October 1, 2011

The Importance of Being Intentional.

According to beloved American Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön,

‎”The future is completely open, and we are writing it moment to moment.”

We are writing the future with our present intentions, which develop into speech and actions. Whether we realize it or not, we are constantly planting seeds that will flower with time and nurturance, so why not make this process conscious? Authentic, mindful, daily intention-setting infuse our creative lives and yoga practice with meaning and purpose, moment to moment, day by day.

It’s important to set your intent religiously and daily. I’ve integrated intention-setting into my morning sitting meditation practice. On days when I feel down or confused, my intention becomes simple. Take one step at a time. Breathe deeply. Notice and release negative self-talk. Remember, this too shall pass. On brighter days, my intention can whirl and float. Go with the flow. Act spontaneously. Make a new friend. Reach out to an old friend. Draft a poem from scratch. Cook with new ingredients. In her memoir and yoga manifesto, Fierce Medicine, expert yoga teacher Ana Forrest says,

“You must set your intent and choose life. Every day.”

She lists provocative questions to invoke intention, such as: What do I yearn to do in the world? What would be meaningful for me to do today? What is the quality of energy I want in my life today, no matter what I do? Ask yourself these questions. Their answers will help bring more intentionality to your daily life.

Through the practices of yoga and mindfulness, we aspire to think, speak and act intentionally — in ways that unite (or reunite) rather than separate and divide. (After all, “yoga” translates to union in Sanskrit and reunion in the Tibetan language.) Our intention to practice is far more important than the technicalities of the specific postures that do or do not occur during a session.What if… we center ourselves, deepen our breath, and set our intent at the start of the session, by sitting in silence and asking,

“What am I practicing for?”

In our natural state, “at all levels of the neuroaxis, (the brain stem, limbic system, and cerebral cortex) the intentions … operate mainly outside of your awareness,” according to the authors of Buddha’s Brain: the Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love & Wisdom. WIth practice, we can bring our intentions into our field of awareness. We must revisit our intentions in order to bring about their actualization. And, most importantly, we must carry those intentions, off the mat, out of the room, and into our relationships and interactions with our own selves and others.

Yoga and mindfulness practice go hand-in-hand with explicit intention setting.

A recent study on the effects of yoga, meditation and qigong found that: “Students indicated an increased capacity to make meaningful reflections regarding themselves. These mental changes were often discussed in terms of changes in attitude and perception. For others, these changes resulted in a better understanding of themselves and incorporating aspects that made them feel more whole as an individual.” The intentional practice of yoga can enhance self-awareness and self-acceptance. Which is good, because you need a clear sense of what you feel, need, and want at the appointed moment in order to set a meaningful intention. Do you need more energy or more grounding? More positivity or persistence or peace? To let go of judgement or stress or worry?

Yoga serves as a powerful muse for creativity. With intention (and attention on the breath and body during hatha yoga practice), we can harvest the motivation to fuel our ideas and inspire our best selves to shine through our writing, music or art. In his book, The Journey from the Center to the Page, Jeffrey Davis calls intention “a conscious gesture to align your mind, heart, imagination, and body with whatever act you’re about to begin,” that can “center the mind and imagination without restricting it.” He teaches the art of the twofold intention. See if this simple, powerful gesture transforms your practice:

Sit quietly with your hands at your heart and ask yourself, “What am I writing for?”

The answer to this query becomes your seed intention for the day. (For me, a word typically arises, and it’s usually a singular virtue: gratitude, openness, clarity, compassion. But for others I know, the answer might come as a phrase, image, sound or feeling.) Then, bring to mind a second, more specific and detailed intention. This focus intention is related to the creative focus for that particular writing/drawing/painting/creating session. Something like, “sketch shapes from nature,” or “draft a poem about desire.”

We set seed and focus intentions every day in my eighth grade classroom. I prompt my students to set their own private, personal intention and lead them through a brief guided meditation. I then share our group intention for the day, which amounts to our focus intention. For example, “Today our intention is to focus on writing creative beginnings to short stories.”

What is most important, in yoga practice, in creative expression and in day-to-day life, is intention: the willingness to try, the meaning to do something.

Intention setting, by its nature, enhances self-awareness. Try setting dual intentions every day for the next fifteen days. Record your seed and focus intentions in a special journal. See what happens. What have you got to lose? If you “draw a blank” in the moment of intention-setting, that’s okay. Maybe your intention will arise later, or maybe it could be the wonderful default: “I intend to be open to what unfolds.”

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