As we begin the new year, many of us are making resolutions – often to improve some aspect of our personality or habits. This resolution-making is an aspect of the yogic practice called sankalpa, which is a Sanskrit word often translated as “intention”. Intention is so important on our path as yogis that the Buddha included it as an entire limb of practice: Samma Sankappa/Sankalpa, or “Wise Intention” is the second of the 8 limbs of Buddhist practice known as the Noble Eightfold Path. There are 3 traditional Wise Intentions in the Buddhist system, all forms of renunciation, or letting go: letting go of grasping, of ill will, and of harming self or others (ahimsa).
Renunciation is an unpopular yogic teaching around here. It seems so possible to have abundant physical and mental pleasure here in the wealthy Bay Area – all the rarified food, entertainment, experiences, people, and inspiration a human being could want! And many of us live in the lap of such luxury, not necessarily in terms of money, but in terms of quality of life. Think about your diet, your neighborhood, your community, and the places you get to hang out (yoga studios, hot springs, restaurants, parks, great work places…) and it all seems so healthy – why would we need to give anything up? The heart of sankalpa, however, isn’t a giving up like swearing off sugar, gluten, or Facebook (as necessary as those renunciations might be for you). It’s a far deeper letting go.
Letting go of grasping sounds simple, but what does it really mean? In our yoga practice on and off the mat or cushion, we are encouraged to notice when the mind contracts or solidifies around any experience. This solidification happens when we want a pleasant experience to continue or an unpleasant experience to stop. Both are natural and unavoidable, but when the wanting becomes our predominant experience, it becomes a prison. The natural life of everything is to come and go, to appear and disappear. Pleasant experiences will come, and we can enjoy them when they do, but no matter our plans, skills, hopes or affirmations, they will inevitably go. Renunciation is the wise practice of letting things go when they go.
In the same way, all the renunciations echo deep beneath our surface actions. Letting go of ill will, or hostility – what would it really feel like not to push anyone out of our hearts? Letting go of harming – all the tiny moments of self-blame, of criticism, of not considering the impact of our actions and words on another – true ahimsa is not different from enlightened action. So as we make our intentions for the year, rather than taking on a grand behavioral vow (which will last how long? A month? A few weeks?) we can open to the possibility of a far deeper shift. One of my favorite yoga teachers, Amanda Moran, used to say it as a mantra during class, “inhale: Let, exhale: Go.” Whatever you’re holding so tightly onto, whether it’s an idea, a person, or a sense of yourself.
And then do what you want. This year is lined up to be pretty wild with change, depending on your preferred modality: end of the Mayan calendar, Chinese Water Dragon year, presidential election… The bhakti yoga way to honor the moment of transition and change is to chant to Ganesha, the one who sits at the threshold. Ganesha appears in both Hindu and Buddhist temples in India and the Himalayas, and his mantra is said to clear all the obstacles from your path. Who knows – maybe it does. Worth a try. And anyway, he’s fat and happy, and loves sweets. He doesn’t make resolutions. He just is. Here’s his mantra: OM GAN GANAPATAYE NAMAHA.
May our paths be free of obstruction and confusion. May we release the death grip of clinging and relax, letting everything unfold on its own (which it will do anyway, regardless of our wishes). May we let go of what doesn’t serve awakening and peace in our hearts and the world. And if we insist on taking on a difficult behavioral change, may we embody it with enthusiasm and constancy, just as we wish.
Blessings to you in everything you do.