Car horns are blaring in the distance, the sky is intermittently lit by small sparks firing off in anticipation, bodies on the streets are scurrying around in an agitated frenzy of last minute shopping, and most people I know are busy deliberating which event to choose for the compulsory festivities of the “big night.” After indulging, somewhat mechanically, in this repetitive, noisy ritual for decades, I began to reflect on the meaning of New Year’s Eve. Although I was convinced that it was a modern, semi-Christian ritual, some digging revealed its pagan origins. The earliest new-year-type celebrations occurred in Mesopotamia around 2000 BC, in the form of eleven-day festivities at the time of the spring equinox in March, which coincided, symbolically, with the season of rebirth. January 1st was adopted as a marker of the New Year in 46 BC, when Julius Caesar officially codified the 12 month solar-based calendar (it was already in place for some time, but not observed), replacing the ancient 10 month calendar that was based on moon cycles. The first month of the new calendar was displaced from March to the newly invented January, which derived its name from Janus, the god of gates and doors, who had two faces, one looking backwards and the other turned forward.
The actual date of the celebration isn’t as significant as what it represents. From archaic to modern times, New Year celebrations have been rituals that symbolized letting go of the past and welcoming the future. Some cultures used effigies or puppets of death, which were buried, drowned or burned to symbolize the definitive rupture of an ending, while others emphasized a more cyclical sense of renewal. In modern versions of New Year’s Eve, two traditions are brought together in a somewhat contradictory fashion – the pagan, Bacchanalian custom of reveling, singing, dancing, drinking and gluttony, and the Christian, ascetic tradition of making moral resolutions to improve one’s character. In the ancient Babylonian context, the New Year marked a desire for a clean slate, but it was in the form of promises made to the gods to balance accounts, practically, by returning borrowed objects and settling debts, rather than taking vows of self-improvement. Modern resolutions draw upon an old Judeo-Christian tradition of atoning for wrongdoings, but the specific practice of making vows before oneself and others on a symbolic date is rooted in the “watch night services” popularized by Protestants in the 18th Century. The Puritan theologian, Jonathan Edwards, compiled 70 such resolutions into a catechism of self-overcoming, which included, “Resolved to do whatever I think to be my duty… Resolved never to suffer the least motions of anger… Resolved to maintain the strictest temperance in eating and drinking… Resolved to inquire wherein I have been negligent, what sin I have committed… Resolved to deny whatever is not most agreeable to a good, peaceable, compassionate, humble, meek, forgiving, sincere temper…” This Protestant bias has carried over into secularized versions of New Year’s resolutions – from eating healthier, to exercising and loosing weight, giving up drinking or smoking, fighting off bad passions, being kinder to others, or more productive at work.
Since it’s not possible to ignore the end of the year commotion, I decided to take it as an occasion to reflect on the twin faces of the New Year ritual, and why I have found myself at odds with both in the past. For many years, I’ve had an allergy to the Bacchanalian side – to the noisemakers, cheering, drunken revelry, mayhem on the streets and in the public transport – because I saw it as a sign of a mindless, automatic reflex that people engaged in just because everyone else was doing it. But maybe there’s a bit of arrogance in this dismissal. The cheering, drinking, fireworks, and midnight countdown are all symbolic gestures to strongly impress upon the mind, in a visual, ritualistic way, that the past has ended and something new is beginning. The New Year ritual invests chronological time with a deeper, sacred significance as a rite of passage, as a threshold of transformation, as a process of rebirth that leads to new possibilities for self-actualization. It transmutes profane time (and the sadness of what has been lost with its inevitable passage) into something magical that opens unknown doors. Certain periods in our personal lives – from birth, adolescence, adulthood, marriage, having children, moving houses or countries, retirement, separations, the death of family members and many others that are highly idiosyncratic – are ritual moments of sacred time because they mark the transformative thresholds of our existence. And collective celebrations can serve as reminders that this takes place on a larger scale, for everyone. In this sense, the New Year celebration can serve an important function as an affirmation of the need to ritualize thresholds, even if it seems to take place in highly unreflective, or even semi-unconscious forms. This is not to discount the form, which can often have a profound significance. But rather than denouncing the mindless hype that floats in the air at this time of the year, it’s more productive to ask how the ritual might be transformed into something performed with awareness, so that it becomes deliberate and infused with personal meaning instead of a mechanical cliche.
