Vow Power, Shame and Dread

Welcome to a new year. Have you got your resolutions in order? How soon are you expecting to break them?

We must joke about New Year’s resolutions because we either don’t take them seriously, or wish we could but lack the means to do so. If the latter is true, and I thank it is because most people are sincere in their wishes for self improvement, then why do we lack the means to keep our resolutions through the year. Certainly, external conditions always create turbulence that may not be present in the ritual moment of making the resolution. But if we know that external conditions behave the way they do, then our practice of resolve should be sensitive to that, and more resilient. Basically, why don’t we do this better, and achieve better results?

In Mahāyāna Buddhist traditions, the path of the bodhisattva is often described as beginning with a vow. The Pāli word for resolve or determination is adhiṭṭhāna, and it is one of the most important of the pāramīs—the qualities developed by bodhisattas: beings practicing to become Buddhas. So our own resolutions might be thought of as small scale versions of these more mystical vows. But the underlying energy is the same: “May my efforts combine with supportive conditions to make possible an aspect of experience that I would like to establish or increase.” 

The conditions for a resolution to work well are both internal and external. Internally, we have the responsibility to practice as vigorously as we are able. “As we are able” here encompasses all the discernment and skill we must bring to our efforts: when to press forward, when to draw back, when to persist, when to redirect, when to work hard, when to rest, when to seek support, when to celebrate. Externally, we are subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune like everyone. Some external conditions we can change through our efforts, and some we can’t, so some resolutions are difficult to keep through no fault of our own. If a resolution turns on accomplishing something in relationship with others, external conditions have a great deal of impact. If the resolution is more about cultivating a certain state of heart or mind, or doing actions that require relatively few external conditions, then personal effort alone can get you pretty far.

The thing that turns a garden-variety resolution into a diamond like bodhisattva vow is the amount of passion, or “power,” behind it. What this power enables us to do is tolerate worse external conditions and be more focused internally. We are more determined and persistent in our practices, both formal spiritual practices and moment to moment mind-state tending throughout the day, and this creates a tremendous amount of force in the psyche. It’s a significant goal in most practice traditions to get you into this kind of power-filled state. With this more powerful internal field, you have more resilience in relation to external difficulty, but much more than that have the power to learn from and even be motivated by difficult conditions. Remember that the task for the first noble truths is to understand pain. You have to get close to it to understand it, but if this exposure therapy is not supported by a ground of power and the long view of the path, exposure to pain is probably just disorganizing.

So if you want your resolutions to last, you need to care about them more, connect them to your larger path, generate faith in that path, defeat sarcasm and irony, and let the path take over your life. Folks in successful recovery do all this very well. They know the stakes. One of the biggest tragedies in the inner life is to never really learn what’s at stake in a life. That’s what the teachings on the wheel of birth and death are supposed to inspire, which is why they’re always shouting “this is endlessly painful, people, until you wake up!!” The Buddha talked about people who never really commit to anything substantive — either engaging deeply with the world of commerce, family, and politics, or committing to a renunciate path — as wasting away “like frail herons in a lake devoid of fish,” and lying around like [arrows misfired] from a bow, lamenting the past” (Dhp 155-56).

Two of the most helpful supporting qualities for resolve, and not lying around lamenting the past, are remorse and conscience (Pāli: hiri and ottappa). These are both meditations, ethical reflections, and relational vows that help us heal the past and prepare for an uncertain future. Sometimes translated “moral shame and moral dread,” hiri and ottappa are the signs of a healthy, mature, ethical relationship with the world. They come with strong language that can be startling, but they are the moment to moment guardians of the path. If you want your resolutions to last, and your desired wholesome habits to become new reliable parts of your life, these are your allies. 

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