energy and willingness in me to do what I want, and more knowledge of who I am and what I value.
A New Year’s Resolution has the potential of turning into a major “should” and of leading to less self-acceptance. If, instead, I speak to myself about what I want for the coming year, I am more likely to re-ground myself in my original choice and find renewed energy to attend to those needs that led me to aim in this new way.
Not Anything Goes
One of the reasons, I imagine, that we choose to use New Year’s Resolutions, is because we want to take our intentions seriously. It’s as though the external validation that comes from using the language of resolution leads us to believe we are more likely to do what we say we want to do. I sense that letting go of this structure appears like giving up on making commitments, creating change in our life, or setting a direction. What’s the needs-based alternative?
For me the fact that we can’t predict or control the future and that our own needs and perspectives continually change over time doesn’t by necessity lead to internal deregulation. Instead, I see the process of reclaiming and understanding the needs that lead me to whatever direction I want to go in as providing fuel for creating the kind of change I want to see in my life. I see a long arc of those needs being balanced with the small arc of the multitude of needs-in-the-moment that arise as the future becomes the new present. I just don’t have to fight with myself about it. In the absence of rebelling against my own decisions, I can lean, in each moment, into my core values and the immediate needs of the moment, the original choice I had made and the conditions I face now. And then I choose again, informed more and more deeply by all I know about what I and life are.