Resolution = intention –> heart’s desire

A resolution and an intention are pretty much the same thing. But in the yoga tradition, the ideal is for intentions to come from the heart more often than from the mind’s desires. And that’s why I find myself setting an intention for 2015 even though I don’t really believe in New Year’s resolutions.

In Sanskrit, the word for intention is sankalpa. It comes from kalpa, which means “a way of proceeding” and san, a “concept or idea formed in the heart”. So setting an intention means acting on an idea or desire that comes from the heart.

What is my intention? Simply to spend 30 minutes each day reading a non-fiction book.

How does this intention come from my heart’s desire?

All my life, reading has been a treasured experience, “the greatest gift” according to Elizabeth Hardwick: “It is cheap, it consoles, it distracts, it excites, it gives you knowledge of the world and experience of a wide kind.” It has calmed me when I’ve been distressed, stimulated when I’ve been bored, provoked when I’ve been complacent. imageYet I have developed two habits that are getting in the way of reading serving my heart’s purpose. One is reading on the iPad, and one is reading mostly novels.

When I first started reading on the iPad, I promised myself that it would only be for traveling, so that I didn’t have to pack heavy books with me. Then I discovered Overdrive and started checking out library e-books. After that, I moved, and had to drastically reduce the number of physical books on my shelves. So I stopped buying “real” books. But one of the things I discovered is that I dislike reading nonfiction e-books because of the difficulty with flipping back and forth in the book, or easily finding a piece of information. So I just stopped reading nonfiction.

I will always enjoy reading novels more, and that’s okay. In fact, studies have shown that reading literary fiction helps us understand other people better and to build stronger relationships. But there is another world of information out there that I am missing by excluding nonfiction from my menu.

Reading is declining pretty much everywhere. A recent Wall Street Journal article discussed this development and the “Slow Reading” movement that has sprung up in places to counter  it. Proponents of slow reading even get together in some cities to read as a group (each with his or her own book). Research indicates that we need 30-45 minutes of reading in one stretch for true immersion (and presumably, improved comprehension), so that’s what these slow readers do.

I don’t think I’ll be joining a slow reading group, but I hope to model my reading on their design. Even my fiction reading doesn’t meet the immersion threshold most days — if I’m busy, I read for maybe 5 or 10 minutes before falling asleep, and while I mostly switch to airplane mode while reading, the iPad just offers too many distractions that lure me away from the book I’m reading.

The interesting thing about the Slow Reading movement is that their prerequisites for it sound a lot like those for meditation: a comfortable seat, a quiet environment, no distractions, the book as focal point. By bringing mindfulness to the act of reading, we can deepen the experience and its impact on us.

We take time for what is important to us. Thirty minutes a day to rekindle a treasured gift, to illuminate life’s purpose — that’s an intention from my heart.

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You gotta have heart

For how many moments of your life is your heart present? Do you do things in a “half-hearted” way? Do you agree to do something, knowing that your “heart isn’t in it”? We use expressions like this to describe lack of enthusiasm, but they are really just another way of describing an absence of mindfulness.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program, described in an interview the Chinese ideogram for the word mindfulness. He said it is made up of the character for presence, combined with the character for heart. In essence , mindfulness means presence of heart. By cultivating a quality of presence, he says, we inhabit our true selves and are more able to uncover our sense of compassion.image

I’ve spent the past few days reading a book called The Orchardist, by Amanda Coplin. It is a novel about separation and grief, loneliness and misunderstanding, freedom and imprisonment. It contains a beautiful passage that, to me, perfectly describes mindfulness:

When she was alone, when she was working, it was as if she forgot about herself. It seemed strange to state it this way, but it was as if she had no outline, no body, even though the work was physical. Where did her mind go? Her mind was steeped in the task at hand. At such times she felt a depth of kinship with the earth, and also felt very grown up, rife with compassion.”

Is mindfulness necessary for compassion to exist? Are we able to feel deep sympathy for someone else, and to care about ending their suffering, if we don’t have the ability to pay attention and be present to what they are feeling? The character in the book realizes in moments of mindfulness at work that she has attained a greater capacity to feel, that there is a spaciousness in her heart that wasn’t there before.

