Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
I was in my 30s before I found something that seemed worth a commitment. Until then, I was the kind of person who sat 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 “till death do us part” (and part we did after a few years). Like so many other people in their teens
and 20s, I kept waiting to find something 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 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 between the two was wholehearted commitment: first, to my own spiritual
development, and second, to a specific teacher and to the vows of a monk and, finally, to serving the truth.
The commitment to my teacher was the most dramatic. It tore me out of the culture and fabric of my New York-California
hipster lifestyle. It thrust me into a devotional ashram culture whose disciplines and protocols were radically foreign.
Nothing there was comfortable to my ego. In the first years, I had to learn not just the disciplines of yoga but also the
far more rigorous discipline of living in a spiritual community. Two things kept me going. The first was my teacher’s
love. The second was a decision, taken like a vow, that I wouldn’t quit. No matter what, I wouldn’t leave as long as my
teacher lived. That simple decision to stay turned out to be the foundation of whatever progress I’ve made in spiritual
Eight years later, a few months before my teacher died, he initiated me and a small group of other disciples into sannyasa, the Indian vow of monkhood. Being a swami, a sannyasin in an Indian order, traditionally requires a permanent vow, not like Buddhist monks’ vows, which can be taken for a limited period. It was a big deal in the eyes of the world. But for me, the sannyasa vow was primarily an extension of my commitment to my teacher. My vow was to serve him and his path.
I stayed for the next 20 years. During those years, situations arose that could have impelled me to leave, but they also
taught me radical detachment. There were sacrifices. There was also an exquisite arena for being of service to others,
vast opportunities for learning, and a lot of joy. Through it all, as I underwent the time-honored process that is at the
heart of the spiritual journey, I never doubted that I’d made the right decision.
But in the late ’90s, something changed for me. Being part of an organizational culture felt constrictive to my expanding
awareness. I began to sense that I would be of more service outside both the swami robes and the organizational
structure. And I began to wonder: How do you know when it’s time to end a commitment you’ve held for half your life?
Commitment has two distinct sides. On the upside, our commitments are a prerequisite for depth. Without commitment, life
is a free-for-all, relationships a series of hookups, and practice mere dabbling. You’ll never have the sustained
intimacy in a three-month affair that you have with someone you’ve been married to for 10 years. There’s no way that a
weeklong retreat in yoga and Pranayama will give you the kind of power and sustained opening that you’ll get from years
of daily practice. You can’t write a novel, establish a business, raise a child, or learn a language without wholehearted
commitment—a kind of for-better-or-worse agreement with yourself that you’re going to show up for this person, or this project, even if it’s not going well, even if you’re not in the mood. Our capacity for keeping our commitments makes
But we can’t talk about commitment without acknowledging its undeniable shadow side: how a commitment can keep you stuck, can become a safety zone that prevents you from making needed changes—how it can turn into an excuse for not doing the work of inner growth. No question that certain commitments, to a child, for example, are nonnegotiable as long as we have our health and sanity. But many, especially in the arenas of career, relationships, and spiritual practice, are not. When the life has gone out of a commitment, it can become a life eater, a black hole that sucks your joy, your love, your creativity. Stability (supportive, grounding, depth producing) turns into stagnation (swampy, deadening, sticky).
When the novel you’ve pursued for three years suddenly looks puerile, when your marriage feels locked in patterns of mutual avoidance or recrimination, when your heart feels dead, the first step is to ask yourself some serious questions. Questions like “Is this feeling that I should leave a new form of resistance? Am I avoiding the work needed to get to the next level? Or is my feeling that I need to end this commitment coming from my instinct for spiritual growth?”
There’s no formula for answering these questions, because what is demanded here is a willingness to know yourself, to
know your own heart, and to balance your own needs with the needs of others. But I have come to recognize certain signs
that an instinct to end a commitment needs to be honored. One is simply the feeling of deadness in a relationship or
project. Everything in life has cycles of birth, growth, decline, and death. When something feels dead, that needs to be
acknowledged. If it isn’t, the dead feeling begins to spread through your life. If you’re willing to explore the deadness
and listen to the messages it gives you, you will begin to find out what is behind it, and what you need to do about it.
