A Soft Beginning

I have often approached the New Year with an ambition to tighten up: tighten my waistline, tighten my budget, tighten my unruly life. These New Year’s Resolutions are heavy with residue from a Puritan cultural heritage and reek of the “keeping up with the Joneses’” mentality. And not once has one ever stuck. And that is not because I’m a quitter. In fact, in most areas of my life my “stick-to-it-ness” is over the top. I’ve finished marathons on knees that were screaming for the last ten miles. I’ve stayed in jobs for years that I knew were bad for my soul. I’ve spent sleepless nights finishing projects that didn’t really matter all for the simple reason that quitting wasn’t an option I gave myself. So why, if I can muster up the resolve in all these other instances, have my New Year's Resolutions all been spectacular failures?

I’ve been wondering about this in the days leading up to January 1, 2017, and I don’t have an answer, but I do have a hunch. The word “resolution” comes from the Latin past participle stem, “resolvere,” which means, “to loosen.” In my mind resolve and resolution are about hardening, holding tight, being firm, and steeling oneself, but that is just baggage that I (and many others) have heaped onto the term. If you peel back the layers all the way to the core, you arrive at: “to loosen” or “to unbind.” And I think missing this core concept—of loosening—has something to do with my history of failed resolutions.  

Most notably I’ve spent years cultivating a practice of being hard on myself. I’ve gotten the same feedback since I was in elementary school: that I need to be less self-critical and more self-compassionate. While I admired self-compassion in theory, I spent years wondering whether it wasn’t just an excuse to be lazy and complacent. A way to explain away days spent on the couch eating Hostess cupcakes and watching reality TV. But I understand now that self-compassion and self-indulgence are not even in the same family.

There are three terms I’ve learned over the last few years that lend heft to my understanding of self-compassion--grounding the term lest it float away on the winds of pop psychology.

The first is Wabi Sabi, a Japanese term described by Buddhist author Taro Gold as “the wisdom and beauty of imperfection.” This aesthetic and philosophy is hard to define in English, in part because it is so inimical to our notion of beauty, but it is easy to understand when you see a Wabi Sabi piece of pottery—simple, natural, and perfectly imperfect.

The next term, Metta, translated as lovingkindness, comes from the Buddhist tradition. Again, the concept defies translation, but the marriage of the words 'loving' and 'kindness' into one run-on word is intentional. The traditional practice of a Metta begins with a mediation where you extend lovingkindness to yourself, and then gradually widen the circle to include those you love, then those you feel neutral towards, and then those you dislike or even hate. While it might seem that the last step—of loving those you hate—is the most impossible, I think the first step of extending love to self is frequently harder but nonetheless crucial to the success of the successive steps.

And the final term comes from the German tradition—Schadenfreude—a pleasure that is derived from seeing another’s misfortune. If this seems incongruous with Wabi Sabi and Metta, it’s because it is. To a large degree. But not entirely. The Germans, so frequently cast as stern and unrelenting, have (I think) the most fine tuned sense of humor. I love a culture that can call a spade a spade, and moreover can laugh about it.

So there are the terms: Wabi Sabi, Metta, and Schadenfreude. And here’s what I’ve gleaned: find beauty in the imperfections of your life, love yourself and others, and maintain a sense of humor about your broken, dark parts. I think these facets of self-compassion are the true building blocks of a resolution—or a loosening. They are not however the materials we are trained to reach for as we dream up all that we will accomplish in this next trip around the sun.

I know how to pick up the whip and crack it on my own back. What I’m less skillful at is setting the whip down. But the whip is broken. It’s never gotten me where I want to go, so I’ve been learning how to retire that tool over the last few years. Last year a friend introduced me to a new tool: The Desire Map. This tool conceived by Danielle La Porte is a way to reframe the resolution making process by focusing on your “core desired feelings.” Your core desired feelings capture the essence of how you want to feel across all areas of your life, and they serve as a kind of internal compass once you are aware of the points of your personal compass rose.

I think I’ve landed on my core desired feelings, not just for this year, but perhaps for all the years that are left in my life. They are feelings I've been thinking, and occasionally writing, about for the last few years, and probably longer. My core desired feelings are: joyful connection, expansive, content, alive, and abundant. I know this sounds a bit like a description of an Edible Arrangement. Schmaltzy and trite. But it isn’t. This, I’m convinced, is the yellow brick road to sucking the marrow out of life. Here's hoping for a soft start to 2017 and a heartfelt path in the years ahead moving towards the things that really matter.