Vows, Goals, and Intentions

When we seek to transform our lives, whether it is quitting smoking, eating healthier, being kinder to others, or bringing our physical being into balance, it is important to understand how this kind of change happens. We’d like to think that it’s just a matter of will power, that we just need to say we’ll do it and then stick to the plan. Of course we know what they say about men, plans, and mice.

  In reality making a vow or setting a goal is a very organic process. When a tree or other plant seeks to take it’s natural form it has to adapt to the environment or it will die. A river doesn’t just take a straight line to the sea. It negotiates the path with the landmarks around it. All too often when I have set goals I think of them as a straight line to the sea, but in reality I have several landmarks to work with. If I’m willing to negotiate my goals to match the landscape of my life I am more likely to reach the sea.

I recently read an article at my Dharma Punks sitting group by Thanissaro Bhikkhu about the practice of vow as an aspect of determination. This article identified 4 aspects of good determination: discernment, truth, relinquishment, and peace. The articles describes each of these aspects in a nice clear way.

First, it says of discernment: “Discernment here means two things. To begin with, it means setting wise goals: learning how to recognize a useful vow, one that aims at something really worthwhile, one in which you’re pushing yourself not too little, not too much — something that’s outside your ordinary expectations but not so far that you come crashing down. Second, it means clearly understanding what you have to do to achieve your goals — what causes will lead to the results you want.”

This aspect of setting goals is important to understand and practice. I’ve learned from years of working that it’s always better to under promise and then over deliver, but I all to often forget to do this with myself.

Let’s say you have a new friend would you lend them your car/bike? Lets say you’ve only seen them drive/ride twice. Once they were safe, the other time there were reckless. Would that effect your decision? 50% of your experience of them is negative. Compare that to how you would feel lending it to an old friend. One who you’ve seen break a few traffic laws but overall is a trustworthy person. The difference is clear, but often we treat ourselves like the old friend when our transforming self is mor like new acquaintance.

It takes time to build confidence in ourselves and see even if we make mistakes that we will stick to the path in the long run. As you start any new process to transform your life make sure to remember to take things slowly and work to build trust over time. Making and keeping small promises or goals with yourself will give you the confidence to keep bigger promises.

The second aspect of discernment that the article identifies is “clearly understanding what you have to do to achieve your goals.” Setting goals and making vows are wonderful, but many times I have been unrealistic about what it would take meet those goals. It meant giving up things I liked and making hard choices sometimes. Don’t have any illusions that you will find some shortcut to changing your life. It all about slow and steady progress and appreciating small victories.

If we fixate too much on the goals in the distance we lose sight of the steps it takes to get there. If you’ve ever run, biked, or even driven on the plains you know what this is like. If you watch some far off object it feels like it would take years to get there. But if you focus on each step, each breath, before you know it you’ve passed what seemed so far away.

After I decided that I was going to start doing triathlons I didn’t look at all the weeks of training it would take. I just worked on the week that I was on. At first swimming 1000 meters seemed impossible, but week after week I went to the pool and swam 100 meters 10 times with a little rest in between. Then one day I tried to swim 1000 meters in the Willamette river. It was HARD! I just wasn’t ready yet. So I doubled my efforts I went to the pool 2 more days a week and started pushing myself even harder. If I had said oh well this isn’t working I just give up that would’ve mean no triathlons. Instead I found that within a few weeks I was able to swim 1000 meters comfortably. I just needed a little extra push.

I focused on the steps to where I wanted to go not that my goal, despite my hard work, still seemed so far away. My initial assessment of what I needed to do wasn’t quite right, but that’s ok because I was willing to adjust to find the right path. When making goals we have to use our discernment to decide what we can trust ourselves to do and then focus on the steps to getting there. That way when we run into a road block we can see it as a small side step, rather than thinking we are completely derailed.

This week take the time to write down your goals at least 3 times. Then write down one concrete step you can take this week to get where you want to go. Lastly reflect on how achieving your goal will be of benefit to others. Your actions could inspire others, give you more confidence, or lengthen your life and thus the time you spend with loved ones. It’s important to remember that everything we do is not just for ourselves. When we are healthier happier people the merit just spreads out.

Thanks for reading and next post I’ll write about the second aspect of determination, Truth.

Be well.


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