intention

Self-compassion and self-care

The two-headed Roman god, Janus

It’s funny — I’ve known since I was 13 that January is named for the god Janus, who has two faces: one looking forward and one backward. But right now it strikes me how appropriate that is.

The period around New Year is a natural time to look back at and see what was good or wasn’t so good. We can also look forward into the coming year and think about what we might do, and what we might change.

Anyway, I want to tell myself that I’m not interested in New Year’s Resolutions. This is mainly because of youthfully naive attempts with them that I forgot within days. But I can’t help but look, Janus-like, at the year that’s just past and the year that’s just beginning.

A Good Year and a Bad Year

Last year was tough in some ways. Three people I had strong connections with, including my sister, died within nine days of each other. I re-injured my back quite badly by straining my left sacroiliac joint. I could barely walk for several days, and was still in pain months later. My elderly parents both got Covid, which was worrying, although they both pulled through. And a big concern was that a lot of Wildmind’s sponsors were forced to cancel their subscriptions for financial reasons. (Most of those were in the UK, where the post-Brexit economy is truly dire.)

It was also a good year in some ways. I had a book (“A Year of Buddha’s Wisdom”) published on my birthday last year. I remained in that ever-shrinking group of people who have managed to avoid Covid. Toward the end of the year I rekindled a habit of walking daily. My meditation practice kept going, through thick and thin. Although the pandemic has reduced my social life almost to zero, I’ve adjusted to that being the case.

I spent the entire year writing on one topic, which I’ve never done before: on January 14th I sent out the first email in a course called “Politics as a Spiritual Practice,” and the last email of the course went out on December 29th. I’ve never before had an opportunity to explore one topic in such depth. In essence I wrote a book, and in fact I hope to find a publisher for it this year.

Sometimes the good and the bad are connected. Yes, I did a lot of writing. But that meant sitting for long periods at a computer, and that wasn’t good for my body, which led to me injuring my back.

Self-Care and Self-Compassion

Which brings me (finally) to the point of this article: I’m pretty good at self-compassion but not very good at self-care.

Self-compassion is where we respond in a kind, supportive way to our own suffering. We give ourselves the comfort and reassurance we need in order to get through hard times, whether those hard times last for a few moments or for months on end. It’s a powerful practice. I’m pretty good at it. I even wrote a book about it.

Self-care is where we take care of our own needs so that we don’t create as much suffering for ourselves in the first place. Keeping our long-term happiness and well-being in mind, we do what we need to do in order to be healthy and happy. That includes things like eating healthily, getting enough sleep, taking breaks from work, and getting regular exercise and stretching. The first two on that list I’m very good at. The third (taking breaks) I’m not bad at. The fourth (exercising and stretching) I’ve been very bad at.

Some people are good at self-care but not self-compassion. They might live very healthily but not be emotionally self-supportive. They might even be very self-critical. I’m good at self-compassion, but not at self-care. Ideally, we should be good at both.

My back injury was a good reminder of the importance of self-care. I really don’t want to go through that ordeal again, so I’ve been to a physical therapist and learned some stretches and exercises that will give my core more strength and give my body more flexibility. Together, those things should keep my back in reasonable health. And once this chest infection is out of the way I intend to get back to walking daily.

Lessons Learned

Based on the lessons I’ve learned from booking backward and looking forward, it feels appropriate to have an overall aim for the year, expressed in general terms. I’d describe that aim as “Thriving Though Self-Care.” I want to thrive — healthily, happily. I have an image of myself later this year, full of energy and joy. And I want to get there through practicing self-care.

It also seems that having general aims isn’t enough, so I’m setting myself the specifically goals of walking for a average of 30 minutes a day (at a minimum), and stretching at least once a day for five minutes.

If I miss a day’s walking (sometimes I’m sick, sometimes the weather makes it impossible) I’ll do more walking on other days to keep my average up.

I know from previous experience that accountability helps, so I’m going to check in about this daily in Wildmind’s community website, letting people know how I’m doing.

So I hope that will help me with my practice of self-care.

Two More Things

Two more things in regard to self-care:

First, toward the end of last year I started working a four-day week. I did this because of reading about an international study showing that when businesses switched to a four-day week they actually became more productive. I’ve been doing this for a month now, and I think it’s helping. I’ve noticed that I’m more creative than I’ve been for a while. I’m ending my workweek in a state of joy rather than exhaustion. I feel more relaxed at weekends, too.

