New Year's Eve 2009-10 Intention Setting Talk

The idea of "a new year" is pretty much an abstraction, in that tomorrow very little in the world will drastically change.

still, its a good time for reflection:
what actions have we taken in the last year? were they skillful actions? unskillful ones?
has what we've done allowed for more or less inner peace in our minds?
if life ended, would we have accomplished something worthwhile?

the emphasis of these reflections are the things we do towards our inner peace and spiritual progress.
What's happened to us is beyond our control, spiritually unimportant.
as psychologists (maslow, carl rogers, eric fromm, seligman, etc) have noted, there's a direct correlation between the well-being and purposefulness we experience and our positive actions, especially those actions relating to positive actions that contribute to something larger than our self-centeredness (nature, organizations, spiritual practices)
our habits that cause stress we're not condemned to repeat (feeding off material gains, praise, pleasures)
we can choose actions (meditation) that lead to long term happiness
this is what freedom is all about: not living by easy habits, but to live by skillful actions
freedom requires strength that's required to carry out a skillful action

in addition to focusing the mind on "what has happened to me" instead of "what have i done"most people chase after things that have no real lasting impact on inner peace and self-fulfillment
people often tell themselves that they'll be happy when they retire, or win the lottery
(the baseline happiness study of lottery winners versus control subjects within a few years paraplegics return to similar baseline happiness)

Merit is not a sacrafice
in the west, because of the delusion that our thinking and actions don't have long term results, we often don't think about merit.
we only notice short term results
when we do something worthwhile, we seek the rewards in the external world by seeking recognition
we keep track of how much good we do in comparison with others, again seeking external validation
leads to the delusion that our lasting happiness and security comes from the world

The practice focuses on the remorse, anxiety, guilt etc. which are to be avoided in order to cultivate a calm and peaceful mind.

The precepts are intended to help a Buddhist live free from remorse, so that they can progress more easily on the Path.

the rewards are both external and internal. kalamas sutta AN 3.65:
if there is a world after death, having not wished or caused harm anyone will lead us to good destinations
if there is no world after death, then, having not wished or caused harm anyone, my mind will be at ease; it will be free of the agitation of hostility and trouble
if I have not caused to harm anyone, then I have little to fear from anyone seeking revenge
if I have not caused harm to anyone, i can feel worthy and pure

Precepts are practices. We will fall short. As with all practices, we get better by not beating up on ourselves, by turning mistakes into self-judgment, but by acknowledging our mistakes and the suffering they bring, and determining to avoid them again.

Buddhism is not a theistic religion, so a person taking refuge in the Buddhist sense is not asking for the Buddha personally to intervene to provide protection.
One of the Buddha's central teachings is that human life has a lot of dangers — from the inner forces of greed, anger, and delusion — and so the concept of "refuge" is central to the path of practice, in that the practice is aimed at gaining release from those internal dangers.

Though taking refuge is an old practice, it is still relevant: we are faced with the same internal dangers that faced people in the Buddha's time. We still need the same protection as they.

To take refuge in the Buddha
means gaining strength from the fact of his Awakening: placing trust in the belief that he did find a path to lasting happiness, that he did so by developing qualities that we too can develop, and that the truths to which he awoke provide the best perspective for the conduct of our life.

the buddha left his security and riches in the form of a happiness that didn't get ruined by aging sicknesss and death, he found a happiness that's lasting and blameless

To take refuge in the Dhamma,
on the external level, refers to the path of practice the Buddha taught to this followers.
This, in turn, is divided into three levels:
learning about the teachings
putting them into practice to develop the qualities that the Buddha himself used to attain Awakening
realizing the same release from danger that he found in his practice

To take refuge in the Sangha
Its hard practicing the path alone, given that its a path that moves against the stream: the principals are so different from the principals that guide most people. We're after long term peace of mind, not the short term solutions that most people seek (finding security from careers, material goods, IRAs and savings, people pleasing, how many friends we have on Facebook, etc).

On the internal level, the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha are the skillful qualities we develop in our own minds in imitation of our external models. For instance, the Buddha was a person of wisdom, purity, and compassion. When we develop wisdom, purity, and compassion in our own minds, they form our refuge on an internal level.

these states are easier if we make up our mind that we want inner peace, and keeping ourself on the path towards it.
people forget that inner peace and a sense of purpose are the most important things of life

its a good idea to think about where we want our lives to go in the following year.
this is why buddhists go out on secluded retreats, to gain perspective on life.
once we return to our day to day life, we bring back this fresh perspective
meditation is a form of small retreat from life; its a way to step outside of our daily life and see how we're acting, speaking thinking: are they taking us toward a kind of life we want?

part of reflection is getting away from the external things that tug at us, that grab us into dramas.
we need to stay away from the stories and dramas we live in so we can ask our hearts where do we want to be heading?
dramas and stories often have "shoulds" that fall apart under investigation. I "should" care about what people think of me at work
we need to be away from our responsibilities, and get to place where our only requirement is to stay present with the mind and body, to see how much stress and suffering there is...

once we're in retreat, when we start dropping things and our normal concerns, we often start noticing how much lighter and relaxed we feel

when we go back to our lives and feel the heaviness and stress return, we can begin to see what a toll each "should" in our life takes, and ask ourselves which responsibilities and projects are worth it...
we begin to look at life from where we want to be, and what we have to do to get there.

very few people are practicing meditation on new years eve. but its a great way to start the new year with a solid, quiet mind that's working on things that are imporant