My dislike of resolutions is more complex because I’ve had a prolonged love-hate relationship with them. Resolutions are expressions of an intention to change, of a desire to open a new door or begin a new journey. They reflect our need to add a sense of meaning, progress and expansion to the passage of chronological time. I don’t believe that making resolutions is bad or self-defeating in itself, but how resolutions are undertaken and the kinds of desire they spring from often turns them into recipes for disaster. Many resolution gurus have diagnosed that New Year resolutions tend to fail because they’re framed as absolute or grandiose statements rather than small, piecemeal, concretely attainable goals. Or that we overwhelm ourselves by making too many resolutions at the same time, when it would be more manageable to focus only on one. But this kind of advice seems to miss the main point. New Year’s resolution are often nothing more than a catalogue of personal dissatisfactiona with ourselves and our lives, ranging from mild irritation to extreme self-loathing. They are internalizations (often unconscious) of external standards, from cultural stereotypes that encourage measuring and comparing ourselves agaist others, to different religious traditions that are burdened by concepts of sin or guilt. Resolutions tend to be framed as a desire for overcoming and overpowering our faults, defects and weaknesses, as undertaking an internal battle against ourselves. In this case, the desire to expand past our current threshold comes out of a sense of lack, of missing something, of being deficient. And because of this the game is rigged from the start, since these negative emotions and their corresponding tactics of self-discipline and self-repression cannot be an adequate wellspring of motivation; only something we love can create a strong gravitational pull towards change. The “failure” to keep resolutions then increases feelings of guilt and unworthiness, thus keeping the whole cycle turning in on itself. Until next year’s package of resolutions.
I believe it is possible to make resolutions differently, with a certain awareness and wisdom, which, speaking from my own experience, has involved a three step process of transformation – of shifting perspectives, and then behavior. It’s necessary to first let go of any religious-moralistic aura of self-loathing and of atoning for sins that we’ve inherited from our culture, and to cultivate a spirit of self-acceptance and of being content with wherever our life is at the moment. This shift eliminates the feeling of lack and dissatisfaction as the driving force behind desire. The ease or difficulty of adopting such a change of perspective depends on individual histories and backgrounds, but some kind of prolonged practice of mindfulness and detached self-observation – without feeling a need to condemn, improve and correct – is often indispensable. Although I still practice saying yes to whatever arises in consciousness, and in life, what has proven more useful is viewing my relationship with myself as a dialogue between a parent comforting and reassuring a child when it feels bad about mistakes and failures. Seeing myself doubled as a 6 year old has made it increasingly difficult to adopt an inner voice of anger and self-condemnation. Accepting both the necessity and the productive side of failures and mistakes has allowed me to connect to myself with a feeling of fulness (or at least okay-ness) rather than lack, and a sense of appreciation for my beautiful qualities and talents as well as my occasional stupidities and foibles. This doesn’t mean that I’ve turned a blind eye to certain habits and repetitive patterns of thinking that are tripping me up and limiting what I may be capable of – limiting me from coming into my full power, as Spinoza would say. But I no longer feel the need to suppress, conquer or overcome them out of a sense of irritated discontent.
The drive for expansion, for constantly surpassing our previously defined limits and boundaries, seems to be an inevitable part of life. Rather than seeking to abolish it because it leads to frustration, it’s important to learn how to harness this desire wisely so that it doesn’t turn into a self-imposed habit of denial and resentment. There’s often a very thin line between feeling content with ourselves and seeking to expand further, between standing still and appreciating the magic of the moment and having a sense of life as a journey in which we’re constantly progressing forward. By increasing our capacity to accept wherever we are without frustration, guilt or self-loathing, we can glide easily along this thin line and explore the productive tension between rest and movement, satisfaction and the drive for more, present and future. Dwelling in this tension, which is like a tight bow of desire that stretches between time and timelessness, is more meaningful and more realistic than mouthing an empty platitude of living only in the “here and now” as if the past and future could be simply abolished through an act of will. Even animals posses memories and a sense of anticipation and are never exclusively inhabiting the present moment. It seems to me that we can only be free of the past when we recognize it clearly for what it is and for how it has shaped us and let go of its emotional hold, and not when we try to ignore it or look the other way, which usually means that it’s continuing to exercise an unconscious influence. Similarly, we are free of the tyranny of the future not when we’ve cut off all desire and sense of anticipation, but when we stop denigrating the deficiency of the present in the name of a future promise of happiness and when we let go of rigidly planning the shape of the future and become open to the unexpected.
