Before you start making (or breaking!) your 2012 New Year’s resolutions, why not take a few minutes to recall the ones you made at the beginning of 2011, and spend a little while examining whether you made a decent effort at keeping those last year? I know, it’s much easier to set new goals than to go back over old goals and see if we met them. But what’s the point of setting goals if you don’t ever measure your progress against them?
And then there’s that much-derided word, “metrics” – how do you measure your progress, your efforts? How have I measured up? Not as well as I could have, but I do think that compassion was one of the overarching themes I tried to embody in 2011. Trust me, I made plenty of mistakes along the way. Some were public, while others were more private; some were big and some were small. Overall, though, is the arc of my life bending in the right direction? Oftentimes this year it didn’t seem that way, but perhaps there is yet an element of grace in the cosmos that has enabled me to try again this year.
Some of you may have a hard time recalling what you resolved a year ago. Fortunately (or not) for me, I published mine in the Decatur News Online for all to read. Here’s my article from the beginning of 2011. If you haven’t yet made your own resolutions for 2012, perhaps you can draw some inspiration from it. But if this doesn’t hit you in the right place, stay tuned - I’ll have a 2012 version with a similarly focused resolution coming up soon.
Resolutions – Why You Really Only Need One
Yep, resolutions. It’s that time of year when everyone makes resolutions, and probably by this time next week most everyone will have broken at least one or two of them. But don’t let that deter you from making some of your own.
I think it’s a pretty good idea, this inclination toward self-improvement. Too often we become complacent as we get older and we stop learning, stop growing, stop challenging ourselves to be better. We believe that false adage that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but in fact the most current research shows that even older human brains exhibit neuroplasticity (the ability to grow and regenerate brain cells and neural pathways).
However, let me make a suggestion as to how you might go about implementing your resolutions, whatever they might be (we’ll get to my suggestions about their content in a little while). This suggestion comes from the Buddhist notion of non-attachment that I’ve mentioned in the past.
When you resolve to do something – let’s use the typical goal of weight loss as an example – try not to focus on the end goal itself, i.e. “I resolve to lose ten pounds by the start of swimsuit season.” Instead, focus on the process that will hopefully yield the desire outcome, such as “I will work out three times a week,” or “I will eat healthier meals,” and don’t become attached to the outcome. I think that in the end, this will prove to be a more successful path for you to follow.
But before I go too far down that tangent, let me return to what I really want to talk about – the content of your resolutions, and your spiritual ones in particular. For my part I’m making exactly one resolution this year, but by making this one I think I’m going to address a multitude of my shortcomings.
My resolution for 2011 is this: Be more compassionate.
It really can be that simple. Because when you think about it, being compassionate in all aspects of my life will affect so many of my attitudes and actions. However, please don’t think that I came up with this idea all on my own. I’m actually drawing from a recent book by the Dalai Lama, Toward a True Kinship of Faiths. In his book the Dalai Lama writes:
It is my fundamental conviction that compassion – the natural capacity of the human heart to feel concern for and connection with another being – constitutes a basic aspect of our nature shared by all human beings, as well as being the foundation of our happiness.
Whether one is a theistic religious person, a nontheistic religious person, or a totally nonreligious person altogether, one can find solid reasons to exercise compassion. For the religious theist, God’s own compassion toward humanity is the primary motivation. For a religious nontheist, laws of karma and causality and the basic equality of all beings provide motivation. And for the nonreligious person, a shared sense of humanity and a deep appreciation of the interconnectedness of all beings can lead one to nurture compassion for others.
What’s more, compassion is a universally acknowledged virtue. In that same book the Dalai Lama cites various versions of what we in the West often refer to as the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”), quoting examples in scriptures from Hinduism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Jainism, Daoism, Confucianism, Christianity, and Islam.
A variation on this is the directive to love one’s neighbor as oneself, which is another way to look at compassion. Of course, in order to fulfill this teaching one must begin with a good attitude toward oneself. If you’re filled with self-loathing, applying that same attitude to your neighbor doesn’t really do much good for your neighbor.
Beyond that, I find it most challenging to have compassion on those who don’t really seem to display much compassion of their own. Just as it’s hard to love one’s enemies, it’s hard to be compassionate toward those who are hateful and hurtful. How can I possibly feel compassion for terrorists who bomb and behead innocent civilians, or toward fundamentalists who spew hatred toward those who differ with them?
But that’s what I’m going to try to do. I’m going to try to be compassionate toward the political figures with whom I disagree, and the drivers on I-285 who persist in cutting me off, and the whack job religious zealots, and everyone else who ticks me off in the coming year.
Because that’s the true measure of one’s compassion.