by George Pitagorsky
One year follows the next. New Year celebrations are opportunities to look back to reflect on the past and to look forward to plan for the future, whether to continue on as we have been or whether to institute changes. Looking forward we make resolutions. These are improvement goals. Self-improvement is at the heart of resolutions.
Resolutions and Continuous Improvement
There are different kinds of changes, ones we have no control over, ones we can influence but not avoid and ones we can choose to make.
Resolutions are about changes we choose to make. They are intentions or commitments to change. Annually reviewing behavior and committing to self improvement is an ancient and cross cultural phenomenon. The Babylonians did it. It is part of the Yom Kippur ritual. It happens at Lent.
However, the message isn't to reflect on past behavior and commit to improvement once a year but to do it at least once a year, whenever you realize that there is need to change. The need to change is driven by your values and goals.
Consider a resolution to be continuously mindful of behavior and commit to making it the most skillful behavior possible. We might call that a "meta resolution", one that covers all other resolutions.
Benjamin Franklin is a good example of what it means to make a continuous improvement resolution. He resolved at about age twenty to change direction and pursue what he called "moral perfection." He identified four resolutions, deciding to be more frugal, honest and sincere, and industrious and to speak no ill of anyone and good of everyone. From these he came up with thirteen virtues.
He then embarked on a program in which he practiced one of his thirteen virtues each week, evaluating his performance at the end of each week. At the end of thirteen weeks he started over. It isn't clear how long he kept it up, but even doing it for one round is an accomplishment.
Another example is the Conscious Living/Conscious Working program, now entering its eleventh year at NY Insight Meditation Center. In it participants commit to five months during which they practice mindfulness meditation and focus on each of the aspects of the Buddha's Eight Fold path for two weeks at a time to cultivate right understanding, intention, action, speech, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration. Continuing that process after the formal program is over leads to continuous improvement and optimal performance.
What is skillful behavior? It is behavior that leads to the achievement of one's highest goals and values. So part of New Years tradition should be to reflect on those goals and values. Are they purely material - improving some skill or process, making more money, becoming stable and secure, getting more stuff and more pleasure, or losing weight - or are they transcendental - being compassionate, pleasing God, cultivating wisdom, making the environment healthier, etc.
Of course transcendental goals and values are not at odds with the material ones. But since the transcendental ones influence our choice of and level of attachment to the material ones perhaps those are the first to reflect upon. If you don't have any, you might reflect on that.
With this resolution to continuously improve comes the intention to apply effort throughout the year - making everyday a New Year's Day. Maybe that is why there are different New Years Days across multiple cultures, to remind us that it is not so much about the calendar but about the idea of stopping to reflect and plan forward.
Self-Compassion and The Desire to Improve
Resolutions focus on self improvement. Self-improvement requires an acknowledgment that there is imperfection. We are not fully satisfied with things as they are and we resolve to make them better. We commit to making an effort.The desire to be better, to improve, can be healthy or not, depending on attitude.
A healthy attitude is founded on a practical, realistic perspective; one that recognizes and accepts that while we might aspire to perfection we are not perfect. An unhealthy attitude about self-improvement is founded on a false sense of self-worth and a neurotic, unrealistic drive for perfection. When self-esteem relies on being perfect people berate themselves for not measuring up.
This is where self-compassion comes in. According to Dr. Kristen Neff, "Self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism. Self-compassionate people recognize that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life difficulties is inevitable, so they tend to be gentle with themselves when confronted with painful experiences rather than getting angry when life falls short of set ideals. People cannot always be or get exactly what they want. When this reality is denied or fought against suffering increases in the form of stress, frustration and self-criticism. When this reality is accepted with sympathy and kindness, greater emotional equanimity is experienced." With greater emotional equanimity comes improved performance.
Being self-compassionate does not mean being self-indulgent or having low standards. It means applying the compassion and understanding you would apply to a child who is trying to accomplish a difficult task to yourself. When making an effort to do something, strike the right balance as you would if you were tuning a stringed instrument - to tight and the string breaks, too loose and the music is bad. When you realize what you have done is unskillful, acknowledge that, resolve to improve and follow through. Don't waste your time and energy in self recrimination and remorse.
Being mindfully aware of thoughts and feelings we can realistically observe what is happening and apply the right balance of understanding, resolve and effort to set and accomplish realistic goals.
© 2013 Pitagorsky Consulting