I’ve never been a person who set New Year’s resolutions. As a child, I heard the annual buzz about New Year’s resolutions. I don’t remember making any specific resolutions, but I must have because I remember learning quickly that resolutions are easy to make and hard to keep.
In my adult years, I learned that I could decide to make changes in my life at any point. Since I spent most of my life living on an academic calendar, I would often use the beginning of the school year as the starting point for launching change. Other times, I did use the dawn of a new year as my marker. And at other times, a new season of the year proved to be an appropriate time to make a change.
In January 2009, in the midst of the last financial crisis—a crisis which created dire financial challenges for the college where I worked and anxieties among almost everyone in my life about their financial futures—I decided to try yoga. It wasn’t really a resolution. I just decided that I had to find some new strategies for managing my stress, and many people had recommended that I try yoga. So I did. And I’ve been doing yoga regularly ever since. Yoga changed my life.
It was in yoga class that I learned about the concept of setting intentions rather than making resolutions. Most yoga teachers talk about setting an intention for your yoga practice during a particular class. It might be something as simple as “I intend to stretch my body” or “I intend to be fully present in this room for the next hour.” Yoga classes seem more focused and fulfilling when you can mentally return to your intention again and again while you’re on the mat, reminding yourself that you came to class for some larger purpose than simply doing the poses.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary implies that intentions are very much like resolutions. It defines “intention” as a determination to act in a certain way, a resolve, or what one intends to do or bring about. The Oxford English Dictionary adds more subtlety to the definition. The OED defines an intention as an “action of straining or directing the mind or attention to something” and a “purpose or design” or the “act of intending or purposing.” Writer and spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle says that an intention is “a thought that arises in the mind and wants to manifest in the external world.”
In other words, setting an intention is more about directing one’s attention and one’s actions toward some purpose. I started practicing yoga for the purpose of managing my stress. (And it turned out to serve many other purposes in my life.) In 2016, I set an intention to eat more mindfully for the purpose of becoming healthier and feeling better. But living with intention, I believe, can be a way of organizing our whole lives around some higher purpose.
I recently read Mallika Chopra’s book, Living With Intent: My Somewhat Messy Journey to Purpose, Peace, and Joy. (Yes, she’s one of those Chopras. She’s the daughter of Deepak.) Mallika Chopra points out that most spiritual traditions address the notion of intent. For example, the idea of “right intentions”—treating yourself and others with compassion while living in alignment with your deepest values—is part of Buddhism’s Eightfold path to achieving enlightenment.
Setting an intention means focusing your attention and your actions on serving some higher purpose. Living with intention is something that can lead us to a more fulfilling life. Chopra suggests a six-step strategy for living with intention. (It’s one of those contrived lists where each item in the list corresponds with a letter from the word “intent,” which annoy me, but it’s a useful list nonetheless.) Chopra says that to live with intent, you must:
- Incubate—quiet your mind to tap into your deepest intentions
- Notice—become mindful of thoughts and actions and what they tell you about what gives you a sense of meaning.
- Trust—have confidence in your inner knowing.
- Express—write down or say your intentions.
- Nurture—be gentle with yourself.
- Take Action—Once you’ve identified an intention, take steps to make it a reality.
This year I’ve been struggling with a particular intention. When I retired from teaching, one of my intentions was to develop myself as a creative writer. Seven months later, I’ve done nothing toward that goal. And in recent weeks, I’ve been engaged in this inner dialogue about why I’ve done nothing about that intention. I’ve been using Chopra’s six steps to work through the reasons I’m getting in my own way. This blog post is step four—expressing my intention. But I’m also trying to nurture—to not beat myself up about my ambivalence. And that leads to step six—taking action. I’m on the record about this intention now, dear readers.
What about you? Do you have an intention for the year? A plan for living with more intent? I’d love to hear your comments.