In his poem “New Year’s,” Dana Gioia calls January 1 “the most mundane and secular holiday.” A cultural frenzy to celebrate newness and possibility accompanies the initial moments of a fresh calendar year. A ritual of this secular holiday for many is to set goals, make resolutions, and enter the new year with vision and resolve. But this can be a lot of pressure, and as we know, even those of us motivated enough to create resolutions often break them by mid-January. For many, just getting out of bed is challenge enough. We are human beings, and the demands of everyday life are hard. We face real limitations, and about mid-January is when many of us bump right up against those. The sparkle of the fireworks and confetti, as well as our own resolve, may already be forgotten under the pile of laundry.
In the same poem I quoted above, Dana Gioia compares the new year to “a field of snow without a single footprint.” There is something lovely and promising about an untouched blanket of snow, the first rays of sun at dawn, the first moments of a new year. But if we are carrying grief, feeling overwhelmed, or languishing in our mental health, it may all ring a bit hollow.
If you think about it, New Year’s is just a marker in time to say, “You are here.” If “here” is difficult, that’s okay to acknowledge. It’s easy to feel worse when the overarching narrative of New Year’s is to be happy and optimistic about the future. Rather than feel ashamed if that is not the case or frustrated if your fresh resolve has already waned, I propose instead making space to acknowledge where you are. The practice of meditation is one of the ways that I make this space in my own life.
I was formally introduced to meditation about five years ago. I’d been experiencing insomnia, and while I performed everyday tasks, I was emotionally raw and consistently had low energy. At the time, I was grieving that something I very much hoped would work out didn’t, and that touched on the larger grief that I wasn’t where I wanted to be in life. “Here” was very difficult for me. I made a doctor’s appointment, and when I explained the symptoms and the trigger to the doctor, she suggested that I join a mindfulness course led by a psychiatrist at the clinic. I desperately wanted to sleep more and go through a day without crying, so I agreed.
Friday afternoons, a class of about twelve practiced different meditation exercises. Most of the time, that looked like sitting straight in a chair with eyes closed and focusing on our breathing. We also had homework to meditate every day. Some days, it didn’t feel like much happened. Some days, my thoughts were noisy and distracted like a restless toddler. Some days tears came. Some days I felt lighter and refreshed. But over time, I started to notice that meditation opened up space for me to acknowledge my grief as well as recognize that while “here” was difficult, I was okay. I had my feet on the ground, breath in my lungs, and I was in the quiet company of other people who were also going through difficult things. I learned to notice when my suffering was unnecessarily increased by intrusive thoughts of shame or bleak projections of the future. It helped me realize that while “here” was difficult, beating myself up was making it far more painful. By staying in the present moment, I was able to acknowledge what was difficult and what was good without amplifying the problem.
While that particular source of grief now feels distant and many of my circumstances have changed for the better, I still find myself tempted to think that I’m not enough or not where I should be. The cultural mood of New Year’s can make that flare up for me, and the simple practice of sitting and focusing on my breathing grounds me again in what is rather than what I think should be. It reminds me I am in God’s presence. I am upheld, and that doesn’t depend on anything I achieve or fail to achieve. And when I wander off course, rather than beat myself up, all I need to do is notice it and gently bring myself back.
Mindfulness and meditation may sound a bit trendy and perhaps theologically suspect, and it is good to be discerning. While we are people of the Word, God is also beyond words. Christian spirituality has a rich history of linking prayer with breath and a few repeated words (or no words). For instance, the desert monastics wove baskets as a form of prayer, the Orthodox tradition of the Jesus Prayer ties one simple prayer to the prayer’s pattern breath so that it can be repeated over and over, and the Christian mystics practiced and commended contemplative prayer, or prayer beyond words. “Meditation” can take many different forms and goes by different names, and resources like the secular mindfulness course I took can simply help with the mechanics—giving us practical ways to follow Paul’s injunction to take every thought captive and pray continually (2 Corinthians 10:5; 1 Thessalonians 5:17).
Meditation is one tool, and if it’s not the right one for you, that’s okay. I love words, but it can be easy to get tangled up in them, and I’ve benefited from the chance to lay words aside for a moment. In the midst of the mid-January blues, meditation has helped me by providing space to begin from where I am. I simply sit in God’s presence without the need for words or to achieve anything, and in doing so, reconnect with myself, too. Rather than get caught up in what I think I should be feeling or doing, or beating myself up for what I haven’t done, here is a simple invitation to come back to where I am. Once I acknowledge where I am, I am better able to move into whatever is next. For instance, yes, I want to try to make home-baked bread, but at this moment, finishing these tasks is more pressing, so I’m going to release myself from the expectation to do that today. It may sound mundane, and often it is, but practicing awareness of where I am and God’s ineffable, upholding presence through meditation has helped me to move forward into what’s next. When we are aware of where we are and grounded in a sense of who is with us, we can be better equipped to move into the next task, the next day, and whatever the rest of 2024 holds.
Jolene Nolte is a freelance writer and editor. She has worked as a magazine and website editor, book shelver, poetry editor, and writing coach. She graduated from Regent College in 2020, and in 2023, she published her first book of poetry, Tender Sieve. Now a wife and stepmother, she and her family currently live in Vancouver, BC, where an eclectic dialectic of Spanglish, and equally eclectic playlists, grace their home. Find Jolene’s writing samples here, or find her on LinkedIn.