Every year, for the past twenty-five years, Stephanie and I have undertaken an exercise which we have found to be incredibly helpful in creating the lives we want to lead.
It began as an informal review on New Year’s Eve soon after we started living together. We looked back on the year that had passed, and then we talked about how we wanted our lives to unfold in the year that was about to begin.
Each year we developed this exercise, which many people undoubtedly undertake informally. Such an activity feels very natural, and of course the idea of the New Year’s resolution arises automatically out of this process of looking back on the year that has been, and then forward to the year to come.
But as we developed the exercise, we started to experience the fact that once we built on, intensified and elaborated, the two fundamental activities the exercise engages – of reviewing and envisioning – it became an experience that was truly magical, truly creative. It became, in essence, a means for us to create our future.
Let’s dive in and explore this in detail, so that you can make use of it yourself, or adapt it in ways that feel right for you.
‘Visible and invisible, two worlds meet in man.’ So said the German poet Novalis. As humans we stand at a threshold – between the visible, remembered world of the past, and the invisible, unformed world of the future. The past we cannot change, the future is filled with possibility. Like Janus, the Roman god of transitions, thresholds and beginnings, we have the ability at any moment to look both ways before stepping forward into the next phase of our lives.
By doing this, we are not trying to control our future, which we cannot do since many unforeseen events will occur to surprise us. But we are trying to become more aware of the gift of free-will, of our ability to choose which direction to take, which choices to make in life, and as a consequence to take a conscious intentional role in the creation of our life, rather than acting as passive consumers of life, or worse – simply as victims of the flow of events.
THE JANUS RITUAL
You can use this technique at any moment in your life – but there are certain times when it feels particularly powerful to do so: when a new year begins; on a birthday; at a significant time in the wheel of the year, such as on a solstice, equinox or Celtic fire festival; or when you are going through a major transition and you can feel one period in your life ending, and you are perhaps unsure of the new phase that is to come.
So you’ve chosen a time you want to do this. The important thing is not to rush things. Ideally, you need to dedicate two separate times to go through the exercise. Stephanie and I go through this ‘Janus Ritual’ once a year, usually spending one evening reviewing the year that has passed, and then another evening envisioning our year to come. Usually we do this on New Year’s Eve and then a day or so after New Year’s Day, but sometimes we have been so busy it has occurred half way through January. Sometimes we’ve rushed it, even once going through the process during an evening meal. That was a mistake. For it to be truly effective the exercise deserves respect and time.
THE REVIEW – AN ALCHEMICAL PROCESS
To look backward for a while is to refresh the eye, to restore it…
Margaret Fairless Barber
A common complaint these days is that our lives seem to rush by so fast that we hardly have time to stand still and take stock of all that has happened. This is why meditation, stillness, retreats, are of such value in our modern world. Experience feels a little like food, in that it needs to be digested, appreciated, ruminated upon, in order that its nutrients can be incorporated into the essence of who we are – so that it can deepen our soul, and so that we can learn from it – rather than simply ‘coping’ with it.
Here is your chance. Dedicate an evening to nourishing yourself – to looking back. If you have left a career or relationship you might be looking back at that. If it is a birthday or New Year’s eve it will probably be the year that has just passed. Use your diary or calendar to help you remember, use your photo collection too if it helps. If difficult times lie behind you, be gentle with yourself and allow yourself to let the memories arise as they wish to arise. If pleasant memories arise, allow yourself to enjoy them, to re-live the joy these experiences brought to you – the feelings they invoked, in their colours, sounds, tastes and warmth.
As well as revisiting the period chronologically, you may choose to follow tracks of memory: how was my physical health over this period? My love life? My intellectual and cultural life? My social life? My career? The lives of those I love? The life of the world around me?
You may want to start by just allowing the memories to arise in whatever order they surface, only consulting your diary when you have exhausted the memories that appear spontaneously.
