Sunday, December 28, 2014

Looking backward, Looking forward

'For last year's words belong to last year's language And next year's words await another voice.'
-T.S. Eliot

For the past two years I have led the annual fire communion at my church. It's an annual ritual we created to reflect on the past year and look forward to the next. In the first part we write out our regrets/losses/failures for the past year on little slips of paper and burn them. In the second part, we light a candle for what we hope to do in the upcoming year. I do my best to draw out these emotions and lay out some ways of setting goals and achieving them.

Below is an outline of the homily for that service that I wanted to share.

It begins with a brief history lesson....

A Two Faced God
January was made for New Year's reflections and goals. Originally the calendar was based on lunar cycles and the first month was actually March, to coincide logically with spring. However, as subsequent Romans sought to improve both the accuracy and consistency of our calendar, they increased the number of months from 10 to 12 and changed the order. January eventually became the first month. January was named for the god Janus, the two faced man with one face looking to the past and the other to the future. This is the perfect metaphor for why we are here today: to look at the last year and decide what we could do differently in the new year. 

To symbolize these decisions, we will burn our regrets on small slips of paper and light candles for what we hope to accomplish in the year ahead. 

Detroit Real Estate
I looked at the ashes from all the papers to throw them in the trash where they belong and couldn't help but be frozen on three little words that remained: "Detroit Real Estate"

I don't know the story tied to this tightly held memory, but intuition tells me it was either a family home or an investment gone awry. Someone had struggled long and hard to preserve this far away box, but there is no amount of wishing, hoping or worrying that is going to make it any better. What will be will be. There is a very real chance that home may end up like that little piece of charred paper, but hopefully that unnamed soul will sleep a little easier tonight as they loosened their grip on preservation and accepted a bitter reality.   

Regrets, I've had a few

    In the same way, it is our time for our somber reflection. It is time to clear the temple of the mind. It is time for emotional reconciliation. In our busy lives we often fail to take time needed to process these events and today we do it together. 

    Here are some common sources of discontent. Which have you been most affected by?

    • Conflicts: with our children, siblings, parents, friends and business partners. 
    • Death: the loss of these people in our lives. Perhaps it was a job, or a bad investment or a pet. 
    • Illness: Have you had to battle a difficult disease or support a friend or family with one?
    • Failure: Did you fail to accomplish a goal this year due to lack of preparation or effort?

    So we ask ourselves what have we done or what has happened that we wish hadn't happened? What part of reality are we still clinging to that is far from what we want? What are our hidden scars? Our ''Detroit Real Estate?"

    Friendly Fire 

    Or, perhaps it's just a self defeating, repetitive thinking. Hugh Prather in Notes to Myself has a wonderful quote on this topic:   Often my surroundings and situations can feel boring, but it is not the world that I have grown tired of, it  is my tired, stale, repetitive thinking that I loathe. 

    What thoughts or habits fail to serve a purpose?
    We all have our own unique, and sadly predictable cycle of negative thoughts that we play on repeat until something snaps us out of it. Sometimes these thoughts just suck the life out of our situations, sometimes it is self sabotage, emotional friendly-fire.  

    We have to identify them and actively stop the repetition. It could be through mindfulness, meditation, prayer, literally pinching yourself or removing yourself from people, places and things that initiate these negative thoughts. It may require us to find new friends, exploring new ideas whether they be film, art music or places, to get more sleep, more exercise, or a better diet.

    It addition to cycles of negative thoughts it is also easy to wallow in self-pity and miss the world around us. I am reminded of a poem by Rumi about a lover who can't see the beautiful world around him because he is caught up in longing desire. 

    Come to the garden in Spring

    There's wine and sweethearts
    In the pomegranate blossoms
    If you come, these will not matter.
    If you do not come, these will not matter

    In many ways this is process is like a crucible. In the same way that metal is heated to burn away impurities, we too bring our troubles and lay them down and burn them away.  We will be making space in our minds and lives for other things

    Looking Forward
    As a part of the fire communion we will all have the opportunity to light a candle for the things we hope to accomplish later this year. – a simple light guiding our path. I hope to lay out several ways of illuminating the path of success. I want to offer several techniques I have used and some I have researched to help with actually implementing the resolutions we make for ourselves. 

