Practice: Vow Practice | iHanuman


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Practice: Vow Practice

Many of us complain about how hard it is to start doing daily meditation or yoga, or to quit smoking or lying or biting our nails or masturbating or any number of things connected to "turning over a new leaf." We may make solemn resolutions, but within a short time we often find everything is back to the way it was. Then we gradually become cynical and conclude that we may as well give up; that "we'll never change."
Vow practice is more formal than making verbal resolutions. Most of us at Human Kindness Foundation work with vow practice and we have found it extremely helpful for making real and lasting changes.
The basic elements of our vow practice are Preparation, Declaration, and Implementation:
Plan ahead a week or two. Vows taken impulsively (or angrily!) usually don't last. Spend time in prayer and reflection about any changes you want to make - major or minor, lifelong or temporary. Think ahead to the ways this vow may affect your life, your friendships, future plans, etc., and accept those consequences. There is no gain without some amount of sacrifice or loss.
Then work on the wording of your vow. One prisoner wanted to take a vow of total silence for a year. We said, "What if a c.o. speaks to you and requires you to answer?" We advised him to do two things: Include in the wording of his vow something like "except in cases of genuine emergency or having to respond to an official;" and we also suggested he let the warden know about his desire to take a vow of silence, and ask for his cooperation. Mature planning makes for a mature vow.
The most important thing about a vow is, don't take it until you know you will keep it. So if you're unsure of whether you can live up to "I will always..." or "I will never...," then use the wording "I will strive to..." That way, your sworn commitment is to try, and sometimes this may actually work better anyway. Honoring our promises is essential for self-respect and any success in life. So, think carefully about your vows, and discuss them with someone you trust (we'll help if you have no one else).
Once a vow has been properly prepared, the next step is to "declare it" in a little ceremony with one or more friends as witnesses. This is important, because like a marriage ceremony, you are obligating yourself publicly to follow your vow. If you break it, others will know you have let yourself down. You will have let them down as well, because they may not have as much faith in themselves after seeing you break your vow. It is important to commit ourselves in front of others, and it is also very encouraging to know they support our struggle to abide by the promises we have made. After you declare your vow, the witness or other friends can just say something like, "We respect your vow, and we receive your vow." We usually do this while bowing to each other with respect.
Then comes the bottom line: Day by day, abiding by the vow you have taken. We strongly encourage you to repeat your vow out loud, alone, at the beginning of every day. Read it or recite it as sincerely as you did that first day, and remember the feelings which prompted you to take this vow. If you are in a dormitory situation, you may have to do this in a whisper, sitting up in bed, facing a wall, on the toilet, or whatever -but it's very useful to repeat your vow every day. You are actually taking the vow every day. This would be a powerful practice even for marriage vows: Both husband and wife repeating their vows to each other every morning of their lives. Believe it or not, although it sounds like it would get stale, daily repetition is actually a way to keep the vows very fresh (and that's a good reason for vows to be worded briefly instead of long, dramatic declarations).
Respect all vows equally. Whether you or a friend take a vow to stop eating sweets for one week, or to never take a sip of alcohol for the rest of your life, a vow must be respected fully. A sincere vow is an expression of our willingness to work, to sacrifice, to change. It shows that we understand how life works - that change doesn't come just because we whine about it. Real, lasting change requires planning, effort, and perseverance.
A Vow is also a good way to initiate yourself into daily spiritual practice. Vow to do a half-hour of meditation the same time each day for three months. Then, whether you are sick or well, tired or alert, bored or restless, you just do it. It doesn't matter whether you feel like it, or whether it seems to be doing you any good, or whether you're good at it; you've taken a vow to do it anyway. What a relief! Vow practice gives us a major freedom to change our lives by giving up some minor freedoms of changing our minds. Try it and see.

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