By Ann Brand, PhD
January is that time of year we embark on our radical plans for self-improvement. We look at ourselves with dismay, berate ourselves for mistakes and poor choices made in the past year, and come up with a long list of the ways we are going to eat healthier, be more fit, get organized, and improve our flaws. We charge ahead with this ideal in mind, ready to take on the new year. And then by the end of January, we are right back where we started, failing to meet our lofty expectations and kicking ourselves for blowing our New Year’s resolutions once again. It is an all-too-familiar cycle. Mindfulness practice is one way to interrupt this painful cycle. Mindful awareness can support us in making wise, healthy changes that we can sustain throughout the new year.
Change begins with awareness. We must first pay attention to our present experience, so we can see clearly what needs to change. That means seeing our experience as it is right now, not how we would like it to be. It is difficult to look at the unskillful patterns getting the way of well-being. We might see the ways we are not taking care of ourselves and the well-worn patterns behind our unhealthy habits. Perhaps we drink too much when we are anxious, or eat when we are lonely, or consistently put others’ needs before our own, leading to emotional burnout and poor health. Mindfulness practice supports us in staying present to our experience without judgment. We can see our unskillful patterns with kindness and gentleness instead of the harsh critic of self-improvement. With this clarity, we can make wiser changes that will support us in meeting our goals in sustainable ways.
Change is difficult. Our habits and patterns are engrained, and we are likely to slip up along the way. Maybe we are seeing our goals for the new year as a way of punishing ourselves for past failings. When we make a mistake in meeting those goals, it reinforces this self-punishment, sabotaging our efforts. “See,” our inner critic says, “you will never stop smoking, lose weight, run that marathon,” and then we give up. Mindfulness practice cultivates the awareness needed to keep us out of our judging, reactive mind, allowing us to stay present to our experience with kindness. We can then make a wiser choice to move forward in the face of an obstacle. Maybe the initial goal we set was too big to start with, and instead of giving up, we can see clearly how to readjust to support our long-term well-being. Mindfulness practice fosters the willpower we need to compassionately begin again when we make a mistake.
Maybe your first intention for the new year is to cultivate nonjudgmental present moment awareness through the practice of mindfulness. Try reading a book like Real Happiness by Sharon Salzburg or take a mindfulness class, all in support of changes that lead to sustainable, healthy habits for the year ahead.
Ann Brand, PhD, is a mindfulness meditation teacher and lecturer at UW–Stout in the School of Education. She teaches mindfulness classes in Eau Claire at The Center and can be reached at email@example.com.