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Natural Awakenings Washington DC Metro

Vows: An Enduring Alternative to Resolutions

Jan 04, 2014 04:06AM

Are you among the 45 percent of Americans who set New Year’s resolutions? Named for Janus, the Roman god of all beginnings, January naturally inspires us to look inward and take stock. This ritual of promises for life-improvement dates back 4,000 years to ancient Babylon. Yet, these days, only 8 percent of us keep our resolutions. What if, at the start of 2014, we instead revisit the vows we have taken, the one or more deep inner promises we still aspire to realize? 

Perhaps you no longer practice your family of origin’s religion—or are one of the 14,000 folks who recited the bodhisattva vows with the Dalai Lama in Washington, D.C. a few ago (in Tibetan). Fresh insight, renewal and support reside in any vows that have ever shaped or touched your life in a positive way. Vows are found in all religious traditions, and they inform secular life, from humanitarianism to professional ethics. Vows are also personal, inner realizations of meaning we hold for the direction and conduct of our lives. Being of service or motivated by love, practicing compassion and maintaining honest speech and conduct are among them.

Vows involve intentional sacrifice, “that which is made sacred,” the translation from Latin. As a life practice, both the giving and giving up of behaviors or ideas result in an ongoing experience of letting go the grip of the ego’s wants and dropping down into a kind of peace or humility that floods the psyche with well-being, even joy. Religious historian and Charter for Compassion founder, Karen Armstrong advises, “Look into your own heart, discover what it is that gives you pain and then refuse, under any circumstances whatsoever, to inflict that pain on anybody else.” At the start of 2014, identify what it is within you that guides you on this kind of path.

There, you can turn when your child or colleague abruptly storms off down the hallway. The largeness of a vow, like being motivated by love, makes the inner space to resist retaliation, take a few calming breaths and reflect on the causes and conditions of the upset. The same refuge is available for more abiding challenges—a partner with cancer or one’s own illness or loss.

This New Year, before or instead of making resolutions, rediscover your deepest aspiration. Re-read the vows and support texts in your spiritual tradition or look at those in such contemporary spiritual communities as Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing, which echo key tenets of the Abrahamic religions. Each vow points to a place of surrender, not toward weakness but toward building the kind of inner strength that carries us through calamity and recognizes the good shining through almost every circumstance. The texts even provide reasons for greater self-care, of diet and the wise use of money, which frequently appear in New Year’s resolutions. Yet the meaning and purpose of such actions are grounded in a more transformative purpose and a larger community of practice, whether in spirit or one you might attend on a regular basis.

Write your vow in your own words, or the words of the text if that means more. Dwell with your vow for a time, whisper it to yourself before sleep and remember it upon waking. Tell a trusted other about it. Resilience, lovingkindness and change will build up one drop at a time, over time, when your vow is not dependent upon achievement but rather takes you toward a state of being. Then, at the turn of the next year, or whenever you look back upon your life, you will see that through its twists and turns, you conducted yourself with a spirit that endured and nourished the good in yourself and others and matched the devotion of those early resolution-makers.

Grace Ogden is the founder of Grace Productions, which offers transformational consulting and Living Sacred events.

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