The theme of this month’s workshop, Intention, was nominated by Felicity, who was inspired by a session at last year’s Yogafest on strength and intention. As she described it yesterday, that session created a lingering itch, that needed [still needs?] to be scratched again.*
This was a radically different session than all of the previous ones – it was almost all talk 😮 We did one asana, and a couple of partner-exercises to experiment with the power of conceptualization; but for the most part, we sat in a “circle” and discussed different interpretations and understandings of what intention means, and how it plays out in our yoga practice and in everyday life.
I went in with a prior understanding that the word intention is polysemous – there are many meanings; many of which overlap and interweave, but not all. My understandings of the term come from western philosophy and psychoanalysis, but I have no trouble interweaving them with many important aspects of yoga practice – especially in meditation and mindfulness. But the way Nina tends to use the word in asana class seems to be a rather different thing altogether. This difference has long confounded me – but not enough to try to clarify it before now.
Immediately before the workshop I very quickly looked in the index of a couple of academic yoga books, but did not find the word intention listed. This morning (the day after the workshop), with a bit more time, I checked a third reference, and still didn’t find it. So I asked Nina for the Sanskrit: sankalpa. Like many Sanskrit terms, it’s a compound word combining kalpa (= vow) and san (= connection to the highest truth). Sankalpa, then becomes a vow or commitment to support our highest truth. It refers to a statement that we draw upon to remind us of our true nature and to guide our choices. At a more mundane level, though, the index to Georg Feuerstein’s textbook The Yoga Tradition says “see conceptualization, volition”. These concepts (if I may) provide potent clues to making links between the many different interpretations of intention that we discussed. But back to the workshop.
As usual, after Nina gave a brief introduction to the topic, we each introduced ourselves and briefly outlined what our ideas of intention are, and what we thought we might get out of a workshop on it. And as always, the honesty, openness, sharing and vulnerability on display in this exercise was heart-warming. It’s so lovely to share these experiences with a group of like-minded, open-hearted yogis and yoginis.
There were fifteen participants in the workshop this month, including many regulars and lots of familiar faces, but also three who were at the Dance of Life for the first time, and one who was having his first ever yoga experience! Of the fifteen, only two or three professed to have much of an idea of what it would be about. But when they began to share, it was clear that everyone came with some ideas. These covered a broad range of possibilities, including:
• Intentions define things that you do and don’t do (or will and won’t do)
• Intentions are like goals or judgments, which can cloud our experience
• Intentions are instinctive, arising from within; directing heart-driven action rather than coming from the thinking mind
• Intentions are discernments of what matters, overriding concepts
• Intentions are kind of like visualisations
• Intentions frame and focus our perceptions, affecting our experience of reality
• Intentions are broader than daily goals, acting as a sort of long term connecting principle [i.e., connecting our particular goals into a broader picture]
• Intentions are dynamic, changing in response to reflections on new experiences and new knowledge; the new folds back in to re-form the intentions
• Intentions are things that you stick with
• The road to hell is paved with good intentions – it’s the path, not the outcome that matters
• Intentions come up from within, in response to things that you’ve done, or new realisations about where you’ve been and what you’re doing. Hopefully they make you a better person.
• Intentions are not goals, but sacred concepts from the heart; it’s what really matters
• Intentions are a force or spirit that drives us to constantly change
As you can see, there are some recurring themes, and hopefully some connecting threads. The immediately ensuing conversation raised the idea that in many of these contexts it is a “doing word” – or a way of identifying, defining, and discerning the things that we will or feel we ought to do. This is how we use it when we refer to our “New Year’s resolutions”. And in this context, it is obvious that intentions can invoke fears – especially fear of failure.
Yet for those who identified intentions with intuition or spirit, it was clear that there is a sense of effortlessness involved. This links to the idea that goals can cloud our experience or our judgment, interfering with our capacity to see and embrace these subtler values. There’s an important distinction made in the yogic tradition between mind/ego and heart [or more properly, ahamkara / asmita and atman] – where the products of the mind/ego are not “true”. In this sense, ego-based goals and objectives, and especially those that are trying to achieve social recognition or socially sanctioned “success” are distractions from the right path. This seems to be what is invoked by those who referred to heart-driven action rather than mind-driven pursuits.
