What's Your Great Vow?

LoraKim's Story

When I was a little girl, I went often to the woods to play, and to be with my bird friends. They were so Wow and such good company. They sang to me and I sang to them.

Birds also came to me in my dreams, and were in my prayers. I grew up in a religious tradition where children were encouraged to pray to God every night before bedtime. So I got on my knees by my bedside, and then, after bowing my head for a bit, looked out the window and said, “God, I don’t want to go to heaven if you don’t take the birds, and if only some get to go to heaven, take the birds. That’s the earliest form of a promise I was making considering birds, though I was trying to get God to do the promising, not me. When I was a little older, I begged my parents to let me have a parakeet for my 6 th birthday, then a little parrot for my 10th birthday, and then pigeons for my 12 th birthday. I just had to be around birds and I had to take care of them. During this time, I saw a cartoon of the Eskimo curlew who was going extinct. I was so moved on behalf of my bird friends that I promised right then and then that I would be a bird veterinarian taking care of birds.

And so that is what I did, I became a doctor of birds. And not just any birds, but wild birds. For I was learning that there was no way birds could flourish in cages. Taking care of birds meant letting them fly free. Because the most endangered group of birds is parrots, I became a wild parrot veterinarian. And now I get to go all over the Americas taking care of birds. My veterinary clinic fits in a variety of suitcases and backpacks.

Sound fun? Like a wonderful job, and an easy promise to keep to take care of birds? Well, it hasn’t been an easy road. For one, I really, really, don’t like going to school. College was miserable, I just wanted to be outside. But I had to attend University, because I had made a vow to take care of birds. Also, taking care of wild birds doesn’t pay well, so I’ve had years when I couldn’t go to the doctor or dentist because I had no money, and couldn’t go to movies or go out to a restaurant. Taking care of birds in trouble, means traveling and living in places that many people would consider dangerous. I lived in Guatemala during the Civil War there and I was scared all the time. I couldn’t go out at night, and spent a lot of time in my home or yard – much like now. I’ve had all kinds of diseases and all kinds of things bite me.

But you know what the hardest part of my promise to birds is? I can’t save them. Parrots are in real trouble and we are losing them. All my work often feels like it is for nothing. But I do get to save the lives of some individual birds, and it matters a lot to them, and to be in solidarity with people, which matters a lot to them. And taking care of others means a lot to me, because it means I am honoring the lives of so many who have given much to me. I just want to give back to all those birds I kept in cages as a child, and do my best, no matter the outcome.

I owe it to them. I owe it to myself. I have some sadness about not being able to save them. At the same time, I have great joy for giving them all I can.

Birds give me wows and I give them vows.

Meredith's Sermon: What's Your Great Vow?
Part 1

The Stoic philosophers emphasize not worrying about what isn’t in your control. And that is such an important wisdom – to let go of concern for what isn’t in your control. But what IS in your control?There is a further wisdom that recognizes that any control is ultimately an illusion. Your thoughts? Nope. Your thoughts are not in your control.

Try sitting very still and very quiet, lowering your eyelids so they are almost but not quite shut, gazing downward at a 45-degree angle and bringing all your awareness to something in the present – noticing the minute details of the sensations of breathing in and breathing out, say. You will soon notice that a thought will intrude. The mind will wander off from the assignment you have given it.
"I need to do my laundry soon. . . . So-and-so was curt with me; what was that about? . . . Perhaps I’ll start a garden. . . . I wonder if the movie theatres will be re-opening soon. . . . What’s for lunch?"

You didn’t ask for those thoughts, you didn’t choose them. They just popped up. And if your thoughts aren’t in your control, then can the actions that flow from thoughts be? They certainly seem to be in our control, and it's important that they seem to be. The illusion is a necessary one – but it is an illusion nonetheless.

Spiritual deepening involves gradually seeing through the illusion of control. Sages in many times and places have recognized that we are not in control. Recently, scientific methods have confirmed it. Benjamin Libet’s experiments in the mid-1980s showed that the motor signal is headed to the muscle several hundred milliseconds before we become conscious of it. We have already begun the action before the apparatus of conscious decision-making comes on line.

For most of day-to-day life, consciousness isn’t deciding what to do. Consciousness’s job is to come along after the fact, notice what we’re doing, and make up a story about how what we’re doing is what we meant to do. All day long, it’s going: "I meant to do that. Oh, yeah, I meant to do that, too." But the meaning-to-do-it trails the beginning of doing it. Our brains create a running commentary on whatever we are doing, even though the interpreter module has no access to the real causes or motives of our behavior.

