Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice

 

Promises

In Judaism, the holiest day of the year is Yom Kippur. And on Yom Kippur, the holiest prayer is the first one: Kol Nidre, a prayer to declare null and void all personal vows that do not involve other people, to not have our unfulfilled vows damage us. Why is this? Why should this ancient religion place such seemingly inordinate emphasis on a prayer regarding vows? Of course, other religions also proclaim the importance of keeping one’s word, but the thrust of that Yom Kippur prayer illustrates the point particularly well.

Suppose I tell someone I will do something, and then I fail to do it. That person may be disappointed, may think less of me, and may be inconvenienced. Serious enough, but what about me, what are the consequences for me, other than a drop in my polls? If my word proves worthless, then what am I?

We can frame this in terms of responsibility. If my word is worthless, then I am irresponsible. But why should this matter to my spiritual path? Can’t I be both present and irresponsible? Perhaps so. Does irresponsibility interfere with presence? Perhaps not. But the path consists of more than presence. In particular, will, in all its aspects, constitutes a major and crucial factor. If my word is worthless, it reveals my will as weak, fragmented, or twisted. How can God’s Will possibly find a home in me, unless my own will is whole and wholesome? I must be undivided and pure in my will before I can wholeheartedly open to God.

Thus, if I fail to keep my word, if I disregard my promises, my path surely remains blocked. This holds whether the promise is to another person, to myself, or to God. If I neglect a promise to myself, then I lose self-respect. If I breach a vow to God, I have no reverence for the Awesome. If I violate my word to you, then I hold you to be less than me. All of these seriously impede my path. However, if I always keep my word to you, to myself, and to God, then this transparency of heart and strength of will accelerate my way.

Now we might attempt to bargain in front of this requirement. We may reason, “well, if I don’t promise anything to anyone, I’ll never break my word.” But dodging a situation by not giving our word, by not responding, by not accepting an obligation, by shirking our rightful duty when called upon, also defines irresponsibility. The more responsible we are, the further we can go. Not that we must overburden ourselves and clutter our lives with many responsibilities. Rather, we choose those that matter the most and that we can fulfill within our limited time and power. If we treat every promise as if it were a promise to God, then we shall not stray far off the mark of how to live in respect, by our word.

Complications arise. We make promises in reaction to some outer stimulus, from a part of ourselves and not from the whole. Later, we regret the promise. Perhaps someone goads and pressures us into agreeing to something we oppose, and we give in rather than stand up for what we see as true. Perhaps the heat of a moment moves us to promise something, from which quiet reflection would have diverted us. Perhaps we have no time for reflection; we must make a snap judgment, possibly based on our emotional reactions and habits rather than on our deeper intuition. These and other complexities of life form the gray area, the cutting edge of our work to become whole in our will, to keep our word, to serve truth, to be responsible. For despite our sneaking desire to let it pass, the buck does stop with each of us.


     

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