The beginning of the New Year inevitably brings up the suggestion we should start with a clean slate. For many people this is the time to resolve to be “better”: eating better, working out more, watching less TV, starting a yoga practice, beginning each day with meditation, the list goes on and on. This begs the question why we feel the need to constantly improve ourselves? And why is it so hard to keep those resolutions and not fall back into old patterns?
Over the years of teaching yoga, I’ve seen the same thing happen every January. Suddenly the classes at the yoga studio are packed with new students eagerly putting their New Year’s resolution into practice. Yet, as the months go by, many of those new students stop coming. They didn’t quit their practice because they didn’t like it – although for some that may be the case – but because their resolution was unsustainable. As per Osho’s famous words: “Resolution is struggle. Resolution is ego. Resolution is saying, “I cannot live spontaneously.” When you really desire changing your life, to change your habits, to change your daily routine, you will. Because you will find yourself doing those things without thinking too much about it: they happen spontaneously. But if those changes are based on the idea that you have to do them in order to be a better person, be healthier, live longer, you will only feel forced. And no one can keep up a routine they don’t really want. Wanting to want something is different from real desire.
One of the reasons we are constantly looking to improve our lives, is because there is an underlying unsatisfactoriness. In Buddhism this is called dukkha. It is our mental experience of the struggles of daily life. We don’t feel happy all the time because we either want something we don’t have, or we try to hold on to something we know we will loose at some point. We look outside ourselves for solutions. Our material world defines who we are and how we feel.
In order to help us alter the way we view our existence, and as an entry point for self-observation, contemplating the Buddhist Four Mind Changings can be life changing. These contemplations give us insight into the undeniable truth of life. My experience is that reflecting on the Four Mind Changings creates a feeling of freedom. It liberates us from clinging to pleasure and avoiding pain, and connects us to the immediacy of every moment allowing for greater joy and appreciation for what we have.
The Four Mind Changings:
1. Life is precious – “I am extremely fortunate to be alive and to have the privilege to learn.”
When we think about the miracle of life, we connect with our human potential. Our body is an extraordinary creation with countless abilities. Why not use this to create something for the greater good of all? When we take care of our health we honor the preciousness of life. When we practice awareness through meditation and self-observation we become a more authentic and kinder person, which will positively influence the world as a whole. This mindset cultivates sustainable and permanent change.
2. Everything is impermanent – “I know that everything changes. I know that everyone who is born will die some day. I should not waste this fleeting existence.”
Rather than a fatalistic worldview, this contemplation is an invitation to enjoy every moment we are alive. Since we don’t know how long we – and our loved ones – will live we should make the most of it. Instead of wanting a special moment to never end, be present to experience it fully. When a situation is unpleasant, know it will not last. Don’t waste any opportunity to do good. Everyday ask yourself what is most important.
3. The law of Cause and Effect – “Everything I do has an effect.”
Every thought we have, every word we speak, and every action we take has an effect. If we do evil it has a negative consequence; it brings suffering and pain. If in our thoughts, words and deeds we do what is good and helpful, it brings happiness and well-being. This is the main principle of the karmic experiences of one’s actions. What we do has a consequence that is unfailing; there is no mistake. Before you do something, ask yourself “What if everyone did this”?
4. Recognizing Samsara – “When I am not aware of my habitual patterns and don’t recognize my boundless nature, suffering arises.”
Part – if not all – of our dissatisfaction with life stems from identification with our negative emotions and our sense of separation. When we think that we are angry when we experience anger (for example), when we think that we are utterly alone in how we feel and think, we suffer. Going around and around, repeating our habitual patterns out of ignorance or unawareness of what we are doing is called Samsara. When we recognize Samsara we have the opportunity to free ourselves from it.
A suggested practice is to reflect on the Four Mind Changes daily. You could do this upon awaking, while you are still lying in bed, or as part of a meditation practice. Don’t force any answers or results. Just see what comes up, and how this reflection affects you as you go about your day. It can be helpful to write down your insights in a journal.
May the Four Mind Changings be of inspiration to you, and allow you to manifest positive change in the New Year without making resolutions.