I am, seriously, writing this on New Year’s Day at the Ansley Starbucks. My gym bag is at my feet. I’m revving up with a triple-shot macchiato before heading to the gym to transform myself into the godlike creature that every gay man desires with every inch of his penis. But first I need to eat the 420-calorie cinnamon-crunch bagel I swore I wouldn’t buy. But, hey, I deserve it. I ate a salad for lunch.
So go most New Year’s resolutions. Is there a remedy? Yes, definitely, and it should itself be everyone’s first resolution. Is it easy? Hell no, but it is immensely rewarding. It’s “mindfulness.” This practice, as old as Buddhism, is the reason I returned to school to get master’s and doctoral degrees in psychology. Learning mindfulness was among the most life-changing things I’d ever done for myself, and I wanted to share it with clients. Back then, it was considered woo-woo and New Agey, but it’s become integral in almost all forms of psychotherapy and coaching.
In theory, it’s very simple. You learn to bring nonjudgmental attention to your thoughts, instead of trying to instantly banish or hold onto them. Then, they soon float away on their own. You don’t have to act on them. This is paradoxical, but we all know that the more we fight temptation, the stronger it becomes. Mindfulness sabotages that.
This practice is especially difficult for many Americans. In Buddhist thought, desire is the root of all suffering. We live in a time when exactly the opposite is believed. Consumerism is our religion. We feel that the more we acquire, the better we are. Stepping away from that is literally inconsistent with the capitalist delusion that we can all have everything.
Now, many people already have the experience of mindfulness in certain areas of their lives. Consider the gym. Health and appearance probably most motivate the resolution to join one, but I believe mindfulness keeps people coming back, whether they realize it or not. When you are lifting a weight or running, your attention is on that very moment. We enter a timeless, pleasurable state called “the zone” or “flow.” As study after study has shown, exercise is significantly more effective at reducing depression and anxiety than pharmaceuticals. And mindfulness is one reason why.
Taking the first step
Encouraging clients to begin a challenging program of exercise is almost always my first advice. I’m well aware that depression makes taking that step very difficult. I’ve even taken a few clients to the gym so we can talk about their feelings and thoughts as they work out. But the truth is that the client must summon the motivation to take this step, being aware that it is natural to resist the change—like my (not) giving up pastry.
The most direct way of learning mindfulness is to learn meditation. That was my experience when I enrolled in classes at the Shambhala Meditation Center (atlanta.shambhala.org). It’s not a cult, believe me, and you can participate at any level you want. It’s just helpful to have other people around when you’re learning the practice. If you’re not the type to sit still and focus in total silence, you can try walking meditation, tai chi, or yoga. I set my phone alarm for 2 p.m. every day. When it sounds, no matter what I’m doing, I focus on at least five breaths. It’s amazingly helpful.
History of making resolutions
Finally, consider what history has to say. The habit of making resolutions began thousands of years ago. Babylonians and Romans were required to annually pledge allegiance to their emperor and promise the gods they’d make amends for hurting others. The latter is inspiring. Years ago, a severely overweight couple came to see me to help them begin eating healthier. My prescription? I insisted they volunteer at a food kitchen for the homeless. They started losing weight immediately. When we help relieve the suffering of others, we become much more compassionate with ourselves. So, three resolutions: Learn the practice of mindfulness, start exercising, and find a way to actively relieve the suffering of others.
Cliff Bostock, PhD, is a longtime Atlanta food critic and former psychotherapist who now practices life coaching for creative types; 404-518-4415