With New Years Day comes New Year’s resolutions – vows to undertake some project of self-improvement, whether setting aside a bad habit (eating cookies by the sleeve after midnight) or taking on a good one (going to the gym four days a week). However, many of these projects are doomed to fail (80-90% or higher by the month’s end, depending on who you ask). This leads some people to reject the entire process, decrying the practice of intentional self-improvement on some arbitrary day.
But this may be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. If there is something the Church calendar tells us, it’s that we can use arbitrary days as an excuse to focus our attention on something important that is easy to neglect in the busyness of day-to-day life. So if you want to change something in your life, why do such projects so often fail and what can be done about it?
In The Way to Love Anthony de Mello notes that most of our self-improvement arises from self-hatred and is implemented through self-violence. The solution, says he, is not to attack what you perceive to be the sources of unhappiness in your life. Instead of renunciation and avoidance, he suggests observation and understanding:
Consider your sad condition. You are always dissatisfied with yourself. So you are full of violence and self-intolerance which only grows with every effort that you make to change yourself….Think of the sad history of your efforts at self-improvement, that either ended in disaster or succeeded only at the cost of struggle and pain. Now suppose you desisted from all effort to change yourself, and from all self-dissatisfaction, would you then be doomed to go to sleep having passively accepted everything in you and around you? There is another way besides laborious self-pushing on the one hand and stagnant acceptance on the other. This is far from easy because to understand what you are requires complete freedom from all desire to change what you are into something else…What you attempt is not to change yourself but to observe yourself, to study every one of your reactions to people and things, without judgement or condemnation or desire to reform yourself.
Will change occur then? Oh, yes. In you and in your surroundings. But it will not be brought about by your cunning, restless ego that is forever competing, comparing, coercing, sermonizing, manipulating in its intolerance and ambitions, thereby creating tension and conflict and resistance between you and God – an exhausting, self-defeating process like driving with your brakes on. (59- 61)
Elsewhere in the book, de Mello expands on this theme of awareness:
See how you attempt to bring about change – both in yourself and others – through the use of punishment and reward, through discipline and control, through sermonizing and guilt, through greed and pride, ambition and vanity, rather than through loving acceptance and patience, painstaking understanding and vigilant awareness. (57)
Are you attempting to force this change on your nature through effort and through the desire to becomes something that your ego has planned? Or are you content to study, observe, understand, and be aware of your present state and problems, without pushing, without forcing things that your ego desires, leaving God to effect changes according to His plans, not yours? (56)
Change is only brought about by awareness and understanding. Understand your unhappiness and it will disappear – what results is the state of happiness. Understand your pride and it will drop – what results will be humility. Understand your fears and they will melt – the resultant state is love. Understand your attachments and they will vanish – the consequence is freedom…Through observation [these things] die. (52)
Spend hours just observing your ideas, your habits, your attachments and your fears without any judgment and condemnation. Look at them and they will crumble. (48)
But what does this patient, non-judgmental awareness actually look like? Martin Laird, in Into the Silent Land, explains it through the ancient Christian spiritual practice of vigilance or watchfulness:
One type of watchfulness consists in closely scrutinizing every mental image or provocation. This watchfulness is not our superego’s monitor, ever ready to shame us into conformity to an internalized ideal of what holiness is supposed to look like. It is free of all ego strategies that hold onto what we like or push away what we don’t like. It is a grounding, vigilant receptivity. This witness, that which is aware of the afflictive emotion, that which is aware of clinging to it or fleeing from it, is itself free of the affliction, free of the clinging, free of the fleeing. (100)
Laird first illustrates the practice with the case of a nun, Laura, who had become pathologically afraid of another woman in the monastery who had once verbally abused her:
Laura learned to distinguish the fear itself from the object of fear (that woman). Gradually she learned to see that there was a difference between fear as a simple emotion and the mind’s lightning-quick commentary on fear. This skill of observation and discernment, which the ancients call “vigilance,” has three elements. First, turn around and meet the afflictive emotion with stillness (without an established practice this won’t be possible). Second, allow fear to be present. Third, let go of the commentary on the fear.
This third element is the most challenging. It is often difficult to let go of the story, in spite of our willingness to do so. The difficulty is due to the momentum generated by mental habits of watching our internal videos, listening to our mental chatter decade after decade. This is precisely where our contemplative practice offers practical assistance. Whenever we become aware of either watching another video about the fear or trying to push the fear away we simply return to our practice. It is not a question of controlling whether or not the attention will be stolen (it will be); it is a question of returning to our practice when we become aware that the attention has been stolen. This gradually cultivates inner stillness and creates a new mental habit of not indulging the story but instead simply letting the story be there if it happens to be there. With time the story will be less victimizing and may even play itself out. With this move from passive victim to vigilant witness we begin to see with greater clarity the fits of obsessive commentary that we supply. (104-5)
Laird further explains the difference between the affliction and the mental commentary that makes it immeasurably worse with the case of Elizabeth, a scientist dying from cancer:
Her rediscovery of prayer bore fruit not only in a deepened awareness of God’s abiding presence, but also she became skilled at seeing how the drama of the commenting mind adds to suffering. As a result she discovered several important things about pain. Thoughts about pain are worse than pain by itself. “Suffering is what your mind does with your pain,” she said. “A silent mind knows no suffering.” Trying to push pain away increases suffering. In her case there was no question of pain going away. But suffering she could do something about. If she could be still before the pain and not wrestle with it, she felt alive and aware. Gradually she was able to let go of the demand that the pain be gone, if it didn’t happen to be gone.
By learning simply to be still before pain she learned to see into pain. Pain has a center. This center is silence. When her attention was not stolen by thoughts about the pain, she could be still before this silent center. In this silent center she felt closest to God, so she would go back there whenever she could. However, if she got lost in thoughts about the pain, then she returned to suffering. (108)
What does all this have to do with New Year’s resolutions? Resist the temptation to make resolutions out of guilt, shame, self-rejection and impatience. Instead, start to observe your bad habits and that which stands in the way of your good habits. Become aware of these inner dynamics, your emotional programming of what you think will make you happy and your mental commentary on what is going on around you. Don’t judge these dynamics, condemn them or hate them. Just observe, seek to understand the way a scientist does. The more you are able to do so, the less power they will have, allowing you to naturally and effortlessly turn away from their counterfeit offers of life and towards true Source of Life – the triune God.
You are your own worst enemy. But watch how our Lord dealt with His enemies: not by destroying them, but by overcoming them with love.