I grew up watching numerous National Geographic documentaries about indigenous culture. Even so many years prior to my training in the indigenous traditions I took notice of the frequent portrayal of indigenous ceremonies as being motivated by “superstition.” Relegating ceremonies to the notion of superstition is an easy way to dismiss their value, and even indigenous culture as a whole. And yet, so many of their ceremonies were motivated by the need for continual renewal.
In this New Year’s time of celebration we have an opportunity to reflect on the year that’s passed and the year that lies before us. It’s a time when we can shed what we are ready to let go of and embrace the newness of life unfolding. We can give thanks for the year past (even the gifts that came packaged as hardships and difficulties), and we can look hopefully to the year ahead of us. We can envision how we wish things to be different, what we’re willing to change in ourselves, what new visions to embrace, and what opportunities await us.
Indigenous ceremonies of renewal have afforded indigenous people a powerful opportunity to both symbolically and spiritually let go of the old, which engenders a more natural way of letting go of things a person wishes to release.
The notion of New Year’s resolutions are based on the premise that we can pump ourselves up to accomplish a goal or learn a new thing by shear force of will. The indigenous process of renewal is to release the emotional and spiritual bonds that tie us to habits we wish to let go of, so that the new habit or practice comes as easily as a child at play. The indigenous process of renewal is modeled after nature — the continuous process of death and decay, and new birth and renewal that exists all around us all the time. The New Year’s resolution process assumes that every problem can be solved through force of will … and yet it doesn’t work.
The vast majority of New Year’s resolutions do not take, and the reason is that we have not renewed ourselves internally. When we do take the time to renew, to go inward, to reflect and to purge, then we are in a space in which the resolutions may truly work.
So many of the authentic indigenous ceremonies have been lost due to political oppression and genocide, and many of those ceremonies that have survived are being practiced today in ways that are very different from their original intended purpose. But we do not need to revive the precise traditional formalities and intention of the indigenous people of yesterday to renew ourselves, all we need to do is spend time in nature, and in internal reflection.
We can write a letter to ourselves about what we’re ready and willing to let go of and then build a fire intentionally and offer the letter to the fire. We can fast for a day and spend most of that time in nature contemplating our life. We can give away something of value in our life to someone with a greater need. We can clean our closets (figuratively and literally). We can do many things that will trigger the emotional and spiritual release so that the physical change flows with the ease of a lazy stream on a warm summer day.
The first step is to renew.