It’s easy to dismiss some of our modern New Year’s traditions such as making resolutions as just vehicles for the commercial exploitation of our inclination to narcissism, especially when you see advert after advert for yoga mats, protein powders, and diet books. Likewise it can be just as easy to dismiss some of our older traditions around reflecting on the previous year and remembering the past as sentimental exercises in nostalgia; but I find it useful to work on developing some non-cynicism wherever I find jaded responses cropping up in myself, and I like to challenge myself to look beyond those initial reactions to see if I can find something that could be of use for more skilful reflections, so I have been thinking about the dhamma of the new year.
The first thing that comes to mind as I consider what dhamma lessons the new year could hold is Ajahn Amaro, as he often takes advantage of the various different dates that mark the start of a new year around the world to point out to us how much of what we treat as ‘fact’ is just convention, or a ‘convenient fiction’ as he likes to call it. The 1st of January starts our year, but this apparent fact is just a naming convention; in French it is le premier Janvier, same day, different name. Even when we take out the different names we still have another convention to negotiate, for instance in another English speaking nation like New Zealand we can agree that New Year is on a day called the first of January, but their first of January starts 13 hours before mine, begging the question when does the first of January actually start? If I can sit in my living room at 1pm on 31st Dec watching the fireworks in Sydney, does that mean that it is new year where I am too? Then we can throw in all other kinds of other differences in convention, the day we call new year is the first of January, but the Chinese year doesn’t start until 12th February. It might be 2021 for us, but in Thailand the new year is 2564. When does the new year really start? What year is it really?
This also makes me think of all of those failed new year’s resolutions that happen every year. We might feel like the start of a new year has something special about it, but in reality it is just a day like any other, we just gave it a different name, so it is little wonder then that our grand plans fall by the wayside. I’ve taken to starting new projects and challenges on arbitrary dates like the 1st of a month, even if it means that my new project starts on a Wednesday or Thursday. Why should we plan everything to start on a Monday? It’s just one day out of seven, they’re all the same really. Why start a new project on the 1st of January? Start it whenever you want, ultimately all the days are the same.
Do Buddhists make New Year’s resolutions? I can’t speak for all of them, but personally I don’t. But I recognise that there is something in the mind that responds to clear signals of the passage of time, such as the start of a new calendar year. The midwinter festival that has been celebrated over the centuries in the Northern Hemisphere was centred around looking forward optimistically to the return of spring and the growth of new life. The long, dark days of winter used to mean cold, hunger, and uncertainty for humans, so the turn of the year set hopes for plentiful harvests, feasts, and comfort. Very few of us live this closely tied to the land any more, but it isn’t surprising really that we still treat the new year as a time to look forward and hope for better days. But reflections on time don’t have to be just unfounded optimism or sentimental remembrances, they can also be a useful element of our practice.
In the chants used by the Thai Forest sangha, among the ten subjects for frequent recollection by monastics is this one: “The days and nights are relentlessly passing; how well am I spending my time?” A sense of urgency is important factor within Buddhist practice to cultivate, because when you accept the uncertainty of both life, and death, then you realise that you can’t ever be sure that things will go as planned. The only moment you can be sure of is the one that you are in, and this is the only moment you can be sure you can practice in too. Sometimes people decide that they will concentrate on working hard until they retire, and at that point they will dedicate themselves to practice, but that is taking an enormous risk. How can you be sure you will live to a ripe old age? That you will still have enough of your faculties to practice well? That you will have the means to be able to retire and won’t have to continue working? That the monasteries will still be there when you are old?
In AN 7.74 the Buddha tells us about a spiritual teacher in the past called Araka who gave his disciples this exhortation:
The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi, AN 7.74 p.1069
“(1) Just as a drop of dew on the tip of a blade of grass will quickly vanish at sunrise and will not last long, so too, brahmins, human life is like a drop of dew. It is limited and fleeting; it has much suffering, much misery. One should wisely understand this. One should do what is wholesome and lead the spiritual life; for none who are born can escape death.