You might like to distil the period into a series of photographs – literally with your photo album choosing say a dozen photos to depict your year – or as a series of images in your mind.
Finally, having looked at the review period in as much detail as you can, survey the period from a different perspective: back up and look at it as a whole, in one sweep. What are the words that come to mind that would describe it? Are there overarching themes?
At least two things are happening as you perform this part of the exercise. Firstly you are consolidating your experience. Rather than experiencing your life as an unending stream of sense impressions, you are pausing, climbing on to the river bank, and gazing back at the last part of your life to learn from it and grow from it. Secondly, you are giving your psyche the chance to perform something it is naturally good at, if given the chance: alchemy, which could also be described as art.
Just as the alchemist takes ‘base matter’ and turns it into gold, just as an artist takes raw materials and transforms them into beauty, so the psyche is able to transform our experiences – developing and refining our sense of self, and our consciousness of meaning and purpose.
Since these processes of consolidation and refinement are important, major tasks, it makes sense to allow plenty of time for this part of the exercise. Enjoy it and take as much time as you need!
Once you have done this exercise more than once, there is another step you can add to the review process: include the visioning goals you created the last time you did the second part of the exercise. Each year, when Stephanie and I do the exercise, as we come to the end of reviewing our year, we look at what goals we envisioned for the year that is ending. Some of them we will have achieved and we can review what was involved in that achievement, others will not have been fulfilled and we can wonder why that was and decide whether to carry them over to the next year. It can also be fruitful to ask yourself what happened that you didn’t envision or foresee, and how differently your life turned out to the way you had envisioned it.
Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart.
Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside awakens.
It is tempting to want to follow the review process with this next stage in the same session, and you can of course do this, but often this creates a sense of pressure in the review process – the ambitious part of the psyche is keen to get on to the next step of planning the future and short changes us on savouring and consolidating all that we have experienced in the period under review. So ideally wait a day or so before moving to this second phase.
There are many ways you can undertake this process of envisioning in this next stage, or this next period or year in your life. Here is one way: use the structure of the five elements of Earth, Water, Air, Fire and Spirit to help you create your future.
Light a candle to symbolise beginning – new light, a new start. Open yourself, first of all, to the vision of a year or period in which the very best occurs for you and those around you. You might do this with a prayer, a wish, a feeling of warmth and love – whatever comes naturally to you. Get a feel for how you would like the coming time to be – its qualities. Write these down to ground the ideas. Then begin with Earth, and ask yourself (or yourselves if you are doing this as a couple, family or group) what you would like to achieve, resolve or create for your body, your health, your home, and your finances.
Then with Water – what would you like to achieve, resolve or create for your relationships, the life of your heart, your social life?
Air – what would you like to achieve, resolve or create for your cultural and intellectual life, for your life of learning and growing?
Fire – what would you like to achieve, resolve or create for your creative life?
Spirit – what would you like to achieve, resolve or create for your spiritual life?
Once you’ve written down all that you can come up with – using this structure or in whatever way you like – ask yourself if your heart’s desire is here in the list – your most important wish, your greatest hope. Use the quote of Jung above to make sure you are responding to the inner song of your heart, as well as to down-to-earth practical wishes too. Keep what you have written in a safe place, so you can refer to it in the future, and whenever you choose to undertake the exercise again.
Finish by visualizing a joy-filled time ahead of you, and then blow the candle out, imagining its light travelling into the future you have envisioned.
Make a note in your diary to look at what you have written in three months time. This can really help to keep you on track. And in fact reviewing your notes every quarter, say at a festival time, is really helpful.
If you have any feedback on this exercise – perhaps you already do a similar exercise, or have developed your own way of working with reviewing and envisioning – or you would like to recount how the exercise has worked for you – I’d love to hear from you. Just drop a line to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
A final note: there’s a great little booklet that works well with this exercise that you can download from a website here: it’s called YearCompass.
Alban Arthan 2016