Sally Kempton

Doorways to the Infinite

Go Your Own Way

I was in my thirties before I found something that seemed worth a commitment. Until then, everything I did, I did provisionally. I was the kind of person who sits in the back of the room, close to the door, in case I wanted to leave. When I got married, I crafted the vows so that there was no mention of ‘for better or worse’, and though I had what seemed to most people to be a worthwhile career, I always felt more comfortable taking it one day at a time. Like so many people in their teens and twenties, I kept waiting to find the one thing that seemed worth throwing myself into wholeheartedly.

When I did find it, my life changed so radically that I sometimes think of myself as having had two different lifetimes. One, as a half-formed seeker dabbling in journalism and serial monogamy, the other as a focused, serious spiritual practitioner, disciple, monk, and teacher. The difference was commitment. Wholehearted commitment: first to my own spiritual development, secondly to a specific teacher and path, finally to liberation itself. Since then, the intensity with which I pursue my practice has wavered, deepened, unfolded. My teacher died, and eventually I left his organization. The path itself has morphed, and so has my journey. But the original decisive commitment remains, and when I look back at my life, its blindingly obvious that it was the commitment itself which pulled me through good times and bad times. It’s the commitment that created whatever personal power and depth I’ve managed to achieve. That commitment defines my life.

Of course, that’s both the good news and the bad news about commitment. Your commitments do, in the end, define your life – for better or for worse. On the one hand, commitment is the prerequisite for depth. You’ll never have the sustained intimacy in a three month affair that you have with someone you’ve been married to for ten years, nor will your weekend workshop in yoga and pranayama give you the kind of power and inner opening that you’ll get from years of daily practice and self-inquiry. No one has ever mastered anything without whole-hearted commitment, which means a kind of for-better-or-worse agreement with yourself that you’re going to show up for this person, or this project, or this practice no matter what, even when its not going well. Even when you’re not in the mood.

There’s a near-magical connection between commitment and breakthrough. Its said, ‘”Once you have definitely decided, the universe moves too!” ‘ Your hidden powers, your underground streams of creativity, and your previously untapped capacities for love get activated when you decide that something or someone is important enough to inspire you to hang in there. I’m thinking specifically of Penny and Bernie, who, when I first met them, were on the brink of divorce and decided to hang in there a bit longer. They’ve ended up, thirty years down the road, rejoicing in the depth of their intimacy. Or of R, whose novel got turned down by 17 publishers; undaunted, he rethought his main character and ended up with a book that several reviewers called a masterpiece. The inner secrets don’t get revealed to the dilettente. Or if they do, he usually can’t put them to use.

Ok, that’s the upside of commitment. Now lets talk about its undeniable downside.

My friend Sandra married Todd because he seemed to “see” her more lovingly and deeply than anyone she’s ever met. Now, three years later, he makes fun of her interest in yoga, loses his temper two or three times a week, and constantly tells her that she’s not the girl he married. Sandra keeps ploughing through self-help books, and following her therapist’s counsel to open her heart more, to speak up for her needs, set boundaries, work on her insecurities. In other words, she keeps trying harder, the way we’re told to do when we’ve made a commitment. Yet in her heart, she knows that the marriage is dying and that at some point she will have to end it.

Then there’s Tom, a student of a teacher who demands absolute loyalty from his students. Tom has begun to realize that he only agrees with part of his teacher’s approach. Other aspects of it seem off to Tom, so when he teaches them he feels out of integrity. Tom intuits that he is actually developing his own style, and that it may be time for him to move on. But at the same time, he recognizes residues in himself of an old resistance to authority, and wonders if he’s not running away from a commitment that has more to teach him.

Commitment has two distinct faces. One face promises intimacy, depth, and stability. But the stability of commitment has a nasty way of turning into stagnation, and its intimacies can leave you bleeding or at least seriously exposed. Especially in our breakneck era, making an unconditional commitment can feel like putting a noose around your neck, or tying yourself to the back of speeding subway car.

Why would you want to commit to a long-term contract when the last company in which you invested your career went bankrupt, taking with it your health insurance and wiping out the value of your 401k? Is it sensible to throw yourself wholeheartedly into an athletic yoga practice when your dedication to extreme ski-ing left you with adrenal burnout, or destroyed the cartilage in your knees? Or, stay in a relationship, personal or professional, when, like Tom or Sandra, your soul is telling you its time to move on?

It’s this last possibility, I believe, that makes commitments particularly tricky for someone on a conscious path of inner growth. We happen to be living in a period of unprecedented social and spiritual evolution. Times like ours offer unparalleled opportunities to shift your level of consciousness. Which also means that we experience more and more situations in which all bets get called off.