This is a good place to introduce the idea of meditation as a practice in which we attempt to clear away the clouds; to distinguish between ego-constructs and a deeper truth / reality. In this case, the various goals and judgments [or “musts” and “shoulds”] produced by the fluctuating mind become clouds that impinge on our capacity to effortlessly identify those “sacred concepts”.
One of my meditation teachers frequently returns to the analogy of a glass of cloudy water representing our turbulent mind. The practice of meditation then is to attempt to still the mind, so that the sediment in the water can settle, bringing clarity. It seems to me to be important to recognize this dual nature of intentions – they can be either distracting or occluding sediments that cloud our judgment, making experience less clear; or they can be empowering visualizations / conceptualizations which help us to achieve our ambitions.
But accepting this dual nature of intentions should not be confused with embracing dualistic thinking about intentions. Nina raised the spectre of overlaying our quest with judgments such as right or wrong and good or bad. It’s too easy when setting an intention to draw the conclusion that intending to do something implies that one has been doing things wrong. To intend, for example, to be more tolerant, can imply that one has not been tolerant enough – which is almost automatically deemed to be a shortcoming or failure. It is much harder to maintain a space that says I’ve been on this path, now I’m changing to that path – without judging that the previous path was incorrect or inferior.
Maybe this would be easier to grasp if we could make a clear terminological distinction between the occluding ego-based intentions and empowering visualizations. There may be some merit in differentiating them – perhaps even using Feuerstein’s choice of terms to refer to the empowering aspects of conceptualization / volition in order to reduce the ambiguity. But I think this is always a fraught enterprise. Among other things, I just used the word ambition in conjunction with a visualization – but as we discussed, ambitions are also frequently connected to goals in their most negative sense. I believe it is much more fruitful to learn to hold the complexity, and to embrace the contradictions, rather than imposing artificial distinctions that help us to simplify things.
Before I get too bogged down in philosophical complexities, it is worth returning to the discussion in the workshop. Nina’s “intention”, it now seems clear, is to help us to further understand the merits of developing a strong capacity for conceptualizing the transitions in our asana practice. She most often uses the term “intention” in relation to the core-engagement that is required for a step-through, or for lifting into an inversion. Here, the volition to achieve the movement / posture is greatly assisted by a visualization or conceptualization of what is entailed in doing it. To use a negative example, if you approach a headstand with fear, with visions of tragic falls raging through your mind’s-eye, a booming-fall is a very likely outcome if you can overcome the inertia and get up in the first place.
Felicity described something similar in discussing the inversion as a dynamic flowing pose – so that rather than seeing yourself as a static structure standing on your head absolutely still, like a stone column, you visualize yourself as fluidly lifting and dynamically projecting into the pose.
This prompted a brief discussion of the idea of “following through” with our intentions. This is an issue for New Year’s intentions, as for many other types. When we begin by discussing things we will do or not do, the greatest challenge is, having set the intention, how to follow through. By way of visualization, then, it occurred to me that in golf or tennis, it is not sufficient to strike the ball – if you want it to go to a particular place, you must follow through. Similarly, in the martial arts, if you are breaking boards, you do not aim to strike the board, you aim to strike through the board. I think what Felicity is saying, then, is that if you want to strike a pose, you must flow through the pose.
Something similar is often invoked about writing or making music – it is not “I” who is writing, but the writing is flowing through me. Nina was reluctant to use the term “grace” but couldn’t resist – to really strike the pose, you must let the grace flow through it – and thus through you. Paradoxically, perhaps, this requires both the visualization to “do” the pose and letting go of the intention to “do” the pose!
I’ll end the account of the workshop here (I love a good paradox!), and indulge in a philosophical reflection interweaving the ideas that I entered the workshop with the ideas explored in the workshop – filtered through Feuerstein’s discussion of sankalpa as conceptualization and volition.
