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Starting Over

If you want to make lasting change in your life, practice starting over.

By Phillip Moffitt

Each time Sharon repeated this phrase during the retreat, I was deeply inspired. I realized that she was pointing to a radical attitudinal shift in which you cease to be reactive when you are knocked off your intended path. Instead, when you discover that you have lost your focus, you just begin again without getting caught up in emotional stories about why you can't achieve your goal, or judgments about how unworthy you are or why the change you seek is impossible. With Sharon as my inspiration, I set about developing "just start over" into a daily life practice.

As you know if you've ever tried to meditate, the mind is constantly being pulled away from its object of concentration by bodily sensations and mental activity, causing you to lose awareness of the present moment. In this same way, when strong feelings arise during your daily life, you get swept up in the story they create. You lose the awareness that gives you peace of mind in the face of difficulty and that enables you to respond skillfully to events.

For instance, let's say you are anxious at work or prone to argue with your significant other, and your goal is to stop being this way. Usually after you make a resolution to change, something throws you off track, and the undesired behavior returns in full force. Once again you are completely lost in your anxiety at work or you are fighting with your beloved. All the old stories flood your mind, along with self-judgment, discouragement, and frustration. You try again and again, but you never gain traction and you come to believe you cannot change.

Often the problem is that you don't yet know how to be resolute without being rigid in your expectations. You haven't learned how to sail the waves of the ocean of your mind or successfully navigate those emotionally charged or intractable parts of yourself that cause the inner storms in your daily life. You have the notion that you must know why you have a problem and that you must get rid of it before you can act in a more self-empowering manner. Starting-over practice takes a different approach. It switches your focus away from dwelling on those characteristics that limit you and redirects it toward recognizing the strengths from which you can realize your potential.

This shift in focus is attitudinal: You simply do what you care about as well as you can. This is a humble attitude, but it is exactly what's needed for you to sustain your resolution. In so doing, you free yourself from your judging mind that thinks it can control results and creates the grandiose expectation that you can do more than you can do in the present moment. You become a more effective person by simply learning to use your time and energy to do what you can do right now.

The Buddha emphasized the need to focus on the present moment and respond appropriately according to one's values, and he rejected speculation for its own sake. In responding to a monk who demanded to know whether the world was eternal and whether an enlightened person reincarnates, the Buddha used the analogy of a man who has been shot with an arrow. If, before extracting the arrow and tending to his wound, the man insists on knowing the name, family, village, and race of the archer, and what the arrow is made of, how effective is he in dealing with his injury? What needs immediate attention is the situation created by the arrow. Starting-over practice is like this—you attend as best you can to the immediate situation that is challenging you.

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