I’m also reminded of Like Water for Chocolate, in which all of the emotions of the character Tita become contained in the food she prepares, so that when people eat the food, they immediately feel what she feels — sadness, joy, pain. It doesn’t matter if you believe in the magic; there is something to learn from the idea that our work can contain some essential part of ourselves and that others can use their senses (taste, in this instance) to feel the emotion and presence that we put into it.

If we tune in to what our senses are telling us, really tune in, what can we learn? Whether it’s the expression on someone’s face, the sound of birds chirping, the smell of someone’s perfume, the taste of just-baked cookies, or the touch of a dog’s nose on my arm — engaging with my whole heart in that moment can help me understand what someone else feels, what is happening in my world, or just how much love can be contained in a batch of cookies. And that sense of understanding can open doors in the mind.image

Our brains are plastic; we can change them if we desire. The work of Richard Davidson and other neuroscientists has shown that if we train ourselves in mindfulness, we can hone skills that help us experience more happiness and compassion. But this isn’t something minor that just makes me or you happy on an individual level. The more we “widen our circle of compassion” as Einstein said, the more chance there is for harmony and peace in the world.

Our brains are plastic, but in order for them to expand, our hearts need to be present. So think about it — can you bring your whole heart to more of what you do every day?

Lessons from “30 Rock”

Toward the end of the “30 Rock” finale, Liz Lemon is explaining to Tracy Jordan how difficult he has been to work with, and how hard he made her job, but she says “because the human heart isn’t properly connected to the human brain,” she loves him anyway.

The “30 Rock” characters have change thrust upon them as the show ends; they experience love and loss, see dreams fulfilled and have wishes granted. Above all, the last episode is about how sometimes our hearts and our brains are at cross purposes. We think we want one thing, but when we get it, we find out it doesn’t make us happy. Or we discover that the thing that makes us happiest has been right in front of us all along.

Psychologist Daniel Gilbert has written, “We cannot feel good about an imaginary future when we are busy feeling bad about an actual present…We assume that what we feel as we imagine the future is what we’ll feel when we get there, but in fact, what we feel as we imagine the future is often a response to what’s happening in the present.”

The question is whether instead of always using the present to project a rosier future, can you stay focused on the here and now, the reality of what is?

In “30 Rock”, Liz gets the children she wanted and becomes a stay-at-home mom, only to realize that she misses work terribly. Her husband gets a new job, and is miserable because he desperately wants to be at home with the kids. Jack gets his dream job as head of G.E. and immediately starts questioning whether he is truly happy. Jenna and Tracy struggle to figure out their identities now that their show is over.

The only character who doesn’t seem to experience any angst in the face of change is Kenneth. As the intern who becomes the head of the network, he is the only person completely comfortable in his new role. Perhaps he was the only one who had stayed present-focused all along. With his sunny optimism and his homespun wisdom, he never lost touch with his inner compass.

In an article in Yoga Journal, Kate Holcombe wrote about the idea of getting to know your true self, and how we often mistake some external attribute for who we really are. The Sanskrit word “asmita” refers to this misidentification which “happens when you identify with the parts of yourself that change – everything from your mind to your body, appearance, or job title – instead of with the quiet place within you that does not change.”

It’s easier to accept change on the outside if we are more connected to our unchanging self, says Holcombe, and not identifying “too closely with the changeable aspects” of ourselves. That requires a great deal of self-acceptance because the answer to the question, “Who am I?” doesn’t change.IMG_0271

Accepting and connecting with the unchanging self makes it easier to see when you’ve gotten off course, easier to see what it is that serves your needs at any given moment. So, like Liz Lemon, you might realize that being a stay-at-home mom isn’t right for you; or like Jack Donaghy, you might see that it’s not getting the dream job that makes you happy, it’s what you can do in the job.

Sometimes you get your heart’s desire; sometimes you don’t. But “because the human heart isn’t properly connected to the human brain,” you might find that you’re very happy anyway, just because of who you are.