From my perspective, it also seems necessary to let go of another learned habit – that of making absolute distinctions between pleasure and pain, happiness and sadness, good and bad. The reason we gravitate toward seeking pleasure and running away from pain is that we’re standing too close, in the middle of things, and cannot grasp the comprehensive picture. It’s like having our nose pressed directly to a painting so that all we can see are the creases of colored paint but not the image itself. When we step back we can see the play of light and shadows and the contrast of different colors and shapes. Our perspective is literally transformed and we’re able to grasp the painting in its totality. Similarly, if we’re lying in the grass with our nose among the individual blades, we might only see a horrific theater of insects devouring each other. It’s a very different vision than looking down from the peak of a mountain and seeing the harmony of trees and rocks and waterfalls and animal and birds. How might this look if the distance were even greater? Last year I saw a documentary about the first astronauts who went to the moon, and they all talked about the sense of awe they felt when they saw the earth from outer space, as a living organism with different shapes and colors and changing hues. The distance allowed them to see a completely different reality than the one they encountered by living on the earth’s surface. It is because we often have our nose against the picture or pressed in the blades of grass – or are breathing in only the immediate scent of the present – that we’re unable to glimpse a greater totality. Sometimes when we look back upon a painful experience after a year or two have passed, we’re able to see that what appeared sad, unfortunate, or even traumatic had positive effects in the ripple of time. The event may have provoked us to surpass a certain limit, or endowed us with a new insight, or contributed to our sense of an expanded self. It is this vastness of perspective, transcending the immediacy of the here and now, that separates us from the pleasure/pain and attraction/repulsion stimulus that drives the animal world. Not that we have left it behind, but we also have a heightened capacity to move beyond a merely agitated hunt for pleasure and flight from pain. We can acquire a deeper wisdom that sees how the multicolored spectrum of our experiences, with highs and lows and insipid middles, all interweave and contribute to life’s journey and to passing through the thresholds of human existence. This vastness gives rise to a sense of contentment or joy, which is different from the physical sensation of pleasure or the emotional high of euphoric moments of happiness. Joy is the ability to glimpse the entire picture, and to see how even seemingly disharmonious elements can contribute to an overall sense of beauty and purpose.
This doubly altered perspective profoundly transforms the quality of desire. Desire no longer springs out an in inner lack, a sense of being sinful, weak, flawed or irresolute. And it stops resembling an inner battle of overcoming or conquering evil parts of ourselves. Secondly, desire is no longer exclusively fueled by a narrow pleasure principle. This shift creates a much deeper transformation of our horizons than what we usually call “self-improvement,” which is spurred by dissatisfaction and chasing after a happier future. Because desire is no longer shaped by negatives – by the not good enough and the not yet there – it is freer to move along positive lines and directions. I believe this re-valuation of desire makes us less susceptible to the internalized discipline and asceticism that has been trained in us, and that instead of allowing desire to be guided by imperatives of “don’t do this” or “should do that,” we can let it flow more organically towards what we love. There have been many times in the past when I’ve pushed, harassed and disciplined myself into doing something out of a vague sense that the future result would be good for me even if the momentary experience felt bad. The best example was my ritual of going to the gym and torturing myself with its weights, machines and distasteful atmosphere. There’s no sense in which I can look back upon this from a wider perspective and see the positive result of the traumatic ordeal, except that it taught me what I don’t want. The wider perspective actually revealed how I was driven by a desire that was not my own but merely conforming to some collectively-standardized tyranny of the “should.” Recently, I have taught myself to fall in love with dancing. And its gravitational pull feels very different than going to the gym. I don’t do it religiously every morning, but when I do, I enjoy it both for the immediacy of the moment as well as for its contribution to an overall process of becoming healthier. It is something that my heart and body are naturally attuned to, in contrast to previous forms of “working out” which always felt like hard work and repressive discipline. My desires are increasingly being shaped by this kind of love or natural attraction, even when it’s not channeled into a specific activity. Sometimes it’s as general as falling in love with the process of expansion itself, with all its exhilarating highs, missteps and pains. When we develop a real taste of joy and of freedom from self-discipline, resolutions are no longer a matter of pushing ourselves by sheer willpower or by making subtle threats and punishments. When resolutions carry with them a feeling of repressing or disciplining, they’re bound to backfire. The desire needs to attract us out of its own positive gravitational force. Then riding the movement of desire feels like rolling a bicycle downhill out of its own momentum rather than trying to beat an unruly horse into galloping.
