Every new year, after having had a rest (or at least a change) over the holidays, I promise myself that this year will be different. This year I will finish one of my book projects, I’ll spend less time online, I’ll eat better, practice more, get back in shape, improve my French, and watch less television. And every year, predictably, I go down in flames, usually by about February.
Part of my failure comes from forgetting that I inhabit an interconnected web of relationships and roles that absolutely sustain me, but mean that many of my decisions don’t revolve solely around me. For example, if Dave is watching something on TV I’ll sit down because I want to spend time with him, not because I want to watch Heavy Rescue 401 (although it is strangely compelling). And thus, my career aspirations go to battle with my relationship aspirations, and when push comes to shove, my relationships come first.
Another part is the deeply anxious hedonist inside me who is a great rationalizer: for example, she says “if Donald Trump does actually start World War Three you’ll be sorry you didn’t eat that chocolate/fruitcake/cheese.” This form of cop-out relies on blaming others for my lack of discipline, and also a deeply ingrained and unexamined belief in “seizing the day” or carpe diem.
The last part is, I think, sheer laziness.
And yet, I thoroughly believe in making New Year’s resolutions, or in yoga-speak, “setting intentions.”
James Baldwin wrote:
This collision between one’s image of oneself and what one actually is is always very painful and there are two things you can do about it, you can meet the collision head-on and try to become what you really are or you can retreat and try to remain what you thought you were, which is a fantasy, in which you will certainly perish.
As uncomfortable as it is to own up to my failures, I really believe it’s necessary to keep trying. Learning self-compassion is an important part of the process. Failure can be a gift as long as we don’t get caught up in self-flagellation.
There is a beautiful Japanese saying: “Fall down seven times, get up eight.” In other words, if you keep trying eventually you will make progress. Also, Buddhism has a long tradition of committing to the impossible. There are four vows that are practiced in the Mahayana tradition called the Bodhisattva Vows:
Beings are numberless, I vow to serve them.
Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to transform them.
Reality is boundless, I vow to perceive it.
The awakened way is unsurpassable, I vow to embody it.
These vows aren’t meant to be ironic or tongue-in-cheek. They are a sincere recognition that aspirations are valuable even when we know that we will fail. But by a series of successive approximations, each time we fail a little better. Eventually we get a little closer to being who we really are, or rather, who we aspire to be. And that is, I think, a worthy pursuit.
Here’s to celebrating impossible vows. A belated happy New Year to you,
PS I’d love to hear how you feel about new year’s resolutions in the comments below. Maybe we can help each other stick to them. 🙂