New Year’s resolutions have been around awhile. According to the History Channel, perhaps as far back as the Babylonians, 4000 years ago! If not, there is a clear record of New Year’s resolutions being part of Roman culture and early Christianity. Resolutions in each of these times/places were motivated by religious/spiritual beliefs. A need to live closer to the values of the community and more aligned to the spiritual practices of the day. And if the promises were broken there would be other-worldly consequences. To modern & postmodern, sophisticated minds this is difficult to get behind. 

Even as a young Lutheran who had the “Fear Of God” there was something in me that said, “I’m not going to do anything with the idea that some Magic Man In The Sky is going to curse me if I don’t.” 

Start working out. Eat healthier. Stop swearing so much. Go to the gym three times a week. Meditate more. Finally beat the original Super Mario.  

Resolutions made to myself, for myself, with the only consequence being that I continue living the life that I’d already been accustomed to. By the time I stop doing the “new year, new me” thing it’s because I’ve forgotten about it or decided something else is more important. That absolves even the vague sense of disappointment in myself that would have been helpful for staying on track. 

Needless to say, I fall into the huge number of Americans who are used to making resolutions every year… and breaking them. 

But when taiso roshi was quoting from Huineng during Rohatsu, I was shaking my head along with the teachings. “Yes!” I said. Renunciation is essential to the path! A vow that is easy to attain is hardly worth taking. “Swaha! Jun Po!” 

So what changed? Why do I scoff at so-called “New Year’s resolutions” while simultaneously making deep commitments to myself every day about refusing to keep making and offering murder cake?

Because zen solutions really work. They’re just common sense that comes from observing our minds. They are based on bringing love into the world, not based on avoiding retribution from outside of it. For me, this matters. 

I’d like to invite each of you who read this to try it out (and it doesn’t have to be on New Year’s!) Reflect on the following prompts and see what happens.

Before we get started though, a moment on this idea of “reflect.” To maximize the benefit from this we have to reflect deliberately, slowly, and feel how the reflections manifest in the body. Handwriting is a fantastic way to encourage this process; and it’s not necessary. The key is to not fly through the motions of the exercise, but to allow the prompt to marinade in your psyche, settle into your body, and then experience a sensing that becomes a knowing which you can articulate. Yes, this is a meditation. 

  1. Settle into your seat. Feel the weight of your body in the chair. Even the breath. 
  2. Notice that it is possible to just purely listen, with no opinion.
  3. Ask yourself: “Where in my life do I create suffering for myself or my loved ones?”
  4. Allow what arises to flow through you and bring the necessary information. 
  5. Write down, or verbalize to yourself, a brief summary of this behavior. 
  6. Settle back into your seat. Feel the weight of your body. Even the breath. 
  7. Feel the empowerment that comes from choosing to move forward in a new way. 
  8. Write or Verbalize: “I wholly renounce this old way of being and commit to…”
  9. And let that commitment flow up from the depth of your being. 
  10. Sense yourself already BEING this way, feel it in your psyche and in your body. 
  11. Write down a summary of how it feels to be this way; what is possible for you now?

Below is this practice as a guided meditation. You will likely want to pause here and there to give yourself space to really sink in to the sensation. Collect your pen and paper if you’re choosing to use that method, get yourself settled and enjoy!  

Umi Dan Rotnem is serving as executive director of Hollow Bones Zen.

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