In times past, most people’s survival demanded that they operate inside conventional structures. You married a certain person, entered a trade or profession, had kids, and, barring accidents or acts of God, lived with those choices for the rest of your life. If you didn’t follow the mould, you often ended up unprotected, outcast, because to be a part of society demanded that you hook up with the given structures of social support. Hardly anyone had the social mobility to make radical choices. You didn’t have children out of wedlock, at least not on purpose. You didn’t change partners midstream. Nor – unless you were a bum or an eccentric aristocrat – did you drop out of a successful career to travel to India, leave your family to find yourself, or volunteer for Doctors without Borders.

Nowadays, of course, nearly every role and lifestyle decision is potentially up for grabs. Not only do we live in a maelstrom of global economic and cultural change, but there is a new and undeniable spiritual revolution sweeping through post-industrial societies. More and more of us recognize that there is something within us that is deeper than the personality, deeper than the social and cultural currents that determine so much of our external lives. That deeper self – call it the soul – is demanding that its agendas be heard, not just in our personal lives, but also in politics, as witness the revolutionary force of popular inspiration unleashed by President Obama. If you’re reading this article, you’ve probably gone through at least one big shift of consciousness in the last two or three years. The mere fact that you’re studying yoga – something that only a generation ago was reserved for committed seekers, weirdos, or people on the cultural edge – is a sign that an awakening is going on in your body and mind. Life-lessons which your parents might have taken ten years to learn are getting processed by your generation in two or three years, or even two or three months. Like it or not, you’ve moved beyond the old structures in ways you may not have realized. Much of the chaos and confusion that people like Sandy and Tom are feeling is a natural result of the gap between what tradition tells us we should do with our lives, and the reality of what the inner journey is demanding.

That being the case, what does it mean to make commitments realistically, and above all, to keep them?

And, the deeper questions: How do you define commitment in a world where almost every decision you make is in some way provisional?

And how do you know that your desire to change course is soul-driven, and not just, well, flaky?

The key, I believe, is to look deeper at what commitment really means. In my own search for integrity in commitment, I’ve seen two things. First, that no one can reliably commit herself to anything if she doesn’t know who she is and what she really wants in life.

Secondly, that once you have found yourself on the spiritual path, the path of yogic transformation, you’re going to have to face the fact that none of your interpersonal and intrapersonal commitments will feel exactly right until you get clear about your meta-commitments.

What is a meta-commitment? 

A meta-commitment is a contract you make with your own soul, with that part of your being that underlies the personality, the part of you that connects to the eternal. The soul is your essence. In the Indian traditions, the soul is called the jivatman – the individual Self, or spark of Consciousness. If it’s a real soul-contract, you’ll find that it can withstand any amount of chaos, and remain in place even when your external commitments are crashing around you.

A meta-commitment stands regardless of how the people and situations in your life come and go, because it is the key to your personal integrity. Knowing and keeping your meta commitments is actually what makes you trustworthy to yourself and to the others in your life. Your relationships, your job description, and your day-to-day commitments may change. But meta commitments don’t change, even though their expression in your life may morph. And in the end, its the meta-commitments that define you.

My friend M has been, at different times, a teacher, a workshop leader, a transformational counselor, and a marketing consultant. People who don’t like him say that he keeps changing course. But if you look closely at his life trajectory, you see that he’s always been committed to the same things: creating intrapersonal connections between people, inspiring them to see their own beauty, bringing together his religious tradition with cutting edge psychological insights. He’s done this regardless of his job description, regardless of whether he was leading large groups or talking to a friend.

Tom’s main meta-commitment is to pushing his personal growth-edge. Because that’s his bottom line, he now finds himself growing past his teacher’s model of reality. That probably means he will have to move out of his teacher’s circle. But what he doesn’t give up on – what he can’t give up on – is his commitment to live at the edge of his developing awareness. And since he has another meta-commitment – to respect those who have shown him kindness and taught him, he will do his best to have the break happen in way that serves that goal.

Sandy, on the other hand, realizes that her main meta-commitments are to love and service. She’s been assuming that love means sticking with her husband through thick and thin. Now, she’s realizing that to keep herself in a situation that causes her daily pain is not love, but masochism. So her question then becomes, what is appropriate love and service in this situation? How can I find a way to love him unconditionally, yet leave the marriage?

When you know your meta-commitments, you have a criteria for evaluating major and minor life decisions. Are you committed to a life of creative expression? In that case, you probably shouldn’t sign up to be a certified teacher in a rule bound yoga system (though studying the system might be valuable in small doses, especially if it helps you discipline the wilder shores of your creativity.) Is your commitment to vitality, adventure? Then you probably won’t be happy living with someone who has a meta-commitment to the quiet life. Do you want spiritual growth? Then you will probably also need to commit to a daily discipline that lets you keep building your depth in practice.

