Observing Resolutions

by Monica McCarthy on December 5, 2014


‘Tis the season for list-making!

From the “Best of…” to the “Worst of…” to New Years Resolutions, it is difficult to escape the feeling that we are supposed to quantify and qualify our very existence.

But how helpful are these lists really? The latest statistic I read states that only 23 percent of people see their resolutions to completion. Yet I’d bet 100% of us would like to have our next year be better than the last.

So how  can we translate our inner desire for transformation into our daily lives?

Enter: The art of self-observation.

There is no perfect system for this practice but there are a variety of exercises that have proven beneficial through the ages. Self-inquiry is part of almost every philosophic tradition and the foundation of living mindfully. Buddha, Socrates, Marcus Aurelius, Freud, among other wise folks, have all advocated self-study.

This process requires more than a spreadsheet.

Yes, listing our accomplishments and stats can help us track what we’ve done, but they do not offer much valuable insight as to who we are.

Lists offer a sense of certainty (we can’t control what will happen going forward, but we can quantify what has been) but they are data, and not a conclusion. (And many can be manipulated or biased.)

We have to go below the surface if we are to pursue goals that align with our intentions. And this process requires perspective, which is why the end of the year is a natural fit for this type of reflection.

By observing our past from a non-judgmental vantage point or “bird’s-eye view” (a term often associated with Aurelius’ Meditations) we are better able to bring together our emotions and logic and act accordingly. This distancing effect also helps us develop and deepen our sense of compassion and empathy, two elements that often go missing when analyzing our past and setting goals for the future.

Self-reflection is not an exercise in vanity. As psychotherapist Phillipa Perry states in her book How To Stay Sane: “Self-observation is not self-obsession… On the contrary, it is a tool that enables us to become less self-absorbed.” But the process requires more effort than simply examining wins and losses as if our lives could be measured by such standards.

Of course, like all worthwhile pursuits, self-observation takes time, energy, and focus, and for many of us December can be a particularly difficult month to pause and reflect. There are holiday parties to attend, projects to finish, presents to wrap, wassail to drink… ok, probably not actual wassail, but adult beverages abound! There is an energy that is both exciting and exhaustive. Setting aside an afternoon to sit down with a mug of hot cocoa and pondering our purpose sounds nice in theory, but harder to implement in practice.

Last December I refused to look back at all. Sometimes the past doesn’t deserve any more attention at the proverbial dinner table. That’s fine too! Know thyself.

This year I feel ready to observe before I venture ahead… Not because everything went well in 2014 (far from it!) but because I can now appreciate those experiences for what they were and not allow them to define who I am and strive to become.

I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better. – Maya Angelou

We are the lessons we seek to understand. But first we must be willing to learn.

Wherever you are, I wish you a season of reflection, observation, and joy.

And I look forward to reading your stories of 2014 and beyond.


P.S. On December 14th I’ll be offering a Reflecting & Roadmapping afternoon (aka self-observation with community and the aforementioned hot cocoa) at Holstee in Brooklyn and would love to have you join us for prompts, writing, and connecting if you’re in town! And anyone who joins is welcome to stay for our weekly Candlelight Yoga & Meditation class, another personal favorite experience of the yearUpdate: We sold out the workshop but opened up five more spots! These really will be the last seats available. Hope to see you there:)


Should you prefer self-observation in solitude, there are a plethora of helpful online review templates available. I find Susannah Conway’s free workbook particularly insightful and beautifully designed.



On The Past & Presence

by Monica McCarthy on December 3, 2014

This is a post I wrote that originally appeared in the Mindful Matters issue on “Reflection” earlier this week.



Should old acquaintance be forgot,

and never brought to mind?

Should old acquaintance be forgot,

and old lang syne?


For auld lang syne, my dear,

for auld lang syne,

we’ll take a cup of kindness yet,

for auld lang syne.

For many of us, the new year is rung in with a nod to the past as we sing about friendships and memories of days gone by. The confetti falls as we raise our glass and cheers to new beginnings.

While there is something intrinsically beautiful in the notion of a fresh start filled with hope and optimism, it is the past that has paved the road for us to arrive at this moment.

Just as the lyrics invoke a celebration of the year-that-was, taking time to reflect back helps us not only honor the memories of old, but to make mindful choices for the future.

Interestingly, the word reflection serves two purposes: To contemplate about what has been, but also to see the image of what is in front of us right now.

Like many of you, I will spend much of December pondering the previous eleven months. From highs and lows in areas including career, relationships, adventures, and well-being, I’ll enjoy seeing the patterns emerge and lessons unfold with the insight that only hindsight can bring. (In fact, it has proven to be such a powerful exercise that this year we’re inviting people to join us at our Holstee Work/Shop for an afternoon dedicated to reflecting on 2014.)

The purpose of this reflection is not to fill ourselves with regret for what might have been, but instead to help us better understand the future of what could be.

And though we don’t know exactly what lays ahead, we each have the ability to look within, as if holding a mirror to our true selves. Our present moment is reflected by our presence. And what we see in our reflection determines what we choose to do next.


I’d love for you to join me on December 14th from 2-5:30pm for an afternoon of Reflection & Roadmapping! All the details can be found here.


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On The Fence

by Monica McCarthy on November 6, 2014


Last night I did something I’ve wanted to do for a long time: I took a fencing lesson.

I knew nothing about the sport going into it, and had no idea what to expect. Honestly, I thought there would be a basic warmup and some theory. I certainly didn’t expect to be handed a weapon and to start using it.

But I was and I did.

It was intense, but great.

I learned quickly that in fencing, there is never a dull moment or a taking-of-turns against your opponent. You are both “on” at all times. Rarely have I been required to be so focused. Fencing is as mental as it is physical.

I also learned there a lot of polarities in fencing. For example, your power and strength come from your back leg, not from your arm wielding the blade.

Perhaps more importantly, is the emphasis on the retreat instead of the attack.

To hit your opponent you first must learn to retreat.

This was the mantra of the first lesson. And it wasn’t until the lesson was over that it actually sunk in.

When we’re too close to our opponent we can’t see the whole picture. Much of the sport comes down to reading the other person, anticipating their next move. This is harder to do if we can’t read their entire body language.

And when we’re within reach of the opponent’s blade, it’s harder to think clearly.

To mix sports metaphors, offense is easier than defense.

When we step back, we can get a better perspective for where to strike. Retreating allows us the time we need to refocus, breathe and strategize based on the new information.

The most crucial time to retreat is after a missed strike.

Didn’t hit your target? Don’t hover or flounder.

Move away as quickly as possible.

The speed with which we retreat determines whether we get another opportunity to strike.

If we waste even one second in wallowing, we lose.

This concept of retreating is not the cowardly sort. We aren’t turning our back and running away, tail between our legs. Our eyes are still on our opponent, and both our blade and guard are raised.

So that the next time the referee asks:

Êtes-vous prêts ? (Are you ready ?)

We can wholeheartedly reply, yes.

En guard.



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