New Year’s is, of course, the time of the year we focus---and usually only for a moment---on making resolutions. We’re going to get lots of advice about making resolutions, about how to achieve our goals and why we fail, and we’re going to hear much the same next year. If we make resolutions every year we might want to think about making them just as ever-new every day and what that might mean. If we talk about resolutions principally in terms of success and failure, we’re going to miss what is great. Let’s try for better.
Greatness invariably includes success and failure but it speaks more directly to values, to worth and the possible.
When something has great value, we may succeed and fail time and again. When things are worth it, we measure success more honestly and accept failure as another inevitability. When we take to heart what is possible, we may not have all the choices we might wish for but can receive the grace to create choices we endow with resolve.
We have arrived again at the importance of resolutions because they give us pause. It is in that pause we have opportunity to create further interest---and interest means acceleration and, if we are smart about that, direction.
The greatness of resolution is that it does not resolve so much as invite us to direct our deliberations; it prompts us to initiate design, foster purpose, and so bring us to terms with choice. What do you want? Why do you want it? What are you willing to do to make what is possible possible?
Greatness, like resolve, resides in the questions we ask that will encourage, entice, and provoke us. Greatness entreats us not to finality but to inclusion, inclusion that compels us to receive change as opportunity rather than reversal, as invention and advance drawing us more deeply towards what is light and shadow. The more greatness, the more shadow kindles illumination---and so more shadow with which we must sooner or later contend. That the gift of light burns is resolve.
In Sanskrit we call such resolve and the act of resolution-making vrata. The simplest translation is “vow” and the reason that suffices is because, if you think about it, we make very few vows in life, take even fewer oaths, and likely spend far too little time thinking about what we are doing when we do. This is where the traditions of India can help again: we must never underestimate the power of contemplation to encourage clarity even if it cannot produce certainty.
Now one who makes a vrata is called a vrātya and that too is worth further consideration. One old meaning of “vrātya” is a person of ordinary or low stature deciding to act in ways that propose change for the better. However we assess our self-worth, we might arrive at the better if we begin with our ordinary self. What is extraordinary isn’t other than that ordinariness, it is what happens when we make a vrata, ourselves vrātya.
The extent of the word “vrata” should help us further understand what is at stake. A vrata is an inner act of the will, it is a soul-yearning for soulfulness; it is self-command made on the inside meant to be brought outside; it can mean laying down a law, which may in fact be the original meaning of “law”---something that is laid down so that it can be seen and considered and made known to one’s self and others.
Sometimes the vrata is the commitment, that to which we commit and our obedience, our service, and the sphere of action in which it all occurs. In other words, a vrata is an environment, a domain for change. No one changes significantly by being coerced but rather by receiving change as an experience of choice and circumstances that will define boundaries.
A vrata then is a sphere of action, a function not of mere code and conduct but of practice and creativity. Taking vows is a personal matter. Turning a vow into an oath is meant to objectify, to instantiate for public or institutional purposes. Thus we vow personally, but we make an oath with the promise of accepting public accountability. A vrata means to connect the two, that is, it implies the yoga, the connection between our self-promise and the oath’s self-endorsing powers that apply, whether or not we can keep our promise. To wit, the vrata binds us to freedom by inviting karma to take its proper place between what we feel inside and what we commit to doing for all to see.
In Rajanaka tradition the making of vratas is an everyday yoga, something that prevents the ordinary from becoming anodyne and the extraordinary from becoming merely balmy. We ask ourselves to do hard things not because they are hard but because they are worth it. Sometimes that can be just getting out of bed and getting dressed in the 11th month of pandemic isolation. Sometimes it involves making a plan a year, two years, ten years in advance to do something worth it, to follow up, follow through, like making again a pilgrimage that you know invites being more uncomfortable that you need to be.
Difficult things are rare because we rarely do what is difficult unless we have to. The purpose of a vrata is not to make the difficult more easily done but rather to do what is difficult. For that we are going to need help, no matter how much we try to help ourselves. This is why a vrata is made personally but is expressed in virtual terms like an oath. This is why a vrata is best made by reaching into the soul and making soulful what you claim for yourself with others.
A vrata can be individual---it might even have to originate there, inside you, even if it is suggested or offered or comes from circumstance rather than self-invitation. But the soul of the vrātya belongs to the community that sees in vrata that some things are worth the trouble, worth the effort, are difficult and rare---and that our best hope lies in the ways we support one another.
However alone we are, our best self is made plural by the relationships we create to live in dignity and through resolutions. Our vratas must be living, which means they must move, adapt, do their work with a dynamic temporality that combines the merely mortal with purpose that out outlives the moment. We participate in something more abiding than what time can rot when we bring our vrata into time knowing that it too is like the plural self: time is not one, not two, and achieves its only form of “perfection” by replacing itself with itself, time and again. When we cannot do that for ourselves, memory will achieve it if the resolution meets the demands of greatness head on.
Our recursive self brings resolution to life again and again so that little by little we can open to more selves, to deeper relationships, to the prospect that in this brief, moral life we have made promises worth keeping. Should we succeed, we live to do it all again. Should we fail, we live to do it again.
The greatness of our vow lies in how we decide for ourselves and for each other what is worth our intention and actions, what is worth loving and so with it the prospects for grief that come with true experience.
If this sounds too solemn or portentous then let us be gentle with one another, let us ask no more from ourselves than is possible and no less than we should. How that is decided is up to you. We will be here for you, which is why you might consider your next resolution. Make every resolution ofand ever-new resolution. Be that vrātya, the maker of the vow, to be more than you are right now because that is possible, again and again.