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Finding the sacred in promises we make to ourselves and others is an art. We all know about the other kind of promises, those tossed off in the moment that we feel all right about breaking. “Six? Sure, I promise I’ll be there.” And in the moment, we mean it; we really do want to honour our promise to arrive when we say we will, because we want to show respect to those with whom we have relationships. But made in the moment, these ordinary promises can be broken by poor planning and lack of foresight. Then we tell ourselves, “Oh, I have a meeting at five I forgot about when I made those arrangements. They’ll understand.” And, most often, “they” do, especially when we send up a warning flag such as, “I’m running late. Please start without me. I’ll explain when I get there.” The kind of promise that becomes sacred doesn’t start out that way. We might initially consider the idea of losing excess weight for our health’s sake, or the idea of quitting smoking at the stroke of midnight, or the idea of exercising faithfully lightly. We can learn to turn these considerations into sacred promises that improve our lives through the time and attention we give to them.
A sacred promise is sometimes called an oath. An oath implies a spiritual component, a Presence that is party to the promise, one that reminds us what we have promised is vitally important. We tend to to find our promises to others easier to keep and those we make to ourselves regarding our health and well being more easily pushed aside in the moment. “Oh, just one cigarette won’t hurt,” or “This cookie has my name on it,” or “It’s Christmas (or New Years or my birthday) and I deserve to celebrate,” are common reasons we give for going back on our word to ourselves. And yet breaking faith with the Self has more dire consequences than breaking faith with others; it can quite literally end in death.
How do we make promises to Self and Other that become sacred? What skills are involved? What habits? The first component of sacred promise making and keeping is always conscious knowledge of why we want to make the promise in the first place. Last week I wrote about the importance of reflection in our desires for transformation. Reflection is always the very best aid to any sacred work.
Let us consider a promise to Self of lifestyle improvements to make sure we are as healthy and vital as we can be, for our loved ones, for those we serve at work, for our communities, and for Life itself. We want to eat consciously and cleanly and to take regular exercise and yet our lives are busy and it is all too easy to slip into the old habits of eating the most convenient foods and of postponing that walk or run or swim until we have more time. Driving ourselves to be healthy doesn’t work. Nor does shaming ourselves. What does work is remembering why we want to be healthy, why we want to show up for Self and Other, why we want to be Present to the joys and demands of our lives.
Usually we want to be our best and do our best. Usually we want to discover what we’re made of when we make sacred promises. “Am I a person of my word?” we ask ourselves. “Am I capable of doing what I say I am going to do? If I am not yet the person I want to be, how might I become that person?”
The next important step in the process of sacred promise making is to view any kind of set back or failure as a teacher and guide. As a young woman, I was disgusted with myself when I couldn’t quit smoking. My disgust disappeared when I learned to see my many failed attempts at becoming a non-smoker as signs of my determination. I really wanted to quit; I could tell because of all the times I tried to quit despite earlier failures. Parsing my failures, I eventually opened to the emotional heart of my smoking addiction. Yes, I was hooked on the nicotine, but more than that, I was hooked on the self-created emotional support I received from the habit.
Smoking, among other things, permitted me to breathe. As an anxious child, I learned in stressful situations to hold my breath as a means of making emotionally traumatic events less painful. The habit of holding my breath made me more anxious because I was depriving myself of oxygen. Smoking required I breathe, when I was angry, when I was sad, when I was frightened. Reflecting on the gifts of steadfastness and breathing I received from my smoking habit inspired me to breathe without smoking and to be present to myself when in distress.
Breathing, consciously, topped the list then and tops the list now, especially when I am angry. Reaching out to others when I am frightened or sad is also very important now that I do not use cigarettes to mute my feelings. Writing in my journal also helps me to remain present to myself by writing about my emotional responses to life. Now that I have tapping as an emotional-release tool, I use it daily to maintain a sense of who I am, who I want to be, and how to close the gap between these two selves. In the past, reflecting on what smoking did for me allowed me to reach that place of sacredness, of true commitment to my non-smoking self. If I were to go through that process today, tapping would be among my most important reflection tools.
Making and keeping our sacred promises make our lives worth living. We look in the mirror and see ourselves as people of integrity when we keep our sacred promises. So much in life trivializes the roles human beings can play in the betterment of our communities, in the protection of our natural environment, in the visioning of a peace-filled, healing world. When we make and keep our sacred promises, we are turning away from triviality toward our higher purpose. It is a wonderful way to be in the world when we show up and give our very best to each situation. We know this with absolute conviction each time we make and keep such a promise.
Until next week
Jane Buchan, MA, AAMET Advanced Practitioner, firstname.lastname@example.org, 802-533-9277