We are reflecting, this month, on the theme: transformation. Last week, I talked about having a vow to guide your life – discerning what is your calling, and pursuing it. Now, a vow is not a goal. The goal question is: where do you want to end up? The vow question is: what direction do you want to be headed – who knows where you’ll end up. A goal is either achieved, or it isn’t, at least not yet. A vow is how you want to live. It’s about the journey, while a goal is about a particular destination.

Living by vow is about being oriented in a certain way every day, whether you actually accomplish anything or not. It is about what you’ve decided to dedicate yourself to trying to accomplish, not about whether or not accomplishment happens. You put yourself out there, give to the world what you got, and it’s up to the world to decide what to make of it. That part isn’t in your control. It was Mahatma Gandhi who said,
“Satisfaction lies in the effort, not in the attainment. Full effort is full victory.”
Vow is about what direction you’re going to point your efforts. We don’t know how our intentions will transform us – just that a great vow does indeed tend to transform.

Today, though, we’re going to look at the other side. If vow is about looking within to discern who you are and what you are on this Earth to be, receptivity is about listening without – hearing and seeing what the world happens to be offering. If vow is about intention, receptivity is about dropping our intentions and simply receiving what is given.

There’s the part of life where you decide what game you’re going to play, and then there’s the part where you play the game decided upon by others, or the world, or fate, or God, or history, or something beyond your control or even influence. There’s the task of discerning your unique calling, rather than living aimlessly, without purpose, unclear on who you are, and then there’s the task of playing the hand you’re dealt, rather than fuming about your bad luck. Last week we looked at the first task. Today we look at the second.

Here, we might take a lesson from the principles of improv – improvisational theatre. In improvisational acting, you always say ‘yes’ to whatever reality the other actors present. If your fellow actor says, “There are alien flying saucers landing over there,” you don’t say, “Oh, no, that’s just a trick of sunlight off the clouds.” Never deny the reality that the other actor is bringing to the scene. Go with it.

You might go for humor and say, “Oh, my god. They’re going to want me to take them to my leader, and my leader is at the cleaners.” Or you might build the tension by saying, “I’ll get my pistol.” Or, alternatively, going in a very different direction, you might say, “Yes. I summoned them.” Or something else that accepts the reality presented and builds on it – in one direction or another.

Whatever weirdness presents, go with it. Rule number 1 of improv is: say yes – figuratively and sometimes maybe literally. Receptivity is saying yes to our reality and your reality. As psychologist Rick Hanson points out:
“Real life is like improv: the script's always changing and saying yes keeps you in the flow, pulls for creativity, and makes it more fun.”
He offers this little exercise:
"Try saying no out loud or in your mind. How's that feel? Then say yes. Which one feels better, opens your heart more, and draws you more into the world?"
Saying yes signals – and triggers – your receptivity to what is.

Sure, there are times when you need to say no – when you need to be clear about who you are, affirm your boundaries, decline to go along with something with which you aren’t comfortable, and refrain from promising what you won’t be able to deliver, or don’t want to. You definitely need those no’s.

Even so. Be on the look-out for ways that you can say yes to what life offers.

At the most basic level, receptivity means just recognizing reality as reality. Don’t be in denial. Being in denial is one of those things that we see so readily in other people, but find it very hard to spot in ourselves. I think my brother-in-law is in denial about climate change. He thinks I’m in denial about the Deep State.

It helps to have a diverse circle of trusted friends who can tell you if you’re being in denial. It also helps to cultivate the habit of being skeptical of the truth of anything that you want to be true. If you want it to be true, double-check the evidence with a critical eye before you believe that it is true.

One form of being in denial is to push unpleasant facts out of your mind. We say, “I don’t want to think about that – that’s depressing.” Reality is never depressing. In fact, depression – the sort of depression that’s at issue – comes from the efforts of denial. The energies spent on turning away from reality is what leaves us drained and sad – which we notice when those energies fail and reality breaks through.


The project of growing spiritually is a project of receptivity to inconvenient truths – a project of cultivating the habit of mindful awareness of suffering: your own and other people’s. This was so important that Siddhartha Gotama – the Buddha – declared it to be the first noble truth: life is dukkha – meaning painful disappointment.

He delineated Four Noble Truths in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta – a sutta which is traditionally held to be the Buddha’s first talk after his enlightenment. That sutta says that dukkha is birth, old age, sickness, and death, not getting what we want and getting what we don’t want. Notice that fact, Buddha is saying. Open yourself to receive this important truth: painful disappointment happens.