(2) Just as, when thick drops of rain are pouring down, a water bubble will quickly vanish and will not last long, so too, brahmins, human life is like a water bubble. It is limited … for none who are born can escape death.
(3) Just as a line drawn on water with a stick will quickly vanish and will not last long, so too, brahmins, human life is like a line drawn on water with a stick. It is limited … for none who are born can escape death.
(4) Just as a river flowing down from a mountain, going a long distance, with a swift current, carrying along much flotsam, will not stand still for a moment, an instant, a second, but will rush on, swirl, and flow forward, so too, brahmins, human life is like a mountain stream. It is limited … for none who are born can escape death.”
These are powerful reflections for us, reminders that time marches on and we only get a small amount of it to live our lives in. But there is an extra twist in this particular tale because the Buddha goes on to explain that at that time in the past the human life span was 60,000 years, so we can understand that if 60,000 years is a short time that shouldn’t be wasted then our 70-80 years need to be used even more wisely. So the start of a new year can be a useful point to ask ourselves just how well are we spending our time? What have we put off thinking there will be more time later, and what have we become sidetracked by that doesn’t support our practice? What is good and useful, what isn’t good and isn’t useful? What can we keep, and what can we let go of?
These considerations lead me into thinking about skilful use of desire, not least because what I see in the media and the shops is often the incitement of unskilful desires through the medium of superficial new year’s resolutions. A sense of urgency in the practice is about cultivating skilful desires, ones that take us towards wholesome actions; but at a time in the year when we are surrounded by persuasive messages supporting less wholesome ambitions it can be useful to check in with ourselves to see if our own intentions have started from the right motivation.
The end of one year and the start of the next inevitably unleashes miles of articles about New Year’s resolutions and acres of advertisements enticing us to buy into the promise of a “New Year, New You”. Even in such uncertain times as these, the shops don’t seem to have missed a beat with their seasonal offerings to help us to give up, take up, or shape up. Often the resolutions sound well intentioned enough, to improve well being, to be healthier, to strike a better work life balance, but at the heart of many of these types of resolution is the desire of the ego – a wish to make a better self, and the implication that this new self will bring happiness. It’s easy to shrug off these kinds of simple mistakes as something that happens to other people though, because surely we stop making them once we start practicing; but our ego follows us right until we reach the very end of the path, so we always need to keep a sharp eye out for it in our actions.
If you have been reading my blog over the year then you will know that I have been trying to improve my physical fitness and lose some weight, typical new year’s resolution fodder. But knowing that I still have a functional ego means that I took extra precautions to build in some checks and balances to make sure I didn’t just fall into current trends around health and fitness that ultimately lead to drinking protein shakes with every meal and posting work out photos on Instagram. I’m not saying there’s anything inherently wrong with doing that, but it is a bit of an unusual diversion of effort and energy for a Buddhist practitioner that could otherwise have been spent on practice.
Ultimately the question I had to ask myself was why I felt like I needed to do more physical activity. I felt like it seemed a sensible thing to do as part of my recovery from abdominal surgery, since I had lost most of my physical capabilities post op I realised that the only way I was going to get them back was by working on it. The key thing in my thinking though was to make sure that I wasn’t going beyond what was actually necessary to support my practice. So setting a goal for my weight loss to be in the healthy range of BMI seemed less ego focused than saying I want to fit into a certain size of clothes for instance. And to keep my competitive tendencies in check I curtailed my running and weights to the absolute lowest amount, one set of weights and one half mile run. All I want is a healthy, strong, and flexible enough body to be able to sit in meditation in relative comfort for as many years as it is possible to. Aging and aches and pains are inevitable, but that isn’t, to my mind, a reason to neglect maintaining the body during the years that it is capable of working fairly well. So when I am increasing my weights or doing a longer run, I check the skilfulness of my motivation by asking myself is this still in line with my intention to maintain this physical body, or is it straying into the territory of vanity?
