The Power of Creating Personal Vows

The Power of Creating Personal Vows

on May 29, 2012 in Spirit | 10 comments

Photo by Maryann Bennett

Vows and covenants are all part of the power of
agreement at work in the universe,
spoken and unspoken, known and unknown.

~Justin Blake


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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  1. In the past I’ve made some kind of vows and committed myself to what I can only recognize as individualism now. Most of my commitments involved getting the most out of me in any aspect of life, and I followed many of them then as I do now. But the thing that changed is the realization that all that was centered on me, and my growth only, is nothing without contributing somehow or in some way to others around me.

    But I guess the saying “help yourself in order to help others” really makes sense, since it’s only after making the most out of you, you start contributing a lot to those around you. In that direction, only by taking a retrospective look, I can see that my vows or resolutions (since this word still does it for me) changed gradually from individually centered to community centered. Adding value for someone really seams to be a fulfilling thing. The thing is that we grow alongside with it.

  2. returning here tonight after loosing an elaborate comment last night….

    I went on about the differences between ritual and routine, in responce to your lines, “So some kind of awareness of what we are already vowing and some kind of ritual to recognize it and let it go, if necessary, seems a pre-requisite to allow new vows to take effect. How interesting to work with this….”

    And the predicament of last night’s writing being irretrevable also speaks to those differences. Routine is more a duplicated, rote, patterned activity. Ritual is unique, site(+moment) specific, with energetic and innvocational immediacy, consciously unprecedented, yet ‘plugged into’ the exact curcuits of unfolding history as is. Routine seems to be where vows go to sleep. Ritual, where a vow awakens.

    Dogen’s like the great grand dad of postmodern vowing. Liturgy was seen all over, available everywhere, not just in special places. Liturgy, ‘making the invisible visible’, has alot in common with the power of making personal vows. A vow brings into view some deep orientation, connecting the IS with the WILL BE in a more streamlined, direct linkage, rather than leaving change to chance alone (what routine does best).

    I don’t know how it works. I’m convinced of vows efficacy in the same way I learned to float in water. The usual suspects of effort and volition don’t even apear in the line up. But (to extend and mix the metaphors) taking a plunge, trusting, and letting deffinately play into how a vow happens and maintains. So there’s action in the passivity of allowing, and passivity, or non-resistance, in the activities of a vow.

    Like a doughnut, in the original form. Without the space in the center, the whole dough, they found, baked unevenly. Gooey undone middles plauged the striving for complete baking until what was left out made room for total completion. ‘Same with my vows. It’s not all only what I do. The mysterious grace of a vow is so out of my hands I can’t begin to unpack it in words. Yet my vows depend entirely on me, on whether I let ritual lapse into routine or keep it alive and current.


    June 4, 2012

  3. Simply reading your vows generated a list of vows within me. I just had to get up and rush to my journal and pen them. When I took pen to paper, I began with a “may I” and then stalled to see what you had written. Momentarily, to write “I vow…” seemed as such a responsibility, as such a big moment. Momentarily, I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue. I took a few breaths and let it flow. My vows are simple but powerful for me and everytime i read it am tuned into something within that wants to work towards it. I hope to write these vows separately in my art work and place them at different places in my home to be guided by them. Thank you so much for this.


    May 31, 2012

    • Wow, I love that — “Every time I read it am tuned into something within that wants to work towards it.” Yes, that is the power of vows. They help us to become something greater than our current being, and yet something that is within us the whole time.

      Thanks for sharing this, Aarathi.

      Maia Duerr

      June 2, 2012

  4. Maia,

    I want to borrow your second vow, because that speaks to where I counter my own vow-life, where I resist the rest of it. With a long dance with the process and consequences of vowing, first privately in ’83, formally in ’85…

    Daido Roshi would comment of the power of vowing, haling the transformative value of such direct intentionality, then qualify it by adding that, so long as a prior, perhaps contradictory, vow is active, still resounding in the undercurrents of our motivation, a new vow won’t displace it automatically, until the previous one finds an equally affective disolution, As part of acknowledging the strength an authentic personal vow weilds in our living he held an active respect for the natural orientations that come from taking up such intimate directives, That attitude seemed to allow for freedoms grounded in the power of vowing, without imposition, or convincing, whether from self or other. As if vows aren’t merely something we make up. And indeed I don’t think they are.

    Vows bridge the ideal and real by collapsing any crust of impedament we might place between us and the inate directionality of lifespan. Every level of life that supports ours has it’s own dimension of vowing, only we, humanity, get to excersize descretionary conscious engagement. Vows stem organically from what constitues us as a coherence of purpose made aware of itself. It’s what we do, and are. Vows are a given, yet one that can be taken for granted. Behavior indicates vows, shows the degree to which we live open to who we are.

    That’s where I feel the need for my own casting of your second vow. The koan posed by burnout is key for me. The configurations I hold in place that keep ideal and real apart are somehow not as certain as the power of vow to reconfigure them in a way that works for everyone.

    That we’re works in progress is the substance of vowing. Due to the fact that I’m the kitchen table at which ideal and real meet, my duty to keep inviting them until they realize their mutual identity will be necessary. If only one shows up (and only One ever does) vow holds the door open for the next guest to become host.


    May 29, 2012

    • Kerry, I learned so much from reading your post. I also feel it’s very true that the sub-layer of vows is to become aware of ways in which we may be holding on to older ‘vows’ that counteract the power of the new ones we are taking on. Lately I’ve become aware that I seem to have a vow to eat donuts! This sounds ridiculous but I find myself making special trips to a donut shop in town (which makes excellent donuts, I might add), and this has become one of the high points of my week. Nothing wrong with that in and of itself, I suppose. But if I am making a vow to take care of my body and to nourish my health, this habit is at odds with it. And what is that about?

      Perhaps a trival example, but I think I get what you’re bringing up…

      So some kind of awareness of what we are already vowing and some kind of ritual to recognize it and let it go, if necessary, seems a pre-requisite to allow new vows to take effect. How interesting to work with this….

      Maia Duerr

      June 2, 2012

  5. Two years ago I had a similar experience where I felt called to write and take vows. I committed myself to love, compassion, truthfulness, curiosity, and simplicity. Taking those vows has allowed me to access a much deeper part of myself, to encounter my dark side with compassion and levity, and to nurture myself and those around me. I’ve downsized in a lot of ways, but have upgraded in many more. This post has such a powerful message: live each day like you mean it!


    May 29, 2012

    • Stephanie, that is beautiful… thank you for sharing your experience with vows. It’s funny how it just seems to come out of nowhere, and yet it’s exactly what we need.

      Maia Duerr

      May 29, 2012

  6. mommy the moment
    marry my heart
    mentor my now
    vows i live by
    thought by thought
    grateful as heckola to find you on twitter.
    expanding my online efforts
    while striving to connect w/ like thinkers im aware i haven’t come visited folks online homes as well id like to
    striving to now….
    so feel the hug of love and commitment to strive to get to know ya more.
    and i’m nodding and hugging your heart and holding your hands and squeeing
    that you are here.
    so grateful…
    swinging right next to ya 😉
    big grateful hug,
    tre 😉

    • Tre, welcome to my online home! Wanna cup of tea? : )

      Maia Duerr

      May 29, 2012


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