Here are some meta-commitments:

To love in all circumstances
To be aligned with the truth
To be honest with myself and others
To be of service
To experience joy
To create
To heal
To find out what is ultimately real
To liberating myself from limiting beliefs
To fearlessness

To being in community
To making beauty
To be trustworthy and keep promises
To inspire and be inspired
To be compassionate
To make things better
To be non-judgmental
To clarity
To regularity
To be a leader
To fairness

You’ll see immediately that meta commitments are related to values, principles and intentions. An intention or a value becomes a commitment when you turn it into a kind of personal vow. Your meta-commitment then becomes your rudder for holding a steady course towards personal integrity. As you grow and change, you may find that the way you express the commitment will morph. For instance, a commitment to regularity in practice may start out as a decision to go to class three times a week, or to meditate for 20 minutes every day. At certain points, it will make sense to, say, set a time for practice and stick to it. Yet if you understand that the real commitment is to the practice, rather than to the time you do it, then you can be flexible about the time, without letting go of regularity.

It’s the same in other areas of your life. If your bottom line commitment is to kindness and compassion, then even when you break up with your lover, you can do it without inflicting the kind of wounds that make it hard to stay friends. The more deeply you know your meta- commitments, the easier it is to negotiate external changes. Meta commitments help you hold a steady course even when circumstances are moving you in unwanted or unintended directions.

An example: my friend Lourdes, a life-long environmentalist, identified herself so completely with her commitment to the environment that she was convinced it held all the meaning in her life. When the Bush administration began overturning laws she’d worked for years to put in place, she began questioning everything she’d done since college. She decided to take a personal retreat. For nearly two years, she spend hours every day in meditation and contemplation. There were times when she was convinced that was losing her edge, copping out of the Good Fight, turning into a narcissist. Yet as her inner quiet deepened, she realized that her environmental activism came from a deeper commitment: a desire to heal and protect the earth that was as mystical as it was political. “I saw that what I was doing now was simply the inner facet of the outer work,” she told me. During those years, she worked closely with shamanic practices, taught meditation to other environmentalists, and spent a lot of time in the wilderness. Then, in early 2008, she got drawn into the Obama campaign. She spent six months, eighteen hours a day, immersed in on-the-ground organizing. Now, she’s once more engaged in environmental policy work – but from a radically inward point of view.

Here, it should be said, we need to notice that a meta-commitment isn’t the same thing as an unconscious drive. Our unconscious drives come from personal wounds or weaknesses, the “programs”, or samskaras lodged in our subtle body. Our meta-commitments, on the other hand, are expressions of our highest aspirations, our deepest sense of soul. They come from what is sometimes called the “authentic self.”  The authentic self includes the ego, but also holds the capacity to witness and transcend the ego. When you’re in your authentic self, you can recognize, honor, and work with your unique temperament, your skills, gifts, and wounds. You have the clarity to recognize and act from your highest values – yet without denying the tendencies and preferences that help create your particular perspective, your unique way of being in the world.

When you want to discover your own meta-commitments, you probably have to begin by setting aside, for the moment, some of your assumptions about yourself and your life. (Things like: “To be a good person means never getting angry,” “If Ben loved me he’d want to live with me” “Spiritual people don’t concern themselves with goods and money”  or “I’m not as smart as my brother.” ) You can pick any of these up later, of course.

Next, you’ll need to do some honest self-inquiry. Begin by looking at the commitments you’ve made in your life. How many of them have been full-hearted? How many of your external commitments to date have been driven by peer values, by fear of losing out on something, by the previously mentioned unexamined beliefs about how you are supposed to live?

Now, honestly look at what you value at this point in your life. Not what you valued in your teens, or what you believe you ought to value. To determine your real values, ask yourself these questions:

What do I tend to be doing at the times when I feel happiest?
Which of my gifts mean the most to me? Which feel most like ‘me’?
What do I love about myself?
What do others love about me?
What really matters to me – for instance, friendship? Creative work? Inner peace? Kindness? Living on my edge? Helping people? Growth?

Given all this, what are three meta-commitments that I can make right now – commitments that I can keep regardless of where I am or who I’m with? Which of these is likely to deepen my relationship to life?

Finally, ask yourself, “What have been my meta-commitments during my life so far? How have they served me? How have they changed?”

As you take yourself through this process, you’ll find out a lot about yourself – about who you are, and what you value. Above all, you’ll start to see what it means for you to live deeply, authentically. Making commitments and keeping them is critical to our self-respect, our ability to rely on our own steadfastness. Yet because your commitments do indeed define your life, you want to be sure that you’re making them from the deepest place you can find in yourself. Those are the commitments we can hang onto. Those are the ones we keep.