There’s a 50/50 chance that you made some New Year resolutions a couple of months ago; there’s an even better chance that you’ve already abandoned them. Or perhaps you’re one of the people who never makes New Year resolutions because you’ve learned through experience that they’re forgotten almost as soon as they’re created.
Whether we make resolutions or not, we see each new year as an opportunity for new beginnings: not just new years, but new months, new weeks, and new days. Our lives are full of new beginnings. But the most significant new beginnings take place at a much finer scale.
When we meditate, for example, we’re forever catching the mind having gone off and become distracted. We find, for example, that we’ve been mulling over some old hurt, or worrying about some upcoming event, or telling ourselves stories about how we think other people feel about us.
Those moments in which we’ve realized that the mind has become distracted are important new beginnings. Each time we notice that we’ve been caught up in a spiritually unprofitable train of thought, we have a crucial opportunity to let go of it, to reconnect with our present moment experience, to start over.
Sometimes there are so many of these new beginnings that it seems like we’re making little progress. But each time we let go of an unskillful train of thought, returning mindfully and compassionately to our present moment experience, we’re changing who we are. We’re changing our habits, weakening unskillful patterns and strengthening skillful ones. We’re even, at a cellular level, rewiring the brain. Each new beginning may not change us very much, but, as the Buddha said, “Drop by drop, a water pot fills.”
An ongoing commitment to moment to moment change such as this is more powerful than any number of New Year resolutions, precisely because they involve such small steps. We can’t climb a mountain in one bound — thousands of small steps over time are what’s needed.
Sometimes we might feel that our practice is repetitive. You realize you’re distracted, let go and return to the breathing, realize you’re distracted and return to the breathing. You breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out, repeat. But in fact each experience we have is a new beginning. No two breaths are the same.
Try noticing your next in-breath. See how it comes into existence, is present in your experience, and then comes to an end. Try that again with the next out-breath. Now follow each in-breath and out-breathe with an awareness that you’ll meet this breath only once in your entire existence. Follow the whole cycle of your breathing: beginnings and endings, endings and beginnings. See how precious each breath, each moment, is?
Now as you observe your in-breaths and out-breaths coming into existence and passing away, notice how each breath is composed of a series of moments. There’s this moment then this moment then this moment — no two the same, and none ever returning. There’s just this endless series of new beginnings and new endings, intersecting in time, each one precious and deserving of our full attention.