As we say goodbye to 2011 and look ahead to a new year, I wanted to take a minute to talk about why bad habits can be so addictive, and how to keep your New Years resolutions in 2012.
The force of habit is pre-conscious and pre-cognitive. We do without thinking, and before we know it, the intention is in our head and we’ve already begun to entertain the idea of doing what we tell ourselves we don’t want to do. Whether it’s the tendency to light up a cigarette or the tendency to play World of Warcraft (after we’ve told our spouse we promise to cut back), addictive patterns are hard to fight with mind control or talk therapy. Part of the disease of addiction is that it tells you that you don’t have a disease!
The other thing that makes New Years resolutions hard to keep is that we give up after we make a slip or two. Resolutions tend to be iron clad, abstinence-based rules that we try to impose on ourselves. As a result, the first day we don’t exercise, or overindulge, or sneak a quick smoke while no one’s watching, we stop trying altogether. What if, instead of resolving to stop an unwanted behavior, you resolved to start being more mindful and less compulsive about it?
What we know about trauma and the brain is that our fears and resentments have a way of lighting up our limbic system, the “fight or flight” part of the brain that reacts to pain and warns us about impending dangers. “I will never let that happen again,” we tell ourselves. The autonomic nervous system response is like a reflex that happens before our rational mind has time to think about it. The rational mind is hijacked by our survival instincts, but our survival instincts don’t always give us accurate messages or help us to take the appropriate action in response to the perceived threat.
But when it comes to our resolutions to stop addictive behavior, we punish ourselves when the instinctive, mindless parts of ourselves overwhelm the more rational, intentional parts. We judge ourselves, heap shame and guilt on top of the fear and hurt, and a negative spiral of messages begins to play like a song that’s stuck on repeat. With this experience, is it any wonder that people stop making resolutions altogether?
There is a better way.
You don’t have to get stuck. You don’t have to get into a power struggle with your limbic system. You don’t have to give up.
New Years resolutions don’t need to be compulsive and you don’t need to beat yourself up over them. Instead, you can let go of the old tapes in your head, the old shameful messages, and the old disappointments and failures. Why not end 2011 with something like a Burning Bowl ceremony, where you gather with others to release the burdens on your mind and look forward to a fresh start in the New Year?
You can do your own Burning Bowl at home. It’s an easy process. All you need is some paper, matches, a pen (I’m a fan of crayons, personally!), and a bowl to contain the paper. Write down the resentments, losses, broken dreams, fears, and other burdens that you’re carrying. I suggest that you take multiple slips of paper and write down a simple word or phrase to remind you. If you like, you can draw a picture to symbolize the burden you’re releasing. What’s important is what it means to you.
Once you’ve written down the list of things you’re releasing, take a moment to consider what you’ve learned from the experience of the past year. Decide what you’d like to hold onto, and what you need to let go. Stop wishing for a better past. Then take the paper, crumple it in the bowl, and light the matches. The purifying force of the fire will create light and warmth, and release the energy from the paper. Allow that experience to release the positive energy from your unburdening process.
When you’re done, and the fire has faded, it’s up to you what you do next. Some people bury the ashes or scatter them in a garden. Others save the ashes for Ash Wednesday, and a time of further purification during the season of Lent. Whatever you do, remember that nothing is wasted. Out of the ashes, new life will arise in 2012.