A guest article from a Kadampa practitioner in New York who is determined to start the New Year right … everyday.
6 mins read
Well looky looky, here it is again. The New Year. The time when we are reminded that a “fresh beginning” is again upon us and that perhaps (perhaps) this would be a good time to make some internal and/or external life changes. . . or at the very least, some worthy tweaks.
But first …
I know, I know, I know. . . The whole New Years resolution thing…it’s a ritual schtick. There is nothing intrinsically “transformagical” about the beginning of a new year. It’s a construction. It’s a convention. I’ve got that. It’s not really any different than any other random moment of the Earth’s solar orbit. January 1st. February 14th. July 4th. All these “special” days are simply designations, names and numbers bundled together and endowed with various agreed-upon meanings. As many a Kadampa teacher would say, “Find January 1. You can’t. It’s not really there, at least not the way you think it is.”
I love that.
It’s not really there.
I love this because what it means is that we get to assign meaning. How is it that the “New Year” can posses its fabled rejuvenating qualities? How can there be actual power on this very day in our resolutions to start doing this, quit doing that, begin eating this way, etc.? Simple. Because we choose to name it as a day of power. That’s it, folks. The magic wand of our mind says it is so. Presto change-o. It’s nothing else but what we name it. So I’d strongly suggest that we name it well.
So, let’s scoot back for a moment to Day One of this life. Happy New Life. Your own personal January 1. How do we begin our life? No real news flash here, it’s with our breath, correct? Inhale. . . exhale. . . cry like a baby. All of us, at some point in this rebirth, we each took our very first breath. We sucked some of that good old O2 down into our little chests. And so it began: the appearances of this life. Welcome (back) to Karmaville. Happy New Life.
Here’s a question for you. Meditation. Our precious tool for transformation. How is it that we begin our meditations? Well, traditionally, it’s also with the breath. Once we have settled in on our cushions (cracked our knuckles, scratched our head, readjusted our legs, rubbed our nose, noticed some dustballs on the floor near our shrine…) we close our eyes and bring our attention to our breathing. Many people, it turns out, have trouble with this part. It’s boring (they say). It’s too hard to do. It becomes its own distraction (“Am I breathing correctly?”).
I don’t dare reveal how many years it was that I did the shabbiest of all jobs in this “bring your attention to your breath” part of my practice. Along with the excuses I just listed, part of this shabbiness was due to my urgency to get on to the “real” stuff. You know, the contemplation, the single-pointed focus, the insights, the clear light mind, the liberating of all sentient beings from their suffering through the power of my correct imagination and compassion and wisdom, etc. Why the heck should I sit here and stare at my boring old breath when I’ve got all these more fun and more important matters to attend to?
Who knew? The breath rocks.
As it turns out, this neutral object is an astounding thing. It’s a fantastic vehicle to start us on our road to all those powerful places we want to go. Inhalation … exhalation . . . inhalation . . . exhalation.
Perhaps it will help if you stop thinking of it as breath. Try thinking of it as a tide that washes up onto the shore then draws back from the shore, clearing and cleansing with every single cycle.
Or let it be light: a cascade of radiant illumination silently blasting away any and all shadows. Your call. It’s just breath. It’s invisible. It’s about as “not really there” as you can get. So you can picture it any way you wish. Go wild. Designate at your pleasure. And “pleasure” is the key here, isn’t it? We need to enjoy. The best advice on meditation in general that I’ve heard from my beloved Kadampa teachers is: Have fun with it. It is being presented to us as a joyful path to good fortune, not a frustrating or boring one.
So we begin with our breath. Just like we did on that day we were reborn. But rather than simply breathing mindlessly as we did then, now we make skillful use of it to help direct us toward the experience of peace, of stillness, of expansive inner relaxation that is our potential. And of course the breath is so convenient an object. It’s right there. All the time. Usually being ignored. It’s like Dorothy’s red shoes…just sitting there waiting to start you on your way to fantastic places.
Lately, I’ve been employing the phrase, “Follow the breath into the heart,” as one of my encouragements, one of my suggestions to myself. “Do this. This will be nice. Follow the breath into the heart. This will help.” And it has helped. Quite a lot. Geshe Kelsang provides a potent encouragement of his own (no surprise) in How To Transform Your Life:
Even though breathing meditation is only a preliminary stage of meditation, it can be quite powerful. We can see from this practice that it is possible to control the mind, without having to depend on external conditions….So much of the stress and tension we normally experience comes from the mind, and many of the problems we experience, including ill health, are caused or aggravated by this stress. Just by doing breathing meditation for ten or fifteen minutes each day, we will be able to reduce this stress. We will experience a calm, spacious feeling in the mind, and many of our usual problems will fall away. Difficult situations will become easier to deal with, we will naturally feel warm and well disposed toward other people, and our relationships with others will naturally improve.
Beginnings are important
Which is all to say (among other things), that beginnings are important. They can set the stage for what comes next. Little baby sucking in that first breath . . . a very good thing. Little meditator taking the time to create focus and inspiration with those first breaths . . . a very good thing.
And now, back to the New Year. 2018. It’s coming. That thing that holds no inherent meaning. That thing we get to imbue with meaning, if we so choose. What I’m going to suggest is that when 2018 rolls around, we notice our very first breath of the new year and make a resolution to follow it into our heart. Let it take us there. And let’s remain there.
Even better, what say we follow that first breath into the hearts of those we know? Or of those we encounter in the course of our days and nights? And those we hear about or read about, or even merely think about? Good idea? And then follow the next breath there as well . . .and the next . . . and the next . . . “and so forth.”
The New Year is empty. Beginnings are relative. Lucky us. We choose. We can fill that first moment of our new year with good purpose, and then holding that intention, see where it leads us.
I will prostrate to the new moon . . .
Happy New Year.
Over to you. Comments welcome.