The 5-Minute New Year’s Resolution That Will Make All Things New

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. —T.S. Eliot

mindfulness

Photo Credit: julianrod via Compfight cc

We’re going to take down the Christmas tree.

Again.

Last year, it was depressing.

Not because the holiday season was over, but because we’d done it before. Many times. It felt like, somehow, after a year of striving and scrambling and doing and accomplishing, we were right back where we started. Square one. We hadn’t progressed; we’d returned.

Life isn’t a straight line. It’s a circle. If you can’t accept that, it can be pretty depressing.

That’s what the African immigrant told me. Right before he fired me.

Circles and Lines

I was completing my post-doctoral residency—moving forward and rushing ahead—and he had just arrived in the States to continue his education. In the course of the initial interview, I asked him where he hoped to be in five years. He looked confused. I asked him why.

He told me.

He told me in the United States, we expect progress all the time. We’re always trying to get somewhere else. We think life is a straight line. But where he came from in Africa, they were farmers. Seasons mattered. And the seasons came and went and returned again. They knew life was a circle. Everything comes and goes and returns again. Everything. Our sadness. Our joy. The things we love and the things we don’t.

I only saw him once. He never came back. Now, I know why. I couldn’t help him, because I was in denial about how life really works. I couldn’t accept life is about circularity and rhythm and returning.

Straight Line Dis-ease

All of existence is in orbit, rhythmically cycling and returning to where it began. At a microscopic level, electrons orbit around a nucleus. At a galactic level, the earth circles the Milky Way. Our days are defined by a planet spinning like a top. Our years are defined by a hurtling planet lapping the sun and returning to its beginning.

All of existence is a circle.

Our body itself exists within an existential circle. Upon birth, we are dependent creatures, then we become independent, and we return to dependence near the end. We didn’t breathe, and then we breathed, and we will not breathe again.

All of life is a circle.

Why do we forget this?

Because we suffer from the dis-ease of the straight line. We’ve been taught to believe life is only meaningful if we’re getting from here to there—doing a lot, becoming more important, accruing more stuff, feeling safer, and increasing our comfort. Even the good work of redeeming the world can become its own straight line, as we single-handedly try to move the world from here to there.

We pretend life is what it’s not.

We need to get real about how this whole thing works.

We need to bend our lives back into the circle they already are.

A New Year’s Resolution Solution

It’s New Year’s resolution season.

We get flooded by articles about change and transformation, why most of us will fail, and how to become the exception. Most of these articles are written by well-meaning individuals trying to convince us of their formula for progressing along the straight line they prefer. They, unfortunately, spread the straight-line dis-ease. They don’t help us understand how to live within the circular reality of all things. No wonder our resolutions fail.

This month, I’m not going to invite you onto my straight line.

I’m going to invite you to get off of yours.

With one five-minute resolution.

For five minutes a day, just breathe. Breathe in. Breathe out. For five minutes, get off your straight line and experience the circular rhythm that keeps you alive. Don’t try to breathe better. Don’t try to do anything.

Just attend.

At first, as the breath seems to repeat itself, you’ll be bored and distracted. But be patient. When your mind wanders, bring it back to the breath. Notice. Each breath—while seemingly the same as the one before it—is different, unique, new. Begin to witness the endless variety within the circular rhythm of your breathing. One breath at a time, break your addiction to the straight line by experiencing how every time you return to something old, it is the first time—indeed, the only time. When you forget for a day or two or ten, begin again when you remember.

Forgetting and remembering is a circular rhythm, too.

Ending Where We Began

We’re going to take down the Christmas tree.

Again.

Last year, it was depressing.

This year, I think it might be joyful, because at the moment of returning to the familiar, I’m going to let go of my straight line just a little bit more. I’m going to embrace the rhythm of my life. I’m going to pay attention until I became aware of this:

Like most of life, it is the same thing as always, for the first time ever.

The only time ever.

Last year, my daughter wasn’t old enough to handle the delicate ornaments. Last year, my boys weren’t dancing to Uptown Funk by Bruno Mars and my daughter wasn’t lip syncing Taylor Swift. Last year, the sun wasn’t sending pale rays onto the living room floor and that vanilla candle wasn’t burning and this particular moment wasn’t happening. Last year, I wasn’t breathing my way into the rhythm of it.

It will be the same, yet new. Maybe better, maybe not. But definitely new.

