For as long as I can remember, I’ve made New Year’s Resolutions. Over the years I’ve resolved to get up at 6 AM, give up sugar, do asana every day, read 52 novels in a year, write a page every day, lose inches from my waist, meditate every day, and those are just a few. Every December I’ve detailed glorious plans of how I will be healthier, fitter, and more productive. This is the first year in decades that I did not do this. No more New Year’s Resolutions for this yogi. Why? Because I realized that it is unhealthy for me.
I was tempted. I spent the last five days of 2015 at Kripalu for the Bhakti Bliss program with Sean Johnson and the Wild Lotus Band and David Newman and friends. We spent 7 hours a day chanting, dancing, and sharing together. Sean Johnson led the delightful practice of sargam, which is an Indian variation on basic vocal warmups. Instead of Do Re Mi, the syllables are Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa, and the scale has two flat notes. Unsurprisingly, Sa Re et al each have chakras, deities and animals associated with them. (That’s the Indian way!)
Sargam was fun and challenging, as there are variations in pattern and speed.
“I should do this every day!” I thought. I considered making a New Year’s Resolution about it. As if pranayama, meditation, chanting, asana, and an hour of light therapy is not enough of a morning ritual. I filed it away as a possibility.
The fourth night was open mike night. Anyone who wished could lead a chant. I signed up without hesitation. But then I heard Betty and Bill, two of the people in our group, practice their chant. Their beautiful and original chant. Mine wasn’t original, and since I’ve stopped teaching weekly classes, I haven’t been leading chants much lately. In fact, lack of practice, the aging process, and years of yelling at my kids have resulted in my voice being far from what it once was. I took my name off the list.
Bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion expressed through kirtan, is emphatically not a talent show, audition, or contest. I know this, yet it’s difficult to undo old patterns. Throughout my childhood and teen years, I sang in musical theater and choir. There were rewards for having a good voice, like good parts, solos, and being picked to sing the national anthem. All these years later, it’s hard not to care about how I sound.
This lead to frustration at myself for being shallow. Bhakti yoga is an expression of what is in your heart. What is in my heart? Competitiveness, worrying about what others think, wanting to win? This year will be my eighth year since I took up a yoga practice. “I’ve made zero progress,” I thought.
The next day, it hit me that my entire adult life, I have been engaged in a relentless self-improvement project. Whether it is the realm of health, fitness, career, body, intellect, or spirituality, there has always been some way that I have wanted to be a better person. And while personal growth is not a bad thing, the intensity with which I have pursued self-improvement has not always been healthy. It has caused me to be less present for my children, to not appreciate current circumstances, to miss the forest for the trees. It has lead to depression. The underlying assumption beneath the quest for self-improvement has been that I am not good enough as is. And as long as I believe this, no amount of resolutions, regimes, practices, and protocols will change it. It strikes me that this a sad way to live.
There are things I used to enjoy, like piano, ballet and figure skating, that I stopped doing because I became frustrated with my progress. I knew that I would never be as good as I wanted to be at them, so I chose not to do them at all.
I also realized that every positive change that has happened in my life has happened not as a result of my will, but through grace. I am slowly understanding that willpower and brute force are not the ways to change. Releasing, relinquishing, and letting go are. Especially for perfectionists such as myself, it’s easy to pervert the spiritual path in yet another arena in which to excel and acheive. It’s a petty and sad attempt to exert a little more control over this unpredictable universe.
This realization was unpleasant, but also a gift, a gift that arrived on New Year’s Eve, the night that I would normally write New Year’s Resolutions. I found that I had no desire to write down how I would improve myself in 2016.
One of the most beautiful things about the Bhakti Bliss weekend was observing Sean Johnson, David Newman, and the other musicians: Gwendolyn, Alvin, Mira, Todd, Narada, and Danny. Every single one of them possesses incredible talent, but that is not the reason that they touch people’s hearts. They touch people’s hearts because of their intention and devotion. They make music because they want to, not because they want to be rich or popular. Sean Johnson in particular displays such vulnerability and complete fearlessness when he tells stories. He is not worried about how he will be received. I want to be like that, and now I know I can’t get there via resolution. I am very grateful to all of them, and to the other participants, for creating a space for a shift in my thinking.
A few years ago, I thought I knew my dharma, but lately, I’m not sure. I’ve always had grand plans. The plans themselves have shifted tremendously, but the act of having a grand plan has been a constant in my life. 2016 is the first year that I have lost interest in the plan. I am not resolving to do a thing. I am leaving my notebook page blank. I am praying to be enlightened as to how I may best serve. I do believe that the divine has a plan for me, and the quieter I get, the better I’ll be able to decipher it.
May your new year bring you closer to peace, self-love, and your unique dharma. Jai Ma.