Just being present to this fact, strangely, makes it less painful. As Joan Tollifson said in our opening invocation:
“Awareness is its own action. We don’t need to analyze it or impose changes based on our ideas of what should be happening. Just being awake to the present moment, as it is, and seeing clearly what is happening: this is transformative.”
Just being receptive to reality is transformative.

Buddhism’s four noble truths, on the standard interpretation, are:
  1. Dukkha, painful disappointment, happens.
  2. There is a cause of dukkha, which is clinging.
  3. There is a solution.
  4. That solution is the eightfold path.
I am among those who think that standard interpretation is a misinterpretation of the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta. The crux of the matter is on that second noble truth. I think the Buddha was not saying there is a CAUSE of dukkha. He was saying there is an EFFECT of dukkha.

The key phrase in the original is dukkha samudaya. Samudaya means “arising.” So we have this ambiguity. This text says “dukkha arising.” Does that mean arising OF dukkha -- or what arises FROM dukkha? It is ambiguous, which opens the door for the standard interpretation, but I am persuaded by those writers (David Brazier, The Feeling Buddha, and Stephen Batchelor, After Buddhism) who argue that this term, dukkha samudaya, refers to what arises when we experience life’s disappointments. What arises is reactivity: resistance, denial. “This shouldn’t be happening to me.”

There is no spiritual path or practice or discipline that will put an end to dukkha. Old age, sickness, and death are unavoidable, no matter how devotedly you adhere to Buddha's eightfold path, or to any spiritual path. Not getting what we want and getting what we don’t want: also unavoidable. There’s no escape from these. What there IS the possibility of escape from is the reactivity to those disappointments: the resistance, the denial, the tendency of the mind to fixate on “it should not be” rather than on simply, “it is.”

This means that when we get to Noble Truths 3 and 4 -- "there is a solution" and "that solution is the eightfold path" -- the solution Buddha is talking about isn't the solution to dukkha. Again: there is no cure for old age, sickness, and death. Rather, he's talking about the solution to the extra suffering caused by our reactivity, resistance, and denial. The eightfold path doesn't free us from dukkha, but it is a guide for accepting and making peace with those facts of life that we don't like.

So I particularly appreciate the scholar Stephen Batchelor’s re-casting of the so-called “four noble truths” as the four tasks:
  1. Comprehend suffering. Really wrap your mind around that reality.
  2. Let go of arising – that is, let go of the reactivity that arises from the painful disappointments.
  3. Behold the ceasing – that is, notice what it feels like during those times when you aren’t reactive.
  4. Cultivate the path.

So, saying yes to some part of life you don’t like doesn’t mean making yourself like it. Saying yes to sickness, old age, and death doesn’t mean you’ll like those things.
“You can say yes to pain, to sorrow, to the things that aren't going well for you or others. Your yes means that you accept the facts as they are, that you are not resisting them emotionally even if you are trying with all your might to change them. This will usually bring some peace -- and will help any actions you take be more effective.” (Rick Hanson, Just One Thing)
Here’s how Rick Hanson suggests cultivating the spirit of saying yes to all of life, even the hard parts. Start off by saying yes to something you like. That should be easy. From there, next say yes to something neutral. Something like a wall painted a color that you neither like nor dislike. Think of a food that you neither like nor dislike. Say yes to that. Also not too hard.
“Then say yes to something you don't like. Can you do that, too? As you do this, try to feel a sense that you are okay, fundamentally, even though what you dislike exists. Also try to feel some acceptance in your yes, some surrender to the facts as they are, whether you like them or not.

Try saying yes to more things that are not your preference. You're not saying yes that you approve of them, but – for example – yes it's raining at my picnic, yes people are poor and hungry across the planet, yes my career has stalled, yes I miscarried, yes my dear friend has cancer. Yes that's the way it is. Yes to being in traffic. Yes to the job you have. Yes to the body you have.

Yes to the twists and turns in your life so far: large and small; good, bad, and indifferent; past, present, and future. Yes to the younger sibling whose birth toppled you from your throne. Yes to your parents' work and your family circumstances. Yes to your choices after leaving home. Yes to what you had for breakfast. Yes to moving someplace new. Yes to the person you are sleeping with -- or yes to not sleeping with anyone. Yes to having children -- or to not having them.