Life isn’t a line. It’s a circle. Resolve to breathe it in and breathe it out. Fall into the rhythm of the way the world spins and the way this life unfolds. It might just change everything, while changing nothing at all.

It might just make everything new.

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Next Post: Why You Shouldn’t Make a New Year’s Resolution Until 2016

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Disclaimer: My writings represent a combination of my own personal opinions and my professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with me via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. I do not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accept no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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  • Shel Llee Flexman-Evans

    (Deep breaths.) Thank you.
    I am so grateful for this reminder of our spiraling lives — that they spiral onward and upward and sideways, not just down to a cliched rock bottom. I am processing a number of medical results that are painted in this linear, artificial way that is so familiar in our culture that it is nearly invisible until we look hard and start to see it, like motes floating in sunlight. And all of it is less daunting, more workable, and easier to build into the rest of what life is and has been when I return to the simple truths of the cycles in life. It’s not about beating it, or climbing an impossibly tall mountain. Every moment is its own and is connected to the moments and experiences before it.
    Your timing is good, Kelly.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Shel, I’m glad my timing is good, but I’m sorry to hear that you seem to have gotten some difficult news. I’m hoping the people close to you know and are supporting you in the way you need on this leg of your upward spiral?

      • Shel Llee Flexman-Evans

        Absolutely. I am blessed with wonderful people in my life. And there’s a lot of good living in this wild spiral.

  • Kirsten

    Wow, I’ve never wanted to take down the Christmas tree until today. It was always another task or burden that had to be accomplished. Today it will be an experience in the circular motion of our lives together.

    • drkellyflanagan

      I’m so glad to hear that, Kirsten!

  • CJ

    As I read the beginning of the this post, I thought of “The Lion King.” “The Circle of Life.” A case of art imitates life. Then I was minded of how we hate and fear being lost, going in circles. For most people, it’s a nightmare awake or asleep. We have a need to move forward. If we don’t, we might stall and fall out of the sky. And then I considered riding a merry go round, the ultimate in going nowhere. I always loved being on a painted, gilded horse floating up and down with carillon music and lights and wind in my hair. I think when I do this exercise, I’ll picture myself there, where I go in a circle but it’s pure joy.

    • drkellyflanagan

      I was in high school when that movie came out, and I still loved it. The opening sequence gave me chills. I guess circles appealed to me even then. I love the image of you on a merry go round. Another thing children do better than us adults: they enjoy going in circles. Pure joy to you, CJ.

  • I just wrote in my own journal (blog) yesterday about the masculine and feminine and my desire to bring in more of the latter in my being. And-how this has been my intention at the start of the year for several years now. In the moment of writing about it, it sifted in that it’s inherently feminine to allow for my transformation to just happen in it’s own time. There’s no “there” to get to. Your circle has added a whole new dimension to this idea. And I love it. Right at the end of your post , I got another image, that of a spiral. Wow. Happy New Year, it’s nice to connect with you on all these touch points on our circle around the sun.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Cara, you and Shel both mentioned spirals. There must be something to it! And thank you for the idea of the masculine and feminine. I like the idea of the feminine circle containing a masculine energy around progress. Something to think about for sure!

  • Jonathan C Dickinson

    I hate the concept of new year’s revolutions. Every single day is another opportunity to improve yourself. Don’t wait for another year to go by, improve how you want to improve *now*.

    Next Tuesday I will be 1 month free of smoking, not 13 days. I could have waited until new years to quit, but I didn’t – now I’m further along and can’t use the “oh, it was just a new years resolution” excuse.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Jonathan, thanks for the encouragement to not wait. Next week, I may be posting about using today to prepare for change tomorrow. I hope it resonates with you!

  • John Fontain

    its interesting you pointed out this circular motion, iv been a muslim now for 7 years and 2 years ago i managed to go on pilgramage to mecca where i performed tawaf which is circulating the kabba 7 times anti clockwise the same way the atoms and universe is performing this circular motion of worship and submission.

    in the islamic tradition we review our lives 5 times a day in the daily prayers not once a year with a new years resolution, i have personally found this much more effective in my spiritual enlightenment and journey in coming closer to my creator.

    • drkellyflanagan

      John, thank you for this education. It is remarkable that a circular walk is part of the pilgrimmage and meant to mimic the universe. Good stuff!

