TThe evidence of whether new year’s resolutions are effective is mixed. Make them smart, specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely, and they can be a spur for effective action. But more vague resolutions like “get in shape,” “lose weight,” or “stop wasting so much time” often hide a deeper self-criticism that undermines our intentions.
The underlying focus is that we simply have to try harder, sometimes on everything at once, and that sets us up to fail. We binge on diets, then we binge on food, and finally we binge on guilt.
I’ve found that apps that help turn my unfocused intentions into a smart plan really work. A Couch to 5K program got me started and I liked having a clear goal. It feels better to be in shape. You might see a bald guy running around with a waddling gait, but I see goals accomplished and goals smashed, and a 10K in my sights.
But there is a downside to resolutions, even when they are effective and we achieve them. The focus on results has made me check my Google Fit stats far too often, introducing an element of data-driven compulsiveness into the simple activity of exercising my body. It reminds me of the urge I sometimes feel to check my Facebook likes and Twitter followers. I feel like it fits in with a broader cultural mainstream – the tension that comes from constantly striving to keep up, be productive, and get ahead is a source of stress, not its cure.
Recognizing this, a part of me just wants to ditch my phone and forget about goals. I am a Buddhist, I have taught mindfulness for 15 years, and that part of me wants to be unproductive and go, as we say in our courses, from doing mode to being mode.
My favorite exponent of such a non-utilitarian life is John Keats, who championed “delicious diligent indolence” in a letter written to a friend in 1818: “Let’s not go,” he writes, “let’s hurry and gather honey, buzzing like bees here and there for a knowledge that is reached, but open the leaves like a flower and be passive. and responsive. “
Keats’s word “diligent” indicates that by indolence he does not mean inertia. Maintaining an alert receptivity requires what Buddhism calls practice: a conscious effort to develop it over time, which must be done with “balanced effort,” a middle way between voluntary or compulsive effort and complacency.
The Buddha image of this was that of a musical instrument whose strings were not to be tuned too loose or too tight.
Drawing on my experience as a mindfulness teacher, I have some suggestions for intermediate practices that foster alert receptivity that Keats recommends. The first is to learn to calm the mind. Meditation is by no means the only way to do this, but it is popular because it offers simple methods of shifting attention from the flow of thoughts to something calming, such as breathing. If you have tried it yourself, you will know that the thoughts do not stop and sometimes you feel uncomfortable. But settling the mind and entering a different kind of awareness is actually a fairly straightforward process.
That’s a start, but the value of doing this is the “mental space” that opens up as you free yourself from stress and mental clutter. Therefore, it is important that we do not fill the space again with more information. Buddhism has always spoken of the need to “protect the doors of the senses”, to manage what we expose our minds to, if we want them to develop. And that takes on a new importance when, with a few clicks, we can access an effectively unlimited supply of movies, music tracks, websites, and just about any other fun we can imagine.
There is little point in achieving a goal like getting fit or losing weight if it becomes a new source of stress. What I’m really looking for while running is a sense of flourishing and vitality, and that can only happen by being fully present and aware in every moment, not just when I hit 10K.
A more conscious way of life values simplicity over consumption and allows space between activities. It focuses on doing one thing at a time and doing it completely. We need time to reflect and be curious.
These things can be practical and maybe you can frame them as smart resolutions. But in the end we don’t just need to be smart. We need to be wise.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism