At the end of each year, we tend to ask ourselves whether it was a good one or a bad one. But every year, every day, every hour is a mix of good and bad. Reducing the year to that kind of black-and-white value judgment has always felt a bit empty to me. I do think it's a worthwhile exercise, though, to think about what each year has taught us. These are a few of the lessons 2011 taught me:
Meditation can cure my insomnia and fundamentally change my perspective. At the beginning of the year, I took an intensive (and expensive) meditation course. It was amazing. I felt a huge shift in the way I processed the world. And, amazingly, for a few months there, I was able to sleep without problems. But I also learned that I cannot keep up my practice alone. After the course ended, I felt that opening I had created begin to close again. And this fall, when my job got really busy, I pretty much quit meditating altogether. I'm still struggling to bring myself back to it. I need a community to continue this journey, and this year I hope to find one.
Doing things I fear won't kill me — and might even be good for me. This year was a challenging year professionally. I am running a small non-profit, with no experience and little training, and I have been so afraid of failure. As part of my job, I have had to do a lot of public speaking, and I often found myself walking around with a knot in my stomach for days before each event where I had to speak. Event organizing also scared the hell out of me. During the year, I hated and resented having to do these things that made me uncomfortable. I railed against the injustice. But you know what? I got through them. In the process, I learned a hell of a lot about running a non-profit and I learned to speak in front of people without having an anxiety attack for three days beforehand. Doing things you fear is the only way to grow. I need to remember that.
I am so lucky and blessed. My meditation practice may be a bit dormant at the moment, but I have felt a shift happening inside me these past few months. Recently, I've opened my eyes to how incredibly fortunate I am. It's so easy to go through life griping and focusing on all the things you don't have. Who hasn't felt sometimes that life is nothing but a relentless slog of work, chores and other obligations? But lately, I've been able to remember that the pile of dishes I'm washing reflects the fact that my family and I have plenty to eat and the good fortune to be able to cook ourselves healthy meals every night of the week. My massive to-do list is a refection of my full life, of the blessings of family, friends and work. I think of people living in refugee camps, or trying to keep their children healthy in third-world countries that lack clean water, or trying to stay warm as they lie down to sleep in a park, and I think, Really? I'm bitching because I have to run to the grocery store for the third time this week?
Giving is a powerful and freeing act. I believe that clinging to things — money, possessions, even people — is the root of suffering. Only when we learn that we can live without any of it, and that hoarding it will not bring us security, are we free. I also believe that reaching out to others with love and compassion is the path to happiness. But believing those things and living by them are entirely different matters. At the end of the year, I tried the challenge of giving something away every day for a month. I cooked meals for friends, sent kind letters, gave away things with value and gave lots of donations to charity. I tried really hard to give gifts outside the immediate circle of my family and close friends. (The spirit of the challenge is that you give indiscriminately, surprise strangers with bouquets of flowers, that kind of thing.) I lost momentum as the holidays arrived, because it takes time and creativity to find a way to give something unexpected every day. But I learned that it feels great to put aside fear and selfishness and just give--whether it's a kind word that makes you feel vulnerable, a bit of your time or $100 that you think you can't live without.
I can love a dog. When we got a puppy last February, I was a little concerned that the part of my heart that's supposed to love pets was a cold, shriveled raisin. I used to have two cats, and in the last couple years of their lives, I lost all interest and affection for them. I can't explain it, but I was really just waiting for them to die. But I have always said a dog would be my second kid. The dog and I have had our ups and downs, and it is definitely not the same as having another child. But I do love this funny little dog.
I'm sure there were hundreds more lessons, but I'll stop there. This post is so far from perfection, but I need to accept that if I keep waiting for the time and talents to write the perfect words, I'll never write anything. So, here's to imperfection.