Mindfully creating new year’s resolutions that inspire us

So it’s that time of year again – you find yourself discussing new year’s resolutions, made or yet to be made, with your friends and family. Learning to play the violin? Sure, no problem! Doubling my income while stopping smoking while attaining a zen-like state of calm? Of course!

Grand ambitions certainly sound good on paper, and hopefully ours are more modest. Either way, we wouldn’t be alone if we feel some sense of foreboding at the idea of a resolution hanging over us in the coming weeks and months.

We may remember that time one year, a few weeks down the line, as we were gritting our teeth and pushing ourselves to get up at 7 am for that morning run (or perhaps to meditate). It wasn’t much fun pushing ourselves like that, and when our enthusiasm finally waned, we couldn’t help feeling that we’d “failed” somehow. It’s no surprise to hear that a third of resolutions don’t even make it past the end of January.

With such thoughts, we might tell ourselves it’s better just to forget the whole idea and save ourselves the stress of making resolutions in the first place. But wait up – let’s not lose the baby with the bathwater! At their best, resolutions and intentions have the power to encourage us to grow in a beautiful and meaningful direction. Instead of dragging us down and making us feel guilty every time we “fail”, they can be a source of energy and inspiration.

How can we create such inspiring resolutions for ourselves? There is a lot of good advice to be found on the practicalities of how to set realistic, concrete goals (one good approach being to set SMART goals) – but how can we tune into our deeper, heartfelt aspirations? How can mindfulness allow us to access the intelligence of our heart to create intentions that truly bring us to life?

Start from where you are

Discovering and setting your intention is just as important, or perhaps even more important, than every other step on the journey – so give yourself time at this turning point in the year to pause and to mindfully tune into what intentions and goals feel most meaningful to you. It’s already past the New Year, but don’t worry – now is always the perfect time to start.

What is common to every goal is that starts from here.

It’s important to give time for our intention to emerge organically, without rushing ourselves. Our intention will be clearer and stronger when it has time to grow from deep in our heart. At the same time, it is wise to make good use of any sense of stillness we have right now at the beginning of the year, aware that we are likely become busier and more distracted as we return to our normal routine.

There are all kinds of different goals we can set ourselves – from “become a world famous belly dancer” to “quit smoking” to “keep a daily gratitude journal” (maybe all three!). What is common to every goal is that it starts from here – who and where we are now. The more our intention can grow from who and where we are now, rather than a distant dream of “being a better person”, the more we are likely to benefit from it.

To help stimulate our creativity, it can be helpful to reflect on the past year by asking ourselves some questions. What has energised us the most over the past year? What were we doing when we felt most alive? When did we feel most cared for? What touched and moved us most deeply?

If you’re looking for a good environment to reflect on these questions early this year, our upcoming Heart-Based Living Intensive in February might give you the time and support you need to reflect deeply on your intentions.

After this reflection, if we have identified some themes around what would be a meaningful resolution or intention, we can write them down. As with every creative process, it’s good to allow all the images and ideas sink in while we take a break – maybe just a few hours, or maybe a day or two. We just let the seeds of our ideas germinate in the soil of our heart and mind for a little while.

We might find that something very tangible sprouts up or maybe we still only have a faint sense of what intention would really serve and inspire us. It might be something that feels very gentle and nurturing, like enjoying more smartphone-free time late at night, or it might be a challenge that we recognise will help us to grow and free ourselves from our self-imposed limits. Whichever it is, we are looking for something brings a sense of energy, possibility, and inspiration when we bring it to mind.

Use the power of understanding, not willpower

Once we have an intention in mind, it’s essential to tune into ourselves mindfully to see where this intention is really coming from. When we bring it to mind, do we feel a sense of kindness and care, or do we feel that we are pushing ourselves or being harsh? Sometimes it is not so obvious which of these is the case – there may be many layers of different motivations beneath a single resolution or intention.

Is this resolution coming from a spirit of kindness, or is it just something we or others think we ‘should’ be doing?

Let’s say we set a resolution to go to the gym three times a week and to get in shape – if we allow ourselves to reflect on why for some time, what comes up? What thoughts and feelings are there? We can ask ourselves these questions like a curious and caring friend, purely wanting to better understand what is going on inside us.

We might discover different layers – the everyday stories running through our minds of “going to the gym makes you healthy” or “I’ll be so much hotter if I work out!”. Acknowledging these, we might listen a little deeper with mindfulness and discover that we feel some embarrassment about our waistline expanding over the last year. We might feel some longing for our appearance to be appreciated by our partner or to find a new romantic partner. Mixed in with that, we might remember with exuberance the high we always feel from really going for it on the cross-trainer, with our favourite music pumping in our ears!

We’re not judging one way or the other about what we discover, just giving ourselves a space to mindfully listen to all the different voices and emotions around this intention or resolution. With this attitude of open listening, we can ask ourselves: Is this resolution coming from a spirit of kindness, or is it just something we or others think we “should” be doing? Is there a feeling of harshness or striving, of feeling that we’re not good enough as we are?

