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New Year’s Resolutions

January 19, 2014

by Stephen Damon

It’s the time of the year when people make resolutions to make big changes in their lives. One person resolves to lose weight, another to give up drinking. One resolves to read more books and another resolves to put her books down and go out into the world to do more living. If you look through the newspapers you will see that some health clubs have specials designed to entice people to resolve to get more fit. You would think that everyone wanted to change something about their lives and thought that the beginning of the year was a good time to do so.

So, last week during the lunch at the hospice and respite care center for people with AIDS who are very poor in which I volunteer, I asked the residents at my table about their New Year resolutions. One person smirked and said, “Come on, why would I do that? Why would I need to make resolutions to see that I always fail at whatever I do? Resolutions are for people who think that they can change what they can’t change.” Another resident, agreeing with what his friend had said, looked at me and said that “life was just too hard to make it any harder.” A third resident said his life changed too much from day-to-day to come up with a resolution that would hold from one day to the next. He looked at me and asked, “Ever notice how everything changes so quickly?”

Listening to my new friends I was taken by how well each of them knew themselves, and how well they seemed to know their lives. They were honest—no one was trying to hide anything about their lives. I was impressed by how much of what they said were expressions of what the Buddha had said after many years of practice. A lot of what they said about themselves I had seen in myself. But I had gotten these kinds of observations through my Zen meditation practice. Without sitting and observing what arose in my mind I think I would have had very little idea of who and what I was.

Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that everyone who has a hard life becomes “enlightened,” or “saved,” or any of the other terms used to describe the “goal” of a spiritual or religious life. To achieve such a goal, to live a life fully, depends on many causes and conditions, some known and some unknown. But I am saying that if other elements are present, living a life on the streets, face to face with impermanence, can be a transformative path.

Upon reflecting on my conversation with the residents I thought about something Dogen had said: “To study Buddhism is to study the self; to study the self… is to be actualized by myriad things.” So, one could say that the Buddhism or any religion is best thought of as a way to make contact with the wisdom in ourselves. The truth is revealed in a deep part of the self that is often obscured by our “inexhaustible” delusions. The role of any spiritual practice is to end as many delusions as possible so that we may make contact with a part of the self that is intimately connected with the truth about things as they are. Sometimes, a hard life without the ordinary distractions that most of us have taken for granted ends or perhaps prevents many delusions from occurring.

Some of us may look for a meditation practice while others may be more comfortable with a faith-based religion. And some of us who are unwilling or unable to make contact with religion or a spiritual practice of any kind may find that living a life without the ordinary comforts and distractions of our culture is enough to meet the self, face-to-face. And, as Dogen said, if we can truly see ourselves we will be actualized by everything we encounter.


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