Reality and consciousness
In her introduction, Nina observed that the reality that we perceive is not reality as it is, but reality filtered through our engagement with it. I would rephrase that and say that it is reality filtered through our intention towards it. We can get a better understanding of this if we explore some of the trends in twentieth century Western philosophy.
The French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty observed that “consciousness is always consciousness of something”. We can also say that “perception is always perception of something”. Furthermore, it is worth stating the obvious point that both consciousness and perception are always “by someone”. Even if we were to accept claims of some sort of divine or universal consciousness, for our everyday purposes – for the purposes that these workshops are aimed at – we are dealing with human level consciousness and perception.
Our perception is never total, never universal, never complete. It is limited, or selective – not necessarily consciously or intentionally limited – but always limited by our intentions. This was implied above when discussing how goals or intentions can cloud our judgment, or our experience. It can be seen in experiments such as the one in which family members posed as homeless people on the streets of New York (if my link doesn’t work, just google it).
The point that this experiment illustrates is that we approach the world with plans, objectives, goals, desires – in short, with intentions. And in the process we filter out things that are not relevant, or that do not seem to be useful for present purposes. When I’m walking to the supermarket with a shopping list in my head and plans for what to do when I get home again, the people who seek to entice me to contribute to this or that charity or social movement are annoying obstacles to my immediate objectives. Even when I wholeheartedly support their cause, and wish them great success, I get annoyed that they’re intruding upon my plans.
But, of course, lots of people on a busy city street obstruct my plans. I caught myself several years ago rushing through the city, and getting annoyed at people strolling through the city. It took some practice – some mindfulness – to re-frame what was going on, to recognize that “they” were not why I was annoyed. “They” were going about their own business, and were entirely oblivious to me and my haste. With further practice, I learned to shift my intentions, to shift my approach to a sojourn down a city street, and to refrain from letting my haste lead to my irritation or annoyance.
One way of putting this was that I reframed my intentions or conceptualization of “them”. I shifted from conceiving of them as obstacles in my way to people with their own lives and intentions. I now see those people as radically different to the charity fund-raisers who intentionally intrude upon my journey. The fund-raisers, in trying to meet their own goals and targets, are treating me like an opportunity, rather than as another person using the footpath in pursuit of my own life objectives.
I’ll come back to that in a moment, but first let me introduce a different example. Nina went to a child care centre to pick up a 2 year old for his mother. When she arrived he was engaged, playing with a toy. She interrupted and said “Hi.” He looked at her quizzically, processing; then the penny dropped and he recognized her. He said “Nina”, putting a familiar label on the face / voice, and returned to his business. But a moment later, when the child care worker appeared with his day-bag and handed it to Nina, everything shifted. He immediately got up, grabbed her hand and said “home.”
We might say that when she interrupted him, he had no intentions towards her, besides a moment of cognitive dissonance (a familiar face our of context), her appearance had no affect – but the appearance of his bag in her hand changed his perception of reality, and thus changed everything.
To broach this from a slightly different angle, another French philosopher, Cornelius Castoriadis (who was also Greek, and also a psychoanalyst), explains that our psychic engagement with the world is always a three-fold engagement – the psychic flux, he says, consists of representations, affects and intentions. It’s necessary to discuss these separately, but it’s also essential to remember that they are not separable – they occur together and influence each other. The representations that we create from our perceptions are shaped / filtered / focused by our intentions, as well as by how these affect us. Conversely, our intentions are shaped by how we are affected by what we perceive / how we represent reality to ourselves [see earlier discussion of reflexive reappraisal of our intentions]…
Returning to my earlier example, then, we can say that when I was rushing through the city, intent on getting somewhere and doing something, the people who appeared to be obstructing me were represented as obstacles. I was adversely affected by these unnecessary hindrances, for they were obstructing the satisfaction of my intentions. But by changing the way I represented them to myself, I was able to diminish the affect. I didn’t get my task done any faster, but I achieved it with much less stress.
In Nina’s case, because the young fella had no intentions towards her, her appearance did not affect him. But when his day bag was added to the perceptual field, becoming a part of the representation, an intention was immediately introduced, as was an affect.
