This is the time of year when we begin to take stock of our lives and make plans for the time that’s left. We often use the arbitrary tax year start date of January 1 as the beginning, the time we start our new life, execute our new plans for achieving the self we hope to become.
There’s something enticing about embarking on a new adventure. It’s the promise of something better, the gleam of possibility. And yet, for many, no sooner has the quest begun than it is finished. Every year I witness the suddenly new and enthusiastic crowd at the gym in January that gradually tapers off by mid February. Beginning is the easy part, clearly. But we all already know this.
A recent study indicates that one way to improve the chance of success in new endeavors is to not tell anyone about them, or if we do, to talk to others mostly about the hard work it will require. Otherwise, we get our boost from receiving recognition before the task is accomplished, and lose steam for following through with the hard part because we already got the reward. I thought this was enlightening, and also somewhat depressing news. So we are just a bunch of 2 year olds when it comes to motivation?
Another way of approaching this waning of good intentions is to examine more closely the difficulty in the middle part, after the excitement of beginning has faded. What is it that makes it so difficult to keep up the effort, to keep moving toward the goal? It might be any or all of several things:
Superficial goals: Maybe we want to be thinner, or healthier, or make more money, but we haven’t addressed the underlying issue. If we want these things in order to feel better about ourselves, then the motivation isn’t likely to stick, because unconditional friendliness toward ourselves is a necessary prerequisite to get through the rough times in the change process.
Impatience: We’ve all heard that patience is a virtue, but we live more and more in an instant gratification world. I once read advice for entrepreneurs that said success comes from daily focused effort on the goal before there is any perceptible progress. How many of us can do this? Acting for any length of time requires a longer term focus. It requires a degree of faith and patience that must be fueled from the inside. It can’t be sustained under the strain of self doubt or self flagellation. Again, the unconditional friendliness principle applies.
Attitude: What happens when you give in to a craving for the first time, or you miss a workout, or lose your temper after vowing to you wouldn’t anymore? Do you beat yourself up at little, then start over, and repeat with increasing recrimination until you give up on yourself in exasperation? Giving up is then the sensible thing to do at some point, because no one can take that kind of punishment. But what if your perspective was one in which you believed you could begin again in any moment, no matter what? Can you imagine such a relationship with yourself and with life?
All of the reasons for giving up on our goals have in common the relationship with our humanness. Without unconditional friendliness as a starting point, our self-improvement projects are really just self-violence in disguise. As Pema Chodron says in Start Where You Are:
We already have everything we need. There is no need for self-improvement. All these trips that we lay on ourselves – the heavy-duty feeling that we’re bad and hoping that we’re good, the identities that we so dearly cling to, the rage, the jealousy and the addictions of all kinds – never touch our basic wealth. They are like clouds that temporarily block the sun. But all the time our warmth and brilliance are right here.
Or, as Shunryu Suzuki-roshi once said to a group:
All of you are perfect just as you are… and you could use a little improvement.
All we have to do is be able to hold these two truths at once. It’s about relaxing into the fundamental fact of our humanness. We will mess up. We can never be perfect. Because of this, we get to experience the excitement of vulnerability and the joy of the unknown. We get to be capable of great love, and great pain. We are absolute perfection because our unfolding can never be other than it is in this moment, and at the same time, our flawed human beingness is all hanging out at some points in the unfolding. We get to be on a journey where we have no idea what might happen next – supreme love or embarrassing the hell out of ourselves. Anything else wouldn’t really be living, would it?
It might seem counterintuitive, but when we can rest in knowing that our worth doesn’t come from anything we do, then everything becomes possible. We can always start fresh in any moment, and then motivation comes from a completely different place. We can keep renewing the excitement of possibility. Love compels us to keep trying to do better.
The mind will argue with this, of course, saying it’s not logical. The first step is to agree with the mind, that it does not seem logical. Next, just try it anyway, and find out for yourself. Ask yourself to imagine what it might be like to have permission to start over any time, with no end of chances. Then try approaching your new year’s resolution as if your existence is already justified, your worthiness already a proven fact without any self-improvement, and see what happens…
you might just discover the illogical is possible. You might stick to that resolution this time. And you might just discover causeless joy.