    But first I want to share a few quotes about new year's resolutions. Think about how you view the annual tradition: 
    • Many people look forward to the new year for a new start on old habits.  ~Author Unknown

    • A New Year's resolution is something that goes in one year and out the other.  ~Author Unknown
    I also want to share a few common goals. Here is a list from
    • Lose Weight
    • Volunteer to Help Others
    • Quit Smoking
    • Get a Better Education
    • Get a Better Job
    • Save Money
    • Get Fit
    • Eat Healthy Food
    • Manage Stress
    • Manage Debt
    • Take a Trip
    • Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle
    This is mostly a list of Puritanical, self-imposed restrictions. They aren't fun. While they will still be useful and necessary for some, perhaps we can do more. Here is another author's humorous take on "30 resolutions for those who can't think for themselves" I have taken a few.

    • Put your phone away at dinner
    • Laugh more. That means: socialize more often, drink more, have long lazy brunches, throw parties, host wine infused game nights. Be spontaneous… Upgrade your friends if necessary.
    • Don’t just rely on the gym. Remember that feeling of playing a competitive sport as a kid, when you’re on the field, and not thinking about anything else. Most of us have forgotten what that feels like. So join a team or find someone to play tennis with. “A guy came up to me at the gym and asked me what event I was training so hard for. Life, buddy.”
    While this were a little more entertaining, I am sure that many of you view the concept of New Year's resolutions as pointless. Perhaps laughable? a waste of time? If so, I would like to challenge you to think about them differently. To view them (on Jan 1 and more importantly throughout the year) as a reflection of your own values and as an integral part of your own growth. It's a chance to work towards what we want. It's just a reminder, and a good time for it since we are usually not working and stuck indoors.

    My goal today is to get you excited about life and its possibilities. This isn't a season to impose puritanical self restraint, it's a season to open yourself to what you can be and imagine how much you can grow over the next 12 months. It's a time to dream. I simply want to pollinate your mind with ideas and hopefully spark a few small changes.

    First, there is nothing wrong with seeking your own happiness. In fact, I don't think we'd want to be in a world where those around us aren't happy. It's essential. Which brings me to a very important thought:

    If losing weight isn't something you want to do, don't impose it on yourself.

    Here, a quote from Tolstoy is useful:

    "Changes in life must come from a conscience that cannot bear it any other way, not mental resolution to try a new form of life" 

    But that's for one type of change. Those which are causing us harm and we want to stop. There is another, more important aspect that we should focus on: 

    "WHAT IS ALIVE IN YOU?" What brings you joy, what makes you feel. Focus on that for a moment

    This is why we are here today.


    Again focus on the phrase, "What is alive in you?" The goal is to uncover things that you believe in and that excite you. 

    Obvious choices: focus on your long term dreams. Pick something on your bucket list. What have you wanted to do since you were a child?  Note that there is nothing wrong with doing something for yourself. Life was meant to be savored and appreciated. I don't think any of us would want to be in a world where we didn't have the opportunity to pursue out our deepest hopes. 

    More generally, I think things can be broken up into several main categories (physiology, peace & spiritual engagement, meaningful relationships, learning, variety and caring for others). Try to find something in the area you would benefit the most from. 
    • Physiology - improve diet sensibly (eliminate soda for instance), get more sleep, exercise at least three times a week, get a comprehensive physical. Pick a physical challenge (run a marathon, hike a mountain, do something big) and stretch yourself. Make it fun: bike around a new city, join a sports team, try something new like yoga
    • Seek peace and spiritual engagement: Come to church more. Perhaps you need to be less materialistic. Get rid of junk you don't need, stop buying more of it, and donate everything to goodwill or friends who might appreciate it. Get rid of people in your life that just suck up time and energy to make room for something else. Keep a gratitude journal and build appreciation for what you have 
    • Meaningful relationships: Build human connections. Life is a centrifuge. Marriage, babies, new jobs, and divorce all seem to be acting against close friendships. Our world is not stationary. We have to work much more than prior generations to keep our relationships intact and to keep people in our lives. Join a circle supper, start a dinner party with your friends, start a poker night, or a pickup sports  team. You'll meet similarly minded people in the process. start a regular dinner party. Try to make 2-3 new close friends and make an effort to connect with them on a regular basis. Write more letters to your friends. Put your phone away at dinner. Come to church more. 
    • Stimulate your mind: Try to take a religious education class, join the UU book club, join a local club: there are clubs in Columbia for film, photography, gardening, poetry,  political discussion, biking, vegan eating. Pick 10 interesting books you want to read, sign up for a free online course with one of the world's best universities on EdX, try to watch one TED talk per week, sign up for a twitter account and be the curator of your own information from anyone you want in the world. 
    • Break the monotony: Create some intentional changes in your life. Grab a copy of the Free Times every Wednesday and check out the 8 days a week section, go to one of our many concert venues (NBT, Music Farm, Conundrum, UU coffeehouse). Take a roadtrip once a month.  
    • Care for others: Identify an organization you would like to be a part of, call them, and figure out how you can help at least once a month. Epworth, harvest hope, meals on wheels, a suicide hotline, a bicycle co-operative. 

