Bruce Black, author of Writing Yoga, describes setting an intention as “drawing an arrow from the quiver of your heart.” I love this analogy. Before I learned about intentions, I made resolutions during this period every year—to adopt a healthier diet, to quit various vices, to spend more time with friends and family, and to pursue my dreams with greater vigor…
Some indeed were resolved—I stopped biting my nails in 1995—but most remained on the list year after year. My commitment to them tended to peak January 10 and wane in May, before being briefly revisited for a weekend in June, and then altogether shelved until the following January. I know I’m not alone here.
All that changed, however, when I was introduced to intentions. My intention wasn’t particularly refined at first—I just had a feeling I wanted to be useful—but I reminded myself of it constantly. Within a year, without really planning to, I had quit smoking, I had stopped drinking vast quantities of alcohol, I started a regular yoga practice, I planted and recycled, I bought less, and I gave more—all things that I habitually put on my resolutions list for a decade.
An intention connects us with a calling. It provides us with the opportunity to take action in line with our heart’s desire and that of the Universe.
There is a saying that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” It means that it’s no good just thinking good thoughts—we have to take action. This is true. But intentions are not thoughts. They don’t come from the mind. And it turns out that, when we draw from the quiver of our heart, positive actions do follow.
The Trouble With Resolutions
We know that resolutions and goals are from the mind—for a start, their nature is future-oriented: I will practice yoga three times a week; I will call a friend more often; I will compost. They also tend to involve some sort of sacrifice or effort, because implicit in making resolutions is the belief that something needs to be resolved, that something is lacking.
Intentions, on the other hand, are the domain of the heart and soul. When we set an intention, we are just setting our trajectory to be in line with our heart’s desire. Nothing is incomplete. Rather we are saying: May all goals and actions spring from the heart, not just this list of 10 I think I should do.
Intentions leave room for our goals and actions to be divinely inspired, rather than limited to our thoughts. And if we discover our heart’s desire is to care for the planet, then we will certainly take action and compost, but we may also be guided to take other positive actions.
Implicit in making resolutions is the belief that something needs to be resolved, that something is lacking.
Novelist Paul Coelho also uses the analogy of an archer. The beauty, says Paul, is that not only are we aiming for the target, but the target is calling our arrow to it. “Just as intention seeks its objective, the objective likewise seeks man’s intention,” he says, and that “is what gives our life a meaning.” An intention connects us with a calling. It provides us with the opportunity to take action in line with our heart’s desire and that of the Universe.
But while that makes intentions more enjoyable than resolutions, working with intentions is a practice. “It is a practice because it is an ever-renewing process,” says Phillip Moffitt, author and teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. “You don’t just set your intentions and then forget about them; you live them every day,” he says. Or else, just like our resolutions, all traces of them will be gone by June.
So how can we create intentions we will stick to?
1. Tuning In
Perhaps the most challenging part of setting intentions is uncovering what it is we truly desire. The only real way to find out is to be still, tune in, and ask yourself: What is it that my heart truly wants? How do I serve my highest purpose? It may take some time. Maybe days, maybe weeks. Perhaps it will appear as an image or a symbol. You’ll know when you receive an answer to your question because your heart will likely lift, and then the mind will quickly judge it for being too vague or lofty. Some examples of intentions could be: to be of service; to know my true nature; to feel free and expansive; to be loving in every moment; to be joyful; to hear and listen to inner guidance; to love myself.
2. Letting Them Marinade
Perhaps several intentions will arise, and we’ll need to hone in on a few. It’s helpful to take several days to ponder them, ask for more guidance, and tweak them. This period can also help us become more authentic with our intentions. Our intentions do not need to look like other people’s intentions. We are looking for words and feelings that connect to us personally. Gary Zukav, in his book The Seat of the Soul, points out that each personality will create an intention that is best suited to its soul’s journey.
3. Keep It Simple
Once you’ve discovered your final intentions, it’s time to keep it simple. If you have five, make them five simple intentions. If you have one, keep it succinct, so that you can remember it. Intentions are what yogis call sankalpas—a vow we make to support our highest truth—and, as Rod Stryker, founder of ParaYoga, says: “To create the life we are meant to live, we must draw the mind again and again to our dharma, [and] to our deepest intentions…”
4. Flesh Them Out With Feeling
Spiritual teacher Regina Dawn Akers recommends writing a few lines after every intention about how you will experience this intention in the present moment—what you will feel. For example, if the intention is to listen to inner guidance at all times, then you might write: “I always remember to ask for guidance. I hear it clearly, and am always willing to follow it.” It doesn’t matter if this seems a far-flung fantasy right now, you will get there. And those days when your intention feels more like empty words and you are tempted to forget it, you can refer back to these sentences, and remind yourself of the feeling you are moving toward.
5. Putting Intention Into Practice
It is inevitable in daily life that we will get distracted, and our arrows blown off course. And so we need to remind ourselves daily of our intentions—and not do as Curly Howard, one of the Three Stooges, says: “I shoot an arrow in the air, where it lands I don’t care. I get my arrows wholesale.” To always remember our intentions we need to know ourselves: When are we most likely to forget our intention? How can we reconnect with our heart’s desire to put us back on track? Perhaps it is through a daily meditation, or it could be with sticky notes and phone alarms. With practice our intentions will be so ingrained that all of our actions will have come from this quiver of our heart.
Helen Avery is a senior writer for Wanderlust. She is a journalist, writer, yoga teacher, minister-in-training, and full-time dog walker of Millie.