In Michael Gazzaniga’s experiments, he flashed the word "walk" in a part of the visual field that would be seen by only the right hemisphere. It’s the left hemisphere that processes language consciously, so subjects were not conscious of seeing the word. Yet many of them would stand and walk away.When asked why they were getting up, subjects had no problem giving a reason. "I’m going to get something to drink," they might say. Our inner interpreter module is good at making up explanations, but not at knowing it has done so.

My language centers and neocortex notice my behavior, and they make up a story about this character named “Meredith” who is heroic, yet with certain endearing foibles. At each moment of the day this “Meredith” can be found deliberately and intentionally acting. Whatever it is he’s doing is a reasonable part of his pursuit of reasonable purposes.

This is an after-the-fact story. The behavior came first, we now know. And people of great spiritual awareness have recognized long before Libet or Gazzaniga came along that this story of the self was a fabrication.

With spiritual development and seeing through the illusion of control comes an increased appreciation of grace (the wonder, beauty, and abundance that cannot be earned or deserved), decreased worry and anxiety from trying to control outcomes, decreased attachment to the ego's story about either "accomplishments" or "failures," a decreased interest in blaming self or others.

Why would our brains be built to generate this illusion of control? One plausible suggestion is that “the conscious feeling of intent is simply a marker indicating that we own the action. . . . This marker is very important so that our episodic memory shows whether actions” were “ours” or just happened (Janet Kwasniak). The memory of an event that came from me influences my neurons for the future -- we do learn from our actions and their results. If I get a pain from something I did, my neural wiring makes me less likely to do that again. But if the pain “just happened” – if it was apparently not a result of some particular behavior of mine -- the effects on my wiring are different.

What we call “volition” is not a generator of behavior but only a perception that a behavior is ours. The illusion that intentions precede and determine action, then, is a by-product of the way the brain learns from experience.

We are not in control. And yet. And yet, and yet, and yet. Intentions matter. It matters that we set an intention for what we’re going to do today, or this week, or with this one precious life.

There’s a distinction to be made between the after-the-fact rationalizations of our impulses of the moment, versus the large over-arching story of the purpose of lives. Both, it would seem, are fabricated stories, but the over-arching story has the power to feed-back down into those subconscious places that generate particular behaviors.

Conscious brain has no idea what’s going on in the subconscious, so conscious brain just makes up a story. Yet, the subconscious is listening to that story – and starts taking it into account. It listens with a skeptical ear at first, but if the story is referenced repeatedly, the subconscious wiring adjusts. Say one time you did a favor for someone. Maybe you did it for purely self-interested reasons. But you happen to have been asked why you did it, and you fabricated a story – not from any intent to deceive, but because it’s the job of conscious brain to invent rationalizations – and say your story was that you care about the well-being of others. Sub-conscious brain was listening to that story. It was not entirely sure whether to believe what it heard, but it made a note – a sort of little, “huh!”

But if it so happens that you have other occasions to tell that story about yourself, then the story gets reinforced a little more. What began, as all our explanations of our behavior do, as an after-the-fact rationalization, can eventually become an actual driving force.

Having spent half a year at a place called "Great Vow Zen Monastery," I’ve had the chance to reflect about the vows in our lives – the over-arching stories of our commitments and values that come to be our guiding forces.

We can have a vow of the moment – like vowing to get dinner on the table – but the underlying vow is what you get to if you keep asking, “why?”

Suppose (to adapt an example from Jan Chozen Bays, The Vow-Powered Life) a youth vows to become the highest scoring player on her basketball team. If she happens to be asked, or ask herself, a series of why questions, there are various directions she might go. She might want to impress a certain prospective mate she has her eye on.

Why? There are again various possible answers. Perhaps, "Because I eventually want to have a long, happy marriage like my grandparents had."

Why? "Because I want a deep and lasting connection to another human being."

Why? "To learn to love other people genuinely, and also myself." And this is where the why questions stop. We recognize implicitly that we have reached an ultimate.

The series of why questions might have taken us down a very different path to a different ultimate. She might instead have said that she wanted to become her team’s top scorer in order to get a scholarship to college, that would otherwise be unaffordable. Why does she want to go to college? She might say “to get a good job,” or she might say “to learn about international politics” and those would each lead to a different ultimate.

Whatever it might be, when you get to that ultimate that puts a stop to further why questions, that’s your great vow. When our young basketball player first formed her determination to be her team’s top scorer, there were almost certainly a variety of different urges at work. As my father used to say to me: “Son, nobody every did anything for only one reason.”