Say yes to what arises in the mind. Yes to feelings, sensations, thoughts, images, memories, desires. Yes even to things that need to be restrained -- such as an angry impulse to hit something, undeserved self-criticism, or an addiction."
You still restrain those things, but you say yes to the fact that the urge has arisen.
"Say yes to all the parts of the people in your life. Yes to the love in your parents and also yes to the parts that bothered you. Yes to a friend's flakiness amidst her good humor and patience, yes to another friend's sincerity amidst her irritability and criticalness. Yes to every bit of a child, a relative, a distant acquaintance, an adversary."
Yes to my brother-in-law being in denial about climate change. Yes to his insistence that I’m in denial about the Deep State.
"And yes to different parts of yourself -- whatever they are. Not picking and choosing right now, but saying yes -- YES -- to whatever is inside you.

Play with different tones of yes (out loud or in your mind) related to different things -- including the ones you don't like -- and see how this feels. Try a cautious yes, as well as a yes that is confident, soft, rueful, or enthusiastic.

Feel your yes in your body. To adapt a method from Thich Nhat Hanh: Breathing in, feel something positive; breathing out, say yes. Breathe in energy, breathe out yes. Breathe in calm, breathe out yes.

Say yes to your needs. Yes to the need for more time to yourself, more exercise, more love, fewer sweets, and less anger. Try saying no to these needs in your mind or out loud, and see how that feels. And then say yes to them again.

Say yes to actions. To this kiss, this lovemaking, this reaching for the salt, this brushing of teeth, this last good-bye to someone you love.

Notice your nos. And then see what happens if you say yes to some of the things you've previously said no to.

Say yes to being alive. Yes to life. Yes to your own life. Yes to each year, each day. Yes to each minute.

Imagine that life is whispering yes. Yes to all beings, and yes to you. Everything you've said yes to is saying yes to you. Even the things you've said no to are saying yes to you!

Each breath, each heartbeat, each surge across a synapse: each one says yes. Yes, all yes, all saying yes.


Here’s my story about saying yes.

It was the summer of 2004 – coming up on 20 years ago. LoraKim and I were in living in El Paso, Texas. LoraKim was finishing her second year as minister to our El Paso congregation. I had finished my ministerial internship up the road in Albuquerque, and had just been admitted to Unitarian Universalist ministerial fellowship. We had asked the El Paso congregation to make us their half-time-each co-ministers, and they had agreed.

LoraKim received a communication from Southwest Key – which calls itself an immigrant children’s shelter, but which functionally, is a detention facility for undocumented minors. In 2004, in El Paso, there on the Mexican border, undocumented minors from Mexico were sent back over the bridge, but minors from countries further south required more details to be arranged to work out where and to whom to send them back. As that is all being worked out, the children have to be interned somewhere, and that is why Southwest Key exists. Southwest Key was looking for a minister willing to volunteer to lead very general, ecumenical religious services, in Spanish, for the minors there.

Unitarians are particularly good at ecumenical and interfaith, and LoraKim was fluent in Spanish, so she said yes to Southwest Key. She wanted someone to play a little guitar for part of the service she planned, so she asked me to come along to do that. And I said yes. This was not any part of our plan, our intention. The offer came completely out of the blue, and we said yes.

So we went, we put on the service. For two or three Wednesday afternoons in July 2004, we were out at the El Paso Southwest Key facility giving what spiritual encouragement we could there to the young inmates. At one of those, a skinny 17-year-old came up to us after the service. He said his name was Yency Contreras. He was from Honduras. He asked if we would sponsor him.

We didn’t know what that would mean. But we went home and we started making some phone calls to look into it. We hadn’t made very many calls before Southwest Key called us and said, “you’ve been making inquiries into sponsoring one of our youths, so you can’t come back here any more.”

Still, the wheels were turning. A nonprofit called Las Americas connected with us, guiding us through the processes and procedures, and what forms to file with whom. We would need to go to court – family court rather than immigration court because Yency was a minor. Las Americas hooked us up with a pro bono lawyer for that.

It took a couple months. Then, in early October 2004 we drove to Southwest Key with papers in hand, this time to receive rather than to give. Yency was released into our custody. The court said we were his "managing conservators," which meant we were his functional parents as long as he was in the US and his biological parents were not. And as long as he was a minor – which, in less than 5 months, he would no longer be.

We kinda figured that, released from Southwest Key, Yency would bolt. We’d wake up the next morning and he would be gone. Instead, the next morning came and there he was: calling us mom and dad and asking about breakfast – in Spanish.

We enrolled him in the local high school. His 18th birthday came and went, and there he still was – slowly getting better at English, cracking jokes, and arguing with us about religion. The El Paso Times sent a reporter out to do a story about two Anglo Unitarian ministers and their evangelical Hispanic teenager – who wanted to be a police officer.
The picture that ran with El Paso Times article, 2005 May 9

In 2006, LoraKim and I accepted the call of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Gainesville, Florida to serve as their co-ministers. Yency came to Florida with us. It took him six tries at the GED exam before he could get past the math section, but he kept at it, and he finally did. Thereupon he enrolled in the local community college.

