It’s New Year 2018 in the Gregorian calendar and the year 2561 in Thailand. On 16th February the Year of the Earth Dog in the Chinese and Tibetan calendars will begin. My Facebook feed is filled with advice on making resolutions, so I wanted to share with you what I have learnt over the last decade of intention setting retreats.
Many of us find that making resolutions or defining specific goals at the beginning of a new year is counterproductive. The vast majority of resolutions actually fail, leaving us feeling more despondent about ourselves than if we had not set them in the first place! Fortunately, intention setting is different.
What We Think, We Become
Our mind – or some might say our higher power – has the remarkable ability to affect our reality once we learn how to focus. Setting intentions activates our receptivity, so that we can spot opportunities as they arise. It also ensures that we have the courage to act. When we see how the outer world mirrors our inner wishes, we begin to trust our power to direct the course of our life. Gratitude for our past and present is an important aspect of setting future intentions. It means that our intentions do not originate from a sense of lack or craving, but more from a wish to explore our full potential.
“All that we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think we become.”
Intentions are limitless and change as we evolve; they are about who we want to be, what we want to contribute to the world and how we wish to touch the lives of others. I tend to make one assumption, which is that our overall intention for our life is to be happy. All beings do, whether human or animal. We all want to move away from harm and suffering, and move towards safety, contentment or excitement. However, depending on our personality, talents and beliefs, we have different ways of finding happiness. Once we can see ourselves clearly, we learn to cultivate ways of bringing more joy and meaning into our daily lives. In turn, this transmits to those around us.
The Intention Setting Process
Personally, I have found very useful practices in the Eastern wisdom traditions, and I draw on Buddhist practices for the retreats. However, all spiritual traditions contain similar ideas, and you are welcome to substitute your own belief system or style of practice where appropriate.
Through guided contemplation sessions we have the chance to reflect on our lives, to excavate ideas and information, and reflect on what is already here. We start from where we are, taking time to remember what is going well, as well as areas where we would like to see some change. We can then navigate slowly and skillfully from there, rather than putting ourselves under pressure to become something completely different.
Our receptivity is enhanced through our prospective memory. This means that when a situation arises that is relevant to the intention we set, our subconscious mind sends a little reminder to the conscious mind. This internal voice helps us choose between our habitual patterns, and our intended, more skillful way of responding to a specific situation.
We use the three aspects of our mind – the body, heart and head – integrating our whole selves into the process. We reflect on what inspires and energises us, and notice how this feels in the body. Mindfulness practices tune us in to both our supportive and sabotaging habit patterns, while compassion practices provide us with skillful ways to accept ourselves just as we are, while allowing transformation to take place. We start to trust that by tapping into our own talents, we can also bring joy to others.
What Constitutes Success?
It can be useful to distinguish between words such as intention and goal. Intentions or aspirations are guiding forces, yet do not come with too many defined expectations. Goals, on the other hand, tend to focus on achieving specific results, and we often feel attached to the outcome. Nurturing our aspirations is meaningful in and of itself, and we find that they do not actually need to be fulfilled in order for us to be happy. Many visionaries set intentions for the future, yet know that they will not live to see the outcome, but the aspirations themselves give meaning to their lives, and to the lives of others.
We could even measure our success by the amount of happiness we create for ourselves and others. A successful, meaningful life need be nothing more than it is right now. We have all the resources we need inside of us. A certain level of income is important, of course, so that we do not feel our basic needs are threatened. Yet there is much interesting research about the decreasing returns that money brings, as we earn more (www.givingwhatwecan.org). Up to a certain point, our increasing income increases our sense of well-being. Thereafter, it only brings happiness if it is linked to generosity, and we use our income to support others. We get the sense that this is true when we look at the lives of celebrities. At a superficial level, they seem to have an enviable life, but fame and money often create unhappiness.
Expanding Our Vision
Initially, we need to set intentions for ourselves, so that we feel whole and nourished. Later on, we can explore how to utilize intention setting for the benefit of all. There is a magical quality in pure intention – the deep wish to help others. With certain virtues such as generosity, compassion or kindness, we find that the more we give to, or do for, others, the happier we feel. This is as long as our basic needs have been met, and we are not giving from a place of depletion or duty. What is remarkable about pure intention, without expectation, is how it circles back to make us happier too.
Here’s a quote from my holiday reading, ‘The Way of the Bodhisattva’, by Shantideva, with a commentary from Pema Chodron:
All the joy the world contains,
Has come from wishing happiness to others.
All the misery the world contains,
Has come from wanting pleasure for oneself.
It is important that we set intentions from a place of stillness and ease. If we feel lack and are grasping after things, they are likely to elude us. So, the first thing we learn is a centering or settling practice. Once you become familiar with the steps of settling through regulated breath, grounding and resting in awareness, then you can set intentions every morning for the rest of the year.
Where From Here?
If you are keen on getting help with intention setting, then I am offering three different routes to happiness: