Vows are powerful statements for our lives. Which become powerful actions. According to physician and Zen teacher Jan Chozen Bays, M.D., in her thoughtful, practical book The Vow-Powered Life: A Simple Method for Living with Purpose: “Vows are the forces that weave together the fabric of our life and all of life. Without vows, without purposeful action, life would cease to exist.”
She also notes that “Vows prevent us from reaching the end of our life and looking back with the sad question ‘What happened?’ How did I end up here?'”
What exactly is a vow? Bays includes a definition created by her husband: “heart’s deepest aspiration.” (Beautiful, right?)
Vows help us navigate our days, and ultimately, our lives. Vows act as a compass, a guiding light. When we have thoughtfully and intentionally created our vows, we become the architects of our lives—instead of being at the mercy of other’s schedules, desires or fears. Instead of being pulled by all sorts of factors. We build what is important to us.
Bays features several valuable exercises in her book to help us develop our vows. Some of these exercises, she writes, we can do in a group. But do whatever is comfortable for you. Maybe you reflect on these exercises on your own and then try them out with others. Maybe you also see if or how your responses differ.
The Tombstone Test
Create an outline of a tombstone on a piece of paper. Write your name, year of birth and an imagined year of death. Then write a one- or two-line epitaph that you’d like engraved on your tombstone.
Here’s an example for African American botanist and inventor George Washington Carver: “He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.”
Here’s another one from philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, which he wrote himself: “Here lies a man who knew how to enlist the service of better men than himself.”
Advice to Yourself
In one or two sentences, write advice to your younger self, which can take the form of: “Remember to be _______ or more _____.” Here’s one example: “Remember to take time to stop, breathe, and open your ears and eyes.”
The Bucket List
Write down at least 20 things you’d like to do before you die. Review the list to see if they fall into specific categories. “Are there any underlying vows or aspirations reflected in this list?” Take one step to accomplish something from your list.
In a way, vows also can be thought of as mission statements. According to Bays, “Vows help us allocate our resources, time, money, and skills in a consistent manner. They inspire us to try and accomplish things beyond what we may have thought possible: learning a new language, starting a business or charity, going on a mission abroad, raising grandchildren, or sitting still and exploring our mind in a ten-day silent retreat. And, like mission statements, vows are only helpful if they change our behavior.”
Creating our vows is essentially the foundation for creating our lives. From there we create our days. From there we make meaningful decisions. From there we figure out our actions and actually follow through on them. Of course, our vows can change and evolve. But knowing our heart’s deepest aspirations, and reflecting on them regularly, helps us to build fulfilling, beautiful lives.
What vow or vows would you like to create? How will you act on your vow today?