Every day is new. As my Guru says “Whenever you wake up, it’s morning.” So every day could be your birthday, or New Year. There is nothing I know of astrologically that makes January 1st a particularly auspicious day for embarking on life changes or that makes Mondays better days to start anything new than, say, Thursdays. Nonetheless most of us find ourselves saying, “I’ll start on Monday.” “I’ll start on my birthday.” “I’ll start at New Year.”

So therefore it becomes a fantastic excuse. While it may not be any MORE cosmologically auspicious than other days, it’s certainly no less auspicious (especially when you take into consideration the power of our own mind and intention).

At this time, here in Rishikesh, India on the banks of the sacred Ganga River, we’ve been focusing on the theme “New Year, New You,” but it’s crucial to realize that “New You” does not mean that we are going to become something brand new from the outside. It’s not about new clothes, or a new job, or a new spouse or a new face lift or newly squeezing into pants that are currently too tight. It isn’t even about implementing new habits and behaviors.

These are all fine and helpful to manage our health, our finances, our time and our goals. But the deep newness of which we speak is a new experience of the Self, a new awareness of who we really are. It is peeling back the layers of not-self—my job, my physical body, my income, my relationships, my emotions, my history — to reveal the true Self which is consciousness, love, spirit, energy, divinity (depending on the terminology of our particular spiritual or religious tradition).

That true self is not new of course. But it is new to us. It is new to our experience of our selves.

I remember when I had first come to Rishikesh, India, more than twenty-one years ago. One day, my Guru held his pen up in the air. He said to me, “You are not this pen.” I laughed. Of course I was not the pen. There were certainly many things about the world I did not know, but one of them wasn’t that I was not a pen. Why was he making such an obvious statement out of the blue?

Yes, Swamiji” I said, trying to restrain my giggles at the seeming absurdity of his statement. “I am not that pen.” He did not laugh, and his eyes seared straight into my chest and made my heart stop. “You laugh,” he said. “Because you know you are not this pen. But you still think you are that body. You think you are all the experiences it’s having and has ever had, all of the beauty it encompasses, all of the intelligence, all of the emotions, the pleasures and pains. You still think that is you.” “Some day,” he continued “You will laugh in the same way when I say you are not that body.”

Indian spiritual tradition is emphatic that we are NOT our bodies, we are not our minds, and we are not the chemical and electrical patterns of behavior in our brains that we call emotions or memory. The identification with all that is what causes suffering. Therefore the antidote is to shift our focus to who we really are, to shift the focus from “new” to “you.”

So taking January 1st as a nice excuse to reflect, here are a couple of thoughts:

1. Direction is as important as speed: Mahatma Gandhi said so beautifully, “Speed is irrelevant if you’re going in the wrong direction.” If you walk into any bus station or airport or train station and say, “I’d like a ticket please,” the first question the teller behind the counter will ask is, “Where to?” We obviously cannot get a ticket for a flight, a train or a bus ride without having some clarity of where we want to go. Similarly, if we know we want to end up in New York, no one could sell us a ticket on a flight to Nashville regardless of how fast the new plane was or how fancy the newly renovated cabin was or the wide assortment of gadgets they offer onboard. The sheer fact that, at the end of an entertaining and gadget filled flight we’d end up NOT where we want to go is plenty of deterrent. We’d much rather board the flight, even without a newly decorated cabin, that actually lands in our New York destination, even if it’s not quite as speedy as the one to Tennessee.

Sadly in life we seem very ready to swap direction for speed. We are always in a rush. We want things faster – it used to simply be a craze for faster acceleration from zero to sixty. Now it’s faster download speeds, faster opening of web sites, faster transactions at the bank, faster buffering of videos, faster messaging apps,. Everything and everyone is running faster and faster. New Year’s gives us a good chance to ask, “And exactly where are we going?”

“Are we getting closer, day by day, to our hoped-for destinations, personally and globally?”

If not, let now be the time we look within to our internal GPS and get clear on what destination we’d like to head towards. “The fastest route” is only great if it’s the fastest route to where you want to be. If we do not find ourselves day by day any closer to where we’d like to be, now is the time to metaphorically end our current navigation and enter a new destination.

I know that when I was young in California I was certainly looking for inner peace, ease, joy, love and meaning. But our culture tells us that the direction to those things is through a great education, a wonderful job, vacations at the right resorts, looking the right way in the right clothes. So I continued in that direction only to discover day by day that I wasn’t much closer. In fact I seemed to be going in circles.

It was only when I came to India that I learned “look inward, not outward.” It was in India I learned that that which I’m yearning for is already IN me, not outside some place and therefore the path becomes one of unearthing it, of freeing it from the shackles of my ego and my attachment.

Ironically, in the quest for more peace, joy, love and meaning in life, we tend to sacrifice its elements – mindfulness, kindness, introspection, meditation, contemplation, generosity, compassion, service – on the altar of “success.”

2. Focus more on connecting than collecting

Most of us grow up believing that our value rests in how much we own and earn. So we strive to earn and own as much as we can, experiencing our sense of self expand with each pay raise, each promotion, each new larger house.

Expansion of the self IS, actually, what we long for on the deepest level. The true self, the inner divine self is infinite – we’ve been created not only by the Creator but also of the Creator. So that same infiniteness, that same borderlessness which is a quality of the Divine is also true of us.

However, as I mentioned above, we identify falsely as the body. We identify as the limited, transitory vehicle, the vessel through which our soul is moving through the world, rather than identifying as the soul itself. So, in our deepest yearning to re-experience the expansiveness of our true self, we mistakenly try to expand the vehicle. We eat more, drink more, shop more, wear more, Facebook more in a beautiful and virtuous but tragically misdirected attempt to return to our true state of expansiveness.

So, this is why deep connection rather than collection actually works. When we connect with each other – spirit to spirit, soul to soul, consciousness to consciousness – we are able to break through the borders and boundaries of our separate selves. That’s why falling in love feels so good. We lose, in merging with the other, the false separation in which we’ve been living. In becoming One with another, we transcend the limited notion of our selves.

So expand! Yes! Absolutely. But not by sticking more and more on top of and into the vehicle. Expand truly and effectively by connecting – with your true inner Self, with others, with the Divine, with the universe. True abundance comes not from filling our shelf with more possessions, but from connecting with the true Self in which we realize that our cup runneth far over. 

Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati, PhD is a spiritual leader based in Rishikesh, India; she is originally from the United States and has lived in Rishikesh for the last twenty-one years. She is President of Divine Shakti Foundation, bringing education, vocational training and empowerment programs to women and children. Sadhviji is also Secretary-General of the Global Interfaith WASH Alliance, Director of the world famous International Yoga Festival at Parmarth Niketan, Rishikesh, and Managing Editor of the historic 11-volume Encyclopedia of Hinduism.

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• Sadhviji’s TED Talk From Hollywood To Holly Woods and From Illness To Wellness