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Out With the Old

Make space for your New Year's intentions by letting go of the past.

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I have often celebrated the New Year by making a list of my intentions for the year to come—writing down what I want for myself, using affirmative language, and—of course—making it all sound yogically kosher: “In the year to come, I’ll serve my students with joy. I’ll experience abundance in my spiritual, emotional, and material life.” Stuff like that.

The reason for such an exercise is simple: Making an intention is like taking aim or pointing your arrow at a target. If your intention is clear enough, it gives a focused direction to everything you do, and you find yourself making choices that naturally expedite the journey toward your goal.

But simply setting your intention isn’t a foolproof way to make your goals come true. If hidden reservations or unconscious agendas lurk under the surface of your psyche, they can sabotage the arrow of your intention. Then it won’t fly straight. That’s true whether your intention is to attract the perfect partner, to expand your business, or to go deeper in your yoga practice. So, at the beginning of an intentional process, it’s important to face your own reservations, feelings of not quite deserving what you think you want, or simply unprocessed emotions.

The key is a process called “recapitulation,” or a formal looking back at the greatest hits and flops of your recent past. In this process, you bring to mind any baggage you’re carrying and anything that could subtly stand in the way of your intention.

Karma-Cleaning Party

A few years ago on New Year’s Eve, I did my first ceremony of recapitulation as a way to consciously take stock of the big changes I’d made the previous year and to bring vibrant energy to my intentions for the new year. I invited a few close friends to come over for dinner and then sit by the fire and contemplate our lives.

We made lists of all the emotionally charged moments we could recall from the past year. The things we’d accomplished. The changes we’d gone through. We recalled actions about which we felt proud or happy, moments that had felt close and loving. Then we wrote down actions or words we regretted. We thought of moments of conflict. We recollected behavior that had led to our own or other people’s suffering. And we recalled incidents when we’d felt hurt or angry because of another person’s actions. We dredged up memories of times we hadn’t lived up to our best selves.

Listing my accomplishments felt great. But the other part—well, the more I contemplated the times I’d acted unskillfully or hurt someone else, the heavier I felt. Clearly, there was a reason I didn’t usually spend time recalling my negative actions! I much preferred to think of myself as always being kind, compassionate, and socially adroit than to remember when I had lost my center, spoken harshly, or failed to consider others.

Feel Your Way

Looking around the room, I asked if anyone else was feeling this same heaviness. The others nodded. We laughed ruefully and kept at it. We wrote down a few words for each of the notable events or moments of the past year.

Someone suggested we give ourselves a moment to feel happy and proud about the positive things and regretful about the mistakes. Everyone read out one of their accomplishments. They ranged from “I did a 50-mile bike ride” to “I forgave my mother.”And then, somewhat more haltingly, we each shared one thing we regretted. Mine was speaking negatively about people. Someone suggested that we be specific, so I recalled an incident and repeated what I’d said. It actually felt freeing to confess it, especially because the others in the group seemed to receive what I shared without judgment.

One by one, we threw our lists into the fire, and as we did, we said out loud, “I offer everything that happened this past year, positive and negative, to the sacred fire. May all that was accomplished bear good fruit. May all my mistakes be forgiven. May the karmas of this past year be dissolved. I offer gratitude for my life.” Then we watched the paper dissolve in the flames. At the end, we sat in meditation for a few minutes. Then we shared what it had felt like to face our negative actions or the things we had done that felt just plain stupid.

One woman, Jenny, said she definitely felt lighter. Derek said he didn’t, so he tore off some strips of paper, wrote down the events that still felt burdensome, and dropped them one by one into the fire.

Afterward, we considered our intentions for the year to come. We did it according to a formula: “What would I most like to accomplish? How do I want to live my life? What qualities in myself would I like to bring forth?” We shared them with each other. Then
we each threw that list in the fire. As I watched my list burn, I felt a deep sense of excitement about the year I’d get to live.

One of my intentions for that year was to get a clear sense of what I was meant to offer as a teacher. As the year went on, I found myself creating events and programs at a level I hadn’t experienced before. I have no doubt that this clarity had a lot to do with having recognized both my accomplishments and the things I regretted. The recapitulation process seemed to free me by clearing karmic residues that might otherwise have created confusion or hidden regrets.

With the Best of Intentions

Ever since then, I’ve spent time on each New Year’s Eve recollecting the events of the year gone by. Sometimes I do it with friends. Sometimes I do it alone. It’s become one of the key ceremonies of my life. I’ve found it so life-changing that I’ve recently begun to do it several times a year, especially during times when my life is in flux or when I’m winding up old projects or starting new ones.

Taking time to consciously recollect your words and actions is a powerful yogic practice. Many traditional teachers consider it a crucial requirement for real personal growth—and some teachers suggest you do it at least once a week or even once a day! Swami Shivananda of Rishikesh, one of the great yoga masters of the 20th century, included recapitulation in his core list of 20 spiritual instructions. He suggested keeping a spiritual diary, which he called a “self-correction register,” and writing in it daily. He also warned, “Don’t brood on past mistakes.” When I first read his suggestions, I wondered whether making lists of everything you wish you’d done differently wasn’t somehow a version of brooding on past mistakes. But as I’ve practiced it, I’ve come to realize that it’s just the opposite. Recapitulation is the precursor to letting go of the negativity and self-judgment embedded in the memories of actions you regret.

You can’t step consciously into the next phase of your life unless you bring consciousness to your past. Life moves fast—so fast that much of it seems to disappear behind you. You forget what you’ve accomplished. You forget the good things that have happened to you, the ways you’ve come closer to other people and to your true Self. And just as you lose sight of the positive moments, you often bury your discomfort about charged or difficult moments. Or, if you do remember them, you beat yourself up, try to justify yourself, or find someone other than yourself to blame. Any of those reactions simply lodges the discomfort more firmly in your unconscious.

