I wrote in May in a post called “State Your Intention” of a meditation that helps to establish an intention and put it to use in working toward your goals. Framing a positive and present intention can help us stay to directed and achieve what we want. Intention can be a guide as we work to become the person we want to become. Make sense? Well, not so fast.
The idea behind mindfulness is the nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment. If I want to lose weight and set the intention that “I am healthy,” I may be fooling myself and not accepting my present reality. I may also be fooling myself into thinking that I am, today, healthy. I may not be healthy at all, right now. I surely don’t want to encode my meditations with denial. To do so would be mere imaging, not mindfulness. Imaging certainly has a place in achievement, but it can also deny us the truth and awareness of the present moment.
To avoid falling into this trap, an intention must be seen as an outcome, a process, and not necessarily true yet. Perhaps an intention is better thought of as an unfolding. Not yet “I am healthy,” but instead “becoming healthy.” Meditating on an intention can help us discover ways and resources to meet our goals, but it must not replace true mindfulness. We have to remain honest about our experience and our capabilities in the present moment. Only then can we set about the work to overcome obstacles or to achieve a goal.
Note also that “I am” should not be part of your intention. Stating with too much certainty that we are something that we actually aren’t yet can make us less likely to succeed in making our intentions, and goals, reality. A study by Peter Gollwitzer at NYU indicates that by publicly stating our intentions we may severely limit our effort. He found that people who told others about their goals were less likely to work hard toward them than were people who kept their goals to themselves. Publicly declaring intentions makes them seem fulfilled already, and we can sit back and ignore the hard work required to succeed. Privately telling ourselves “I am” can have the same effect.
Finally, intentions may be limiting in another way. We may actually underestimate ourselves and accept less than we are capable of. A general intention may be more helpful than a goal that is too specific. “Becoming healthy” trumps “I will lose ten pounds,” because I may be able to lose fifteen with just a little more effort. Goals are important guideposts, not endpoints. Fitness trainer Mark Twight points out that you can always do more than you think so announcing your intentions can be self-limiting. He also makes the case that declaring intent is not execution.
So why bother setting an intention at all? We need goals to work toward, and we need a sense of what values and motives drive us. By determining a strong intention we can discover what helps us succeed, and what may be holding us back. The point is to be modest, committed, and adaptive. I believe strongly that the meditation detailed in my “State Your Intention” post can help.
For example, lately I have been bothered by distractions and my tendency to not stick to things that I begin. I can’t seem to follow through on a good idea. I went through the intention meditation and set some goals such as “be more consistent” and “practice self-discipline.” Yes, these are very broad, but I continued the exercise and discovered the two-word phrase “choose, focus.” This has become the intention on which I meditate. It’s also not a bad benchmark to check my actions against. Bringing it to mind does not fool me into thinking I have achieved something that I haven’t yet, and it is positive, open, and not at all self-limiting. I can live with it, and think that I am be better off if I do.
Intentions are determinate, powerful things. While care is advisable as you practice the process, the intention meditation can yield tremendous insight and influence into one’s actions. Just stay open, keep quiet about it, and commit.