The first Friday of the New Year, and true to my intentions I am sat at my desk ensuring I commit to my Friday writing practice! Since the Twixmas* of 2012, I have undertaken the same “end of year review” process inspired by Buddhist teacher, Susan Piver. The same set of questions to reflect upon for the year just gone; and the same set of contemplations for the year to come. One day I must go back over the (now 14) volume set…I imagine there is a book in just that! I find it such a powerful re-flect / re-set / re-start at a time of year that inherently calls to us to pause and reflect. Darker, shorter days; augmented this year by wet and windy weather. This afforded a really quiet Yuletide season, and I appreciated the opportunity for indwelling. The process of review was supported by my reading of Thomas Merton and taking part in a 3-day winter retreat hosted by the London Shambhala Centre.
Indeed, the headline of my review process was an intention to continue deepening a contemplative life. To Susan’s review / preview process, I breakdown life into practice compartments of personal, professional, relational, spiritual. Somewhat artificial distinctions, but useful to consider – the latter being the backbone, the three others becoming appendages that link back to and connect through the backbone. When it comes to my aspirations for the year ahead (and looking back to my accomplishments of the year just gone), unsurprisingly perhaps, the 3-form appendages are somewhat easier to apply goals to than the spiritual. Maybe I have my metaphor wrong – because it feels like the personal, professional, relational are the vehicles, the mediums through which I live a spiritual, contemplative life.
My error sometimes is to confuse those activities for things in themselves rather than being in service to “waking up”.
Because, as an “Awake-ist”**, that is my sole goal (well, as a Bodhisattva it is to help all beings do that too). Yet the activities and aspirations within personal, professional, relational are the platforms, the arenas I can structure and mould to contain a contemplative life; and on a daily life level, they bring meaning and they bring traction: things I can get my teeth into, find fulfilment, learn through….and ultimately, check my progress as a spiritual aspirant.
“Goals” in the spiritual domain will always be somewhat slippery. Historically, I have a background in coaching – sport and then life coaching – and so this heritage is hard to shake off. Since becoming a Buddhist and training as a therapist, I am more critical of goal setting. In fact now as a Vajrayana – or tantric – Buddhist, any type of goal could be seen as proverbial blasphemy!! But I do value intention; and I have written recently about the power of direction setting. In the main, my intentions for 2024 tend to be ensuring I put resources into the spiritual fire. Planning retreats, safe guarding practice time daily, ensuring weekly reading and study that keep me inspired, and finding time with sangha to off-set some of the loneliness of the contemplative.
Sitting down each New Year and setting the compass IS valuable to ensure we are living a life in concordance with our values.
…and importantly, that we CONTINUE to live life in accordance with a trajectory we want to travel. Though I do imagine there have been shifts across my life aspirations over the 14 years of this reviewing process, certainly the last few years it has been more about refining, nuancing. Many could be described as “do more of the same”, or “trying something slightly different to fine tune / augment”. Checking in, updating where applicable, re-connecting when needed.
Personal and relational aspirations for 2024 are similarly “soft goals”, as how to measure growth, change, intimacy and the like? Again, all I can do is ensure adequate resources are put into creating the container, the life structure, for alchemy to occur.
It is in the professional domain that things come a little easier to me; and one domain that I allow myself to plan “SMART”*** (ish) goals. Until I am a regular New York Times best seller (!!) I still need to spend a good portion of my waking hours working; and with a set of values that include “serving” and “mastery”, my professional aspirations and priorities for the coming year aim to keep living with purpose and integrity.
- Teaching trainees keeps me intellectually stimulated, and allows me to flex my Little professor muscles – phenomenology, embodiment, bringing in ideas from non-duality
- Working with clients keeps my capacity for relating and intimacy sharp; more accurately, it keeps my “soft spot” – that ability to remain open to connection, accessibility to and in service of, others. In the Shambhala teachings, the imagery of a monarch with a broken heart is used to signify the union of two opposites: a strong and dignified posture holding a vulnerable heart, accessible to the world.
- Supervising therapists keeps me grounded in the relational. What comes to mind is the holding of another polarity, top down and bottom up. Theorising the client material with embodied listening to the supervisee. Energetically it evokes the dialectics of Heaven and Earth, of Soul and Spirit. Furthermore, this is one aspect of my professional life that is allowing me to live outloud as it were the mapping of the enneagram…and I am SO excited about my big enneagram project for 2024!
- Writing allows a free range exploration, a stream of consciousness. However, since “expression” would now appear on an update of my personal values****; whilst writing remains the vehicle for synthesis of ideas that feeds my professional life, it is also a craft of “soul-searching”, one that might equally fit into that spiritual compartment. Indeed, reading Thomas Merton’s “Inner experience” helped me recognise how much that reading / writing couplet is integral to my desires to be a contemplative. Big ideas that are not just thought, but felt within, revealed without.
When I sat down to write this morning, I started only with a vague sense of what would appear. The process of writing felt more important than the content. Creating habits, setting intention…and actually, the joy of expressing and living out the freedom my life container allows. If 2023 was the year I became an author (after some 4 years of writing), 2024 is the year I protect my writing practice as a priority: the touchstone of my contemplative life.
Please do hold me accountable, dear reader! Wishing you all you intend and aspire to in 2024.
*The BBC tells me Twixmas is a combination of an old English word, betwixt, which means between, and Christmas. For me its been a hibernation time between Christmas Day and new Year
**The literal translation for Buddhist (the Sanskrit root budh) is “to wake, wake up, be awake.”
***Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound
****Scanning a list of values and seeing what your top five might be is a great exercise to do. See for example those offered by Brene Brown