Forty days in the Wilderness

Most of us make New Year’s resolutions. And most of us, despite all the best intentions, have watched our commitment and enthusiasm wane as the hard reality of lasting change kicks in. Remember that rush of self-reforming zeal that leapt up on you on December 31st? Guaranteed it’ll be passed out in an unsightly heap by January’s end.

Why is it so hard to convert a resolution into a way of being? In most instances, I don’t believe it’s a matter of trying and failing: the problem is that we abandon success too early, or focus only on what is lacking and ignore what we have achieved.

Is the problem that we don’t know how long we should persevere? Are we too focused on the destination to see the benefits of the journey itself? Are we like the over-excited kid on the back seat chanting “are we there yet?” and “how much longer?”

‘How much longer?’ may be the key question. A few years ago I attended a lecture by an Ayurvedic doctor who suggested a magic number. Interestingly, it coincided with traditions that exist in Christianity, Islam and Judaism. The number? 40.

In the Bible, whether it was cataclysmic floods or periods of reclusive meditation, everything seemed to take forty days to reach fullness. Muslims mourn the death of a loved one for the same period. In India I have often heard yoga teachers say that while it takes three weeks to establish a new routine, it takes a further three weeks to begin to experience the benefits.

Six weeks, forty two days – perhaps this was the answer to life, the universe and everything!

Modern education casts doubt upon the ancient storytellers, insisting that a new pattern of behaviour takes a mere three weeks to become established. But whilst we may have started to do things a new way after three weeks, the concrete hasn’t yet set. It’s at this point that we’re most likely to waver on the path.

We’re all creatures of habit, and to change those habits we need positive reinforcement: we need to see and feel the benefits of doing things differently. Just as the child travelling to the beach is happier when his parents show him signs that the sea is getting closer, we too are often a lot more dedicated to continue with our new routines when we begin to see small, but not insignificant, changes.

At the end of six weeks we’re unlikely to have reached our final destination, There will, however, be noticeable differences – possibly big enough ones for the people around us to start commenting on them. So, give yourself time, and the permission not to achieve an immediate result. Take the 40 Day Challenge – what the hey, make it 42 – and see how far along the path you’ve travelled by the end. You never know where it’ll take you.

1 Comment

  1. Jenni

    January 17, 2010 at 10:00 pm

    Thanks Helen. This is a really great, albeit simple idea!

    I can at times find it very difficult to maintain a regular routine, especially if I am not seeing the immediate results. As soon as I stop, whether it be a regular Yoga practice or particular eating pattern, I do notice one important thing… how much it affects me (negatively) to not be following the routine!

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