By Swami Tyagananda
Swami Tyagananda is the associate minister of the Ramakrishna-Vedanta Society in Boston. Before coming to America, he was the editor of the Vedanta Keshari. This article was published as an editorial in the Vedanta Keshari in January, 1988.
Before the school closed for the Christmas vacation, a teacher asked her students to have their New Year resolutions ready and show them to her when the school re-opened. A fortnight later, after exchanging New Year greetings with her class, she asked each one to read out his resolution. The little ones had their papers ready. Most of them had a long list of shall’s and shall-not’s, and the reading class was becoming somewhat monotonous when a bright little girl read out her small resolution which stunned the whole class including the teacher. The little girl had resolved never more to make any New Year resolutions! “But why?” asked the teacher with a puzzled look. The girl answered, “Simply because I have never been able to keep my resolutions in the previous years, and it seems pointless to make promises which I know I won’t keep.”
Don’t we share the experience of this little girl? Most of us do. We make grand resolves. We decide to do things in a certain way, we plan to order our life in a certain manner. Such plans no doubt fill us with an inner satisfaction and joy. After making a firm resolve to do something we feel happy. But making plans is one thing; and carrying them out, quite another. It is in the execution of our plans that most of us fail, partly or wholly. When failure comes, we feel dismayed. Then we make another plan, a fresh resolve. Spiritual aspirants usually select an auspicious day to begin a more orderly life and live according to their resolutions. When failure comes, another day is selected, a new resolve made or the old one re-affirmed, and once again begins the struggle to live according to one’s resolutions.
Why do people feel the urge to make such pious resolutions? What makes them bind themselves with a set of self-made rules? Could they not live without them? Yes, in fact, many do. But some spiritually sensitive souls cannot. They have before them a certain ideal of life. They dream of a certain goal and want to attain to it. But they find that the kind of life they are leading will not take them there. They will have to change their lives, their attitudes, their habits. They then picture in their mind how an ideal seeker of truth would live, how he would react, how he would think and act. Then the spiritual aspirants make a resolve to plan their lives on the same pattern. This plan takes the form of a resolution which they wish to implement.
Making such resolutions is really a form a self-discipline. However practical it may sound to take life as it comes, no sincere spiritual aspirant can remain comfortable if he tries to do so. Nor can he afford to do it even if he finds it convenient and comfortable. An undisciplined life would take him nowhere. But many resent discipline imposed from outside. Making a self-resolution means laying down a code of discipline oneself, voluntarily. No one loathes self-imposition. There is a joy in forcing yourself to do things you know are good and edifying.
A growing plant needs to be hedged around and protected. Similarly, the beginner in spiritual life needs protection. Rules regulating one’s life provide this protection and prevent the aspirant from getting side-tracked or being waylaid during his spiritual journey. Eventually the advanced sadhaka outgrows the necessity of rules. But it should be remembered that only through rules lies the way to transcend rules. However cumbersome it may seem to guide your life by do-s and don’t-s, it is an essential phase of life most of us have to pass through. It is during this phase that we feel the urge to make spiritual resolutions.
An important benefit of spiritual resolutions is that they give the aspirant a sense of commitment, a definite direction to the boat of his life which is being tossed to and fro in the tumultuous waves of the ocean of this world. Even the memory of his resolve fills the seeker with courage and a desire to hold on steadily to the commitments he has himself made.
There are many reasons why self-resolutions are not carried out. One important reason is lack of atma-sraddha, faith in oneself, that one will be able to carry out the resolve made. We make resolutions but somewhere at the back of the mind lurks the feeling that it is impossible to live up to them fully. This is the initial and most vital obstruction. Though we may not be always conscious of our inner feelings and beliefs, they exert a tremendous influence on our life and activities.
The second reason why resolutions are not kept is laziness. Some sort of a physical and mental inertia takes hold of the aspirant and if he is not able to throw off this inertia, his resolutions suffer. Laziness is usually caused due to two reasons: lack of spiritual aspiration and careless living. If there is no intense desire to progress in spiritual life, if there is no devotion to God, no dedication towards the spiritual ideal, then sloth and inertia are bound to come. Indiscriminate food habits and reading of light, worldly literature make the mind more and more dead to the joys of spiritual life. Such people make spiritual resolutions just for fancy.
The third reason is negligence. One may make an effort to carry out one’s resolves, but occasionally he seeks concessions and overlooks to abide by certain minor resolves which he feels can be relaxed. Such lapses may be unavoidable at times and can even be considered pardonable. But the trouble is what is considered pardonable once is likely to be considered pardonable always. To err is human, it is true. But to continue to err and repeat the same error times without number is not human and hence cannot be forgiven. Sri Ramakrishna used to give the illustration of a carriage running down a gradually sloping hill. When it is moving, those sitting in it may not be aware that they are going down. Only after a long distance has been covered do they realize, when they look back, to what a depth they have descended from the height. This is what happens to an aspirant. When he begins to overlook and neglect minor resolves, gradually they grow in number and magnitude and only after a long time does he discover that his resolutions have completely evaporated.
Yet another reason is forgetfulness. Beginners in spiritual life have minds which are continuously alternating between calmness and distraction. Yogis call such a mind viksipta, distracted. During the periods of calmness, the mind becomes steady and the struggling aspirant is able to carry out his resolutions sincerely and faithfully. But the mind cannot retain that state for long. Soon it becomes distracted. In that condition memory of one’s higher ideal fails. If we look back and see why and when our resolutions suffered a setback, we shall find that it always occurred when we had become temporarily forgetful of our resolves. If this forgetfulness had not overtaken us, we would not have willingly broken our self-made rules.
