December 13, 2017

Old and New, Embrace the Year Mindfully and Positively

  • Oxford Sayadaw
    Venerable Prof.
    K. Dhammasami DPhil (Oxford)

People welcome the New Year in different ways. Some simply dance away the last day of the old year under the influence of alcohol while some reflect on the past year mainly lamenting the shortcomings and vowing to remedy them with some New Year resolutions. Others get carried away by the excitement of the festive season, often associated with holiday or shopping. Yet, still there are people who fear the coming year simply because they cannot leave the shadow of the old year behind.
I believe there needs to be a balanced view in the way we say goodbye to the old year and welcome to the new one. And, a balanced outlook can only be achieved when we are able to see the past year objectively. Objectively! The word is used often in many debates and its frequent use threatens to awash us with complacency. Here, by objective I mean we need to take into consideration both the joys and disappointments of the past twelve months and manage them in a stable way.
Looking only at the shortcomings of the past cannot be objective nor balanced, especially psychologically. By thinking only of the failure of the past we promote negative outlook in our long term memory. Memories are mostly associated with emotion, which means our long term memory stores not just negative outlook but also negative emotion. With such a habit repeated year after year, it is difficult for people to summon their positive energy at the time of need. As neurologists and psychologists at Wisconsin University and other top universities in the United States of America and United Kingdom who compare the brains of the meditators and non-meditators have found the emotion influences neurons in the brain, which in turn commands the nerve system in the whole body.
Positive emotion helps the brain to rewire itself to improve its own function, and according to this new finding summed up in the newly discovered neuro plasticity theory, positive neurons can help the body to heal itself.
This means to heal to disappointments of the past we have to start with something positive. This is to say that we have to first celebrate and rejoice in the good part of the old year. One needs to revisit the many positive moments of the last twelve months and to do so mindfully. By revisiting them often and mindfully, one ensures those good times have a place in the long term memory. Here, one also needs to revisit the good work of family members in the past year and should even extend this joyful exercise to friends and others.In Pali Buddhist tradition, this is one of the many reflective meditation practices and is called anussati.
This simple, yet crucial point is often ignored or taken lightly. Many are not capable of genuinely feeling joyful for the successful or beneficial work their past year has had. Except through excitement, they would not know how to relate to the bright side of the recent past. Once the excitement fades away, there is almost no emotional connection with their good work.
With no positive energy habitually present in the long term memory, negative emotion and outlook may be the only force dominantin the memory of the past year. That will certainly shape how one prepares for the coming one. This is not a statement that one should ignore the shortcomings of the past year. Rather, one should start from a positive note even when one has to confront the reality of the downside in life. I emphasize the positive emotion and outlook because people normally have a more powerful negative energy and less so for the positive one.
Here, I wish to mention a tradition of how people relate to each other in the Theravada Buddhist practice of eastern Shan State, Union of Myanmar. There is Pali formula which people recite, especially when meeting the seniors. The formula may be roughly translated this way: I greet you with respect. Forgive me if you see my shortcoming; do also rejoice in the good work I do. I do celebrate your good work as well.
The short formula contain a balanced approach to emotion management, addressing both negative and positive points in oneself; and when it comes to the other, it draws attention to their good side because we are usually aware of other people’s fault only, not their bright side.
I believe if we have this balanced emotion approach, then we can confidently reconcile with the disappointments from the old year and look to the New Year with a heart no longer in pain resulted from the imbalanced emotion and outlook. With our own heart at peace, we are better prepared to make the most of the Year 2017.
Myanmar and the world need peace. World peace begins with peace in our own heart. This individual peace may not be considered great in terms of scale and its immediate impact; however, if we take care of ourselves to ensure a balanced and healthy emotion, we shall be doing a small job in a great way, for without individual peace there can be no other peace around.
May all of us be able to help each other to find peace in our own heart.
With positive emotion and outlook, may we be able to say goodbye to the old year and to welcome the New Year.

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