A Buddhist Practice for Your New Year Resolution

Prague, CZECH REPUBLIC:  A Tibetan monk from India works on a mandala of coloured sands in the Prague Museum, 07 March, 2006.
Prague, CZECH REPUBLIC: A Tibetan monk from India works on a mandala of coloured sands in the Prague Museum, 07 March, 2006. The monks will throw this mandala into the Vltava River tommorrow to support the Free Tibet movement. Tibet has been ruled by China since 1950. The Dalai Lama fled into exile in India in 1959 and direct ties between the Tibetan leader and Beijing collapsed in 1993. The dialogue between the two sides resumed in September 2002 after a thaw in relations. The Dalai Lama has since given up his original demands for his homeland's independence and now instead talks of a 'meaningful autonomy' to preserve Tibet's culture, language and environment. Many Tibetans criticise the Dalai Lama for giving up the fight for independence and see the current dialogue as a political gimmick by China. AFP PHOTO MICHAL CIZEK (Photo credit should read MICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images)

I recently read that out of the millions of Americans who set a New Year's resolution for themselves only 8 percent are successful at achieving them. It's not easy to intentionally effect change in your life, yet through setting an intention and building a lifestyle around that motivation it can get easier.

Setting An Intention

If you want to create a change in your life, you can begin by clarifying your intention for doing so. Start by sitting up straight, taking a few minutes to check in with your body. Notice where you are tense and allow those muscles to relax. Once you are settled, turn your mind to the physical sensation of your breathing. Tune into the natural flow of both your in-breath and your out-breath.

After three or so minutes of this simple meditation, allow your mind to move on to the contemplation "What is my motivation for change?" When you notice yourself becoming distracted from this basic question, gently return your attention to the phrase, just as you return to the breath during formal sitting meditation.

You may feel some resistance to the idea of finding one set motivation. Notice that resistance; let it wash over you like a wave, and come back to the phrase just as you came back to the breath during the previous part of this meditative exercise.

Take a full five minutes to roll this simple question around in your mind. Then drop the phrase itself and just return to your breath, letting your mind ride on that natural reminder of the beauty of this present moment.

Are you surprised by what came up in these few minutes? I always am when I do this work. Sometimes my mind keeps returning to the image of a role model; someone who seems to embody the ideals I hold. Sometimes a certain quality that I have noticed about myself (or one that I wish to develop) comes up and I am left with a profound curiosity as to what it would be like to live my life with that at the core of who I am.

Discerning Your Personal Mandala

As a result of this contemplation, you can discern what you would like your personal mandala to look like. The Sanskrit word "mandala" refers to concentric circles that form a type of organizational chart. In Buddhism, within the core of the mandala is a lineage figure or deity that one might meditate on. Around that central figure are several increasingly larger circles which contain its emanations, its associates, and so on to the point that all sentient beings are represented.

In the same way, you create a mandala for yourself without necessarily realizing it. Whatever you take as your chief motivation is at the center. For example, if you put the classic American dream of "getting ahead in life" at the core of your mandala then your life will likely revolve around a job you may not find real meaning in. You may accumulate wealth, you may get a stereotypical "perfect" spouse who is, in fact, not perfect for you, and you might spend your time finding new ways to make more money until you retire or die exhausted.

Conversely, if you take the motivation that you want to be a kinder person as the center of your mandala, then that next circle around it might include how you could express kindness to your friends and family. Then it might include how to be kind at work, at social gatherings, or while traveling. If you put kindness at the center of your mandala then you will build a lifestyle based in that core idea of becoming who you want to be, as opposed to what you want to do for your 9-5.

Take for example my friend Adam Bucko. Adam is a naturally generous and aware person. I believe that these qualities are at the core of his mandala. Over time this aspect of who he is led him to certain activity: he's a devoted son, a wise entrepreneur and he co-founded the Reciprocity Foundation, a homeless aide organization for youth in New York City.

I continue to be inspired by the work he is doing in working intimately with down-on-their-luck youth in a holistic fashion. He not only practices generosity in providing them with resources for work but is aware enough to know that they could benefit from care from social workers as well as meditation, acupuncture and mentoring. Adam has had a profound effect on hundreds of individuals through discerning these qualities of himself and moving them to the center of his mandala.

It is up to you as to what you would like your life to revolve around. Is it your career? A quality you want to cultivate? Meditation practice itself? For each of us, our core motivation for personal change will look different. That's why it's important to figure it out, and then intentionally develop a support structure, our own personal mandala, to support that endeavor. As 2013 approaches, it is a helpful reminder that at any moment we can take a fresh start approach to our life. You can reflect on your intention for entering the new year, or even the new day, and see what aspects of your life you want to cultivate through meditation and contemplation. If you want to pick a New Year resolution that will last, best to look at the why behind the what you want to change. Looking at your motivation will provide fuel to keep the fire of intentional change burning all year long.