Second, I was so focused on finishing the year-long course I was teaching on politics that I did almost nothing in response to losing about a third of my income as supporters withdrew their sponsorships. This caused a fair bit of anxiety, so as part of my practice of self-care I will be working on building up my base of subscribers again. It’s hard to create when you’re worried about whether you can afford to pay rent. In fact, in the long-term I’d like to have someone working with me on Wildmind who is responsible for community growth and community engagement. I’d like to have someone to work with, and I’d rather devote 100 percent of my energy to teaching and not have to think about money.

So that’s what I’m learning, looking back at next year, and that’s how I intend to live 2023 differently, based on those lessons. (One last goal: I want to write in this blog three times a month for the rest of the year, even if the reports are brief. Some of those posts will be follow-ons from this one.)

Anyway, I wish you a very Happy New Year. If you have any thoughts about self-care, or about New Year’s aspirations, resolutions, aims, or goals, why not add them in the comments below?

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The power of intention

I’ve been very aware recently of what a difference setting an intention can make to the quality of my meditation practice. This was even before I recorded the most recent series of Sitting With Bodhi, which is on the theme of intention. In fact it was because I was rediscovering the power of intention that I decided to create that course.

The act of setting an intention brings a heightened sense of clarity to our practice. Setting an intention for a period of practice helps us to catch our distractions earlier and even to avoid distraction altogether at times.

An intention is something we have to keep coming back to over and over again during a period of practice. It’s not just a question of setting one and then you’re done! That’s part of the strength of intentions, though. They give us something specific to focus on. They give us an opportunity to check in repeatedly to see if we’re still on track. Having an intention is like having a compass to help you navigate. The point is to periodically check your bearings to make sure you’re going in the right direction.

Conscious and Unconscious Intentions

What happens is that our conscious intention meets unconscious intentions.

The mind, after all, is rarely purposeless. We bring our emotional preoccupations to the cushion in the forms of anxieties, things we’re irritated about, things we’re longing for, and so on. So when the mind is turning over a potentially worrisome situation it’s in the grip of an intention. But it’s not one we’ve consciously chosen. It’s the direction that our mind wants to head in by default. Our distractions are unconscious intentions.

Some of our unconscious intentions involve the body as well as the mind. You’ve probably had the experience of suddenly finding that you’re scratching an itch. The intention to scratch has arisen and caused your body to move before you’re even aware or it. You’ll probably have had the experience of your posture having slumped. You didn’t consciously decide to slump. You just notice at some point that it’s already happened.

How Do We Set Intentions?

In theory we always have some kind of intention in meditation. We have the intention to always return to the breathing or to cultivate kindness, for example. But often that’s just not enough, and we need an intention that’s a bit more precise and specifically tailored for us.

For a relevant and effective intention to arise we usually need to bring together two things: knowing where we are and knowing where we’d like to go.

Knowing where we are means paying attention as we’re setting up for meditation, settling into our posture, and so on. We develop an awareness of what’s arising for us. Are we tired, irritable, fidgety, lacking confidence, trying to hard? Are we happy, relaxed, inspired, or focused? We need to know what’s going on. If we’re not sure how we are then that in itself is an important thing for us to know.

Knowing where we’d like to go doesn’t mean grasping after some experience, or having an expectation that certain things are going to happen in our meditation practice (“In this meditation I’ll experience joy, or I’ll die trying!”) It’s not about having an expectation, but is about having an aspiration. It’s not about getting to a certain place, but is about knowing what direction we’d like to head in.

Usually those two things are organically related to each other. And your intention arises from an intuitive sense of how to move forward, often in a very simple way.

An Intuitive Leap

If you’re fidgety, for example, then you might want to head in the direction of stillness. So it might become clear that your intention is to sit still.

If you’re feeling critical or irritable, then you might want to head in the direction of appreciation. And so you realize that an appropriate intention is to meet every experience, whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant, with appreciation.

If you’re feeling kind, then you might want to deepen your attitude of kindness. And so a specific intention might be to meet every distraction that arises with kindness.

Be Specific

You might notice that the form of words I’ve chosen allows you to know whether or not you’re following through with the intention. If in a given moment you’re fidgeting, then you’ve forgotten your intention to sit still. But if you’re sitting still then you’re following through with it. If you get annoyed or disappointed about getting distracted, then you’re not meeting your distractions with kindness. But if you have an attitude of acceptance, patience, and benevolence when you notice you’ve been distracted, then you know you’re following through with your intention. A vague intention such as “be kinder” or “be more mindful” isn’t very helpful. In any given moment that you check in with yourself, are you “being kinder” or “being more mindful”? It’ll be hard to tell! So choose a specific intention.

