It’s mid January. The dawns are so deep they break to ink blue. Stars are sharp. To say nothing whatsoever of the cold.
Only that it’s a hard kind of season. It’s a difficult time of year.
Now that 97% of the human population has trashed, dismissed, or diminished their New Year’s Resolutions, I want to talk about them.
To be fair, I’m not a person who makes resolutions. I never have been. In the first 29 years of my life, before-the-yoga, I fully identified as a fuck up. I wouldn’t to commit to a damned thing. I wouldn’t commit because I knew I’d fail.
I no longer think of myself as such a damaged piece of work. But I still don’t make resolutions. My reasoning is different, though; I don’t make resolutions now because I know that changes happen – beautiful, devastating changes – in spite of me. Change is an experience of grace.
Sankalpa – the Sanskrit word for intention – means the law that arises from the heart. It means the rule you follow above all other rules. And here’s where I think we misunderstand: intention doesn’t come from the goal setting and thinking part of us; it rises up out of the flesh like a baby. Or a disease. To try to think or plan or strategize our way into the new year is to misunderstand both human beings and change. The heart is going to do what the heart needs to do.
Being human is what traditional yoga studied. In depth. From multiple angles. Down through the layers and into the shadows. Movement studies. Mind studies. One of the key things the sages came to understand is the inborn capacity for human beings to overcome, to heal, and to grow. Lay the ground, plant the seeds, cultivate the space, and the human spirit soars. Change is what human beings, do.
But laying the ground is decidedly different than a bucket list. It’s related to healing, not goal setting.
There is a tremendous cultural pull, born in the holidays and proved in the longest nights of the year, that resurrects and reflects who we’ve been in our lives. The pull underscores aging. It’s laced with familial roles – how sweet and sustaining they are, as well as how fraught with contradiction. It’s sourced in finances, commercialism, and gender roles while being boxed by cultural traditions. It trades in shame, hits our weak spots, and plays on self-esteem. To top it all off, end of the year rituals are reminiscent of religious rites; even if we’re not religious, we want to be spiritual. We’re drawn to things that smell like candles in the dark, salvation, and promises. The resurrecting and reflecting pull is so strong we start vowing. We want a clean break. Never again, we say. Or this year I promise. From this point forth and so on. Sometimes it appears more mild: it’s true I’d be happier if I finally lost this weight, maybe. Or, now that I’m middle aged, I really should start exercising. I don’t know that these are actually mild. They’re rather passive aggressive.
Resolution and change are not the same thing. They aren’t even related to each other.
The one is sourced by ego, master of phrasing self-hate as self-improvement and avoidance as self care. Resolution implies a problem needing to be fixed. But the problem here is the self. We so often make problems of ourselves. We try to change ourselves to fit in or get enough likes, without realizing that’s an endless hunger. We may stoke our ego enough for today, but tomorrow we’ll have to do the same thing. And the next day. And the next. The needing will never end. There is no ‘goal’; there’s only a hamster wheel. Or one of the minor circles of hell. Resolutions feed either our ego or our insecurities.
Our ego and our insecurities turn out to be inseparable.
The other, change, is sourced elsewhere. By god, maybe. The really real. By the ordinariness of biological, historical, genetic and teeming life. And let’s face it: ordinary life, in the power of the galaxy, the wonder of a seed, the outright miracle of human birth and the delicacy of minerals in the soil, is wonderous. I could go on and on. The ordinary life of snowflakes and sixty five million refugees, salt in the blood, the wild bones of children and the fact of guns in America; I mean racial wounds, feminine persistence, immigrant dreams and native wisdom. I mean hope and sadness, hope and guts, hope and the medicinal poetry of ancestors.
There is so much more to life than our ideas about ourselves.
We need rituals, after so much talk of resolutions. Rituals dabble in the taboo and make it sacred. Ritual approaches the ordinary with a sense of humility and revelation.
Ritual leans in; change and healing follow. Then, and only then, do items on lists start to check themselves off. They fall off surprisingly and without effort, a kind of domino effect. What was vague becomes clear. What was ignorance becomes wisdom. Like photography, resolution has to do with clarity. Resolution is a side effect of healing, not the means.
As I write this I’m watching the sun rise, flamingo pink and throat red. Everything but the light is freeze blue, hard white. The juxtaposition is sharp. By the time the light reaches a diagonal, it will be molten gold, a lava on window panes, hot honey on houses. A siren wails and an ambulance rushes to the hospital. I’m working on my own love, my own marriage. One of Martin Luther King’s books lays spread-eagled next to the coffee cup.
I can’t ignore reality. Nor can I deny beauty. Nor can I handle even one of the greater questions of our time. In the face of all that, I need something to hold me.
I need something to hold me because I am not strong.