  • Amy Kennedy

    This post may be depressing for some – particularly the straight line types – but accepting the circle will make your, and your loved-one’s, final years easier. I work in Physical Therapy in a hospital. I see the elderly as they struggle to walk, then struggle to stand, then struggle to sit up. It is a circle of life thing. If we view it as a straight line to a pinnacle, you are left with two choices: stop instantly at the pinnacle (sudden death), or a precipitous drop into helplessness. I don’t like that view at all. Much more comforting is the circle back around. The slowing down. The return to allowing others to help care for you. The allowing yourself to exist solely because your family and your God desire it to be so.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Amy, thanks for this perspective from someone who is confronted with the reality of our returning all of the time. In the modern world, that part of life is often so removed that we can deny its reality for much of our lives. I appreciate what you say about the necessity of preparing for it.

  • Christina Haas

    Your posts are so AMAZING! Thank you for another brilliant one to read and share. I am moving at my own pace in goal setting for the year, but on my short list for personal goals this year was breathe and drink more water! LOL! What is that saying about all great minds ….. 🙂

    • drkellyflanagan

      Ha! Thank you! I’m still debating what to write for next week, but I guess hydration has to go on the list of topics. : )

  • Sean Abby

    Imagine the irony of racing to finish this article and move down the line . Well done Dr. Flanagan.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Sean, nice observation. And thank you.

  • A quote I have up on the wall of my office: “The advantage of a bad memory is that one enjoys several times the same good things for the first time.” -Friedrich Nietzsche

  • Beverley Croft

    It is wonderful to find another with such a deep understanding of the truth that we live in a spherical world. Yes, all in our universe moves around spherically. In our western world we have been brought up and educated from birth to believe that everything is lineal. All our education is presented that way. .I love your example of the African man from a farming background viewing life from this perspective, it makes such sense, with his connection with the seasons, going around and round. Of course there are also many in the eastern world who view things more that way.

    We think we have moved on from issues, happenings, etc. but as we continue the circle, we come back around and have to face them again. Better to deal with them as they arise, then they are gone.

    Your sharing of the need to stop and breathe is the key to understanding this. Yes, we need to learn to just BE, we need to stop. It is absolutely wonderful what we find over time. Within we find that really we are actually quite glorious and great to be with. If we do this, over time, our lives can change so much. We need to live to the spherical rhythms of life, not go charging off striving to get somewhere. Over time, we come to understand much of the mystery of why we are here and life will make so much more sense.

    I am one of a community of probably a couple of thousand now, world wide, living throughout the world, with ordinary jobs, families and facing the usual problems of life. There are no beliefs, dogmas etc. all to the best of their ability and at different stages endeavouring to live their lives with this KNOWING, not believing. There is a new website being prepared by nearly 300 volunteers, which should be available in the next couple of weeks, which will cover many many aspects of living this way. I will share when it is available, you may find it interesting.

    In the meantime, I will love sharing your great blog on the social websites.

  • AC

    This is such a wonderful read. Thank you Dr. Flanagan. I have been seeking a gentler life. It has been a few years. I was spiraling (circle). I find it interesting that the use of this word is often found in a very negative phrase, that of “spiraling out of control”. I was feeling it. When the speed slowed I found my center! But it did feel like I had come back to where I started. A return to the familiar. Simple truth and love. My uncertainty lies with the future, as I watch my husband (a very straight-line man) crossing my circle, and realizing we may never connect. We may intersect, however briefly, as he travels back and forth my circle. Maybe. But what a future we could have if he would join me in my circle. I would slow down for him.

  • Deborah Park

    It is wonderful to read something I have found hard to put into words. Profound experiences from living in Botswana and Lesotho in my 20’s gave me a circular way of living. Now you have expressed some of the challenges I have experienced in a line focused world. I feel myself sucked into the straight line and then liberate myself by stepping back into the circle. Wonderful. Thanks

  • Jon Larson

    I don’t think I can fully agree with you, I think saying that saying life is a circle negates the trans-formative power or grace. our Identity is now different from what it was a year ago. We arrive at the same place but we are not the same person. My preferred metaphor is the spiral slowing moving outward, there is the constant returning to the old as it is seen through new eyes. the philosopher in me thinks of Gadamer and his hermeneutic spiral for how we approach a text and receive meaning, that we are changed in the process even if we return to the same text. that is why you can never read the same book/poem or listen to the same piece of music twice, the “youness” is changed on the second encounter and you always bring in some of your new self.

