“Tshuvah” is a Hebrew word considered in synagogues every year at the turn of the Jewish year. It is best translated as “return,” although some translate it as “change.” The word evokes action. I once read that Jews participating in Tshuvah can be thought of as an annual practice of returning to oneself. Psychologist Erich Fromm said this of Tshuvah: “We’re all detached, and we grope for meaning in life. It’s not a simple matter. We have to fight for it.” Ironically, this struggle is thought to bring about peace.
There is a small thrill to standing at the forefront of a new year. (Hello, 2019! Please be kind.) Here we are, metaphorically returning to “this” season, time of year, and the collective consciousness around this threshold. We have been here before. We are at a scientifically similar location in season and in orientation to the sun as we have been in years past. And yet, with all that is the same, tradition urges us to use this time to reflect and resolve.
What has changed, or what may change again, when another year comes to pass? We author and replay the bests and worsts. We plan the changes, we dream, we vision. We make commitments. We set intentions. We renew our dedication. We make new promises (or reclaim those we lost). We set new benchmarks with our resolve.
Paradox lives in this exploration of return vs. change. It is a bit like a spiral staircase. The circular coming back home is familiar, but can never be exactly as it was. Our families, and our friends’ families have changed. Our children have grown; they can do things today that they could not do one year ago. Babies born last winter are walking now. It’s awesome, inspiring and terrifying all at once. We also take stock and recognize our losses – we remember loved ones no longer here. The possibility of change and the guarantee of return are both exciting and reassuring. These concepts show up again and again in our lives and in yoga. They are as reliable as the passage of time itself.
This year, my transition into a new year brings me back to the opening verses of the Bhagavad-Gita. Well – every year brings me back here – it’s like my personal re-run of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” This passage is my yearly institution – a marker on my spiral staircase. Each time I return to these verses, my path to get here has changed. In some ways it’s a miracle that I arrive with such certainty to this return, given all of the variables that come with growth, age, and passing of time.
You know the story. Arjuna is despairing and ready to surrender. He claims that he would rather walk into battle unarmed and defenseless, and then alternatively proposes renouncing it all and begging for alms instead. The consistent theme that I return to (lather, rinse, repeat) every year is the notion that Arjuna is saved by the ordinary act of initiating and remaining in conversation. This heroic act should never be underestimated, and my typical takeaways from the verses are about the impact of the mundane. Of course, the thrill of possibility and the determination to begin again, the big dreams, the hopes, the wishes – these may be worthwhile for our inspiration and our motivation, but it’s often the simplest things (like staying in conversation), those most mundane things (like showing up) that will drive us through another cycle, and bring us back, next year, to this very same yet very different place.
But each year, especially as I age, I find myself looking for more nuanced meaning in these verses and applying those themes to my process of return and resolve. This year, the nuance is about time – specifically, timing. Arjuna is indulging his fear at exactly the wrong time.
Some cycles (election cycles, seasons of life, years, etc.) offer time to luxuriate in self-inquiry, and time to tease out temper tantrums. In these cycles, we find ourselves in a somewhat comfortable and stable place (think Obama years), and we are thus able to indulge the luxury of panic. In such cycles, where the urgency of needing to act has calmed, we owe it to ourselves and to our collective self to do the deeper, inner work.
But, if you panic at the wrong time (think Arjuna on the battlefield and 45 in the Whitehouse) there’s a high probability of death (or pain/failure/ugliness). The stakes could not be higher. Sacrificing too much energy indulging fear in the wrong moment can be lethal. There is no time to indulge. It sounds odd, but panic is a luxury. In these high stakes cycles, fretting and whining is irresponsible at best, and -at worst- compromises principles, loved ones, or leads to certain death. Decide quickly: give up, or shut up – and act. Knowing the difference is skillful action.
Which turns around the spiral staircase grant us the time for self-inquiry (as if we could pause our own life the way Krishna pauses the battlefield scene), and which turns around the staircase demand that we save our questioning for another time-a calmer time? Timing is everything, and this year’s passage around the sun (and I think 2019’s too) demands that now is the time to put one foot in front of the other; get up; stand up; save the ocean; save mother earth. No time to whine.
Staying in the conversation (facing each new day, putting one foot in front of the other whether in the midst of despair or celebration, and so forth) is at times not “all we can do,” but everything we can do. Some mornings we wake up inspired to see this same world (the return) with new eyes (the change). On these days, our two steps forward feel filled with momentum. Other days, it is not easy to wake up and face the routine – take care of our loved ones, read the news, show up at work, face the rage on social media, and so forth. Some days it takes everything just to stay viable. But we must. Staying in the conversation wakes us up to each day. Each season. Each new year. Each new political cycle. Each new election cycle. Each cycle of love. Each celebration of our children’s growth, each grieving for a lost loved one. Each mistake. Each lost opportunity. Each success. Each victory. Every one of these markings of change invites us to return. And to resolve. Tshuvah.
Return to our courage. Return to our convictions. Return to our fierce authenticity. Return to our awareness. Return to our accountability. Return to our muscles of forgiveness. Return to our humanity. Return to our compassion. Return to our breath. Return to our essence. Return to our work, our families, our commitments…and, for us yogis, return to our mats, to our practice.
So with that, my wish for each of us and for all of us as we enter a new year: Tshuvah. Show up and stay in. May your return be sweet, peaceful, healthy and prosperous, and when you come back around again may it be with deeper awareness and skill than the time before.