It’s All About Karma

The Buddha said that karma is intention. Why? Well, first of all, karma isn’t some kind of mysterious cosmic force, dealing our punishments or rewards depending if you’re on the naughty or nice lists. Karma literally means “action.” The original sense was “building,” “constructing,” or “fabricating.” Karma is the action that shapes our life: that shapes who we are. And actions start, internally, as intentions.

So, remember when I said that our conscious intention meets unconscious intentions? Our lives are always shaping themselves because we’re constantly exercising behavioral habits. And I’m taking the word behavior here to refer not just to physical actions we make in the world, but to the way we speak and the way we think. These things are very, very habitual. And the more we exercise a habit, the more we reinforce it.

When we have a conscious, skillful intention (“sit still,” “meet every distraction with kindness”) we’re introducing something new into the mix. We meet our unconscious, usually unhelpful habits with more conscious, more helpful ones. If we keep making that kind of gentle effort then those conscious habits start to weaken the unconscious and unhelpful ones.

Our new intentions can, in time, become quite automatic. They’re just how we act.

In other words, by choosing intentions, we shape our life. We shape who we are.

And if our positive intentions have been chosen wisely, then we’ll become happier. We’ll be more at ease. We’ll become more at peace with ourselves. This is the power of intention.

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The power of setting an intention

Jeena Cho, Above the Law: As we come to the end of 2016, it’s a wonderful time to pause, reflect, and set an intention for 2017. An intention, unlike a goal, isn’t about achieving the next big thing, or moving up the ladder. It’s about how you’re being, in this moment.

My co-author, Karen Gifford, described setting an intention in our book, The Anxious Lawyer:

Setting an intention is a little like setting your compass: it is always there in the background guiding you in a certain direction, even though you …

Read the original article »

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Is the intention a goal or already realized?

golden hourDo you express the intention as a goal or as something already realized?

This gets at a recurring question, even a debate, in Buddhism (and also in psychology and in some religions): Is it about progressing toward an enlightened state, or is it about uncovering the enlightened condition that has always been present? I can’t do justice here to the nuances of that consideration, but I can say what many wise people think is at the marrow of the matter: both are true. (Darn that middle way.)

In other words, it is powerful to focus on intention both as an aim toward a target, and as something that is already the case. The phrasing, “May ____________ “ is a nice way to accomplish this, since “May I be happy” or “May the world be at peace” both embody an aim and an actuality.

And of these two, aim and actuality, it’s usually best to emphasize the latter, the sense of the intention as already realized. For example, one thing that makes the affirmation form of verbalized intentions powerful (whether written, spoken, or thought), is that they are expressed in the present.

We are such a goal-directed culture, and there are so many associations of striving, frustration, and disappointment related to pursuing goals in the minds of so many of us, that there is often greater openness inside to intentions expressed as already true. We are already that way. Our circumstances are already that way.

This also points us to a greater recognition of, and gratitude and appreciation for, what is already good and working and wholesome and wonderful inside ourselves and outside, in our world. This feels good in its own right, which is very good for your brain! And you! And others!

And it directs us toward resources we may have missed, both inside and outside. There really is a profound wisdom and peacefulness already within us – in Buddhism, sometimes called Buddha mind, or bodhichitta. And a beautiful, wonderful harmony latent in the world.

For example, the “resting state” of the brain has a neurological coherence, a quiet hum of relaxed readiness, and a saturation with mildly positive emotion. That is what you return to when something is resolved, and that is what you return to if you start with a positive state and then jiggle it, such as with EMDR or other psychological techniques.

All this means that the universe and mother nature and spirit are all on your side. So, in a sense, a lot of what anyone of us is really trying to do is to re-access a sense of the innate nature of the brain – of our own nature as beings – and settle ever more deeply into that always already true and present condition. Kind of like settling into a cozy comforter in our bed that is home base.

Perhaps take a moment to see if you can sense into your preexisting Buddha nature, inner goodness, spark of the Divine within – in whatever way you experience or name that.

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Expressing your intentions

Canadian Geese Flying in V FormationOnce your intentions are clear, the next question is: How to express them?

There are many ways, including:

  • As thoughts in your mind
  • As an image
  • In writing
  • As a collage with words and images
  • Through physical expression, posture, movement, dance
  • As a sense of being

When you think intentions, you know them to yourself. Putting them in explicit words is usually helps create real clarity in your mind. Some intentions co-exist as equally vital, but many times it’s important to establish what your top priorities are. It’s kind of like filling a bucket: you want to get the big rocks in first, then the pebbles, and last the sand. Your most important aims are the big rocks, and if you take care of them, everything else usually works out just fine.

