The Power of Creating Personal Vows
Vows and covenants are all part of the power of
agreement at work in the universe,
spoken and unspoken, known and unknown.
Most of my life, I have cringed at the idea of discipline.
I’ve thought of it as something that infringes on my freedom, specifically my creative freedom. Just hearing someone suggest that I make it a habit to go to bed the same time each night makes me cringe as I imagine lost opportunities of night owl creative energy spurts.
But in the past few years, I’m learning that discipline — in the right spirit — can be truly liberating.
One way that discipline manifests is as a vow. The dictionary defines “vow” as a solemn promise, often made to God. For many of us it’s an old-fashioned word that has little relevance outside of marriage (and how many couples stay true to those vows?) or a courtroom.
A few years ago, during an emotionally painful period of my life, I had a strange experience that involved vows.
Out of the blue, a series of sentences kept repeating in my head. The words didn’t come from my own cognition or will but rather it felt like I was channeling them from some unknown source. They were at once familiar and yet completely foreign to me. I had no idea what to do with them. Perhaps this is what Moses felt like when God dropped the Ten Commandments on him with a thud!
The message was so strong and insistent that I picked up a pen and wrote it down:
- As one who walks the path of the Buddha, I vow to nourish myself so that I can nourish others, to cultivate loving kindness and alleviate suffering for all beings, including myself.
- As one who walks the path of the Buddha, I honor and respect the rhythms of my body and the earth. I vow to make time to stop, reflect, and renew myself in attunement with every breath, every hour, every day, every week, each month, and each season. I take shelter in the rainy season to sit in deep retreat with my sangha [community].
- As one who walks the path of the Buddha, I vow to tread gently on the earth and carry nothing extra.
After getting the words down on paper, I took some time to reflect on what meaning they might hold for me.
The phrase that started out all three sections, “As one who walks the path of the Buddha,” made some sense since at that point I’d been a meditator and student of Buddhism for a number of years. It had an almost biblical feel to it, like an invocation that reminded me of the power my spiritual path held for me.
The focus of the first vow on nourishment and loving kindness was a reminder that I needed to include myself in the field of compassion that I aspire to send out to the world.
The second vow called on me to create regular times of rest and reflection in my life, to not get so carried away by the needs of others that I become burned out in the process.
And the third seemed to point to a way to live mindfully on the earth. On further reflection, I realized it worked on a metaphorical level as well. I was being invited to lighten my psychic load along with my physical load.
The more I sat with each of these vows, the more they resonated with deep needs inside of me that I wasn’t even aware I had.
Over the past few years I have said these vows to myself at the start of every day, following my morning meditation period.
This practice of creating, reciting, and remembering these vows has changed my life in subtle but powerful ways. They continually help me to realign my compass toward my inner truth, to stay in my center rather than reacting to what’s coming at me.
I’ve learned that vows aren’t about someone else telling us what to do. They are discipline that comes from the inside out. This is the kind of discipline that can free us to be true to our deepest values.
Vows are really promises or agreements that we make with ourselves. The “four agreements” from Toltec teacher Don Miguel Ruiz are one inspiring example of this kind of personal vow.
My vows came to me in the form of an intuitive gift and were framed in the context of my spiritual practice. But you certainly don’t need to have some wild kind of channeling experience or be a Buddhist in order to create your own set of personal vows and make it a daily practice to commit yourself to them.
Your vows may not necessarily even be in verbal form. If you practice yoga, for example, it might be that your deepest intention – meeting whatever comes to you during your day with openness and love – is embodied in the Sun Salutation pose.
What matters is that whatever you discern to be your vows, you hold these with a conscious intention every day.
Here are some questions to help guide your process of creating your personal vows:
- What is most important to me right now?
- What is missing from my life that would truly nourish me?
- What energy would I like to call into my life?
- What promises do I need to make to myself in order to live life to the fullest?
- What is my unique contribution and commitment to making the world a better place?
How about you — have you made any vows to yourself? How have they made a difference in your life?
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