If subjected to the pressure of why questions, she’ll select rationales that sound good at the time. Yet the subconscious is listening to what the conscious brain makes up, and if the story is one that she sticks to, it will gradually become a true guide.

The great vow is your personal mission. Most of us are used to mission statements for institutions -- companies, congregations, and nonprofit organizations, etc. But do you have a mission statement for your life? If you do, you have articulated your Great Vow.

If we are never pressed for ultimate purpose, then we can spend our lives pulled this way and that by forces of the moment. So it’s important to pursue that series of why questions, get down to an ultimate that feels right, and stick to it. Keep repeating it – especially as an explanation for something you are doing, to strengthen the link between your words and your action.

Each time you sincerely say it, you reinforce your orientation toward realizing that world that you dream.

Part 2

Great Vow Zen Monastery has been encouraging people to articulate their Great Vow since the place was founded in 2002. A few years ago, they built on the property a Shrine of Vows for displaying painted declarations of people’s vows.

Herewith, a sampling.
1. One person quoted from Henry Miller: “I know what the cure is, it is to give up, to surrender, so that our little hearts may beat in unison with the great heart of the world.”
2. “I vow to recognize frustration and impatience.”
3. “Awake” and “I vow to do the work tirelessly”
4. “I vow to believe in myself,” and “Remember who you are.” (unclear whether “you” refers to others or to self)
5. “I vow to help myself and others wake up to the inexhaustible tenderness of the present moment.”
6. “Awake open-hearted wonder”
7. “Embrace the Flaws” (I wonder if the “a” in "flaws" looks a little funny on purpose to exemplify a flaw)
8. “I vow to become a zen priest. I vow to devote my life to practice. I vow to free everyone.” (It’s signed "(Shinei) Sara" and dated 2013, and I can tell you that Shinei is indeed now a priest, and seems well on her way toward realizing the other two.)
9. “I vow to awaken fully so that I can help others learn to end their own suffering” – and this one continues on its other side
10. “So we can all be enLIGHT(ened) together!”
11. “I vow to serve the truth.”
12. “I vow to cultivate wholesomeness in myself and to nurture it in others.”
13. “I vow to live fearlessly” and “I vow to see all beings as my teachers.”
13. “I vow to make amends.”
14. “I vow to do more than I think I can. And then more than that.”
15. “I vow to illuminate curiosity and beauty.”
17. “I vow to be a gentle dragon.”
18. “I vow to become a mirror to reflect the true nature of all beings.”
19. Love and death. A vow to die – referring, perhaps, to the dying away of what clings to attachments and keeps us separate -- rests adjacent to a vow to love.
20. A vow engraved in wood quotes from Shantideva’s Way of the Bodhissatva: “For as long as space endures, and for as long as living beings remain, so then may I too abide, to dispel the misery of the world.”
21. “I vow to expand the container until nothing is excluded.”
22. “See all as Buddha”
23. “I vow to devote my life to practice.”
24. “Shine” – a simple, one-word vow.
25. “I vow to live as if each day is my last.”
26. “Not two” – a reminder that nothing is separate.
27. “Complete combustion” – perhaps this person wants to burn away all delusions, or maybe burns with the fire of commitment.
28. “I vow to be of service to the Great Mystery and to help others lead lives of fulfillment and growth.”
29. “I vow to listen with heart and sing with guts.”
30. “I will move on.” With a depiction of baggage being left behind.
31. “I vow to find my true home in everyday life.”
32. “Simple mind. Pure heart”
33. “I vow to serve children in need.”
34. “To abide and move in love.”
35. “I vow to drop the tragic story line and tell interesting stories.”
36. “I vow to let it go.”
37. “I vow to always give full attention to my passion.”
38. “I vow to love fearlessly,” and “I vow to live this truth.”
39. “I vow to plant a garden on earth of lovingkindness for all beings.”
40. “To cherish all life”
41. This one has no words – perhaps some vows are wordless.
42. This one seems to be a marriage vow: “In your eyes the three treasures – this marriage, a dharma gate – and you: companion, beloved guide, and friend. I carry your heart. I carry it in my heart.”
43. “I vow to embody pure love.”
44. “Become prayer”
45. “I vow to love myself so I may love others.”
46. “I vow to embody love and justice.”
47. “I vow to guard and keep the precepts.”
48. “To feel peaceful and give peace to others.”
49. “Understand the human condition.”
50. “I vow to know the true mind of the Lotus Sutra.”
51. “I vow to cultivate lovingkindness for myself and all other beings.”
52. “Seeing, in all circumstances, that my practice can be of help to others.”
53. “I vow to be warm, inclusive, and creative in how I share the dharma life.”
54. “To cherish the Earth and all its beings.”
55. “I vow to embody true compassion.”
56. “Green every place”
57. “I vow to see through birth and death.”
58. “Awaken!”
59. “I vow to be cautious with my steps and words and thoughts.”
60. “To settle into basic goodness.”
61. “I vow to never, ever, ever, give up my spiritual quest.”
62. “Unperfect” – or perhaps the verb, “UnperFECT”
63. “I vow to be gentle with every being.”
64. “I vow to be of service.”
65. “Awaken the world.”
66. “I vow to always return to practice.”
67. “I vow to live and seek the truth.”
68. “I vow to teach wisdom.”
69. “I vow to sustain life and nourish paths to enlightenment.”
70. “Peace. Whole. Connection.”
71. “I vow to heal and help myself and others.”
72. “I vow to speak my truth.”
73. “Manifesting life as channeling, offering, and dancing the cosmic dance to the music of the spheres AS the music of the spheres.”
74. “be nowhere”