The nonverbal expression of intentions is through imagery. For all the emphasis in education and in our culture on language – certainly an important tool – it’s good to keep in mind that most of the brain, and most of our mental processes (especially unconscious ones) have nothing to do with language at all. A picture is indeed worth a thousand words, and pictures in your mind of your intentions – including both the path toward them and their fulfillment – are very, very valuable.

You can also write out your intentions, perhaps informally – as in a to-do list – or formally, as affirmations. These are complete sentences, positively stated, with the result already existing in the present. Like this: “I am healthy, happy, and whole.” “My family is full of love and harmony.” “I am completing my college education.” “My wife loves me.”

Collages are another powerful way to express your intentions. I have collages on the wall of my office at home that were made several years ago yet they still speak to me; I look at them, and know what I’m supposed to do.

Or you could move your body as an expression of your intention, letting it move through you as you walk or dance or whatever.

Last and definitely not least, you could get the feeling of the intention in your body, and rest in that sense of being. For example, if your intention is to be loving, rest in the sense of being loving. If it is to be highly focused and productive, get a sense of being that way, and then abide there. Be the goal you are aiming for.

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Intention of renunciation

Dandelion seeds blown in the skyRenunciation is founded on a disenchantment with the world and with experience, based on right view. You see through all the possibilities of experience: you see their ephemeral, insubstantial, empty qualities, no matter how alluring or seemingly gratifying. You see the suffering embedded in the experience, the “trap,” as the Buddha put it. And you see the happiness, peace, and love available in not chasing after pleasure or resisting pain.

Based on this clear seeing, you align yourself with the wisdom perspective and with the innate, prior, always already existing wakeful, pure, peaceful, and radiant awareness within yourself. In so doing, you renounce worldly things and worldly pleasures. If they pass through your awareness – a sunset, a child’s smile, chocolate pudding, Beethoven’s 9th – fine; just don’t cling to them as they disappear as all experiences do.

Renunciation is NOT asceticism, or privation for privation’s sake. It is a joyous union with the path of happiness that happens to include a relinquishing, casting off, abandoning, walking away from any seeking at all of worldly gratifications.

At its heart, renunciation is simple: we just let go. Ajahn Chah: “If you let go a little, you will have a little happiness. If you let go a lot, you will have a lot of happiness. If you let go completely, you will be completely happy.”

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Intention of non-ill will

yellow flowerHere we give up angry, punishing reactions toward others, animals, plants, and things. If such attitudes arise, we resolve not to feed them, and to cut them off as fast as we can.

The Buddha placed great stress on the importance of releasing ill will. In the extreme, he said that even when we are being grossly mistreated by others, we should practice good will toward them, and wish them the best.

To be sure, that does not mean turning a blind eye toward injustice and mistreatment – of ourselves as well as others – nor does it mean turning our back on skillful actions of protection, advocacy, and betterment. It is perfectly appropriate to defend yourself, assert yourself, pursue your own interests – and to do all that on behalf of others, too – as long as all that is done in the spirit of wisdom and good will. This stance is seen pointedly and poignantly in the Dalai Lama’s reference to “ . . . my friends, the enemy Chinese.”

Of course, in daily life, practicing with ill will is often extremely difficult – especially when we feel we’ve been truly wronged. For help, please see, “21 Ways to Turn Ill Will to Good Will.” As a summary, those ways are listed here:

  1. Be mindful of the priming.
  2. Practice non-contention.
  3. Inspect the underlying trigger.
  4. Be careful about attributing intent to others.
  5. Put what happened in perspective.
  6. Cultivate lovingkindness, compassion sympathetic joy, and equanimity.
  7. Practice generosity.
  8. Investigate ill will.
  9. Regard ill will as an affliction.
  10. Settle into awareness of ill will, but don’t be identified with it.
  11. Accept the wound.
  12. Do not cling to what you want.
  13. Let go of the view that things are supposed to be a certain way.
  14. Release the sense of self.
  15. ” . . . ill will is suppressed by the first jhana based on lovingkindness and eradicated by the path of nonreturning.”
  16. Resolve to meet mistreatment with lovingkindness.
  17. Cultivate positive emotion.
  18. Communicate.
  19. Have faith that they will inherit their own karmas one day.
  20. Realize that some people will not get the lesson.
  21. Forgive.
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Intention of harmlessness

Kitten on a white backgroundThis is a broad aim of not causing pain, loss, or destruction to any living thing. At a minimum, this is a sweeping resolution to avoid any whit of harm to another human being. The implications are far-reaching, since most of us participate daily in activities whose requirements or ripples may involve harm to others (e.g., use of fossil fuels that warms the planet, purchasing goods manufactured in oppressive conditions).

