By Jeff Eisenberg
As the new year approaches, and most are thinking about how to begin it, I thought it was important to first talk about how we end it.
After all, how we end it, is the cause that effects how we actually do begin it. So with this in mind, let’s take a look at how the unfolding of events at this time of year create a season of samsara.
It all starts with that one day a year that is set aside to acknowledge all the good in our lives, and to express our the gratitude for it—namely “thanksgiving.” Such a special day, that we travel great distances, or spend many days preparing a feast for our family and friends to travel to us, for the sole purpose of gathering and testifying about the gratitude that we have for our lives, and for each other. Great, right?
You would think, but in reality it starts with the masses jamming the roadways and risking their lives as they speed, tailgate and cut each other off so that they can arrive on time to express their gratitude for being alive! Then after gorging themselves with an amount of food that most of the world doesn’t eat in a month, this wonderful event comes to a screeching halt, as half the family is spewing racist and bias remarks, and the other half is droning on and on about all that’s wrong with the world due to your religion, and your politics.
Many people rush out to stand in line outside a store in the middle of the night, bearing the freezing cold, just so they can get the best value when purchasing a whole bunch of new crap that no one even needs, to give out to each other on the next holiday the following month.
Having proven how thankful we are, we move on to the next holiday; another special day that we set aside to honor whatever higher power one believes in. But instead of truly celebrating those higher powers that made all we are thankful for possible, most merely celebrate themselves and the accumulation of all their new stuff. And even though this celebration is always tainted by the underpinning of disappointment that rises from not getting exactly what they wanted, all that they did get, will surely be the main source of their gratitude when they gather next year to be grateful again!
So now let us fast forward to the next special day that we set aside, a celebration that for most, rather than being a celebration of simply being alive and relishing the chance to have a “New Year’s Day,” has become nothing more than an annual ritual of regret, remorse and shame for what we did, or more importantly, what we didn’t, since the last one.
For most, after the gift giving holidays have passed, the joy of the new bling has faded, the attitude of gratitude is a distant memory, and the temporary happiness that was based on all the outside pleasure that came from these holidays has crashed and burned. Sometimes all that remains is loneliness, hurt, anger and resentment that it had been remedying. Making it all worse, is that we’ve compounded it all, with a new layer of judgement and shame over how we just, yet again, fell back into that same old behavior.
What have we failed at? We’ve failed miserably at doing what we swore that we’d do on the last one.
After going through the exact same “season of samsara” last year, we have failed yet again at following through on the decision that we made last year—a decision where we guaranteed ourselves that things would be different this year, or that we would be different this year.
Yet, in spite of realizing that we fall into this trap year after year with exactly the same result, our answer again, is to now focus on the next “New Year’s Day” set aside for us to ponder the state of our lives and our place in it. We again talk ourselves into believing, that somehow in spite of not being able to do it on the 364 days prior, on January 1st, we can, and for some strange reason, with little struggle at all, we will completely change, and actualize the person that we’ve always wanted to be.
Am I being a bit over the top? Perhaps. Am I exaggerating? For some, of course.
But sadly for most, this is an acutely accurate description of what they experience year in and year out. And in the context of spiritual practice and recovery, I think it is an extremely accurate metaphor that illustrates our struggle with healing and transformation. Just like a “season” of samsara, our journey is to escape the samsaric cycle of acting out harmful conditioning and habitual reactivity and suffering over it.
And isn’t it often exactly like the “season of samsara” that I described? Doesn’t it often follow the exact same pattern? If we are honest with ourselves often in our journey, aren’t we quick to testify how grateful that we are? Aren’t we always expounding on the wonderful gifts that we’ve received only to become complacent in the joy they bring us, and then quickly lose sight of it all as the “good” feeling disappears, and we are left to face all that we had been trying to avoid?
Don’t we consistently find that this “practice” has little to do with healing our underlying issues? Don’t we find ourselves making new practice resolutions that are akin to New Year’s type resolutions? In response, don’t we make a swooping, grandiose, declaration to bring a resolution to it once and for all?
But like the “normal” person making an annual resolution, our problem is that we truly do not realize that to accomplish this, we cannot rely on simply resting upon a declaration, but that they must reaffirm our intention every day. We must internalize that every day, must be a new “New Year’s Day.” In fact, we must clearly see that every moment of our new, “New Year’s Day” must be a new, “new moment” moment!
I’m assuming about now that most reading this are thinking, “Well, I get what he’s saying, but he’s not talking about me! This doesn’t apply to me, as I have an established Buddhist practice. I’m in extended recovery.”
While I understand this response, we must be careful that thinking and saying things like, “I’m in recovery,” “I have a Buddhist practice,” “I understand,” “I know,” do not become the same one off, declarative statements that the average “normal” person makes on New Year’s day. Rather than these statements being the beginning of any new transformation, they become the entry point into aversion. Merely saying them gives us a false sense of well being by making us feel like we are doing something, when in reality, we are doing nothing.
This type of “practice” keeps us stuck, as our view is one that is looking backwards as we find false security and comfort in saying to ourselves that, “the issue is in the past” and “I’ll never do that again!”
To resolve an issue, is not to merely to refrain from past harmful behavior, but to learn how to solve what causes that behavior in the first place.
This must take place in the present, as to make a resolution, is to resolve to be part of the ongoing unfolding solution for the issue in every present moment. If we are not acting out simply because the opportunity to do so is not present, then we aren’t resolving anything at all.
So how do we actualize our intention into sustained, skillful actions?
The answer is that we must be proactive. When we make our “New Year’s Day” type resolutions in practice, they are reactions to things we have already acted out harmfully. And while, these reactions are great beginnings, especially when compared to how we used to react due to the immediate security and comfort we get from feeling like we are actually doing something when we make them, we do little in support of them after the situation that caused our reaction has passed. This is why we must be proactive.
To be proactive, is to not forget the resolution that we’ve made after the initial situation that triggered it has passed. It means that we must exert our effort towards carrying it out, as effort is the energy that fuels and sustains our resolve. By being diligent in continually directing our effort towards being mindful of our mindset, it enables us to implement the conduct necessary to carry out what we have resolved to do.
The Buddhist teachings describe four applications of effort:
Preventing unwholesome mindsets
Breaking attachment to unwholesome mindsets
Creating wholesome mindsets
Sustaining wholesome mindsets
The teachings then explain that through our diligent effort, we experience the mindsets that reflect enlightenment:
Being proactive and experiencing the mindsets that reflect enlightenment help us to avoid the situations that trigger us, and to appropriately deal with triggers when we face them. Now don’t misunderstand “avoid” as aversion. When we are living a spiritual path comprised of healthy, and wholesome thinking and behavior, we will not find ourselves in the unhealthy situations or around the same unhealthy people that we used to. When life inevitably thrusts us into one or around them, we now can handle it in a different way.
Often we are not mindful of a particular resolution that we’ve made, by being diligent at all times in our spiritual aspirations and with the actions that support it, we will always be able to carry out our resolve for anything healthy and wholesome that we have resolved to do.
So while sometimes in our practice it seems like we are celebrating a holiday, we must always remember our work, as there is no time off from the job of recovery.
Jeff Eisenberg is a Grand Master level martial arts and meditation teacher with over 40 years of training and 25 years of teaching experience. Trained in a variety of disciplines, he has run his own Dojo for nearly 15 years and has trained thousands of children and adults in martial arts and meditation. He is the author of Fighting Buddha: Martial Arts, Buddhism Kicking Ass and Saving It and Buddha’s Bodyguard: How to protect Your Inner VIP. Check out his website here.
Editor: Dana Gornall