Tired of making resolutions and not sticking to them? In an increasingly complex and fast-paced World there is a simple ancient piece of wisdom that many believe is the only resolution you need ever commit to. And as we enter a new decade, it is more important than ever before.
Over the last few days my social media feeds have been full of well-meaning posts about New Year resolutions, suggestions about which resolutions to make and lots of advise about how to stick to them. As someone who has failed many times at sticking to resolutions, I’ve had lots of occasions to reflect on why that happens. And I now believe, like lots of other people. that there is really only one resolution that you should ever bother adopting because all the other stuff – dieting, exercise, quitting habits, being more creative etc etc – ultimately depends on it.
That’s it – commit to that. Know yourself. It’s one of the oldest bits of wisdom that runs across all traditions from Buddhism, to ancient Greece and the ancient Egyptians, through yoga and Christianity to the movie The Matrix. It might be old wisdom, but I think it’s so relevant to this new decade that you ignore it at your peril.
So how do you know yourself? The best place to start is with 20-30 minutes of meditation a day – not guided meditation, but quiet meditation, where you observe yourself, your body, breath and thoughts. If you don’t fancy sitting still then remember that yoga and Qigong done properly are meditation, as is any activity that allows you to observe your body and mind objectively (running, cold water immersion etc). Over time the skills you develop will spill off your meditation cushion or yoga mat and into your day-to-day life.
Knowing yourself is not a mystical experience or a cosmic revelation, it’s the unglamorous act of witnessing you & your processes and stripping yourself of all your illusions until you get to the truth. It’s involves you noticing the sensations in your body, understanding how your mind and body are linked, realising that your emotions have a physical basis, understanding your social and cultural conditioning, your unresolved traumas, your negative belief patterns, knowing that your story of who you are isn’t real, that your thoughts are not who you are.
It’s a lifetime’s hard work to know yourself and I know that on the face of it it’s not as exciting as a gym membership or as easy as following a diet but I believe it’s the only way to make lasting change & is a worthy investment of your time & effort that will pay huge dividends.
Here’s my top ten reasons for trying it:
1/ Shed your illusions. Knowing yourself means to realise that your “self” is just a jumble of past experiences and memories that your mind uses to make sense of the present. Mind-bendingly, when you start this process you realise quickly that you are not the thoughts, emotions and desires you experience, and you are certainly not the story you concoct about them with hindsight. From that understanding flows a whole bunch of questions. For example are you really a control freak? Or is that just a coping strategy that worked for you as a child and that you’ve been doing for so long you think it’s who you are? Free spirit? Or commitment-phobic following trauma? Introverted or subconsciously afraid of failure? Feisty because you’re an Aries or because your nervous system is shot? Your illusions about yourself weigh you down, they stop you from reaching your full potential, and quite often cause the hidden agendas that make you fail at sticking to your resolutions. Take an honest look at your story and cut it back to the freedom of who you really are.
2/ Trigger happy? Is that voice in your head reliable or is it coloured by advertisers, propaganda, cultural conditioning? How can you be sure it’s your heart you’re following? What causes you to be fearful and why? Is that really your dream you’re pursuing or someone else’s? What causes you to doubt yourself? If you don’t know your triggers and drivers you can spend your whole life trying to prove a point to a parent, trying to keep up with your neighbours out of insecurity, being driven by the social story which says we have to live our life in a certain way, or maintaining an image which is totally at odds with who you really are. As well as wasting your precious time, it can also make you a soft target for advertisers and propaganda, preying on your fears or need for status, feeding you false happiness, triggering your anxieties & biases to manipulate you. Know yourself and what you really want, and take control over the direction of your life.
3/ Body of Truth. Our society is fast and it’s heavily biased towards the mind. A lot of us don’t realise when we’re tired because we don’t take the time to listen to our body, or we ignore the body and use coffee or other stimulants to push on. A lot of us don’t listen when our body is struggling with stress, we drink alcohol or numb out with TV to mask the discomfort. We fail to notice the early signs of burn-out or inflammation only realising when they become more serious problems. Ignore your body for too long and it will make itself felt, quite often by screaming more loudly or stopping to function. Getting to know your body is one of the greatest things you can ever do for your health and well-being.
