For those of you who are seasoned yoga practitioners, you probably have heard this word “intention” used casually at the beginning of a yoga class. When I first began practicing yoga, in my teens, I was confused by this concept and was often left scrambling to find something I could “intend” before moving into my sun salutations. In this post I would like to explore this concept of intention, and how we can bring it into all facets of our life- not just at the start of our yoga sessions.
Intentions Versus Goals
Perhaps the biggest misconception surrounding the word intention is that it is often confused with a goal. Many of us come to yoga in order to achieve something- to get more flexible or to fix our frozen shoulder, perhaps to lose weight or to become more mindful in our daily life. Goals are future orientated, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with having these sorts of aspirations- in fact, we need them to fuel our purpose and growth.
The intention we are cultivating in a yoga class is more direct and immediate than a goal. Every action we take in our body, speech or mind is fueled by intent. Therefore, intention is operating in every moment, whether we are conscious of it or not. Intentions form the basis for determining how we meet each moment as we move towards our goals.
Theravada Buddhist teacher and Scholer Thanissaro put it beautifully:
“Our experience of the present doesn’t “just happen”. Instead it is a product of our involvement- in terms of present intentions, the results of present intention, and the results of past intentions- in which present intentions are the most important factor. The more we focus on that involvement, the more we can bring it out of the half-light of the subconscious and into the full light of awareness. There we can train our intentions, through conscious trial and error, to be even more skillful, enabling us to lessen our experience of suffering and pain in the present. This is how skillful intentions pave the road to mental health and well being in the ordinary world of our lives”
What is your intention, Really?
It is said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. But when we look closely, are those intentions really good? What defines a “good” intention? One of my best friends and colleague Adam Stonebraker always says “we meditate to find out what is secretly running our life”. When we really examine our minds we can be surprised to see that some of our actions, while we thought were well intended, are actually just unconscious habits operating through us.
I found yoga as a teenager, struggling with severe eating disorders. My reason for going to yoga was less about self-care and more about self-improvement, combined with a compulsive need to exercise. While my practice of yoga may have appeared to be wholesome on the outside, internally the intention had a violent undertone which perpetuated my current pattern of striving. With the help of skilled teachers, my initial misguided intentions of my yoga practice ended up evolving into something beautiful and ultimately healing. But this is not always the case.
Certain situations, especially interpersonal ones, can trigger past conditioning which operates so quickly, we are often unaware of our intention behind our thoughts, words, and actions. This can leave us with feelings of remorse over our the poor decisions that were made that did not align with our deepest values. Senior meditation teacher and psychologist Tara Brach, outlines two categories of intention that can operate within the mind:
Limbic intent. This sort of intention is oriented around our survival. Limbic intentions are mainly concerned with fulfilling desires, avoiding physical, social and emotional pain. We all have limbic intentions because we have a nervous system, and, as humans, our brain stems are wired this way. Limbic intentions operate almost automatically and lead to the “poisonous” mind states of greed, hatred, and delusion. The Buddha suggests that none of these mind states lead to a lasting sense of wellbeing or happiness.
Evolved/Enlightened intent: This kind of intention is more evolved and takes time to train. It may not be our first impulse as it comes from the frontal cortex and is concerned with the short and long-term wellbeing of self and other. This intention is grounded in the wider perspective of wisdom, kindness, and compassion. In Buddhism, wise intention is the second facet of the “noble Eightfold path”.
So what is a wise intention? There are three qualities to Wise Intention that are outlined in the ancient texts. I have explained them in a more modern way- to make these teachings more relatable:
Let that shit go:
The first pillar of what continued wise intention is the intention of Renunciation. For many of us, when we think of renunciation we think of “having” to give up something- like the monk who shaves his head and gives away all his belongings, or Catholics giving up chocolate for Lent.
There is a story of the late Buddhist teacher, Venerable Ajahn Chah, who was walking through the forest with his disciples. They come across three giant boulders. Ajahn Chah asks his disciples, “Do you think these boulders are heavy?” The disciples looked at their teacher strangely and said: “Yes, of course, venerable, they would be very heavy”. Ajahn Chah smiled and replied: “They are only heavy if you pick them up”.
In the Buddha’s model of renunciation, we do not renounce something in order to be “good”. We renounce it because we genuinely see that indulging in that certain thought, word or deed leads to suffering. It is like picking up a giant boulder! This could mean not replaying that situation at work again and again in our mind, or choosing to spend less time on our device, or giving up the need to gossip at work.
Renunciation in the case of wise intention means pausing at the moment of impulse and choosing not to act upon thoughts that lead to suffering- moment to moment. When we practice renunciation in this way, it is actually a HUGE relief. We can lay down our burdens!
Be a kind human:
The second factor of wise intention is the intention of kindness. It is interesting that all spiritual traditions value kindness and recognize it as a source of wellbeing and happiness. When we are kind we are acting from a place that recognizes our interconnection with all things. Going out of our way to be kind, and to leave both our inner and outer world a better place, is the intention of kindness.
Don’t add to the mess:
The last factor of wise intention is harmlessness-which is similar to kindness, but has a different flavor. Harmlessness requires us to step out of our fixed views and really reflect if our thoughts, words, and deeds will leave any residue of hurt. For example, you might think it is kind to tell your friend the truth about a certain situation because “in the long run, it will be good for her”. But if it in anyway causes harm, perhaps take time to reflect on your deepest intention before acting.
Harmlessness also means that we have compassion for the way we are and the way others are at any given moment. Harmlessness makes room for us when we mess up. Even when we do act upon our not-so-skillful intentions, we can refrain from adding a layer judgment to it and have compassion for our human imperfections. This gives us room to humbly start over.
Steps to developing Wise intention:
- Pause. Close your eyes and breathe- What is the intention that is operating right now? Is the root of your intention limbic or enlightened? If we can notice where our intentions are coming from, the unconscious habits are less likely to rule us. Take time to meditate, do a slower form of yoga or take a walk. As the poet, Martha Postlewaite, says: “make a clearing in the dense forest of your life”
- Self-reflect – Ask this question: will this lead to harm others or myself? Does it benefit others and myself? Reflect on past actions and your intentions behind them. What effect did they have? What effect do you think your current intention has now?
- Plant new seeds. Intentions grow out of thoughts, so if we change the pattern of our thinking, we change our intention. The following phrases are ones I used on my month long retreat last year, to help ground my mind in wise intention. You can do this meditation on your cushion, before your yoga practice or even in the grocery store line up.
“May I let go of what causes suffering”
“May I grow in kindness”
“May I radiate compassion internally and externally”.
The Buddha taught that we live our lives on the tip of intention and that every mind-moment is planting a seed for a future action. Over time, honestly examining our intentions will clear the shadows from our mind and we can then start to live in a way that is more aligned with our deepest values and aspirations.
Below is a poem by Stephen Levine that I often read in Yin classes when I talk about this theme of intention. Enjoy, and happy practicing!
We walk through half our life
as if it were a fever dream
barely touching the ground our eyes half open
our eyes half open
our heart half closed.
Not half knowing who we are
we watch the ghost of us drift
from room to room
through friends and lovers
never quite as real as advertised.
Not saying half we mean
or meaning half we say
we dream ourselves
from birth to birth
seeking some true self.
Until the fever breaks
and the heart can not abide
a moment longer
as the rest of us awakens,
summoned from the dream,
not half caring for anything but love.