Further, in American culture there is a strong tradition of rugged individualism in which as long as you are not egregiously forceful or deceitful, “let the buyer beware” on the other side of daily transactions. But if your aim is preventing any harm, then the other person’s free consent does not remove your responsibility.

Taking it a step further, to many, harmlessness means not killing bothersome insects, rodents, etc. Even as you feel the mosquito sticking its needle into your neck. And to many, harmlessness means eating a vegetarian diet (and perhaps forgoing milk products, since cows need to have calves to keep their milk production flowing, and half of those calves are male, who will eventually be slaughtered for food).

Nonetheless, we need to realize that there is no way to avoid all harms to other beings that flow inexorably through our life. If we are to eat, we must kill plants, and billions of bacteria die each day as we pass wastes out of our bodies. If we get hired for a job, that means another person will not be.
But what we can do is to have a sincere aspiration toward harmlessness, and to reduce our harms to an absolute minimum. And that makes all the difference in the world.

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Wholesome intentions – The neurology of intention

Burning candleOur intentions arise in the brain, are represented in the brain, and are pursued in the brain. Where else?

Therefore, a basic understanding of how intentions work in the brain – and thus in your mind – is a very useful thing to have.

The Executive Functions
The brain is like a committee, with many parts or “members” working together – or at cross purposes! – and the frontal lobes are like the chair of that committee. Or, to use a different metaphor, if the psyche altogether is a vast land, with a capital and many provinces, the frontal lobes are like the city manager of the capital.

But of course that does not mean that they are the owner of the country! An error the frontal lobes, and the self structures that identify with them, tend to make. To the loss and often the rebellion of the provinces . . .

As you can observe in your own experience, it is possible to have effective “executive functions” in the mind – those capacities that plan, organize, monitor, and direct – without much if any sense of personal self in the mix.

A Proper Balance
To be sure, those executive functions are very important. A healthy nation needs both its capital and its provinces. Balance is everything, in the brain as in life. “The middle way . . . “

You might ask yourself, are you tilted either way:

  • Toward an excess of executive functions, too much top-down control, not enough life breathing in the provinces, too much “head” and not enough “body” or “heart,” too much regulation, suppression and scorn directed at parts of the self, too many high judges and critics in the mind scolding the inner children and the passions, too much superego and not enough id, living too much behind city gates and not enjoying and exploring enough the rich and fertile lands outside those walls
  • Toward an excess of unruly provinces, too much influence bubbling up from the bottom, not enough self-control, flooded with affect, impulsive and inattentive, a mental popcorn machine
    Most of us are, indeed, tilted too much one way or another not just as a temporary imbalance but as a longstanding tendency. Certain moments call for more from the “capital” and others for more from the “provinces,” and being able to move nimbly in one direction or another without limitation or creakiness is very helpful in navigating the twists and turns of life.

So, when you see which way you are tilted, then restoring greater balance – and becoming stronger and more able with the other aspect of the psyche – can become a strategic goal for growth.

The primary way to develop your “weak suit,” in terms of optimal balance for yourself, is simply to identify the elements of it that you want to strengthen, and keep them in mind. That will mobilize resources for yourself over time that will gradually build up those capacities. Truly, 50% of personal growth is identifying the issue – whatever it is – and committing to work on it. Just that! Which is really very good news.

Held in a proper balance, establishing clear intentions – which are a way the frontal lobes call the other members of the committee to order and establish what the agenda is – is a powerful, skillful means to getting anything good done either inside your own head and heart or in the outer world.

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Wholesome intentions – Introduction

Burning candleThese statements about reality, about the way things really are, are central to Buddhism, and you can test them for yourself:

  • Everything happens because of preceding causes. Everything, both inside our minds and outside in the world.
  • Those causes lead to results that are either beneficial or harmful, for ourselves and others.
  • Causes originate within yourself and outside yourself.
  • The primary source of the causes that originate inside you are your own intentions. As one teacher put it, “Everything rests on the tip of motivation.”
  • Some of our intentions are very deliberate and conscious, while others are shadowy or altogether hidden. Multiple intentions dance, join with, and oppose each other in the mind, some have more power than others do, and our actions are the result of the net sum of all of them at any one time. Our actions reveal our true intentions.
  • The sphere of intention is vast, ranging from the items listed on a shopping list to our loftiest aspirations. It encompasses our goals, aims, values, drives, purposes, wants, and ideals. The influence of our intentions pervades our entire life.
  • This means that through establishing our intentions, we have tremendous influence over our life. Therefore, our intentions bring us both great responsibility and great opportunity.

In sum, becoming more aware of our intentions, observing their effects – for better or worse – and becoming more skillful with them is an absolutely fundamental and powerful source of benefit for ourselves and others.

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