By Bonnie Horrigan / As we engage in mindfulness meditation, or in other inward-looking practices such as self-reflection or contemplative prayer, we gradually become aware of the deeper aspects of ourselves and how those aspects affect the reality in which we live. One of those aspects — our intentions — plays a significant role in our effectiveness as a leader.
The word “intend” means to direct the mind on something. It is determination to act in a certain way in order to bring about a result or effect. When we intend, we are focusing our awareness and our energy on that which we want to usher into being. It seems simple enough, but in reality, one or more intentions may be operating in any given scenario, not all of which will be aligned, not all of which will have equal horsepower, not all of which we may wish to own up to, and not all of which we might be aware of in our everyday, waking consciousness.
Being cognizant of these dynamics and using our mindful practice to identify all the aligned or competing intentions at play, we can choose to keep or discard our intentions, an act that enables us to better energize what we truly want to accomplish and more easily bring it into being.
Intentions Versus Goals
One place to start this unraveling and clarifying of self is to understand the difference between intentions and goals. A goal is a specific result or achievement toward which effort is directed. A goal, by its very nature, is in the future. An intention is when we direct our awareness on a specific course. An intention exists in the present. We are it, so to speak.
Thus, you can actually have a goal and yet have no intention of achieving it.
More likely, in pursuit of any goal, your intentions will shape your behavior. Let’s say you are talking with an employee about a project that is behind schedule. The “goal” is to get the project back on schedule. If your intention is to instill fear in that employee, then you might speak harshly or infer punishment of some sort. If your intention is to be perceived as the leader, you might offer immediate advice. And if your intention is to help that employee, you might show compassion and ask questions so you can learn more about the problem at hand.
In Mindfulness for Dummies, Shamash Alidina explains that “intention shapes the nature of the whole action itself. Although the action may be the same … the intention itself strongly influences your moment-by-moment experience and state of mind.”
So if you are struggling to achieve something, a good place to begin to change that state is to examine your intentions.
Thoughts and Intentions
Some people hold that thoughts don’t really count. Only actions count. But our thoughts are the forerunners of our actions, so in this process, identifying and clarifying your thoughts is important.
In recent years, science has begun to study the results of our intentions and our thinking on the world around us. Perhaps you remember the film, What the Bleep?, which looked into this issue. It featured the work of Dr. Masaru Emoto, whose experiments with water and rice demonstrated that thoughts alone could alter molecular structures.
Further evidence comes from placebo effect research. In one study conducted at Baylor School of Medicine (N Engl J Med. 2002 Jul 11;347(2):81-8.) patients with debilitating knee pain were divided into three groups – one group had the damaged cartilage shaved from their knee, the second group had the damaged tissue flushed from the knee joint, and the last group was sedated, had salt water splashed into their knee, and told that invasive surgery had been performed when it in fact hadn’t. Interestingly, the group that received no surgery improved as much as those that had.
The bottom line: Don’t ignore your thinking. Clarify it. Refine it. Thoughts create intentions and intentions create outcomes.
Intentions Reveal the State of the Heart
Examining your intentions will enable you to learn which of your intentions come from the heart and are aligned with your values and which one are based on emotions such as fear or greed. Once you recognize what’s at play, you can choose to embrace an intention or let it go.
Phillip Moffitt, founder of the Life Balance Institute, advises that we should set our intentions based on understanding what matters most to us. He says, “Being grounded in intention is what provides integrity and unity in your life. Through the skillful cultivation of intention, you learn to make wise goals and then to work hard toward achieving them without getting caught in attachment to outcome.”
A Simple Practice
Thich Nhat Han, the well-known Buddhist monk from Vietnam, suggested these four practices for Right Intention (or Right Thinking).
Ask yourself, “Are you sure?” Write the question on a piece of paper and hang it where you will see it frequently. Wrong perceptions lead to incorrect thinking.
Ask yourself, “What am I doing?” to help you come back to the present moment.
Recognize your habit energies. Habit energies, like workaholism, cause us to lose track of ourselves and our day-to-day lives. When you catch yourself on auto-pilot, say, “Hello, habit energy!”
Cultivate bodhicitta. Bohicitta is the compassionate wish to realize enlightenment for the sake of others. It becomes the purest of Right Intentions; the motivating force that keeps us on the Path.
You can do this exercise without being a Buddhist or even a meditator. Simply change the last practice to: Cultivate Goodness.
Editors Note: On Nov. 4, 2018, Bonnie Horrigan died at age 68. Among her many remarkable contributions to this world of integrative health, she was a core faculty member for the Leadership Program in Integrative Medicine at Duke, the executive director of ML Films, Inc. and editor of the Academic Consortium for Integrative Medicine and Health’s Breaking New Briefing. Read a tribute to her work and life here by John Weeks.