The Power of Intention

Photo by Andy Chilton

Intention is the driver behind action – the motivation or heartfelt wish that orients us and points us in a certain direction. Did you know that the intentions behind our actions powerfully impact our state of mind?

Intentions are very different from goals.  The domain of intention is the present moment while goals are oriented toward the future. Intentions move us toward our deepest values while goals move us toward some destination or achievement. Intentions help us imagine how we want to be, while goals help us imagine what we want to do.

Neuroscience tells us that setting an intention “primes” our nervous system to be on the lookout for whatever will support what we intend to create for ourselves… when we pay attention to the intention to bring more happiness into our lives, we are more likely to notice the actions, opportunities‚ people, and things that can bring that about for us. It’s sort of like recognizing which piece of a jigsaw puzzle will fit the picture. – James Baraz, Awakening Joy

Some studies are revealing correlations between altruism and increased mental, physical, social and financial health. Research is showing that when we act pro-socially, there are beneficial consequences for ourselves as well as for others. The Science of Generosity Initiative at the University of Notre Dame has funded a number of studies which have demonstrated a relationship between generosity, happiness and well-being. A compassionate lifestyle seems to be correlated with better health and longevity, perhaps through a mechanism that decreases inflammation in our bodies.

Our ethics inform the intentions behind our actions. Practicing mindfulness without a system of ethics runs counter to its original purpose, which is the alleviation of suffering. This is because aligning our actions with values like non-harming, compassion, and moderation are necessary for cutting through the misunderstandings that make life dissatisfying.

A system of ethics doesn’t have to come from somewhere outside of us such as tradition or authority. Rather, it can be discovered through experimentation and observation – the collection of data. We can mindfully reflect upon 1) our urges to perform an act, 2) our action while we are performing it, and 3) its after-effects, both short-term and longer term, to see whether the act is harmful to ourselves or others (skillful or unskillful). This empowers us to make adjustments accordingly and learn for ourselves what is truly helpful and unhelpful. This becomes our system of ethics. Practicing mindfulness helps us see our own motivations and choices more clearly for wiser responding.

Intentions can be distorted by ignorance and misunderstanding. What appears beneficial at first glance might actually turn out to be misguided or inappropriate upon closer inspection. Detecting the subtler “near enemies” of our best intentions requires openness, self-awareness and honesty. This allows us to be more attentive to unskillful impulses as they arise, practice self-compassion so we can have the courage to examine them, and cultivate the self-regulation skills to refrain from acting upon them. We must be willing to learn from our mistakes in order to refine our intentions.

We can cultivate beneficial intentions by incorporating the following into our daily practice:

  1. taming the wanting mind by seeing ordinary desire as the source of dissatisfaction and suffering
  2. generating spontaneous goodwill and selfless love for all beings (including ourselves)
  3. learning to confront aggression (our own and others) with compassion rather than violence

We cannot will ourselves to achieve any of these things – rather, it requires patient observation and diligence. First we must make it a habit to turn inward and notice our own internal experiences, which requires training in attentional control. Then we can observe the subtle interplay and consequences of our thoughts, emotions, physical sensations and actions/urges. Through this process we naturally begin to favor more skillful intentions because we see the benefit they bring.

Associating with wise, virtuous and generous people from whom we can learn and be influenced can help us in this journey. It can be quite beneficial to have trusted teachers to guide us along the way. We can also make it a habit to practice with a community of likeminded friends who motivate us on our path and keep us accountable to our highest intentions. In this way, we begin to step out of the cycle of suffering and live with more virtuous purpose.

…one who denies the moral efficacy of action and measures achievement in terms of gain and status will aspire to nothing but gain and status, using whatever means he can to acquire them. When such pursuits become widespread, the result is suffering, the tremendous suffering of individuals, social groups, and nations out to gain wealth, position, and power without regard for consequences. The cause for the endless competition, conflict, injustice, and oppression does not lie outside the mind. These are all just manifestations of intentions, outcroppings of thoughts driven by greed, by hatred, by delusion. – Bikkhu Bodhi

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