Intention is the core of all conscious life. It is our intentions that create karma, our intentions that help others, our intentions that lead us away from the delusions of individuality toward the immutable verities of enlightened awareness. Conscious intention colors and moves everything.
Master Hsing Yun
Any time is a good time to pause and take stock of our lives. We might set new goals, make resolutions, or use the energy of changes in our lives or in the world around us to give us inspiration. Our goals may involve beginning new projects, or renewing plans that have long lain fallow. I find that people’s goals or resolutions can be generally divided into two types: “doing” and “being” resolutions. For the purposes of this discussion, I will call them goals and intentions.
Goals vs. Intentions
What is the difference between goals and intentions? The goals we often set for ourselves are focused on a desired outcome in the future. When we set goals, it helps us make plans for how to take sequential steps for meeting this goal between now and that imagined future time. This is a very productive and useful process. Some examples of these types of goals are:
- I will lose 15 pounds this year.
- I will be in a new job by September.
- This year, I will make a decision about ______ and move forward on that decision.
Because our goals are set in the future, we have limited control over whether or when they get accomplished. An unforeseen recession could affect our job search process; an illness or injury could affect our weight loss plan; and new information may clarify or muddy some decision we’ve been wrestling with. However, our goals can be adjusted and timelines reset like a GPS system guiding us toward our given destination, no matter how many detours we may take from the initial route planned.
Intentions, on the other hand, are about how we want to “be” in whatever we are doing. Our intentions can usually be practiced in the present moment, in any situation we find ourselves. With an intention, the outcome is not the focus, but the process is. This is reflected in the well-known axiom: “It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.” This saying actually originated in a poem by Grantland Rice, an American sportswriter who lived from 1880-1954.
For when the One Great Scorer comes, To write against your name, He marks – not that you won or lost – But how you played the Game.
Intentions refer to the qualities we want to practice and develop in ourselves. They might be reflected in such words or phrases as:
- beaming love
- making healthy choices
- being patient
- listening deeply to self and others
- opening to creativity
- being generous with time and resources
Our intention can be held in our hearts, envisioned in our minds, or spoken as an affirmation (see the March 2017 article on Affirmations). Setting an intention as we begin any spiritual practice or important endeavor becomes a powerful guiding light that shines through our actions. What quality is important for you to develop in yourself, and in your life, today? What are you seeking to embody or embrace?
Intention is also something we become more aware of as we look within…we discover the intentions that are already motivating us that we were perhaps unaware of. So in our daily practice or times of reflection, we both attend to our intentions through observation, and intentionally hold certain intentions in order to strengthen them.
Intention arises from the heart – it is not a head thing. In working with clients around setting intention, I see a frequent tendency to set an intention with the mind alone, with a tinge of guilt, or “shouldness” about the intention. “I should be more this, less that.” It is no wonder that intentions set out of guilt induce more guilt, as we persist in viewing ourselves as too much of this and too lacking in that!
Yoga class has taught me a great deal about setting intentions. We begin with a period of total relaxation which significantly changes my energy from where it was when I walked into the room. At the close of this relaxation time, before we begin to move into any poses, the instructor invites us to set our intention for our practice in the class. I have always been amazed by what comes to mind…the intention, or a word or phrase to express it, usually arises spontaneously in that moment and varies from class to class. I am clear that had I voiced an intention as I walked into class, it would not have been the same one. Even if the words were similar, the intention comes from a different place in me after the time to relax and disengage from the many stimulations of my day. The class ritual, the relaxation, the timing, the invitation from the instructor – this all comes together to inspire an intention within me to bubble up into consciousness.
Our own dormant intentions ignite with the spark of inspiration. The artist, or work of art, that gets us excited about our own creative pursuits serves as our inspiration. The friend who recognizes our deepest yearnings and encourages us forward serves as our inspiration. Our intentions can lie dormant for many years, some say for many lifetimes, and still rise up into consciousness when the conditions are right, we are ready, and we open to the inspiration around us.
Attention to our intentions, and the clarification of what intentions we want to energize and practice, are valuable tools to anchor and inspire our periodic goal-setting process.
Inspiration is the fuel that makes your dreams come true. Where do you find yours?
~ Action On Purpose Challenge ~
Try this exercise for uncovering your unique intentions or ideals. Have paper, or an index card, and something to write with available.
- Take some time to get centered and relaxed, in whatever way works for you. Be sure to turn off phones and protect yourself as best you can from interruption. You might focus on your breathing for several minutes, do some yoga poses, listen to soothing music, or engage in sitting or walking meditation, for example.
- Once you feel centered and relaxed, allow your mind to recall a time when you felt very alive, whole, and joyous, connected to yourself and to others, complete. It may take some time to recall one experience, or you may recall several such times.
- Settle with one memory. It doesn’t have to be the “best” or the time you felt “most whole.” Just pick one time when you really felt somehow centered, positive and full.
- Dwell with that experience for a time. Recall as much detail as you can about how it felt to you – what was going on inside you during this time.
- Allow a word or phrase to emerge that, for you, captures the essence of this moment or experience. This word or phrase doesn’t have to be meaningful to anyone else.
- When you are ready, write down your word or phrase on an index card. If words did not come, perhaps you can draw a picture or use color to capture the quality of the experience you focused on.
- Spend some time with this experience as an expression of an intention for you that you can bring into your current experience. How can you invite or nourish this feeling of centeredness? Ponder this in your heart.
May this year inspire our best intentions into practice!