Mindfulness Meditation, or working with the breath and releasing thoughts as they arise, has been very helpful to me for many years. The health, cognitive, and emotional benefits of this practice are well documented. But sometimes, to the horror of my teachers, I pull out a notepad and start paying closer attention to the thoughts skipping through my mind during meditation periods, turning each meditation into a period of contemplation on goals and intentions. Meditation has demonstrated that it makes us more open to more ideas, and more noticing of novel thoughts. So why not put this to use every once in a while?
The prerequisite to this practice is a grounding in basic meditation. Experience with focused attention, staying with the breath, and releasing thoughts that pull one away from the present moment is crucial. The idea of this practice is to develop a very basic intention that underlies your goals and desired behavior and to place all of your attention on it. The intention replaces the breath as the focus of attention, and thoughts and ramblings that pull you away from your intention must be released just as they are during more traditional mindfulness meditation.
Key to beginning this practice is to establish the difference between a goal and an intention. A goal is something that we’d like to accomplish in the future. All of our present efforts may be directed toward it, but it still has yet to be accomplished. A goal can also be stated positively or negatively. Goals can deal with what we want to achieve or become, or things we want to lose or move away from. Mindfulness meditation on a goal can yield great results, but it can also emphasize what we don’t have, what we are not yet, and can lead to negative self-thinking.
An intention, on the other hand, underlies every goal and should be something positive that we may already possess. While a goal is out there for us to reach, the intention is something we seek to embody now. If I have the goal of not forming responses before my partner is finished speaking, my intention may begin with “I listen well.” If I’d like to lose ten pounds, my intention may spring from ‘I have a healthy lifestyle.” If I want to attain a promotion at work my intention could come from “I am successful in my field.” Forming a positive intention is crucial to this exercise. And an intention will be formed when we can take the verb "to be," the "I am" in the phrases above, out of our thoughts and develop a benchmark against which to measure all actions.
On a piece of paper write down one to three goals you would like to accomplish. Read them several times. Then close your eyes, sit comfortably yet with good posture, direct your attention onto your breath, and begin to contemplate these goals. Let them settle into your mind, and plan on sitting with them for five minutes. During this time investigate what is the main theme of your goal. If you have several goals, find something they share in common. Develop how you must act to successfully work toward your goals. This will become your intention. State the intention as clearly and succinctly as you can, and when the five minutes are up, write it down. Remember, your intention must be a positive statement and it must be in the present tense.
Once an intention is established, sit to meditate on it for another five minutes. This time you must boil the intention down to one word. It’s best if this word is a verb, but a gerund or adjective will serve just as well. For the intention, “I listen well,” the word may be “listen.” For “I have a healthy lifestyle,” you may find “healthy” works well. For “I am successful in my field,” “succeeding” would be great. Then come up with one more word that is the result of the first word of your intention. If the result of listening well is more empathy, the word could be “feel.” For “healthy” you may want to add “fit.” “Succeeding” may be followed by “fulfilled.” If no word comes to you, the word “breathe” works well until something most appropriate appears. The point is to come up with a two-word phrase that captures the essence of your intention. As you meditate, these two words will become a sort of mantra.
Your intention is now forged and you're now prepared to meditate on it. Have a pen and notepad handy. As with any formal meditation period, assume a dignified, open position, close your eyes, and place your attention on each inhale and on each exhale. However, instead of counting breaths, allow the mind to place the first word of your intention on the inhale and the second word on the exhale. The second time through, place the first word on the inhale, but leave the exhale wordless, just a breath. Using an example from above, inhale on “listen,” exhale on “feel,” inhale on “listen,” and quiet the mind for the exhale. Then repeat, over and over again, for the period of your meditation. As thoughts pull you away from the phrase, as your mind wanders, return to the words of your intention and continue.
A sort of free association will take place, and your mind may begin presenting words to fill in the blank exhale. These words may make your intention fuller or more clear. You may even find that your second word seems suddenly inadequate and want to replace it with a word that repeatedly comes up during this association (if the impulse is strong, go ahead and replace it). Words random and senseless will also present themselves. As with any mindfulness meditation, allow these words to arise, and allow them to disperse. Don’t add reason, chase ideas, or relate these thoughts to your goals at this time. Just let the words bubble up and dissipate.
When the time for your meditation has expired, grab the pen and write down what is on your mind, as if in a dream journal. You may find great ideas to help you toward your goals, modifications that must be made regarding a goal, new insights to your intention, or absolute nonsense. But your mind will likely present you with something fresh. Practiced over time, working with intentions may place you closer to becoming the person you want to be, or accomplishing the things you want to do, if only by presenting you with unconsidered ideas and evidence that you have already arrived. Also underscored will be the realization that if your intention is honest and pure, it can support any challenge that confronts you.
This remains, for me, a fairly advanced practice that I enter only occasionally. The entire practice need only be undertaken when goals change or you feel a need to reconnect with your underlying motives. Meditating on the two-word intention can happen much more frequently. I have been meditating on the same two-word intention for the past three months, but not everyday. I still find the basic mindfulness practice of focusing on the breath to be most beneficial, but the practice of stating and meditating on intentions remains strong and inspirational. I believe it’s another deep example of how meditation can enhance life and inspire the practitioner. Good luck in developing your intention and meeting your goals.