Ritual makes an offering of the self rather than an imposition of the will. Rituals invoke our heart with all its vulnerabilities. Vulnerability has power. Ritual notices the beauty of deep winter even as it shivers in the face of it. Rites acknowledge need, accept uncertainty, appreciate human effort and sing earthy wisdom. Ritual sacralizes the taboo, the profane, the frustrating, the quotidian; and what else could we do with such things?
What else could we possibly do?
Ritual is the mysterious work of hope and healing. Their mutuality. Their human and ordinary realness.
But healing looks so very different than a yearly pep talk or ultimatum. Change often takes years to unfold. Decades. Generations. Sometimes this is so hard. It is so tiring. How can we take on such tremendous problems without losing hope?
Like many of the deeper questions, this one has two apparently contradictory answers. It’s paradox.
On the one hand, we only have the courage and capacity to do such things when we remember that they are bigger than us. They are generational, historical, and communal. We have to do our part. It’s important that we realize we are part of a movement. It’s possible to see with the eyes of the not yet born. Our work has been handed down directly from the ancestors. Then the difficulty of the present doesn’t matter. Our frustration isn’t the whole of the story. When we do this, we are uniquely able to notice the beauty of things without their beauty being tarnished by the shitty context in which they happen.
And on the other hand, we have to take care of ourselves. We have to learn the lessons implicit in our own lives. When we do this, when we explore personal healing, we find a beauty and a grace quality to life that we’d never suspected before. We find parts of ourselves we never knew existed. Parts of our self we couldn’t get rid of become our standing ground. If we don’t leverage our own life lessons, we re-iterate them.
If we don’t have both levels of healing we suffer. If we only think about ourselves, we eventually become self destructive. We’ll roil in diet mentality. We’ll self-improve ourselves to death. We’ll never have enough qualifications, or degrees, or respect.
But if we only ever look at the big issues, we lose ourselves. We’ll get depressed. We’ll burn out. Everything will be heavy. No one will want to be around us because we’re self righteous and annoying. And we’ll develop conflict and resentment because we can’t claim the problems of the world as our own personal destiny. They don’t belong to us. They aren’t ours.
Ritual is the only thing I know that draws these polarities together. A yogic truth, if it is one, suffuses through all the layers of reality. It has to be true at the subtle level, as well as the most scientific. It has to be both a universal truth, which can anchor us; and it has to be an intimate - almost embarrassing- personal experience, which floats us.
Ritual lays the spirit on the altar, using whatever altar it can find. Dust motes in a column of sunlight, say. Or clumps of black grasses, shrouded in snow. Ritual is seeing breath crystallized in bluey light and ego decrystallized into something not yet finished, nowhere near done. To watch the ego decrystallize is hard, and such a relief.
Ritual redeems us like a coupon.
Love, it says, is possible. Even though we doubt. Doubt, it says, is workable, because we still love.
Ritual heals us. Which is what we’ve needed year after year. It’s what we all, need. It’s time for us as a society to focus on healing. There’s no task of greater importance and no undertaking that could be more profound.
Now is the time for us to finally heal the painful legacy of racism, the lineage of patriarchy, the division between the wealthy and the poor. Now is the time to seriously take on the task of healing the environment. It’s time for us to heal a broken educational system. It’s time to heal an antiquated disease care model that poses as a health care system. We have to address the ill health and depression that affects fifty percent of the world’s population. We have to address the cost and the suffering laid on families and see the stress that comes of not getting essential things right.
I suppose what I’m suggesting amounts to a revolution. I mean social justice. I mean public wealth. I mean human rights and acknowledging the staggering beauty and urgent role of science before our policies do irreparable harm.
The gyst of such a revolution would be individuals healing themselves and the people they come in contact with. It will spread until our halls of power are brown and feminine. Our governors won’t descend from fraternities but rise from immigrant families and we’ll support them. This revolution will enrich our economy and restore wounded dignity and we’ll celebrate it. We can promote a revolution based on healing instead of the band-aid of suppressing. We can call shame culture and bullying culture out as being the same culture. This healing will look for wholeness in our fragmented society and this shift will benefit everyone, every last one, in society.
Like any revolution this won’t come from government. It will come from individuals. It will come from us.
The need is clear. The way is clear. Your soul longs for it and the world is so ready for it.
I’m not asking for utopia. I’m speaking directly to the way things are. Things don’t have to be this way.
There is an emptiness to mid January. It stands in all the doorways. It’s rubbed people’s cheeks to raw. We’re depleted but expected to go on. Lean in to ritual as both balm and sugar. It’s a fire and it’s a song. It’s important, and it’s something we already know how to do. Sankalpa is like that. It’s proof that we already and always have cared. We fill emptiness with love.