Every day, think as you wake up: Today I am fortunate to have woken up. I am alive, I have a precious human life. I am not going to waste it.
– The Dalai Lama
To make the most of your life, to nourish the causes of happiness for yourself and others, it takes strength, clear intentions, and persistent effort. This post explores how to establish powerful intentions and sustain the commitment to see them come true.
Setting Clear Intentions
As humans evolved, stacking one floor above another on the neuroaxis in the brain, our horizons expanded. We gradually extended the time between stimulus and response, and the space between our own actions and their outermost ripples. The wider your view, the wiser your intentions. So it’s good to ask yourself: How wide is my view? It’s natural to spend most of your time focusing on what’s right in front of you, but every so often it’s worth considering questions like these:
- What good and bad effects will my lifestyle today have on me 20 years from now?
- What do I do that helps and harms my planet?
- How do my love and my anger affect others?
- What could be the long-term results of intensifying my psychological growth and spiritual practices?
And how high is your aim? One time at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, my spiritual “home base,” my friend and teacher, Sylvia Boorstein, silenced a room full of several hundred people when she asked a simple question: What about enlightenment? She went on to point out that the Buddha, like all the great teachers, always encouraged people toward the most complete realization possible. Whether or not you connect with the notion of enlightenment or related ideas like union with God, each one of us has a sense deep down of the ultimate possibilities of a human life. If you haven’t taken those possibilities seriously and gone after them, why not start now? Is there truly a good reason not to? Personally, I’ve never heard a good reason. But like just about everyone, I keep forgetting this and losing my way in the sheer busyness of life. Further, the lower floors of the neuroaxis naturally pull us toward aims that are immediate and concrete – not because the brainstem, hypothalamus, and limbic system are base or sinful, but simply because they are more primitive in an evolutionary sense. Then your horizons shrink to the next few months and the small circle around you.
Much as you can see farther from an upstairs window, the uppermost layer of your brain is key to creating and pursuing the widest, highest, and wisest aims. So in this article I’ll emphasize emphasize using the prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) to do just that, starting with these general considerations about how to be skillful at intending.
Intentions are effective when they are grounded in reality, in what is really true.
Here are some things that will help:
- Cultivate wanting to know the facts of your inner and outer worlds. Take in the rewards of seeing clearly, like feeling safer.
- Slow down. Give your cortex time to understand what is actually happening, what led up to it, and what an appropriate response would be.
- Stay mindful of the big picture. In the larger mosaic of a situation, notice if you’re focusing on one tile out of a hundred.
- Notice how limbic and brainstem processes tilt cortical ones, and vice versa. For example, the brain uses feedback from “in here” – particularly your autonomic nervous system, muscles, heart, and gut – to form beliefs that are often mistaken about what is happening “out there.” Or see how an anxious temperament inflates threats, or a glum mood downplays opportunities. Use this awareness to challenge your appraisals and judgments: is a situation truly a 7 on the zero-to-ten Ugh scale, or more like a 2? As Oscar Wilde once wrote: The worst things in my life never actually happened to me.
- Pay attention to intention itself. It determines the full consequences of your thoughts, words, and deeds.
This is a central principle in ethics, morality, and virtue. Fundamentally, it’s enlightened self-interest. Since we’re a ll connected together, not harming others decreases the harms that would come back to hurt you. Similarly, not harming yourself reduces harms to others.
Do’s and Don’t’s
Intentions can be positive (do) or negative (don’t). Positive statements are more informative, because they spotlight the bulls-eye rather than just tell you what to avoid hitting. But negative statements are more powerful, since they draw on the intense, “lower floor” withdrawal and freeze circuitry of the brain. That’s why they’re used so often. For your own intentions, it’s natural to use both forms. The positive one breathes inspiration and life into moral conduct; for example, “be generous” is a joyful balance to “do not steal.” And sometimes it’s necessary to have a very clear NO sign in front of certain actions, like being very clear that you just never lie to your mate, no matter what.