4/ Emotional Intelligence. Far from being electrical circuits lighting up in your brain whenever you get angry or happy, emotions are the mind’s interpretation of sensory stimulus and bodily sensations. The next time you feel angry, sit with it, know what it feels like, where in your body you feel it. Knowing your emotions in this way means you’re less likely over time to react blindly to situations. It will also help you cut through the muddle of what you’re feeling – are you really angry or has that stressful week of work over-charged your nervous system? Are you frustrated or is it just that you need to discharge some of that energy by going for a run? Can’t be bothered or dehydrated? Irritable or sleep deprived? Knowing your emotions in this way also helps you realise that unless we turn them into full blown dramas, emotions pass – like everything else, they are impermanent.
5/ Knowing me, knowing you. It is so much easier to act and cooperate effectively when you understand the human mind, understand your own mind, and understand how to deal with your inner fears, biases and complexes. Less reactive, more understanding – knowing yourself improves close relationships, helps you realise when it’s time to say goodbye to others, and also fosters better cooperation, something we could certainly do with currently.
6/ Are you really over it? Our mind-based society places great importance on talking therapies or reframing the way you think about things. When you sit with yourself, you start to realise that traumatic experience is often stuck in the body. Even though you no longer think about it or perhaps have changed the story, there is a physical element, unhealed, creating discomfort, waiting to trip you up or cause disease. They say if you can feel it, you can heal it – being with yourself quietly gives you the space to do both.
7/ Weird is the new normal. The challenges and changes we face currently are without precedent; looking to the past is not going to provide answers. We might try to cling to the wreckage of outdated stories such as nationalism or religion, but this is just delaying the inevitable. In times like these who can you turn to for wisdom and advice? Our elders are by and large completely at sea. Our leaders don’t seem to have answers or, worse still, are just ignoring the issues. And the rise in availability of information means that we are bombarded by lots of it, dozens of different perspectives, fake news, conspiracy theories, propaganda. To survive and flourish in such a world, you need a lot of mental flexibility and great reserves of emotional balance, the sort that can only really come from knowing yourself. You need to feel at home with the unknown and know the difference between timeless wisdom and outdated bias. You need to know your triggers so you are less likely to fall prey to external manipulation. Develop the intellectual and emotional independence necessary to question and verify the world around you.
8/ Roll with the punches. The pace of change is crazy and is only set to increase. Technology, gender fluidity, climate change, the changing job market… the 2020s are going to be chock full of these and even more changes…..Human beings by and large don’t like change – it involves doubt, fear, uncertainty – a loss of our sense of security and comfort. Change requires resilience and courage, and often the ability to reinvent yourself. Battling change is like trying to hold back the sea – sooner or later you’re going to get washed away with the tide. So rather than waste your time clinging to the past, know yourself – what frightens you about change? Understand that nothing is permanent, learn to access the vast reservoir of strength that you have within you and see change as opportunity. Sit with your fear and doubt, understand where it’s coming from, what it feels like, so that you can work with it not just react to it. Know your core strengths, skills and passions – with the job market changing so much, chances are you will have to reinvent yourself several times over during the course of your career. Knowing who you are & playing to your strengths will provide a much more successful strategy than just trying to copy what other people are doing, always one step behind
9/ Get up, stand up. it is no longer enough to sit back and think that the issues facing the world are someone else’s problem. You might seem comfortable now and it might seem that the problems are happening somewhere else. But everything is linked and will ultimately be felt by all of us. Facing reality and taking a stand requires a lot of courage – in a world of trolls, division and fake news, people are often derided for standing up for what they believe in, sometimes even threatened. In knowing yourself you develop the inner strength, self-belief, emotional balance, and resilience to endure.
10/ Beat the algorithms. There are companies and governments out there trying to hack you, to understand you better than you know yourself. When that happens the power will shift to them and you will be at the mercy of adverts, lies and manipulative propaganda designed to trigger your emotions and your biases so that you make decisions and purchases and lifestyle choices based on what they want you to do. Improvements in biotechnology & machine learning are making it easier to manipulate people’s deepest emotions and desires. When Amazon or the government knows how to pull your heart strings and press your buttons, will you be able to tell the difference between your self and their marketing experts? Maybe that doesn’t scare you, but if, like me you want to retain a degree of control of your existence and the direction of your life then you need to know your operating system very well and you need to know it now before it’s too late.