    Executing on the Goal

    Once you have found something you believe in, here are some helpful tips to help you achieve them:

    • Be OK with baby steps
    • Don't try to stop doing things. Make new habits
    • Break it into pieces (30 day challenges)
    • Use the power of writing
    • Make it measurable:
    • Have a general plan 

    More detailed advice:
    • Plan – lay out the steps you need and put in the necessary infrastructure to make this happen, for him it was a website. It also caused him to look at the concrete . To focus on the physical limitations that were keeping his ideas from becoming a reality.
    • Create rules, guidelines and measure progress – This gives you a way to objectively measure the benefits of the change. Set out a list of what you will and will not do during the experiment. Also, most importantly, set an end date. Open ended projects seem impossible because they likely are.
    • Jump  In – just do it (stop the paralysis by analysis). Make a decision and follow through. I remember when I wanted to run a marathon. I realized the training program was actually more difficult than actually running the marathon and that was what was keeping me from doing it. In March of last year I saw a flyer for the Columbia marathon. I walked over to the hotel where registration was and paid my registration fee. I was in. I didn't set any speed records, but I finished. Sometimes one just has to:

    Just Do It
    The most effective for me was to break up the new years resolutions and tackle them individually. One was to watch a TED Talk everyday  (I would highly recommend this idea) and in the process of doing that I encountered a talk that really reinforced and clarified this idea. One talk suggested that people should assign goals for 30 days at time. The speaker suggested that this was just about the right amount of time to break an old habit or form a new one. He had some quite creative and difficult ones such as writing a novel in 30 days or biking to work every day for a month. 
    Some of the biggest benefits are:
    • Life is more memorable. These challenges mark time very well.
    • Increased self-confidence. You begin to believe in your own abilities
    • More open to new experiences/challenges.  
    The biggest realization was that small changes can add up to big differences. Giving up meat was a good example of this. While calling myself a vegetarian was a big leap and not something I was sure I was ready for, it was quite easy to not eat meat for one month. Ultimately these short term acts of will help to create a larger impact as they are much more likely to alter behavior for years instead of days. It's also a good way to convince myself to do something. I think I often feel the pressure to either give up things forever or not bother at all. This "test drive" tends to be much easier to accomplish. 

    I am reminded of a conversation I had with a friend last week about fasting. He said he actually went 10 days without food and probably could have gone longer had he promised himself beforehand. HOWEVER had he promised to go much longer, he likely would not have been able to convince himself to start at all. A short term goal helped to initiate action.  

    Write it Out
    A final, and crucially important aspect to this was to write down my goals. Sometimes I feel like writing is like a magic wand. It's easy to throw and bounce around ideas in my head, but writing does several things. It forces one to refine his thinking. 

    It's also very easy to lie to delude ourselves. Writing has a way of forcing us to be slightly more honest and reflective about who we are. It's easy to have conflicting or half baked ideas bouncing around in our brains but that will become painfully obvious as we put pencil to paper.  

    Writing also frees up our working memory to pursue novel or complex solutions. Our working memory only has space for about 7 numbers and this simply isn't enough to solve many of the problems we face on a daily basis. Writing also has a way of drawing out what is sometimes difficult to express. This is often the most essential part of working through problems. Writing also preserves our thought so we can easily add to them later without having to resolve the problem. It also allows for us to measure growth over time and see if we have lived up to our own expectations. 

    Self Actualization
    We all like to dream. Dreaming is easy. It's easy to have a vision of ourselves that is at odds with reality. The difficult part is identifying what makes us excited about life and then setting the things in place to make that happen. I hope each of you can take a few small steps towards making that happen. 

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