As you think about how you would articulate your Great Vow, it’ll be helpful to reflect on your sources of vow. There are three sources: inherited, reactive, and inspired.

What is your inherited vow? As you were growing up, what were you given to understand by your parents or primary caretakers was the primary function of a life? They may never have articulated it to you, but if you had to now articulate what your parents’ great vows were, what were they?

My parents were both professors – Mom’s field was chemistry and Dad’s was English. In the early years of my life, they were grad students, then they settled into tenure-track teaching positions. So my inherited vow from both of them was: One, learn stuff. Two, teach it to others.

These vows made sense to me, and they guided me through young adulthood as I became a professor myself.

You might, however, have reached age 18 feeling that your parents showed you more about how you wanted NOT to be than how to be. So that leads to the second possibly important source for your vow: reactive vows.
“Reactive vows can ricochet through many generations. For example, a child raised by a military father who is precise, strict, authoritarian, and conservative may become a hippie. The hippie’s child, tired of dirty clothes, living out of a van, and not having predictable meals, may decide to become an accountant who lives in the same house for forty years and hoards food, toilet paper, and paperclips. The accountant’s child becomes a rock musician perpetually on tour; the musician’s child, a buttoned-up stockbroker; and so on.” (Bays 36)
Or reactive vows can be a response to situation faced while growing up.
“People who become physicians often have had an experience with illness or death in their early years, either in themselves or their family. Their choice of profession may be due to an unconscious desire to gain control over the helplessness and vulnerability they felt as they faced sickness and death at an age when they had no defenses or coping skills. Incidentally, many lawyers seem to be impelled into law after an early experience of injustice” (Bays 12).
A reactive source of vows is not a bad thing. It COULD be over-reactive, but reaction itself is often not overreactive. What makes it reactive is that’s it’s driven by a desire to avoid something – avoid being like your parents, or avoid a kind of experience, such as sickness or injustice.

A third, and the last vow source I’ll mention, is inspired vows. We pick up inspired vows – often in adolescence or early adulthood – when we learn about someone we admire. We aspire to be like them. Martin Luther King Jr’s vow of nonviolence came from an inspired vow – inspired by the life and work of Mahatma Gandhi. Athletes often draw inspiration from a particular athlete they admire. Who are your heroes?
“You cannot discover your vows by thinking. Your vow lies within you” (Bays 5)
To bring it out, to consciously articulate and thereby strengthen it as the orientation of your life, it helps to explore those three questions:

  • What did you learn from parents or primary caretakers about what life is for? What are your inherited vows?
  • Second, what negative lessons did you learn – lessons about what you wanted to avoid if at all possible? What are your reactive vows?
  • Third, who are your heroes? What are your inspired vows?

Take a piece of paper and write down your answers about your inherited vows, reactive vows, and inspired vows.

Please do that this afternoon, before you forget.

Then sleep on it. Some time tomorrow, please look again at your paper – what you put down about your three sources – inherited, reactive, and inspired.

And then, in that light, draft your Great Vow.

I’m asking that you email it to me. Send it to minister at cucwp dot org. I will print out your vow. And when we finally return to our congregational building, you will find there our own CUUC Shrine of Vows.

If you’d like your name to appear with your Vow, then include your name at the end of the vow in the same paragraph (i.e., without a line break before your name). Otherwise, vows I receive will be displayed anonymously.

Please make it so. I am so looking forward to seeing what your Great Vows are!

Blessed be and Amen.

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