Taking a Fresh Start

When we get bollixed up, we can always start fresh.

Posted Aug 29, 2010

One thing that I have learned from my meditation practice is how to "take a fresh start." It seems like a simple thing to do, yet I have found that it can have a profound effect not only on my meditation practice, but also on the rest of my life. We can always take a fresh start.

When I began my meditation practice back in the 1970s, my meditation instructor told me that if I realized that I was no longer doing the simple breathing technique that I had been taught, I could just start over again. The particular practice I was doing at the time involved resting my attention lightly on the out-breath and as the breath dissolved into space letting the attention I had placed on it dissolve along with it. When distractions arose, the technique was to simply note them by silently labeling them "thinking" and to gently return my attention to breathing. This eyes-open practice is one I still often do as it provides a strong foundation for staying present and awake not only with myself but also with others.

Sometimes simply returning to the breathing technique isn't enough. As my meditation instructor told me -- only half-jokingly -- "If you are going out with your thoughts and labeling your breath, take a fresh start." Anytime we get all bollixed up and forget what we're trying to do, we can start over.

On the meditation cushion, this means just dropping the technique altogether. Just stop. Take a breath or two. Look around the room, notice where you are. Then, gently, bring your attention back to the meditation practice and begin again.

What I find to be profound in this approach is that we could recognize that every moment is a fresh start. We are always at the beginning; we are always just right here wherever we are. Most of the time we don't realize that all we actually have is the present moment. We act as though all the feelings and thoughts we ever had are still impinging on us right now. In some ways, that is so. We are always living with the consequences of our past choices and actions. The Buddha taught that when we hang onto our stories about ourselves, or about what we think has to happen next, we create suffering for ourselves.

Yet, the next moment is also completely open. We can begin anew right now. Instead of being carried along by the momentum of our habitual --and even mindless-- ways of being, we can recognize the freedom available in each moment.

When I am caught up in an argument with a colleague or my husband, the fruit of my meditation practice often arises as the recognition that I could be fresh and new in this very moment. Sometimes it is quite annoying, actually, to realize that I could just stop, take a breath, and start over. Sometimes I would rather hold on to the illusion that I'm completely right and the other person is completely wrong. Of course, the price of such certainty is usually alienation and pain. When I am willing to let my mind just open to the possibility of starting fresh, I can let go of a rigid viewpoint and begin to listen well. I might even hear what the other person is saying and respond in a useful way. When I can do that (or when the other person can do it first), the whole situation can become more workable.

As a therapist, I often work to support my clients in taking a fresh start. Katie, a woman in her 50s, has long had a conflicted relationship with her son. She recently moved away from a town near Tom and now lives across the country in a new place. When Tom was growing up, Katie was a practicing alcoholic and single mother. Tom, understandably, still carries a good deal of distrust toward Katie even though she has been clean and sober for over a decade. When I first met Katie she was trying to get Tom to forgive her, to be willing to connect with her, to really talk to her. It was, of course, quite painful for Katie that he was closed to those possibilities.

As we worked together, Katie increasingly learned to put herself in Tom's shoes and see how it made sense that he would be leery of her. She had, after all, let him down time after time when he was growing up. When she was drinking, she was often also verbally abusive and probably quite frightening to him. "What now?" she wondered. "If I stop trying to get him to talk to me, what do I do?" What Katie realized was that she couldn't change anything Tom chose to do now. What she could do was take a fresh start herself. By taking a fresh start, she could let go of her own agenda and see what happened next without expectations based on either her shame and regret about the past or her hopeful desires for the future.

Taking a fresh start is a way of letting go both of fear and of hope. It is coming back again and again to the present moment and seeing its open quality. One thing Katie did was to cultivate her own interests aside from her family. She became involved with a number of community groups and discovered a talent for organization and leadership. She found healthy ways of relating to others and received appreciative responses from these new friends.

Katie became quite good at recognizing that she was wanting something from Tom that she might never get. She was able to feel those feelings of longing in herself and to repeatedly let them be what they were. Being willing to start fresh meant letting the feelings be and letting them go, as well.

Katie discovered that she could call Tom to ask about her grand-daughter and then just listen. Instead of pushing for what she hoped for, she could keep opening up again and again to what was really happening. She discovered, as she really listened to Tom, that there were small ways in which they could connect with each other. For example, she could share his enthusiasm a recent accomplishment of his daughter. Over time, Tom has been beginning to be a bit more open with Katie, too. It will take a long time, if it ever happens, before Tom will feel relaxed with Katie.

Taking a fresh start can mean beginning a new life as Katie did by moving across the country. It can mean letting go on an agenda as she did by letting go of her desire to have the close connection she could imagine with her son.

Most importantly, it can also mean for any of us, taking a fresh start in any moment by coming home to ourselves and letting go of whatever it is we think must happen next. We could let ourselves have a sense of wonder and uncertainty-freshness at any time.