It’s that time of year again, where we contemplate major changes in our life. As the calendar refreshes to a new year, we too yearn to hit refresh on ourselves, setting resolutions that we will finally (finally!) implement from now on. It might be physical (such as exercising more or losing weight), emotional (such as being kinder to certain people or volunteering more), or mental (such as getting more organized or focused at work). No matter what your resolution may be, I have a sinking suspicion that meditation will support it.
What Is Meditation?
In its simplest definition, meditation is a way to become familiar with all of who you are. You begin to see the wonderful and inspiring aspects of yourself, as well as the many ways you get stuck and spin out in habitual, not-so-helpful ways. The type of meditation I often teach is called shamatha, or calm-abiding meditation. It’s a mindfulness technique where we keep returning to something that anchors us in the present moment: the breath. You are breathing right now. You don’t need to do anything about it; meditating on it means simply bringing your full attention to what’s already occurring. You need to simply feel the breath. When you get distracted by thoughts, you gently acknowledge that and return your attention to the natural cycle of the breath.
Simple, yet it has profound ramifications—I am a firm believer that whatever your New Year’s resolution may be, this simple act of mindfulness will set you up for success.
Meditation as a Tool for Setting Intention
The first thing I ask people to do when starting a meditation practice is contemplate their intention. You can do the basic shamatha practice for five minutes, then contemplate a simple phrase:
“Why is this resolution important to me?”
Notice whatever answers arise in your meditation practice, returning to the question again and again, in the same way that you return to the breath in shamatha. After a few minutes of contemplating your motivation for your New Years resolution, return to that basic breathing exercise.
After your meditation session, jot down some of the answers that came up, but only the ones that feel most significant to you. For example, if you want to spend less and save more money in the coming year, you might write down, “Because I want to invest in my future” or “Because I hate being stressed out when my bank balance drops too low.” Whatever your personal motivation may be, write it out. No one needs to see it but you.
Knowing why you’re doing any given activity is going to strengthen your resolve to actually do it. For instance, if your goal is to lose weight, and you’re feeling disheartened by how long that is taking, you’re going to be tempted to cheat on your resolution. At that time, knowing exactly why you’re engaged in this activity (and having it written down and in your desk) is going to be the thing that allows you to stick to your guns.
It’s important to reflect on our intention regularly, as it may change over time. If you engage in this particular contemplation on the first of each month you are more likely to stick to your resolution.
Meditation as a Tool for Discipline
Keeping up your shamatha practice is a way to maintain your discipline all year long. During meditation, when you notice that you’ve drifted off into thought and remind yourself to return to the breath? That’s an act of discipline right there. You are practicing discipline in terms of coming back to the breath, which will ultimately translate into discipline for the rest of your life. It’s subtle, but you will notice that there are times when you are tempted to, say, reach for that hidden pack of cigarettes, but you catch yourself and come back to paying attention to whatever else is going on right in front of you. That, my friend, is the discipline of meditation slipping off the cushion and into your day-to-day life.
Meditation as a Tool for Kindness
I mentioned that moment where we catch ourselves and come back to the breath; that’s a crucial moment in meditation! That’s the moment when you have a choice. You can either beat yourself up for getting lost in thought, thinking you’re the worst meditator to ever live, or you can offer yourself a modicum of kindness, suspending judgment and merely returning our attention to breathing.
If you are like every other meditator alive, you will drift off into thought from time to time, and each of those times is an opportunity where we can reflect on how we are treating ourselves. If we choose to be kind, we’re more likely to maintain discipline with kindness in the rest of our lives. If we choose to be harsh, we’re more likely to be tough and rigid when maintaining our resolution.
In the same way we don’t judge ourselves for thinking during meditation, here we don’t judge ourselves for slipping in our diet, or being less focused at work than we would like. We acknowledge that we’ve done something other than what we wanted to do, and gently return to our resolution.
Year after year, the top resolutions listed on a wide variety of polls include things like a desire to reduce stress, get better sleep, and enjoy life to the fullest. There have been a number of studies done that prove how this very practice helps cuts stress, which alone can lead to better sleep. As for how we can live life to the fullest? By showing up fully for every moment of it. One method that’s been proven effective for showing up for every moment? Meditation. Give it a try and you will find it to be the glue that makes your resolution workable in the year ahead.
Photo by Hailey Wist