There’s a place near my home where the monarch butterflies visit each winter. The tree-filled park by the ocean is a safe shelter from the cold. I remember hearing about it as a child from my mom. She used to tell me fantastic stories of the trees with butterfly leaves. I wondered if she’d made it all up, if perhaps it was just a fairytale place she’d created in her heart. But then we went there and I saw them for myself … trees with branches cloaked in the orange and black of thousands of majestic monarchs. Clumped together on the bare eucalyptus and sycamore trees, they did look just like leaves … until they decided it was time to fly. First one or two, gracefully launching from the branches, until hundreds upon hundreds of butterflies filled the air, blanketing the sky like a colorful fluttering magical carpet … and then they’d settle in another tree and disguise themselves as leaves once more.
This is the time of year when goals and resolutions also come floating in and settle in our lives. Like the butterfly trees, our brains are filled with dreams of what we’ll do and how we’ll be in the year ahead. In a perfect world, our resolutions can serve as a road map for how we’ll spend our time. They’re reminders of where to place our attention, touchstones to bring us back to the activities and projects we’ve identified as truly meaningful to our lives. But life is rarely lived in that mythical “perfect world.” Instead we dwell in a world full of the imperfections we call real life. In this world, our world, we often find that goals and resolutions, instead of being road maps to a better future, are reminders of our past failures. Instead of pointing us in the direction we want to go, they highlight the areas in which we’ve failed. In this way, our goals might reinforce the inner voice that taunts us with the message that we’re not quite good enough as we are.
This isn’t to say that goals are bad, they’re not. Where would our world be without the dreams of little boys and girls snuggled in bed at night imagining the lives they’ve yet to create? Without the mad scientists tinkering in garages, where would our inventions come from? Without the belief that there must be a better way, what would propel progress and innovation? If it weren’t for the hope and courage of the oppressed, who would correct the injustices and antiquated traditions of yesterday? Without dreams — all of ours — how would we ever learn to fly?
I’ve always had lofty goals. As a little boy I remember lying awake dreaming of being rich, of having a good job, and helping my mom. I wanted to be the President of the United States … or Superman, or Lee Iacocca perhaps. I chased those dreams. I worked hard. I clung to a belief that I could be more and could have more than I was born with. And I achieved much of what I set out to do. My goals changed after my mom died. I wanted to feel peace, to know love, to fill the hole I’d always felt inside. Like the goals of money and power, these new goals also propelled me. They led me to temples and teachers and long hours of internal reflection. Today my goals are simpler, perhaps: I want to write a new book this year, to learn and share, to love a bit more, to kiss my wife, to laugh with my son, to dance with my daughter … to sit alone in the woods. In so many real ways that matter, our lives are a product of our goals; and yet our goals are also a reflection of our lives and of the evolution of our hearts.
Behind our goals lie the belief systems that create them. It’s here we find the stories that govern our lives and that, so often, contain the narrative that we are lacking and unworthy. These stories are often familiar ones. Passed down from generation to generation, dwelling behind the curtain of our families, they narrate our lives secretly through our subconscious. Goals created from the place of these stories often carry the negative and defeatist tones to which we’ve grown accustomed: I hate my body; I’m so ugly, why can’t I be beautiful like her?; I’m not good enough; I’m always broke; Why doesn’t anyone love me? This is common to us all, to resolve from our most hurt and vulnerable places, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We have an opportunity to use our goals to tell a new story, one that comes from our hearts and lifts us up instead of weighing us down. Our goals can be the first pages of a new story that invites growth and progress while allowing us to still experience our innate goodness along the way.
This time of year, goals can often be categorized in three areas: we want to change our bodies, we want to find love, and we want to make more money. There are others, for sure, but these are the prevalent themes for so many. And why not? We all want to look good, to find the resources to buy the things we need and, on the most fundamental human level, to be appreciated, valued, and loved.
The goal to lose weight, to be attractive, or to improve our health is universal. For much of my life I felt embarrassed about my appearance. I worried I was chubby, that my glasses looked nerdy, and I was ashamed of my hand-me-down clothes. When I began to make money I overcompensated by eating too much, drinking in excess, and buying fancy clothes. This was reflected in my goals, which focused on fixing the parts of me I saw as broken or undesirable. At the time I thought I was alone … the only one who felt this way. I’ve learned along the way that so many of us feel the same. This is an opportunity for self-love. Creating a healthy lifestyle can be an invitation to say “I love you” to our bodies. We can make our resolutions with gratitude, framed as an opportunity to thank our bodies for getting us here, for carrying the load and for making the journey, even as we invite ourselves to evolve and move in new directions. Like a remodel of our family homes, we can see changes to our body as a natural evolution of something we cherish instead of telling a story of how bad or ugly or broken down we are. How we treat our body sends a powerful message to our cells. When we resolve to drink green juice, take herbs, exercise, or practice yoga, we are sending cellular messages of love and support to our cells and making a statement about our own self-worth and well-being.
In creating goals around new relationships, marriage, and love we can resist the temptation to dwell on our perceived failures and look for ways to support a loving environment within ourselves. In my life, I carried a lot of guilt and shame from the many failed relationships in my life. I worried about the effect my divorces had on my children. I worried that maybe I wasn’t cut out for love. I felt alone and misunderstood. Through therapy and meditation I learned to be attentive to myself, to truly show up for my own needs, and to remind myself that I mattered amidst the many responsibilities of my life. As I practiced valuing myself, I found that others began to value me too. I was drawn to healthy environments with vibrant people engaged in positive activities … and I met the woman of my dreams. This isn’t to say that meditation is the spiritual equivalent of Match.com! But we do have an opportunity to reframe our goals around love and use them to focus on opening our own hearts, filling them with self-love and then, through the love we radiate, inviting the love of others to come into our lives.
It’s popular in spiritual circles to say that money doesn’t matter… on some level maybe that’s true. But here, at the level where we live, things cost money: we pay the rent, buy groceries, and spend money on the items and experiences that matter in our lives. For me money represented an avenue of safety and security, a way of knowing that I had the means to support myself and my family after growing up in poverty. In forming our goals around money we have an opportunity to focus not just on wishing for more, but on fostering the foundation that allows abundance to enter our lives. Our desire for a raise at work might be framed as a resolution around getting to know our boss, working as a team with our coworkers, or bringing new value to the work environment. A dream of creating a new product, invention, or company might be focused on understanding the needs of those around us, what would make their lives easier, or how we can solve a problem through innovation. A goal of finishing a project that’s been stalled or that we’ve procrastinated on can become an opportunity to understand our own passions, what support we need as we work, and how we can motivate and reward ourselves. Behind money we find real people — ourselves and others — with needs and desires that when met allow our own goals to be realized. In this way, financial goals can be a road to greater compassion and understanding of ourselves and of those around us.
This week I invite you to examine your goals. To look behind the words and explore the unspoken messages they may contain. Where you find negativity and self-defeating themes, look deeper until you discover the human desires that lie at the heart of what you really want to accomplish. Start with gratitude for where you are, how far you’ve come, and the obstacles you’ve overcome. Thank yourself, your body, and those around you for their support. Honor your humanity and the realities you face in your life. Breathe deeply, invite your heart to open, and create a plan for the new year that reinforces a message of acceptance, respect, and innate worthiness. Beyond all the goals, resolutions, and plans for the future, you — just as you are today — are worthy of love and acceptance. Give yourself the gift of allowing that to be true even as you learn and grow.
Big hugs of love,