It is, of course, true that there are always some external factors which hinder us from carrying out our resolves. There is little we can do to overcome them as we seem to have almost no control over external happenings. Some say that everything takes place according to a pre-ordained cosmic plan. But we have no idea of what that plan is and how it functions. As a result we have very little freedom outside. Our real freedom lies within. Nevertheless, we should be able to discriminate carefully whether it is an external factor that is obstructing us or an internal factor which is posing as an external one. A sincere and unbiased self-examination can easily do this.
Swami Vivekananda was fond of narrating the story of a stag from Aesop’s Fables. A stag was once looking at his reflection in the water and boasting before his young one, “How powerful I am! My child, look at my splendid head, look at my limbs, how strong and muscular they are; and how swiftly I can run.” Just then he heard the barking of dogs in the distance. Without another word he took to his heels and after running a long distance came back panting. The young one was puzzled. He asked, “Father, you were just telling me how strong you were. How is it that you ran away the moment you heard the dogs barking?” The stag answered, “Yes, my son; but when the dogs bark all my confidence vanishes.” This is what happens to most of us when we try to put our resolutions into practice. Swamiji says, “We think highly of humanity, we feel ourselves strong and valiant, we make grand resolves; but when the ‘dogs’ of trial and temptation bark, we are like the stag in the fable.”1 What are we to do then? Difficulties there will be always. Trials and tribulations too are bound to come. No one can escape them. The important point is: how are we going to face them? How can we make our spiritual resolutions a workable, active force?
The first thing we ought to know is how to draft a spiritual resolution. This requires a clear understanding of three factors: the spiritual goal, the method of achieving that goal, and the capacity of one aspiring for it (in this case, our own self). We must know where we stand in relation to the ideal we are striving to attain. We must be aware of our strength, our weakness, our capacity. There ought to be no self-deception in this. Then we can easily eliminate the danger of attempting too much or too little–a common defect of most of the resolutions made by those who over-estimate or under-estimate themselves. A perfect resolution is based on a correct understanding of oneself and is backed up by sraddha, faith, in oneself as well as in God.
“Have faith in yourself and stand upon that faith,” Swamiji said. This is, one might say, the fundamental requirement in any endeavour, spiritual or secular. “Whatever is done with knowledge, sraddha, and meditation becomes effective,”2 say the sages of the Upanishads. Only those who have a genuine faith in themselves are able to cultivate a strong faith in the higher Reality, in God. Self-study (svadhyaya), repetition of the holy name, (japa) and discrimination (atma-vicara) are great helps in the development of sraddha. Even a little awakening of the power of sraddha fills the spiritual aspirant with the kind of strength he has never experienced before. It is this strength that helps him overcome the difficulties that crop up while implementing his own code of discipline in the form of a spiritual resolution.
As said earlier, laziness is caused by the lack of spiritual drive and by careless living. Sometimes laziness may be due to purely physical inertia and this can be counteracted by physical exercises, regulated food habits and controlled sleep. What is more insidious is mental inertia and only a strong-willed person may be able to throw it off. Some are very active while carrying out their mundane duties and responsibilities, but no sooner are they faced with their spiritual commitments than they sink down, feel exhausted and are drained of their energy. This is clearly due to a lack of spiritual initiative. There is really nothing much that can be done about it. You can take a horse to the water, you cannot make him drink. Let him be thirsty, and he will then drink the water even if you try to prevent him from doing it.
In some cases, however, physical and mental inertia is only a passing phase, one of the “dry” periods which every seeker of truth now and then encounters. It may be difficult to carry out one’s resolutions during this period, but one should persevere in it without becoming too perturbed at failures. By prayer and perseverance, this temporary phase soon passes off and the aspirant is able to march faster on his spiritual path.
Temptation to relax the rigidity of the self-made rules must be avoided. We must remember it is our own resolution, our own resolve. If some portions of it need to be relaxed, why did we not think of it when the resolve was made? A careful examination of one’s own motives will show us whether the relaxation is really justified or is merely an excuse to cover up our weakness. The best way to do this is to ask oneself the question “why” as often as possible in every activity. Why do I want to do this? Why do I think about this? Why does my mind long for that? Such self-questioning, however tedious and unpractical it may appear in the beginning, is of great help. As this habit becomes natural, we may not even have to formulate the question mentally. It would become a part of our nature, a protective shield to prevent us from indulging in unconscious, useless–and often harmful–thoughts and actions. This is also an effective method of overcoming the habit of unconscious living and thinking, of self-forgetfulness.
Lastly, the aspirant must remember that it is too much to expect everything in the world to go according to his plans. Though there is much talk of order and harmony in the world, the fact remains that this world is a sort of a mess. Nothing seems to take place here according to some well-drawn-up chart. There are so many factors working, so many influences interacting, and most of them are beyond our control. We just have to muddle through somehow and reach the other shore. And to do that, a self-drawn plan, a code of self-discipline, a spiritual resolution, is very helpful, even if one is not able to carry it through cent per cent success. The lives of all saints, sages, illumined souls, were disciplined. If we follow their footsteps we are in no danger of losing our path.
Every January we enter into a new year. A full year of new possibilities, new expectations, new hopes, new joys, awaits us. It’s an ideal time to draw up a code of discipline for ourselves and make an effort all through the year to live up to it. At the end of the year, if we have been true to ourselves and to our resolves, we shall know our own self better; we shall discover a new being within, who wants to evolve, who wants to progress and to grow. We may not reach the goal within a year, but the joy we will get out of this struggle will be ours–and it is this joy that will prod us on and on, gradually but surely, towards our spiritual destiny.
1. Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 2:152
2. Chandogya Upanisad, 1.1.10