As a meditation teacher, I'm often solicited for advice by students who are seeking to change their lives in some way. They may want to alter an aspect of their behavior or their emotional life, or improve their relations with others. They almost always report that they have tried to change but fail time and again. I listen to each person's story and tailor my response appropriately, but the essence of my response is almost always the same: If you really want to change your life and are having difficulty doing so, then you need to master the practice of starting over. More than any mantra, resolution, therapy, or self-help technique, this is the practice that creates real, lasting results.
Living proof of the effectiveness of the practice of starting over is 38-year-old Taryn, a student in the Sunday evening mindfulness meditation class I teach. Taryn is a successful midlevel manager in a fast-growing company who makes a positive first impression, but her career has been stalled and she has a long history of personal angst. When Taryn first started attending class six years ago, she was close to losing her ability to function effectively both in her high-pressure job and outside it. She had difficulty trusting even her friends; she got into adversarial relationships at work with both peers and bosses; and her romantic involvements had been one disaster after another. A therapist might say that a hypercritical, affection-withholding, competitive mother and a nice but weak and unprotective father were the source of Taryn's problems. In fact, three different therapists had told her just that. But despite knowing why she had trust and communication issues, Taryn continued to suffer, which ultimately brought her to meditation.
One recent evening Taryn came up to me after class to discuss whether she should take on a new opportunity at work. Twice she had been passed over for a senior management position, so this represented a chance, at last, to demonstrate her capabilities. It was also the perfect setup for all of Taryn's patterns of self-destruction to be activated because it involved a major, long-term project that meant creating new business practices across divisions in her company. A few years ago, I would have been reluctant to encourage Taryn to accept the promotion because she would most likely have failed. Now, however, she has a new base of personal power that has changed who she is in relationship to others at work and in her personal life. She now knows how to "just start over" whenever something goes wrong or when she is worried that something might go wrong.
I first heard the phrase "just start over" used to describe a spiritual practice some 20 years ago from the Buddhist meditation teacher and author Sharon Salzburg. During a mindfulness meditation retreat she taught at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, Sharon related her struggle with learning to meditate-how she would become lost, distracted, and discouraged and would constantly second-guess herself and her teachers. Gradually she learned to ignore the mental and emotional chatter and to just start over by meditating on her breath as she had been instructed. "Just start over" became her mantra, which she now teaches to her students.