To bring this back to the yogic context, let’s revisit the glass of murky water. Our consciousness is continually stirred up by representation, affects and intentions. Our intentions cloud our perceptions, such that what is represented to us as reality is at best a limited and selective portion of it, but more likely a selected distortion. In the intersection between representations and intentions arise affects (emotions and judgments), and these in turn shape both our representations and intentions.
From this perspective, the point of meditation is to attempt to disentangle these three inseparable determinants of the psychic flux – to settle the fluctuations of the turbulent mind; to attempt to perceive reality unclouded by our intentions and affects; to attempt to clarify and perhaps even purify our intentions, unclouded by our distorted representations of the world that we encounter.
At a physical level, we can see this in asana practice when our long-term self-representations interfere with our capacity to achieve various poses or transitions. In a different setting, I was once on the mat next to someone who said “I can’t do that” when we were instructed to go into handstand. I helped him up, he held it for a couple of breaths, and came out. A couple of weeks later we were in a similar situation. He said it again. I pointed out that he had proven himself mistaken on the previous occasion. He got up easier. Stayed longer. He shifted a self-perception from being someone who can’t do that to someone who is doing that. The intention has shifted as the representation shifted, and the affect of the instruction is now radically altered. New knowledge has folded in upon an intention, transforming the intention, the representation and their affects.
In other situations we see people who are a bit more gung-ho who get a reality check, when their ego is bruised; when their ego-driven goal-achieving intentions over-ride the restraining aspects of representational affects; when their determination to “keep up” or prove themselves overrides the teachers’ cautions and instructions. They go too far, too fast. If they only incur a bruised ego, that’s a fortunate outcome.
This is getting much too long, but before I wrap it up I need to address one or two more things. In the bullet points above I’ve included the observation that “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”. Although a couple of our participants see intentions as something noble (as does the Sanskrit sankalpa), arising from the heart or spirit, and over-riding our more base desires and goal-orientations, one of the most important things to arise in this workshop, I think, was a discussion about interrogating our intentions: where do they come from, why do we want them, are there any limits to them?
One participant told us that during a yoga class once, when instructed to set an intention, she set herself the task of being more tolerant, and she has kept it as an intention ever-since. This is something that she could do. It’s also something she could fail to do. This was what lead us into discussing New Year’s resolutions and fear. But it later came up again in the context of self-interrogation. I asked: how far do we go with tolerance? Do we tolerate racism, misogyny, bigotry?
If our intention is to lose weight, why? Is it to be healthier, or to fit some socially prescribed ideal? Either way, how much weight – when do we know that we’ve lost enough? Etc.
Moving back to the asana, it is often worth asking why we want to do this or that pose. Am I pushing myself to my limits to be a better me? Or to satisfy some base ego-needs, to compete with my fellow yogis? To prove myself as good as or better than others? Obviously, this doesn’t only occur on the mat. (And again, that dualism arises – if I’m trying to be “a better me” does that mean I’m not “good enough” as I am? Eek!)
Often our intentions – in the form of everyday goals – are responses to what we think others expect from us. When we embrace and pursue these intentions, we often find that we are clouding our experience of reality, but also mis-representing the world to ourselves, and our-self to our-self.
It’s also worth thinking about the challenges that face us when we represent ourselves to ourselves and to others as essentially or intrinsically “good”. It is not only possible but incredibly common for people to cast themselves as essentially good, and in the process then deny their own capacity to do other than good. When I represent myself to myself as intrinsically a good person, then I interpret all of my intentions as intrinsically good, or I mis-represent my true intentions – so I can maintain this very precious and important self-image.
A more truthful self-representation must acknowledge that, like everyone else, I am driven by base and ignoble drives and desires. Only through a more truthful self-representation can I more rigorously interrogate my intentions. Then I can work to my limits while remaining within my limits, extending my limits without over-reaching.
Such are the complexities and paradoxes of intentions.
Our next workshop is on developing and maintaining a self-practice. If there’s enough interest we might do that on 21 March – otherwise it will have to wait until after Easter. Let us know what you’re thinking – both about the next workshop and what we should do after that!
*This was such a great topic that Karl scratched that itch again, in this article in elephant journal.