In fall of 2011, the three of us drove to Jacksonville for his naturalization service as he became a proud US citizen. He finished the two-year degree at the community college, and, in 2012, moved to Orlando to attend the University of Central Florida, returning home on occasional weekends and the holidays.
Boys in the Hood. Me and Yency in 2012.

In 2013, LoraKim and I moved to New York. In December 2014, we flew down to Orlando for Yency’s graduation, with a degree in criminal justice. He moved to Charlotte, North Carolina. He had cousins there and he’d heard encouraging things from the Charlotte police department.

He met a young woman. In January 2016, LoraKim and I co-officiated their wedding. Yency and Evelin now have two daughters – they are our granddaughters.
Officer Contreras, 2017

Yency’s now in his 8th year as a Charlotte police officer. We get out to see them sometimes – and they came up to New York to visit us there sometimes. He calls us every couple weeks to chat – or we call him. His place in our lives has been transformative.

When LoraKim and I married, we’d decided we weren’t going to have kids, and hadn’t given it a thought. Back in 2004, adopting a teenager was no part of our plan – no part of our intention, no part of our great vow for how we were out to serve the world.

But then this kid at Southwest Key asked. And we said yes.



What's Your Great Vow?


Transformation is our theme for December. Change, of course, is inevitable. We can’t help but change.

The first task is to accept this – don’t try to fight change, and when it comes, as it is continually coming, let go of that impulse to pine for the good old days. Embrace change – that’s the first spiritual task in the category "transformation."

But transformation suggests something a little more than the random – or seemingly-random – vicissitudes of change. Transformation – in the sense of a spiritual orientation – suggests a certain intentionality. There’s changing by accident – and then there’s changing on purpose, and transformation should have some purpose driving it. That's the second task: to have a purpose and to transform yourself in accordance with that purpose. Immediately, there's a caveat. You do want some purpose, but not too much. There needs to be some intentionality, but not too much intentionality. Remember that your purpose comes out of who you are now. As you re-make yourself, leave room for new purposes to emerge. Don’t try to control the process beyond a very gentle guidance.

It’s like parenting yourself. A good parent knows, as Kahlil Gibran said:
“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.”
Take the same approach to yourself – for you, too, are a child of life’s longing for itself. What you transform into comes through you but not from you.

Parenting a child or parenting yourself, either way, you offer gentle guidance, not control – you protect safety – make a safe space in which your child or yourself can become what life means for them, or you, to be.

This idea of control is worth looking into in some detail. 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 perception of 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.... What’s playing at the theatres?...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 ze’s doing is a reasonable part of zir 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, offered by Janet Kwasniak, 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.

In other words, 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.

And that leads us to the question for today: What is your great vow?


What is the promise your life makes to life itself? It’s just a story, sure, but it’s a story that can be potent.

I had a six month sabbatical back at the end of 2019 and beginning of 2020 – the six months immediately prior to the beginning of the pandemic, as it turned out. I spent the sabbatical in residence at a Monastery in Clatskanie, Oregon. It was called "Great Vow Zen Monastery." When we weren’t meditating, or doing the work to maintain the place, there were occasional group classes and workshops. As its name implies, Great Vow Zen Monastery facilitates reflection 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?” To adapt an example from the book, The Vow-Powered Life, by Jan Chozen Bays, who is the abbott of Great Vow Zen Monestery – suppose 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 once said 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. 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.

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, as I’ve mentioned. 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 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. As Jan Chozen Bays explains:
“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)
Alternatively, reactive vows can be a response to a 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 it might be just-right reactive.

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? So these are three sources of vow to reflect upon: the inherited, the reactive, and the inspired. Ultimately, though,
“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:
  1. What did you learn from parents or primary caretakers about what life is for? What are your inherited vows?
  2. What negative lessons did you learn – lessons about what you wanted to avoid if at all possible? What are your reactive vows?
  3. Who are your heroes? What are your inspired vows?
So here’s what I’m asking you to do – do this today – when you get home this afternoon, before you forget. Write down your answers about your inherited vows, reactive vows, and inspired vows.

Then sleep on it.

Some time tomorrow, please look again at what you wrote – what you put down about your three sources – inherited, reactive, and inspired. And then, in that light, draft your Great Vow.

You can share your Great Vow with others – I would love to hear what you discern – or you may prefer to keep it to yourself. But let it transform you into who you are.