Perhaps you have deep wants that are not being satisfied. Perhaps you see that the situation you’re in fosters your fears
or limits your talents. Perhaps you are experiencing what is known as a calling, a signal from what Rumi called “the pull
of what you really love.” It takes time to recognize this, so I usually recommend sitting with the situation long enough
to bring the emotional level, the heart level of your being, together with the practical, analytic mind level.
Knowing When to Call it Quits
I found myself considering all these issues recently as I listened to my friend Laura agonizing over whether to end her
marriage. Laura and her husband, Todd, are both artists. Todd has been Laura’s main teacher, helping her develop her
talent, and is still her most trusted critic. They have two children, a house in upstate New York, a serious yoga and
meditation practice, and a deep sophistication about self-help issues.
So when Laura realized that she was feeling trapped in the marriage, her first response was to recommit herself. She went
to a therapist. She did her best to put the thoughts away. But the feeling that the marriage was stifling her wouldn’t go
away. As she explored the feeling with her therapist, she began to see her own unexpressed longings as well as the ways
in which the marriage both protected her and cut her off from her own voice. Above all, she became aware of a sense of
calling that seemed to demand a change in the way she was living. Eventually, she told Todd that she wanted a separation.
Todd was blind-sided. He promised to do whatever work was needed. He wanted desperately to stay married, not only because
of the children but also because he loved and depended on Laura.
They started couples’ therapy. As they worked, Laura revealed that for years she had lived in fear of Todd’s criticisms.
Todd, under an even-tempered surface, often walked around in states of rage and judgment, which came out in critical
remarks and miasmic moods. Todd agreed to begin noticing and changing his behavior. Laura agreed to put her desire for a
divorce on hold. A few months later, the two of them had reached a level of honesty and intimacy they’d never had
together. Todd had begun treating Laura as an equal and was moving through his own process of deep self-examination.
But Laura was again feeling dead inside, just as she had before she asked for a separation. She became more and more
certain that her spiritual growth demanded a kind of personal autonomy that she couldn’t find in the marriage. She felt
that, in some way, her life depended on stepping out of it.
My reaction to Laura’s decision was much like Todd’s. Why? I thought. You have kids. You’ve addressed the problem issues,
the relationship is growing, and Todd is a great person. What she was doing seemed willful and flaky. And yet, I had
done something very similar: I had chosen to step out of a traditional structure when it became clear to me that not
doing so would have brought my spiritual growth to a standstill.
Wave of Change
Sixty years ago, very few of us considered spiritual growth a valid reason for leaving a job or a marriage. Nowadays, the
idea is not so strange, and not just because of changes in women’s roles, family structures, and the like. Times like
ours offer unparalleled opportunities to shift our levels of consciousness. Not only do we live in a maelstrom of global
economic and cultural change, but a new and undeniable spiritual revolution is sweeping through postindustrial societies.
More and more of us recognize that something within us is deeper than our personalities or 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.
What happens to our commitments when everything around us is changing? What does it mean to make commitments
realistically and, above all, to keep them? How do we navigate with integrity the gap between what cultural tradition
tells us we should do with our lives and the reality of what the inner journey demands? And how do we know when our
desire to change course is soul driven and not just, well, escapist?
The answers demand deep self-inquiry, in which we look honestly at our desires and motivations. In order to clarify our
motives, we must recognize not just our hidden ego and our “base” desires, but we also need to find out where our
nonnegotiable commitments lie. Often, it isn’t where we think they do. In my own search for integrity in commitment, I’ve
continually come face to face with two simple but often hard-to-notice facts. First, we can’t reliably commit ourselves
to anything if we don’t know what our true values are. Second, once we have found ourselves on a spiritual path, a path
of yogic transformation, we have to accept that none of our interpersonal and intrapersonal commitments will feel exactly
right until we gain clarity about our metacommitments.
What is a Metacommitment?
A metacommitment is a vow you make with your own soul, with that part of your being that underlies your personality, the
part of you that connects to the eternal. The soul is your essence. In Indian traditions, the soul is called the
jivatman—the individual Self, or spark of consciousness. If a commitment is a truly soulful compact, you’ll find that it can withstand any amount of chaos and remain in place even when your external commitments are dissolving around you.
