Your soul knows the geography of your destiny. Your soul alone has the map of your future, therefore you can trust this indirect, oblique side of yourself. If you do, it will take you where you need to go, but more important it will teach you a kindness of rhythm in your journey.
— John O'Donohue
BY JAN HATCHER-CONQUEST
Like many people, I have a new year ritual that began when I was young. As far back as I can remember, I have spent part of New Year’s Day reflecting on the prior year and setting personal goals for the new year. In my younger years, my goals focused on becoming what I imagined to be the “perfect me.”
At that time, I was very involved in my church community, so my New Year’s resolutions reflected the values I was being taught by that community and my parents. My early resolutions generally went something like this: 1. Be kind to everyone. 2. Never get angry. 3. Forgive others and do not hold grudges. 4. Give attention to those in need. 5. Always tell the truth. 6. Always have a loving heart. 7. Keep my relationship with God as my top priority.
When I was a teenager, I added things like being respectful of my parents, abstaining from alcohol, and not having sex until I was married. My beliefs about my “ideal self” were very much influenced by my religious training, and somehow I had the impression that I could actually BE that ideal person.
Every year, however, the same thing would happen. I would feel good about the person I was going to be, but within days, realize how short I was falling from that ideal and after a week or two, just give up. The problem wasn’t that resolutions were futile -- the problem was that I was creating expectations for myself that were unrealistic.
Even with a kind heart, I was not always kind. Even though I had the capacity to see others’ perspectives and feel compassion for others’ life stories, I would sometimes get angry. I understood the importance of forgiveness, but I did not always feel forgiving. Sometimes I would overlook the needs of those around me because I was so focused on my own. I could embellish or leave out certain truths in service to my own story and desires. Even though I could easily feel love for humankind, I didn’t always feel loving toward the people around me. It was easy to just say “I am human,” but along the way, my deeper feeling was, “I am flawed.” Yet every year on New Year’s Day, I would practice the same ritual, thinking that somehow this year would be different.
I have learned and grown spiritually in the decades since I started this practice, and this ritual has remained very important to me although it has changed to reflect this growth. I have a much deeper sense now of the sacred nature of life and of myself. I trust the natural way my life is unfolding, and that there is both opportunity and purpose in the struggles that arise from what appear to be “imperfections” within myself or others.
Sometimes the most difficult person for me to embrace is exactly the right person to help me grow. The presence of these more “difficult” people helps me to become more aware of my own shadow, wounding or less desirable feelings or qualities, and helps me work toward a greater understanding of and compassion for myself. Now when someone’s presence evokes my anger or feelings of self-doubt, instead of judging or criticizing, I try to ask myself, “what is happening within me?” THIS is the fertile ground that provides opportunity for my growth in each new year.
In Confucianism, there is an understanding that the ideal person, or Chun Tzu, is one who feels compassion for everyone and everything in the entire universe. The main goal of life is to expand one’s empathy outward from self, to family, to community, to nation, to all peoples, and then to all living things. Over time, this ideal has become the consistent focus of my New Year’s reflections and intentions.
How can I feel more empathy for others? What does that look like in practice? What about my own personal psychology interferes with my ability to feel this level of empathy for all people? What inner awareness and work will be helpful toward this end? This practice is not about perfection, but about recognizing that just as others are acting out of their own stories and experiences, I am as well. Clearer inner awareness and understanding will help me to live life more fully, meaningfully, and joyfully.
Another area of growth for me is cultivating self-compassion. When I was growing up, I learned to believe that self-care was selfish. The religious ideal that I was taught was to put others ahead of myself: ”the first shall be last, last shall be first” sort of thinking. Yet I have often caught myself feeling resentful of those looking out for themselves and not reciprocating this approach.
Over time, I have learned that the sacred resides in me as well as others and that I, too, deserve my own empathy. On an airplane, we are instructed to put on our own oxygen masks before helping others around us. When we care for ourselves, we are better able to care for others and geniunely consider their wellbeing. In becoming a Chun Tzu, one starts with compassion for self, then expands outward.
This spiritual practice of reflection, cleansing, and renewal is a part of the wisdom of many major world religions. In Judaism, this sacred process occurs during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In Christianity, there is a similar practice observed during the Lenten season. And in Islam during the month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunup to sundown and spend more time in prayer, with the intention of cultivating compassion for those who are hungry and in need, and turn from the idolizing of the self to a closer relationship with God.
I like these kinds of practices that reflect on the past in service to the present. I value knowing that I can release what I do not want to carry forward with me. I want to be a kinder, more compassionate person, and for the world to be a more peaceful, loving, and just place for us all. My part is to cultivate the sacred within myself, sometimes referred to as the “Christ within” or one’s “Buddha nature.” My part is also to have compassion for myself when, several weeks into the new year, I find myself far from the ideal of the Chun Tzu.
During a recent dharma talk at a silent meditation retreat, I encountered an expression that has given fuller life to my New Year’s practice of reflections and intentions. The facilitator said, “in each moment, we have an opportunity to begin again.” I love the freedom and affirmation of the human spirit in this approach to living with intention and acceptance.
So, as I once again transition into the new year, I am reflecting on all that has been a part of my beautiful and messy and sad and joyful life story. I do have intentions of being loving and kind and honest and true to my own inner sacred nature. But as January unfolds, I will stumble and grumble then hopefully pause and smile at myself. Unlike when I was young and would get discouraged by my own imperfections, I no longer give up on my intentions because I have fallen short. I just “begin again” - day by day, moment by moment. It is a journey for all of us, and how beautiful that we are on this journey together in our Chrysalis community.
I wish you all a new year full of reflection, awareness, inner growth, raised consciousness, and, in the words of Coleman Barks, the “pure rapture of being alive.”
Jan Hatcher-Conquest has taught Religious Studies at VCU for more than 10 years, including classes in World Religions, Human Spirituality, Eastern Traditions, and Zen Buddhism. With a Master’s in Counseling and concentration in World Religions, Jan has completed post-graduate seminary studies in Religion and Theological Studies. She has 3 sons, and enjoys hiking, cycling, kayaking, music festivals, and fellowship with her tribe. Jan serves on the Board of THE INNERWORK CENTER.