When you have a charged conversation, get your feelings hurt, or create unhappiness for another person, your body subtly registers and holds on to it. The memory gets layered in your neurons and, eventually, in your muscles. Back and neck pain are notoriously linked to unprocessed emotions such as anxiety and anger. Unless you acknowledge and consciously clear those emotions, they accumulate like sludge. That’s why we often have strange feelings of discomfort, nervousness, or seemingly unmotivated anger. When you bury your charged emotions and thoughts, they tend to leak out sideways, and they sabotage your best intentions, create pain in the body, and affect the way you speak and act.

Recapitulation—the process of recalling a charged event, bringing it to consciousness, feeling remorse if appropriate, and then letting it go—is different from psychotherapy. Instead of focusing on the whys or dwelling on the past, when we do recapitulation, our goal is simple mental and emotional housecleaning. As you acknowledge your accomplishments and admit your mistakes, you not only have a chance to learn from the events and actions of your life, but you also have the opportunity to free yourself of the emotional residue attached to them.

An Honest Look at Yourself

In the yoga tradition, the practice of recapitulation is a version of the yogic practice called “inquiry” (vichara), or self-reflection. Inquiry always starts with asking a question. The question could be as immediate as “Why am I feeling uncomfortable?” or as radical as “Who am I, really?”

But nearly every tradition offers some form of recapitulation process. Whether we call it “confession,” “karma cleaning,” “wise reflection,” or even “moral inventory,” the purpose is the same. Recapitulation is a way of clearing the underbrush out of our inner field. When you make up your mind to look clearly at your own unconscious actions, or the inner murk that can hide your less savory motives, you dissolve a lot of the sludge that you carry around in your heart.

Looking at ourselves honestly is not easy for most of us. Often it’s downright uncomfortable. Our habits of self-justification, blame, and denial often are deeply rooted. Some of us have a hard time admitting our successes. Most of us have an even harder time admitting our mistakes. One reason for this is that we identify so closely with our usual way of doing things that we don’t believe that we can change. Sometimes we don’t want to!

The miracle of recapitulation is that it creates a current of self-awareness that can bring transformation all by itself. The more you get in the habit of looking back at your day, week, or month and clearing your discomfort, the more automatic it becomes. Eventually, the self-clearing process will be something you do regularly, the way you brush your teeth or clean your house. Just as you enjoy the feeling of clean sheets, so too will you learn to enjoy the openness and freedom that comes when you’ve looked at and offered up the residue of charged events in your life.

A Ritual of Release

One secret of recapitulation is to do it inside a safe container with a basic attitude of self-acceptance. You can practice recapitulation with a partner or even with a group of trusted practice buddies. Working with other people is powerful if the group can create a shared space of compassionate witnessing. The people in your group should be able to act as clear mirrors for each other rather than being judgmental of one another’s failures or envious of their success. But it is equally powerful, and often more convenient, to do your recapitulation process alone.

There are four parts to this process:

1. First, spend a few minutes summoning a feeling of loving presence and acceptance. One way to do this is simply to recall a moment when you felt truly accepted—by another person or in nature. Then, create a sense memory of the feeling of being accepted, and let yourself sink into the felt sense that arises. Another way is to say out loud, “May I feel how deeply I am accepted by the universe of which I am a part.” Creating a felt sense of acceptance helps give you the courage to take the second step.

2. Write down events, words, and ideas that have a particular charge for you. Some of these will be positive and worthy of gratitude and celebration. These are important. But for this exercise, the real charge is often in the relatively negative events. Write just a few words or write the story of what happened, including what you or another person did or said. Do this as objectively as possible. Describe your feelings with the same objectivity—were you proud? angry? ashamed? scared?

3. Read through the list. If there’s something that you need to apologize for or somehow “fix,” note that. Resolve to take any necessary actions in order to release the energy bottled up in a past event. Decide that you’ll do your very best not to make this mistake again.

4. The next—and crucial—step is to tear up the paper with your negative list, burn it, or otherwise dispose of it. As you do, have the conscious thought: “May these negative events, feelings, and actions be dissolved and no harm come to any being because of them.” You may also burn the positive list, with a conscious wish that your accomplishments and positive acts will be of benefit to others. Do this immediately. Despite what Swami Shivananda said, you don’t want to keep a diary of your mistakes; that only cements them more firmly in your mind. Instead, turn your writing into a ritual of release by putting your issues with yourself on paper and then disposing of them.

This is not a meaningless ritual. It turns out that there is a good neurophysiological reason for it. Brain science tells us that when you want to change a habit or a way of thinking, it’s important to consciously create a different neural pathway. The most effective way to do this is by associating a thought with a symbolic or actual physical action—in other words, by physically doing something that expresses your desire to change. The simple act of recollecting, writing, and then destroying what you’ve written will create an experience of having dissolved the negative thought or act that you want to release. And when you work with recapitulation, this can go a long way toward helping you change unconscious patterns and painful habits.

Jake, who participated in that first New Year’s Eve recapitulation, felt bad about an argument he’d had with his brother Larry, which had led to nearly a year of estrangement. He spent time recollecting the argument and wrote down what he’d said and felt at the moment when he had lost his temper. Once he’d written it all down and torn up the paper, he found that he had let go of the grudge. He called Larry the next day, and they talked it through and agreed to get together.

Because Jake had remembered and released the argument, he could meet Larry with acceptance and begin repairing their relationship. Recapitulation—genuinely looking at and releasing the emotionally charged events of your recent past—is a key to change. It’s the secret of creating effective intentions. And it’s one of the most powerful tools in yoga.

Sally Kempton is an internationally recognized teacher of meditation and yoga philosophy and the author of Meditation for the Love of It.