Before you make your resolutions this year, consider the long, sorry track record of this tradition. It goes back to ancient Babylonia, when some farmer, perhaps, vowed to return his neighbor's ox, while his wife swore off barley cakes in order to lose 10 pounds. You can imagine how it turned out--right after you give your brother-in-law his power drill back and toss out those Entenmann's devil's-food doughnuts.
With that perspective in mind, I think it's time to redefine this custom. Instead of low-batting-average pledges about trimming our midsections (there are many effective ways to lose weight, but making a hangover-tinged promise on Jan. 1 isn't one of them), what if we buff up our intentions--that is, the purpose behind our deeds--and aim a little higher? Why not intend to consume less of everything--including food--to shed a few pounds and help make the world a better place?
Religions have long taught about intentions, and their own intention is to better their followers. So I called up some of my favorite spiritual teachers to get their advice for actually doing something new on New Year's.
Think of others
When the Buddha opined on intention, it was toward benefiting "all beings." It's a Buddhist felony to intentionally inflict suffering on any person, animal, or even the planet, because ecological damage imperils the entire food chain, humans included. The Buddha put together all the pieces of this understanding, saying: "The thought manifests as the word. The word manifests as the deed. The deed develops into habit. The habit hardens into character. So watch thought and its ways with care, and let it spring from love born out of concern for all beings."
Nice words, but how do you make them real? Sylvia Boorstein, author of It's Easier Than You Think: The Buddhist Way to Happiness, says to start with the simple yet profound practice of "lovingkindness," which means deliberately and systematically cultivating good will toward all beings--including those you don't like or even know. And don't forget to include yourself.
"The deep understanding of the practice is that the principal beneficiary of a loving heart is oneself," Boorstein explains. You've probably learned the hard way that when you intentionally hurt others, you suffer inside at least as much as they do. Likewise, when you help someone in need, the heart that most opens and grows is your own. Call it the intention boomerang.
Buddhism offers a second way to disinfect your intentions. "Mindfulness practice," says Boorstein, "pays dedicated, balanced attention to all of one's experience--outer and inner, all the time--which allows a person to really be in touch with their motivation."
Judaism also teaches its followers to reflect and refine their intentions, which they call kavanna. Before you act, suggests noted kabbala teacher Rabbi Rami Shapiro, "take a moment to ask yourself, 'What do I want out of this optimally?' It's not selfish wanting, but what will benefit me and the other people involved in this act?"