Skilful desire can be considered to be something of a paradox though. The Buddha tells us that at the root of suffering is desire, so how does a desire to develop wholesome states not just lead to more suffering? Well, part of the paradox comes down to the meaning of two different words which both get translated into English as desire; Ajahn Sucitto explains it like this:
https://www.inquiringmind.com/article/2302_21_sucitto/ by Ajahn Sucitto
“To unravel this paradox, it helps to understand that the English word desire is a translation for either of two Pali words: tanha or chanda. These Pali words refer to different experiences. Tanha literally means “thirst.” Tanha is a reflex, an instinct—the urge to grab and consume. Chanda has a broader meaning; I prefer “motivation.””
The word chanda often gets described as a neutral term that means something more like the desire to do something, so the skilfulness (or lack of) comes from the motivation for doing it, whereas tanha is more of a grabbing, grasping, somewhat uncontrolled desire. For Ajahn Sucitto, one of the most important defining differences between chanda and tanha is that chanda is a choice, an intentional action:
https://www.inquiringmind.com/article/2302_21_sucitto/ by Ajahn Sucitto
“The clear difference between chanda and tanha is that chanda is not a reflex, not an instinct and not a compulsion; it is a choice. And the main theme of Dhamma practice is to make the choices that undercut the power of instinct and compulsion.”
To make skilful use of desire, tanha is the wrong kind of desire; it is the wanting, craving, clinging desire. Instead we need to use chanda, and because chanda is essentially a neutral action, it is our mind and intention that will shape it as being either skilful or unskilful. Ironically, desire to be a better meditator, or to be deeply peaceful, can actually turn out to be pretty unskilful desires, so this reiterates the point that we always have to be careful to check our motivations. But without desire of any kind we won’t make any progress though, in fact we won’t even start the path without it. So desire is a double edged sword; we need it to compel us to practice, but we have to be wary of it being unskilful and leading us off track and into suffering.
There are so many subtle ways that we can be sidetracked by our unskilful desires in practice, even when we start with the best of intentions. The pleasant feelings we get from being kind and generous are a crucial part of the practice because they replace the pleasures we got from more worldly pursuits, but if we don’t pay enough attention to our motivations then we can use this pleasure just unskilfully. If we aren’t mindful and honest with ourselves, we can easily find ourselves being kind just to milk some good feeling out of it, and while it is still better than drinking a row of shots it still falls into an unskilful use of desire, which will hinder our development and will cause us to suffer. Concentration meditation practices frequently get a bad rap for this reason too; the bliss of some of the early jhana states is so pleasurable that some people never make any progress beyond that point, and end up experiencing suffering whenever a meditation doesn’t turn out as peaceful and blissful as they wanted it to be.
Even though these mistakes are easy to make I see it all as part of the learning curve and not something to be disheartened about though; sometimes we only really understand why our desires were unskilful after we have experienced the suffering that it ultimately caused. As the Buddha says, suffering doesn’t only have negative outcomes, sometimes it can be the reason that we press on to find an answer to it, so it can eventually lead us towards something more skilful:
https://suttacentral.net/an6.63/en/sujato trans. Ajahn Sujato
“And what is the result of suffering? It’s when someone who is overcome and overwhelmed by suffering sorrows and pines and cries, beating their breast and falling into confusion. Or else, overcome by that suffering, they begin an external search, wondering: ‘Who knows one or two phrases to stop this suffering?’ The result of suffering is either confusion or a search, I say.”
Even in our most genuine attempts at being skilful we can get it horribly wrong, and cause a truck load of problems and suffering for ourselves. The Buddha himself spent seven years following strict ascetic practices that brought him nothing but pain and suffering; but he recognised that his actions weren’t working, and he had the courage to let them go and try something else. So perhaps if we are always willing to be honest with ourselves about whether our actions have taken us closer to our goal or further away from it, then we don’t need to try to get it right every time because we will always have the opportunity to learn and grow from it somewhere down the line. So if you feel inclined to set a new year’s resolution this year then go ahead and have a go. We can spend a lot of time procrastinating and trying to think through every possible permutation of a project before we get started, but we will never really know what will happen until we have started, and we often can’t really tell how skilful our desires and actions are until we have acted on them. But as long as we are paying attention to our mind states, and the results of our actions, then we will have enough information to know if we are still moving forward skilfully, or if we need to change direction to get back on track.