By Fleet Maull. PhD According to the Western calendar, December is the final month of the year and, at least here in the Northern Hemisphere, marks the beginning of winter. This is a natural time of reflection, slowing down, and relating to aspects of our lives that may have been left unattended. It is also a season of holidays (holy days) in the Christian and Jewish traditions, and even in the Buddhist tradition, where Zen Buddhists sit the Rohatsu sesshin, a meditation retreat that concludes on December 8th, commemorating the enlightenment of Sakyamuni Buddha, sometimes also known as Bodhi Day.
Fresh Start Another important landmark in December is the Winter Solstice on December 21, which in the Northern Hemisphere is the shortest day of the year, when darkness reaches its peak and daylight begins to increase again. The day has thus been celebrated in many cultures as a time of rebirth. Of course, in the Southern Hemisphere, it's just the opposite. So we might have different perspectives on this time of year depending on where we live. At any rate, for me, as a northerner, it seems to be an excellent opportunity to reflect on the current year as it comes to a close and prepare for the New Year -- a natural time of renewal and making a fresh start. In fact, we could make a fresh start every day, having a sense of letting go as we go to sleep in the evening and getting up with a fresh and open mind every morning. As we awaken, we realize that we are still here, we are alive and we have been blessed with another day of life, filled with opportunities to explore, enjoy, learn, add value, contribute, receive and be thankful. The beginning of the year can be a major fresh start in that way.
Bringing the Year to a Close Bringing the year to a close in a conscious way allows us to make a fresh start come January 1st. That could begin with celebrating our journey. We can appreciate the fact that we are here and that we survived through another year, which is no small thing given the challenging and transitory realities of this life. We could focus on positive things that happened during the year: achievements, successes, and signs of progress. We don’t need to just focus on the big achievements either. We can celebrate the ordinary things we do every day… like making our bed, helping out at home, showing up for work, contributing to our families, workplaces, and communities in lots of little ways.
Why not celebrate the many ordinary, everyday things that we do… Perhaps at our home, we are the person who takes out the trash, and maybe we've done that every day for 365 days. That is no small thing. Washing the dishes, doing the laundry, keeping our home clean, preparing meals for our family, taking care of kids, pets, wildlife, and plants. All these activities that we often take for granted are actually tremendous acts of service that express our care for ourselves, our loved ones, our friends and coworkers, and our community. We may also have contributed to the larger society through various forms of community service, activities centered around our children and their schools, or various forms of activism in support of causes we believe in. Just showing up and participating in life with others is a cause for celebrating ourselves and our efforts.
Getting up every morning and facing life's challenges often requires tremendous bravery, generosity and kindness. There are mornings when we would just like to pull the covers over our head and stay in bed, but we don't. We get out of bed and do our best to engage in life, take care of our responsibilities and participate with others to continue this grand experiment of being a human on planet earth. I think we can feel good about ourselves as human beings and really celebrate our humanity, our courage, our vulnerability. We haven't given up. Yes, just the fact that we haven’t given up, is a huge cause for celebration.
Unfortunately these days, cultural influences seem to foster feelings of shame, guilt and discontent. Of course, we are not perfect and we need to continue to grow. It is simply our nature to grow and evolve. Even though we all have challenges and issues, the idea of feeling fundamentally bad about ourselves as human beings does not really make sense to me. And if we do truly believe in our fundamental unworthiness, what kind of world are we going to create and manifest together?
Never Giving Up Many of us are facing incredible challenges. Some of us are dealing with illnesses, family losses, all kinds of difficult situations. We may be experiencing tremendous obstacles and struggles, but we haven't given up. We haven't given up on ourselves no matter how discouraged we may feel, no matter how many mistakes we have made, no matter how many times we haven't lived up to our aspirations, haven't been at our best, or have even caused harm in some ways. The truth is… it's all workable. We can recognize where we have fallen down. We can make amends and repair where needed. And then we can renew our commitment to leading a good life and doing our best. It is so important that we never give up on ourselves. It is also essential that we don't give up on each other, which can be particularly demanding these days. We often fall prey to this very human tendency to divide the world into friends and enemies. People that we feel are the good actors in the world, and people we feel are the bad ones. And that divisiveness is heightened by intolerance and close-mindedness with regard to our different ethnicities, nationalities, politics, religions, and world views.