Making a resolution can simply refer to a process of setting an intention and following through on it. But what people usually write on their imaginary list of New Year resolutions often sounds more like a complete revolution of their character and personality. Or perhaps it may start out as a revolution from below but it’s followed by a coup d’etat in which a general seizes control and overthrows the unruly rabble. Resolutions often carry a sense of forcefulness and overpowering, as well as the connotation of wiping the slate clean and starting from zero – like a military coup that occupies a city and razes all the old buildings to the ground. If we approach our current life with acceptance, and a wide enough perspective that can appreciate the entire journey, complete with its mishaps and comic failures, then we see the “new” not as a radical break with the past but as a kind of discontinuity through continuity. Welcoming the new by making resolutions for the future does not mean “I resolve to cut off everything from my past because I dislike myself and I’m determined to completely negate my former identity.” This is not only undesirable but impossible. Self-creation is an ongoing process of partial decompositions of the old building-blocks of identity and re-assemblages that build upon existing elements and foundations. Some habits, beliefs, possessions and relationships will be reshuffled and shaken in the mix, while others necessarily continue. We are shaped by our past and our previous relationships, but we are not merely their unconscious, automatic byproducts. We continuously re-shape and re-make ourselves by infusing elements of newness, sparks of creativity and inspiration from others. I believe the key to “mastering” the tension between the present and the future and between being content and seeking to expand further is to approach the process with awareness and to be fully comfortable in acknowledging our past, all the different I’s who we have been, what we have learned in the schools and in life, the relationships that have shaped us into who we are today, and all the people who have passed through our lives and the joy, wonder, pleasure, awe, pain, suffering and exasperation we experienced as a result of those encounters. Making resolutions should not mean turning away from our previous life with revulsion, but seeing the mystery, the magic and the continuity of a constantly-evolving dynamism of expansion. Self-transformation is an alchemical process, which decomposes and recomposes, sifts out precious materials from the dross, dissolves and fuses, and churns everything into a new mixture.
After these reflections, I came back to my earlier question and asked how I might make a more aware and deliberate use of the New Year celebration than by going to a party and drinking and cavorting and counting down along with everyone else. My decision to not go out partying does not come out of any sense of heroism or holier-than-thou-ness. It’s as simple as realizing that I have not enjoyed going to these parties in the past and that I would rather choose something that makes better use of my time and that is more meaningful given my tastes and dispositions. I’m describing what I have chosen to adopt as my own New Year ritual, without making prescriptions for anyone else – since any personal ritual is, by definition, individualized. I decided to stay home during the two days of Dec 31- Jan 1, to ignore the phone, internet and other busy distractions as much as possible, and to create my own introspective ceremony that unfolds through several sequential steps.
1. Year in review. On the morning of Dec 31st, I reflected, in my journal, upon the passing year, but without any moralism of counting faults and atoning for wrongdoings. I listed all my wonderfully euphoric and magical experiences and expressed gratitude for them. And then I listed my most stupid moments and painful tribulations and analyzed, in retrospect, what was actually productive about each of them. I came away with the feeling that there’s nothing I would really want to change about 2014.
2. Letting go. While suspended in the tension between feeling content and wanting to journey forward, I glimpsed that certain habits, patterns of thinking and ways of relating to others are hangovers from my earlier identities, and are not fully consistent with who I feel I have become. In other words, they seem to be holding me back. And I resolved to let go of them – with a sense of gentleness and patience rather than plucking them out like some offending evil eye. I wrote these down on individual scraps of paper and burned each one to create a symbolic dramatization of its end. Along with this symbolic act of clearing, I also engaged in some physical de-cluttering of my environment. I threw out old papers and documents I no longer need, clothes I haven’t worn in the past year, and shoes that are pretty but uncomfortable and have been sitting idly in the hallway.
3. Emptying. In between letting go of the past and welcoming the newness of the future, there’s always an in-between limbo, a zone of necessary emptiness. I chose to celebrate this emptiness by fasting for the second half of the day on Dec 31st, and by undertaking a home-meditation-retreat, dispersed at three intervals throughout the day, including at the all important midnight hour. I like the idea of making a symbolic break with my previous patterns of attempting to fill New Year’s Eve with strong sensations and emotions.
4. Welcoming newness. On the morning of Jan 1st, I decided I will write down not exactly a list of resolutions (as in I will do this or I resolve to do no more of that) but a description of an overall blueprint of where I want my life’s journey to be heading for the next year, and what new beginnings as well as old continuities I can glimpse in it. Some of these “resolutions” are not entirely new, but a process of deepening something that is already existing in seed-like form.
5. Opening to the unexpected. In the past, some of my best laid plans didn’t materialize or went astray, and it actually worked out better. I recognize that I’m not omniscient and can’t always see the best paths ahead. Although I believe in the importance of having some goals and a general sense of direction or purpose, I’m not overly attached to them and trust in the higher wisdom of my life to unfold as it will. So I resolved that after writing down my “resolutions,” I will submerge them in water – or, to be more concrete, flush them down the toilet – to symbolize my willingness to let go of rigid plans and to flow along with the unexpected detours of life.
Happy New Year. Frohes neues Jahr. La mulţi ani. Bonne année. Feliz ano novo. S novim godom. Sretna nova godina. Boldog új évet, Aam saiid. Shana tova. Nav varsh ki subhkamna. Xin nian hao. Akemashite omedetô gozaimasu. Gluk in’n tuk…