Happiness: A Better New Yearʻs Resolution


There is a very famous story about the great Indian Saint Ramakrishna. He was quite orthodox and as such held to the belief that bathing in the river Ganges washed away all sins. Now to anyone watching the daily throng of devout Hindus bathing in the Ganges, and then observing their conduct after their morning ablutions, it would quickly become obvious that their sins had not been washed away.

One of Ramakrishna’s visitors pointed just this contradiction out to the venerable saint. Once again Ramakrishna affirmed that the Ganges does indeed wash away sins. However, he conceded, our sins wait for us on the banks of the holy river.

For Westerners, New Year’s is much like bathing in the Ganges. It is a time to wash away past sins and bad habits and start anew. We make vows to loose weight and live healthier. Maybe we strive to be nicer, or more forgiving, or generally a better person. Perhaps we aspire to accomplish some goal or project.

These are all very wonderful. Yet our “sins” do not go away. The are hanging out waiting for us in the new year. Sure we push them aside for a bit, but they are persistent. After all they are fruit of our accumulated thoughts and actions throughout our lifetime, maybe even longer. They are familiar and comfortable habits, and they are really hard to change.

It is not surprising then when we easily fall back into old behaviors. Some of this may be the result of overly ambitious goals. It is better that your New Year’s resolution be small and attainable, rather than heroic and unachievable. Real change occurs over long periods time. Persistence and patience, more often than not, win the day. Even the hardest stone is eventually worn down by the constant motion of water.

Another challenge with New Year’s resolutions is motivation. Often our motivation is too small or misplaced. By this I mean that we are seeking happiness for our selves. Unfortunately, what we think of as our selves is really very transient. Our moods and mind change from moment to moment. That goal, which seemed laudable and attainable yesterday, seems ridiculous today. We may even wonder, “Who made such a goal?” You did, of course, or at least a previous “you” did. However, the mind has changed and it is now hard to believe that it was the same you that made such a goal. Before long your “sins”, your habitual patterns, are back in your life and no real change has occurred.

What then is a solid foundation for change? It certainly is not some self building project. Yes being healthier and nicer are good things, but they are just part of your ego project which is, ultimately, the cause for all of our troubles. That which we call self is empty and unreliable. The self is ultimately not a true source of happiness. And as H. H. the Dalai Lama continually points out, we all want to be happy and avoid suffering.

The cause of real happiness is found in non-self, or that which is other than self, ie. “other people”. Buddha is other than your self. Your neighbor is also other than your self. Real happiness, is found when we look outside ourselves and concern ourselves with the happiness and well being of others. This is the beginning of the practice of compassion (karuna) and love (metta) which is the heart of the Buddha’s teachings.

Change from self focus to other focus is hard. Each day we must try to reflect upon the lives of others to understand their joys and sufferings. We can celebrate their joys with them and try to alleviate, or at least sympathize with, their sufferings. We will make mistakes, we will sometimes cause hurt or be unsympathetic to others. Never the less, continue to offer kindness and compassion, as best you can, to the people around you.

Over a lifetime of practicing love and compassion, your life will be transformed. Your old habits, you “sins”, will have withered from lack of attention. You will be happier and will have found inner peace and meaning. More importantly the people around you will be happier for having known you.

Begin today to make the world a more compassionate and happier place. Look beyond yourself and see what you can do for the people in your life. Sometimes all it takes is the right intention, and attention, to awaken to the amazing world beyond your self.

Namo Amida Bu!
Peace,
Ananda