The following are some examples of metacommitments:
- To love in all circumstances
- To be of service
- To make your first priority your ongoing transformation and growth
- To find out what is ultimately real
- To make community
- To make beauty
- To be compassionate
- To help make the world better
- To live as your highest Self
- To ensure justice
You’ll see immediately that metacommitments are related to values, principles, and intentions. Like an intention, a
metacommitment needs at some point to be stated formally. But a commitment goes a step beyond an intention, because it is
akin to a personal vow.
A metacommitment 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 metacommitments is what makes you trustworthy to yourself and others.
Your relationships, job description, and day-to-day commitments may change. But metacommitments don’t change, though
their expression in your life may morph. And in the end, your metacommitments define you.
Here, it’s important to understand that a metacommitment isn’t the same thing as an unconscious drive. Our unconscious
drives come from personal wounds or weaknesses, from “programs” or limiting patterns lodged in our subtle body. Our
metacommitments, 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
Laura, for example, has an unconscious drive to break out of restrictions. But when she began looking at her
metacommitments, she realized that her main metacommitments, the cornerstones of her personal integrity, were to honesty
and love. Her honesty demanded that she recognize that not to follow the path she was being shown would cut her off from
her life force. Her love demanded that she follow the process in a way that minimized the pain to her family.
When you know your metacommitments, you have 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, especially if it helps you discipline the wilder aspects of
your creativity). Is your commitment to vitality, adventure? Then you probably won’t be happy living with someone who has
a metacommitment to a quiet life. Do you want spiritual growth? Then you will probably need to commit to a daily
discipline that lets you keep building your depth in practice.
A metacommitment then becomes a rudder for holding a steady course toward 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
may make sense to set a time for your 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 hour, without letting go of regularity.
It’s the same in other areas of your life. If your commitment is to kindness and compassion, then even when you break up
with your lover, you can do it without inflicting the kinds of wounds that make it hard to stay friends. The more deeply
you know your metacommitments, the easier it is to negotiate external changes. Metacommitments help you hold a steady
course, even when circumstances are moving you in unwanted or unintended directions.
When I faced the question of whether to step out of my spiritual organization, I was able to trust my own decision to
leave only after I had clarified my real commitment. My core metacommitment, I discovered, was to discovering the Real.
The second was to service, which included, but also went beyond, service to the tradition that I had been following.
Because I knew the metacommitment, I was able to move through the very difficult and complex decision to leave the
organization, knowing that I was being true to my deeper vow.
When Laura and Todd clarified their metacommitments, they saw that a core commitment for both of them was the welfare of
their children. Equally strong was their commitment to loving each other, regardless of their formal relationship. They
realized both of those metacommitments could survive divorce.
The only sure thing in life is change. A commitment, to serve its deepest purpose, needs to be able to withstand
change. When you know your metacommitments, when you can state them and live by them, your life has the integrity and
steadfastness that are at the heart of yoga. Your relationship may dissolve, your job description change, your path
morph beyond recognition. But the depth that commitment brings is never lost.
Uncover Your Core Commitments
When you want to discover your own metacommitments, you will need to begin by setting aside some of your assumptions
about yourself and your life. Assumptions like “If I love someone, I should want to live with them” or “Spiritual people
don’t concern themselves with goods and money” can interfere with your ability to discover what’s true for you.
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? That is, how many have not been driven by the values of your culture, or by those
unexamined beliefs about how you are supposed to live that you set aside before beginning this exercise? Now, honestly
look at what you value at this point in your life.
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 am I good at?
- What really matters to me enough that I am willing to sacrifice for it? Friendship? Creative work? Inner peace? Kindness? Creating positive change? Helping people? Getting to the truth?
- Finally, ask yourself, “What threads of metacommitment can I see running through my life? How have they served me? How have they changed?”
- Given all this, what are three metacommitments 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?
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 you can hang on to. Those are the ones you’ll keep.
Sally Kempton is an internationally recognized teacher of meditation and yogic philosophy and the author of The Heart of Meditation.