I once read that a whopping one hundred million Americans make New Year’s resolutions. That means that each year, about one-third of the US population gears up for the challenging work of self-improvement. Imagine all of this effort spent on facing our own stubborn selves, who often have one or both of our feet firmly planted in the mud. To make it more difficult, our culture is efficient and task-oriented, so it’s easy to pick a resolution and treat it as another item on our list of things to do, no matter how big of a change we are seeking. And by the way, have you seen the innumerable commercials, catalogs, and magazines stocked with glossy pictures of happy people with all the latest new products, great families, slick kitchens, and cool friends? No wonder it’s hard to avoid the fast, easy images and get down to the slow business of creating lasting personal change from the inside. Self-improvement pressure is everywhere. How do we put these images aside and resolve to do something based on our own values and interests?
As Llewellyn's self-help editor, I thought it fitting to weigh in on the topic of resolutions during this pivotal time of year between the holidays and the turn to 2007. I’m sure you have noticed the great deal of buzz these days about the equal importance of our body, mind and spirit for achieving good health and well-being. When it comes to New Year’s resolutions, though, do you think spirit kind of gets short shrift? When resolving to do more or less of something, we usually try to get our body and mind to comply to our wishes by mastering them through our willpower—and we keep this up regardless of our spirit, which might be lagging far behind. In the most popular of resolutions, getting back in shape, this means our body and mind were coordinated enough to get on the treadmill, but our heart was still at home on the couch. How do we get the heart and spirit to actively participate when we need it most?
Llewellyn author Richard Potter has a lot of knowledge to share on the topic of personal change. Would you think to turn to his book Authentic Spirituality to help you knock off that New Year's resolution? Perhaps not, but maybe that is the point I am trying to make. Resolutions wouldn't be so notorious if there wasn't something always holding us back. It is possible that on a deep level we may not be aware of, we are emotionally and psychologically closed off and not ready to change anything. Could a little spiritual development go a long way to wake us up on every level and help create lasting personal change?
These questions lead me to the wisdom Potter shares in Authentic Spirituality. Potter takes the word "self-mastery," a guiding concept behind resolutions, and casts it in a whole new light. To master something, he urges us to stop blindly pursuing what we think we should, ought and must do. This narrow definition relies on repressing our desires and a false sense of obligation, which can choke our spirit and set our resolutions on the course toward frustration or defeat. Instead, Potter suggests we think of mastery as having the ultimate control over what we want, need and value. Self-mastery is about being fully in charge of your desires. Potter says "mastery is not repression of feelings and impulses, but rather the ability to feel fully and yet be in control of one's behaviors." He relies on the wisdom of Sufi master Hazrat Inayat Khan to help expand the definiton of mastery:
"Mastery is power over oneself that is created by three things: an awakened heart, self-discipline, and self-control."
Did you notice—one of these things is not like the others? You may wonder how something so seemingly abstract as awakening your heart may help you accomplish your practical New Year's goals. When it comes down to it, though, it becomes obvious—the popular self-help notions of intention, realization, manifestation, and attraction of what you want in life are all the work of a heart that is radically open to new possibilities. As Potter says, "An awakened heart is the key to all of the mysteries and depths of existence." Opening the heart means opening to the possibilities of life in its fullness. You are far more likely to encounter new possibilities in life when you are truly open to experiencing them.
While there is no standard way to open the heart, Potter leads us through a typical progression based on his knowledge of spiritual development. Turn to <Authentic Spirituality for a fuller explanation of each of these stages, and in the meantime, clear a space in your own heart and spirit as a fertile ground where anything possible may take root and arise.
Excerpt is from Authentic Spirituality by Richard N. Potter
- Find a safe place to heal.
The first thing needed by all seekers is to be seen. Whether we are talking about a spiritual guide or other members of a group of like-minded individuals, someone must see the person for the unique and beautiful spark of consciousness that he or she is and somehow reflect that beauty back upon the individual.
Once an individual feels seen and accepted by a spiritual mentor, spiritual group, a lover or a therapist, a safety zone is created. Within this zone of safety, a numinous atmosphere exists. If this atmosphere is honored, the heart of even the most wounded person can be gently opened over time.
- Take charge of the process.
With a safe place to grow, the heart can be guided through a series of experiences designed to strengthen and expand it. These experiences are generally of two sorts. First, spiritual practices can be used as an exercise program for the heart. Meditations on themes that expand or deepen the loving nature can be incorporated into daily spiritual practice. Breathing techniques that visualize the breath working with the heart can also be used (see chapter 12 on breath). Possibly the most effective meditation technique, sound, can be used to work with the vibratory aspect of the heart chakra (see chapter 13 on sound). All of these techniques will have a profound effect on the heart over time, if made a part of daily spiritual practice.
The second and most important factor is the conscious expansion of love, compassion and empathy in everyday life through the use of will. Meditative practices are essential to prepare the heart and the will, but the real work never happens simply by magic. Spiritual practices and techniques are not enough. We must, as human beings, exert our will in order to change.
- Meet the fullness of life.
As the heart opens, we begin to feel more. We do not just feel more emotion. As a matter of fact, sometimes as the heart grows bigger it is able to encompass more emotion, and this has a reverse effect; we feel less overwhelmed by our personal emotions. It might be more accurate to say that we become more aware or more conscious. Without the barriers to awareness that are set up when we block feeling, much more of life becomes available to us. The opening of the heart may be described as opening to life in its fullness. An awakened heart is the key to all the mysteries and the depths of existence.
- Open psychologically.
As we have noted, the heart is awakened, or opened, both psychologically and spiritually. Psychological awakening involves healing of early wounds and freeing up a full range of emotional responsiveness. Spiritual awakening involves freeing the heart to reach out beyond its boundaries to experience and encompass more of the world around it, both manifest and unmanifest. This is a process, and it unfolds over time.