When we rely on willpower alone for our intention, it becomes a tiring grind

What are the needs we are trying to meet with this goal? Is there a way we can start meeting those needs as part of the journey as well as at the destination? For example, if going to the gym is about wanting to feel more alive in our body, then are there other ways we can give ourselves the gift of this experience day to day when we’re not at the gym? Perhaps by jogging in the park, doing yoga at home, or dancing our way around the house (you know you want to!)?

The purpose of this mindful reflection is to grow our understanding of the many reasons for why we have this intention. Without taking this time to reflect, our intention might be expressing and perpetuating our lack of self-acceptance without us knowing it. And if we haven’t been able to listen to the different motivations inside us, we might find ourselves relying on our willpower to keep our intention alive.

When we rely on willpower alone for our intention, it becomes a tiring grind day to day, week to week to keep it going. Willpower has its place, but it can become fatigued if overused. If instead we mindfully reflect on the emotions and needs beneath our intention, we can bring our intention to life from a much more deeply rooted and powerful place – one of understanding.

Support your intention (to become a rock star)

Let’s imagine our intention or resolution as a little seedling inside of us, right here and now. In our heart, we have the aspiration to help it grow into a beautiful, bright yellow sunflower. But if the seedling is to grow, it needs our care and it needs the right conditions – sunlight, water, warmth. What conditions does our intention or resolution need to grow and to flourish?

Let’s say I have an aspiration to become a rock star this year. After some consideration and raised eyebrows from friends and family, I remember that when it comes to aspirations, “small is beautiful” — even the greats had to start small! I consider a resolution that feels challenging but not impossible – to play guitar at least once a month at a local open mic night.

Sitting here now, I imagine myself there in the hubbub of the dimly lit bar, sunglasses on, leather jacket stylishly weather-beaten, with cheers all around from the adoring crowd…

Sadly, my reverie cannot last forever. But as I visualise the scene, I start to become mindfully aware of the mixed feelings and sensations in my body. I feel the excitement of being on stage, the joy at playing music, and the desire to meet and connect with other musicians. I also feel a creeping sense of stage fright, the panic as my hands turn to jelly mid-song, and the shame as I crash and burn in public…

What steps can I take right now to support my aspiration?

Feeling these mixed emotions, I check in with myself – gently, honestly. Does this aspiration feel right to me? Does it feel too ambitious (or maybe too small – I should be on the world tour already!)? Is it challenging but not overwhelming?

I recognise both what motivates me toward my open mic dream – the excitement, the joy, and the desire to connect – and what might be my obstacles – anxiety and shame. These are the conditions I have in my mind and heart already, the energies and potentials feeding or starving my aspiration.

What steps can I take right now to support my aspiration? Practising guitar daily would help me to sustain and grow the joy I feel playing music. Perhaps the connection with other musicians doesn’t have to wait until I’m up on stage – I could go along to the next open mic and get to know some people there, which might help me to feel less anxious, too.

And maybe it’s time to call on that sympathetic friend who can encourage me along the way as I practice. Maybe they could be there in the audience when the stage fright looms and I urgently need a friendly face to look to for support!

By mindfully exploring my relationship to my aspiration right now, I can start to understand what conditions, inner and outer, are likely to support me with it. The conditions I need to realise my aspiration – the confidence in playing guitar, the treasured friendship, my capacity to care for my anxiety – are already here, at least a little bit.

Just as a seedling is alive and needs regular attention and care, so too does my intention or aspiration if it is to stay alive and to continue to grow. This practice of tuning in mindfully to our relationship with our aspiration is something we can come back to regularly to keep growing towards our aspiration.

In time, this little rock star might become a big rock star! But maybe the flower that the seedling grows into was never destined to take that form, and it can let go of its reverie to grow into something more unique, alive, and real.

Mindfully growing our intention

By mindfully listening to ourselves with kindness and curiosity, we can understand not only which intention best serves us, but also root ourselves in understanding why it is meaningful for us. This empowers our intention to flow from a deeper place of understanding, instead of from our stubborn willpower and gritted teeth. As we start to understand our intention more deeply, we begin to see what to do and what not to do right away to support our intention.

Our intention can be a boon or a burden. It can inspire us and help us to grow, or it can set us on the path of “not being good enough” all over again. So when friends and family ask you about your new year’s resolutions, don’t be too quick to choose one.

Take time to reflect and to honestly and kindly ask yourself what you aspire to and why. Allow the seed of intention to sprout in its own time and gently investigate what conditions it needs to flourish. Let the beauty of the seedling inspire you to keep tending to it. Ask friends or family to help you with this.

Always remember it’s a journey. Not every farmer reaps a bountiful harvest on their first season. If you only make it 50% of the way, that’s 50% further than you started off. It’s a learning process to understand how to help our best intentions to grow and flourish. But if we do it kindly, with mindfulness, our hearts will thank us for it.

Posted by

Doran Amos

Doran has been practising mindfulness since 2006. He is passionate about using heart-based practices to help himself and others fall in love with humanity’s potential and with the Earth again. He is a writer, neuroscientist, and sometime funky dancer.