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?"
At Yom Kippur, Jews are invited to recall their sins of the past year. This is performed in the spirit of teshuva, which means "returning"--in this case, from brokenness to wholeness, and to original intentions. After expressing remorse for your misdeeds, you let them go, and refine your kavanna so you live truer to it in the future.
The everyday version of this is to forgive yourself if you don't follow through on your intentions--and then try once more, says Rabbi Myriam Klotz, whose teachings integrate Judaic philosophy with yoga. "The only way you're going to know what it means to progress and grow truer in your intention is by going through the experience of falling down and getting back up again."
Keep it real
Christianity is less specific about intentions, but the Rev. Wayne Muller, author of Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal and Delight in Our Busy Lives, sees them as critical to the path. "When we set our intentions, we imagine we're entering into a partnership with God," says Muller. "The presumption for Jesus is if we just do a little bit, God will do the rest."
Muller believes that with the parable of the mustard seed (Matthew 13:31-32), Jesus was telling us to be more mindful of how the smallest of intentions can have great power. "As a seed, it is the smallest of them all," Muller explains, "but it grows into a lush, verdant plant. There's a lot of emphasis on doing small things well as a way to begin building a solid foundation." Starting too big--as with the intention of being a perfect parent, as opposed to the more modest intention of helping your children with their homework--sets you up to fail.
Muller is also concerned about the way intention is misrepresented. "Some teachers and self-help books talk about intention as a magic bullet, and if intentions aren't realized, it's because you haven't fervently believed in them enough."
That's childish, and grandiose, thinking, he says. "What happens when people get cancer, when there's warfare and innocent women and children are blown up? Did they just not set their intention correctly?" It's important, Muller notes, to acknowledge the Buddha's teaching that every life is allotted 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows. Intend for the best, be grateful for your joys, and accept the sorrows that inevitably come in the span of a human life.
I know I try to keep something similar in mind to preserve my own sanity in difficult times. At least, that's my intention.