I’m not saying that our society is free of ignorance or harm. We repeatedly get seduced by passion, speed, greed and aggression… We do get lost and cause harm, and yet we keep striving toward the good. We don't give up on this amazing project called Humanity on this planet Earth.
I would encourage us to pause and contemplate how we are part of this vast, miraculous, evolutionary process called life, along with our fellow species and all the life forms. And whatever this is and however it all began, we partake in this beautiful and mysterious unfolding that may be groundless and filled with suffering, but at the same time, is endowed with tremendous beauty, magic and power. Now is a good time to slow down and honor the miracle of life and our participation in it, along with many of the world's great religious, spiritual, and indigenous traditions. It’s a time to acknowledge and celebrate the mystery of life.
I would encourage all of us to get a journal and write down all the things that we can celebrate in our life--the relationships, the achievements, the learning experiences (even the painful ones), the blessings, the things we might be taking for granted, like our health, our home, our family. All the ordinary daily things too… And we can then follow up with some gratitude work--giving ourselves a few moments to feel grateful for our lives, and realize how fortunate we are. We could reflect on whether we feel life is something happening to us or rather something happening for us and with us, in which we are active participants. And if we do feel like life is something happening to us, we might at least consider the other possibility I just described.
Reflecting On and Assessing the Current Year
Following that, it can really be helpful to marshal both our self-honesty and, very importantly, our self-compassion and do an objective, honest assessment of where we perhaps have dropped some balls this year. Maybe we haven't followed through on some of our commitments, or haven't accomplished some of the things we had planned to do, or got off track with some of our goals. Or maybe we feel like we veered outside of our own ethical standards and principles in a way that we don't feel so great about. The purpose of acknowledging these fallings is certainly not to beat ourselves up about them, which would be completely counterproductive, but simply to recognize them and gain some self-understanding of how they arose so we can get things back on track.
It is always best to undertake this honest self-assessment starting from a ground of appreciation, celebration, and gratitude for all the positive aspects of our lives. Within that ground, we can have the resilience and the courage to really take a clear look and say, "Okay, these are my values and principles, and this is where I remained aligned, and this is maybe where I veered off a bit. And these were the commitments I made at the beginning of last year, if I did; or this is my overall life vision and purpose, and here's how my life has been aligned with that, and here's where maybe I got off track." If we recognize that our lapses or inattentiveness had harmful impacts on others, we may wish to find an appropriate way to make amends and repair where possible, especially where the negative impact has been significant.
Clarifying our Commitments for the Next Year
Having brought our year to a close in this way, celebrating our successes and blessings, mourning our losses, and acknowledging our failings, we can then spend some time articulating and refreshing our commitments for the next year. Identifying where we want to redouble our efforts so that our life is in alignment with our values and principles, and feels purposeful and vision-directed. The point of this exercise is to rouse our inspiration so we can confidently say: "That's who I want to be. This is the life I want to live. This is how I want to show up in the world."
This process requires that we take the time to do it fully--looking at our calendar and carving out some special time. The holiday season being such a busy and stressful time of year for many of us, we may have to make a real effort and be intentional or it won't happen. We could even set it up as a yearly ritual. Personally, I don't think the traditional New Year's Eve party of getting shit-faced drunk and entering the new year with a hangover is a particularly good way to ritualize the New Year.
Having done the work, we can then step into the New Year having clarified our life vision and purpose, connected with our fundamental passion and inspiration for life, and having established a new set of goals and aspirations, made not from a place of unworthiness, but from a ground of confidence in our innate goodness and worthiness. We may wish to change some behaviors or habits that are no longer serving us and develop new abilities, capacities, and positive habits. This realization that we need to evolve does not mean, however, that there is anything wrong with us or that we are missing anything. It's simply about continuing to grow as a human being, continuing to learn and meet the challenges of life, so we are able to contribute to life in an increasingly skillful way, beneficial and rewarding way. As living beings we are designed to grow, evolve and thrive.
PS: You can register now (www.bestyear.life) for our next free, online summit The Best Year Of Your Life, ten days of guidance by experts and wisdom teachers beginning January 11th. You will find a wealth of resources and advice to help you engage the New Year in an optimally inspired, skillful and rewarding way!