The benefits of having a spiritual practice to help achieve personal goals.
Prayer is a spiritual practice with a framework

New year’s resolutions — that time when we promise to be better, slimmer, faster, more efficient — are the dreams of what we wish we could be. Sometimes our resolutions become realized, but often they don’t. Only too often our grand resolutions start to crumble and fade before the month of January is out.

And there’s the conundrum for many of us, because when we start out with big intentions and resolutions, no matter how noble, if we don’t achieve them quickly, we start to lose confidence, become discouraged, becoming self-critical and judgmental.

Still, if our current lifestyle choices are not leading us to improved well-being, it’s a good idea to find resolve for changing them. But rather than once-a-year promises of overwhelming shifts in thought and behaviour, and the ensuing battles, maybe daily, year-round smaller shifts in thought that bring renewal is smarter and more achievable.

Changing the way we think is possibly the most difficult thing humans can attempt. Of course, there are lots of self-help books out there on how to think, and they too can be frustrating. Think rich; think positive; think yourself thin, etc. These all highlight the possible profound changes in behaviour and outcomes — health, finances and relationships — that can result from shifting how we think. Increasingly, research in both the fields of medicine and psychology bear this out.

A recent study, for example, shows how meditation can control pain and is becoming mainstream as an alternative to addictive painkiller medications. Basically, thought focused in a different way has an effect physically. And we also know that many other lifestyle changes begin with changes of thought.

One of the oldest and most tried approaches to improving one’s life is the practice of prayer. It’s increasingly gaining attention as something that can create shifts in thought that have significant outcomes, including helping people stick to lifestyle changes to improve their health.

For example, at one time I was quite overweight. The more I tried to lose the weight, and failed, the more I disliked and criticized myself. Then one day a friend said to me, “You know, it is very difficult to live under such a regime of tyranny.” That one sentence revolutionized how I dealt with thinking about weight. I had been focusing on the wrong end of the problem, thinking that I needed to control what I ate. What was really needed was a control on how I thought about myself and my relation to a God who is Love. I followed the recipe for prayer that Jesus mapped out for us, much of which is contained in his Sermon on the Mount.

As I read the words, “Happy are those who are hungry and thirsty for true goodness, for they will be fully satisfied” — confidence began to ensue. Rather than the big goal of weight loss, it was more of a moment-by-moment hunger to love more, to be gentler, to listen more effectively to the intuitions that come through prayer, and to follow them. The weight just came off gently and naturally.

Having a spiritual practice of daily prayer teaches not just to focus on how to think, but reveals new ways to see oneself and others. Jesus’s recipe for healing thought through prayer includes seeing ourselves and others through God’s eyes. Such a daily reframing of our view provides a great foundation for identifying lifestyle changes we need to make — and making them.

That is truly having a new year every day.

This article was published in the Times Colonist on December 31 2012