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A Heartful Way of Keeping New Year's Resolutions

Many people make New Year's resolutions for how we will live better in the coming year. We do this year after year knowing how hard it is to keep these resolutions. We think that it all depends on our self control and willpower. While these can have some effect, a cognitive, rational process alone often fails to achieve the results we want and can even make us feel worse, blaming ourselves for failing. Keeping our resolutions requires a more heartful way to enhance motivation through both cognitive awareness and emotional connection to our goals.

Western psychological theories heavily emphasize the role of rational cognitive processes. Recent advances in appreciating the role of emotions in motivating our behavior brings understanding that motivation involves both cognitive awareness and emotional connection with our goals. The Japanese word kokoro expresses this wholeness of mind and heart.

In a heartful approach we motivate ourselves to pursue our deeper aspirations by connecting emotionally with our resolutions and their objectives. This emotional connection arouses the desire to act, and seeing the benefits that we gain gives us a sense of purpose and the desire to do the behavior more. Cognitively engaging with something helps us to see the value of doing it, motivating us to act. Cognitive knowledge is especially important for those who respect this kind of intelligence. Scientific advances now give us evidence-based studies to influence us to do things like being grateful or listening deeply, not just because we believe they are good ways to act, but because they are good for our own well being.

Our emotions are also important for sustaining our motivation with courage and dedication. When we enjoy something we want to keep trying to do it. And when we do it well we feel good. This emotion moves us from being motivated by external rewards (extrinsic motivation) to intrinsic motivation, that is more enduring.

We can transform extrinsic into intrinsic motivation through heartfulness, an approach that integrates mind and heart, cognition and emotion. Here are three simple exercises we can do daily, one to start the day, one to end the day, and one to practice in moments throughout the day.

Morning exercise

Sit quietly, bringing attention to your breath and relaxing your body. This ability can be cultivated through practices like yoga or qigong. Then focus on the questions: "What do I value deeply?" "What do I wish for myself, my loved ones, and for the whole world?" "How can I show kindness to myself and others?"

Then you might say to yourself, "Today I will use my day in a way that is in tune with my deepest values."

Evening exercise

Sit quietly and briefly renew your day with the question: "How did I do today?" Note how you did and did not live your values, with the spirit of acceptance and desire to do better tomorrow. End by recalling something that you feel good about that occurred, including kindnesses you may have shown yourself that day, maybe even in the effort you made, giving you something positive to sustain motivation to practice your resolutions.

Mindful exercise

In moments throughout the day, for example, as you are about to begin an activity, pause and renew your intention to be mindful, compassionate, and responsible in what you are about to do. This exercise does not require going off alone in a quiet place and meditating, but can be done in a few minutes or even a few seconds.

Many people find that this heartful approach helps sustain the energy and purpose to live true to our aspirations and keep our resolutions for the new year. It relies on more than will power and self control, integrating cognitive and emotional knowledge, mind and heart, acceptance and assertion. Through daily practice, our growing awareness helps us to be more mindful -- attentive and intentional -- creating opportunities to align our thoughts and actions with our resolutions in compassionate and responsible behavior.

For further explanation of the exercises see this article by Thupten Jinpa, "Two Exercises for Turning Intention into Motivation"

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