Why Don't We Keep Our New Year's Resolutions?
The reasons are not as obvious as you may think.
Posted January 4, 2019
We have arrived at the time of the year so often derided—the time for New Year’s resolutions. Television reporters head into gyms to interview people about their resolution to get into shape. People interviewed on the street talk unconvincingly about their plans to lose a few pounds. Others adamantly state that they never make New Year's resolutions, making it clear they consider the whole practice to be ridiculous.
Despite the many jokes about the immediate backsliding that tends to occur after we make our resolution, this idea has firm grounding in the world’s spiritual traditions. The idea of a “new” year is one that is found across cultures. The Jewish tradition Yom Kippur, which falls in September, is celebrated as a time to resolve old conflicts and atone for past transgressions. The time of the New Year is also a set period to reflect on the months that have passed and to think about and envision the future. The new year also offers the opportunity to break with old patterns and create new ones. Resolutions then can be seen as a way to hit the reset button.
Within the tradition of yoga, there is a recognition of the importance of taking a vow—a sankalpa—to follow through with a certain practice or commitment to a spiritual principle, path, or form of inner cleansing. All of these are forms of self-cultivation which aim at spiritual growth and health. An example of this could be setting a day of the week aside for fasting, selfless service/volunteering, or for vak-tapasya (period of silence), or any other practice which brings about positive change in our lives.
In order to set such an intention in a wholehearted way and to be able to stick to it, it is important that the resolution comes out of a longer process of inner reflection. This ensures that it isn’t just the weekly magazine or blog which has dictated the changes that we plan to make. If the new plan isn’t in real alignment with our wishes, it is bound to fail no matter how appealing it may be. In our culture, which tends to be obsessed with the surface, these changes often revolve around changing the physical body. While striving for better health is clearly a desirable goal, it is often a mask for other concerns related to physical appearance. Perhaps this is also why resolutions don’t tend to stick. Any resolution has to be in keeping with the larger picture of our lives.
The idea of sankalpa is also akin to the practice of taking oaths and vows, which formerly had a spiritual component. Even now oaths are taken with a hand placed on a holy book to the seal the vocal commitment. In the case of the Thamkrabok Monastery that we discussed in our fourth blog, it is mandatory that those entering the detox take a vow to not touch drugs in the future. This adds an important layer of seriousness to the long and difficult process of detoxification.
A related concept is that of virya, one of the qualities deemed necessary to maintain yogic practice. This word connotes determination, energy, and commitment. To embark on a new approach to life, whether it is giving up a destructive habit or attempting to break a long-standing emotional pattern, one requires focused energy. Without determination, the new pattern is likely to be broken the minute stress or strain comes into our lives. This approach lends an understanding of the energetics of change—it never occurs as a result of some casual, wishy-washy idea about improvement.
The necessity of both intention and commitment become obvious when the inevitable challenges to our new way of being arise. Whether it is the temptation of unhealthy food, unhealthy relationships, or a tendency toward inertia, challenges always appear. Everyone has experienced this—we start a new project or approach or practice with great verve and excitement, but within a short time we start to lose the initial zest. We even start to question that whole need for change.
Energetically this is the territory of the middle—the in-between the old and new self. It is not glamorous or exciting and requires perseverance and sometimes just plain doggedness. This logic applies whether it is writing a book or changing eating habits, and this shoreless period is very challenging. It also requires energy to push through. When this happens, the next phase begins, and it usually becomes easier to maintain.
Resolutions and vows create the energy and containment to try and re-order some aspect of life. They take on board the wisdom recognized across cultures that we need a period of time to build up new habits and set a new pattern. The power of life-long habits can be overwhelming if all these aspects are not brought to bear.
Hidden within the practice of the New Year’s resolution is a recognition that we periodically need to reflect on our lives and consciously make changes. Coming off a period of celebration and relaxation, the new year allows us to consider whether or not we are actually moving in the direction that we want to be in life. It offers an opportunity to see where we may have gone off track or have been ignoring important aspects of life such as our health. So, perhaps it is not the resolution that is the problem, but rather that we have lost touch with older ideas behind the practice that would allow us to maintain them.