    I wish I could write more on this, I have thought about it and pondered it extensively. maybe later…

  • Michele

    Funny enough I felt the sadness of taking down my tree initially and decided to shift my mindset into remembering how much joy the tree represented, letting in the gratitude of the moment. The tree meant we had people to share the magic with…made taking it down less sad. Breath in the goodness and breath out all that no longer serves you!

  • Clayre Thompson

    I too had Christmas depression but mine was putting up the tree, it took me longer this year and I did not get out most of my “stuff”. The holiday still happened, my family enjoyed it and did not notice that the house was not bedecked. Now the last thing to take down is the tree — ornaments have been off for almost a week but for some reason I was stuck. Now I will be able to circle back around and see the joy in this final act.

  • Johnny M.

    Dr. Kelly. I have to admit I actually read this blog. Many times. And something struck me. That is the
    actual physics behind linearity. To proceed in a linear fashion, under many circumstances, REQUIRES a circular path. Consider your family’s Springtime bike ride on the Prairie Path. Without
    the sustained circular motion being produced by the wheels of your bike spinning at a certain minimal RPM or Revolutions per Minute, you would go nowhere! Why? Because you would be on your butt because the circular rotation of your wheelset would not create enough Centrifugal Force
    to keep the machine upright!
    Not being a Physics Major, I have no idea of the formula that would be used to determine HOW MUCH rotation, in RPM’s would be required to keep your bike upright, but I do believe the energy
    you would have to apply to the crankshaft would be considerably higher than the energy your
    daughter would have to apply. The difference, in my substantially non-scientific mind, would include
    variables such as the much higher center of gravity of your bike, the substantially greater weight of
    you and your bike vs. your daughter and her bike as well as the likelihood that your ride would have
    a much greater percentage of “unsprung weight” than your daughter’s, thus adding to the energy
    put into your crankshaft to cause the centrifugal force and inertia to keep you upright.

    So, what I think I am leading to is this- Children live in their own little, happy circular world… and
    just can’t wait to pop out of bed each morning to relive and revisit the wonders of this, as you so
    eloquently pointed out, Circular World while we, as adults, in general, feel like failures or “Not
    Successful” and a lack of achievement if we DO NOT push ourselves into a lineal career, pushing
    and stomping upon others to get that next promotion, highest raise, bigger house, latest Ferrari
    straight out of the factory at Marenello, etc…

    It appears to me that as adults, we can learn much from our children! “Mommy, look at this flower!
    It wasn’t here yesterday, what is it and where did it come from”?
    Mother~ ” Wow! I didn’t even notice that! Look at how deep the purple is in that! Honey, it is called
    a Hyacinth! It is a flower that grows out of a small bulb that has been frozen under ground all winter! I guess Spring finally IS here sweetheart”!
    Daughter~ “Mommy, there are so many, can we cut one off and put it in the middle of the dinner table so Daddy can see it? He has been coming home so late from work, I don’t know why, he
    doesn’t spend any time with me anymore because he says he is very busy at work… maybe this
    purple flower will cheer him up”!

    And maybe… just maybe, it will do even more than that. Maybe, he will begin to appreciate and
    treasure the things that made him happy and smiling all the time. Like camping in the backyard
    with his kids on a starry night! Maybe, just maybe, he will remember the look of wonder in his
    childs eyes when the International Space Station passed straight overhead, on that perfectly clear
    summer night! Maybe, just maybe, he will realize that his “Fast Track, Linear Career” suddenly
    doesn’t mean quite as much as it did. And all because of a tiny, yet amazingly beautiful deep
    purple hyacinth flower appeared on his dinner table one evening and he noticed it before he
    hit the remote to watch Jim Cramer’s “Mad Money”…
    And BTW, how did that Jumbo Mortgage from Countrywide that you took out in 2006 work out for
    you pal? Ohh, the Ferrari had to go huh? But before the tiny hyacinth, you were going to do it all over again, weren’t you? Thank God for the little ones. For they are the wise ones…

  • Reannon Haight

    Awesome. Truly.

  • Sara

    Ah, this is wonderful, probably because I am a circular type :). Yoga helps, as does being connected to nature and her seasons – but I think being a woman helps the most. Everything is cyclical with us, everything, and in that way we mirror life to ourselves. It’s easier, I think.

  • Brian Mattson

    I still read this regularly. Thank you.