December 24, 2013

Intentions are Greater Than Resolutions.

Do you punish yourself with New Year’s resolutions?

I know I do.

Try setting New Year’s intentions instead.

Along with the hubbub of change, comes constant imploring from the media to Make our New Year’s Resolutions! Do it now! Lose weight! Decide and commit!

While I think that commitment—structure, public declarations and goal-setting—can be very helpful, I often do it in the guise of shaming myself, or haranguing myself. When, later in the year, or even just in January, the habits I was trying to change seem more resolute than my desire to change them, shame kicks in.

So I propose we try something a bit gentler.

Each year, I offer a practice to my Contemplative Writing students that I call “Setting a New Year’s intention.” These are akin to setting a sankalpa (Sanskrit for “intention word”), in the beginning of a session of yoga. I like to encourage my students—and myself—to take time and see if a word or phrase can find us, instead of looking for them.

Let the word have flexibility—play or joy, soften or focus, blossom or receive.

A few years ago my wife and I took “consumption” as our New Year’s Intention—to gently, lightly bring attention to all the ways we consume. Believe me, when the year was up, we were not done with that contemplation! But we joined Weight Watchers and lost weight, brought down our excess spending and increased our time together.

This kind of gentle structure—goal setting without specific measurements—doesn’t work for everyone. However, if your inner critic thrives on pointing out where you fail, this can be a fail-safe way to set a wide-open space for exploration.

Once chosen or found, we can play with our intention word(s)/phrase. Make a collage, or write about it on and off. Keep it public and out there—even if just in our own home spaces—so we can be gently reminded of it when we need it. Share it with friends. Discuss it. Contemplate it. Try to feel it in our bodies.

Other ways we can play with word(s) to soften New Year’s shifts:

1. Sit with a friend or friends and write, quickly and without stopping, for 10 minutes. Write as many “six word stories” about the year as possible—memories, specific moments, overall depictions. Share them and reflect. It helps if the person/people are close to us and know the references, but not necessary.

2. Come up with a word for the last year, 2013. What is our felt sense of the year? Again, let the word come to us if we can, rather than projecting an idea onto the year. For instance, my intention word for 2013 was “play” but my word when I look back is “relief”—or, actually—“brelief,” a made-up word combining “belief” and “relief.”

3. Connect with a part(s) of our bodies that really experienced or expressed 2013—maybe you were ill or injured, or, if in good health, it could be a part you are grateful for. Which part(s) of your body says, “Yep. That was my year!” Then, ask your body which part(s) wants to be featured/explored/understood/have voice in 2014.

Here’s my intention for all of us: to enter into this change in calendar with good intentions. Intentions are not the whole journey, by any means, but they are an important start. Let’s start with a sense of playfulness and curiosity instead of expectation and restriction.

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Editor: Rachel Nussbaum

Photo: elephant journal archives


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