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You’ve probably heard about people setting intentions in the popular media. What is this practice, and why do people do it? What benefits does intention setting bring to your life?
In a word, the answer is purpose. Many psychologists believe that part of the problem driving today’s mental health crisis is that millions of us lack a sense of meaning in our lives, a “why” for our existence. Intention setting addresses the big question of why you exist by answering the Universe “to make this difference.”
Intention setting also provides a sense of direction and guidance. They help you plan your day and defeat decision fatigue. All you need to get started is to spend some time with yourself. Here’s how to set intentions in practice and life.
What Is Intention Setting?
If you Google the meaning of intention, you’ll find the definition “a thing intended; an aim or plan.” Interestingly enough, in medicine, the term refers to the healing process of a wound. It helps you remember the purpose of intention setting, which is to get a little bit better every day.
In spirituality, an intention is a Santka or seed that you plant in your mind with a specific aim or purpose. The Buddha famously said, “what you think is what you become.” While most Western minds interpret this saying as “you can meditate your way to clear skin and shiny hair” and get frustrated when they look in the mirror, the transformation Supreme Buddha speaks of is deeper and more internal.
By healing and becoming the best version of yourself, you bring that to the world, creating a ripple effect of goodness. Think about it: how often have you yelled at your child, only to see them later redirect that angry energy against a toy or pet? If you started the day with the intention of “I am a patient, nurturing parent,” you might have handled your frustration differently instead of spreading it to your little one.
It is similar to setting a Sankalpa in yoga nidra, where you enter a deeply relaxed state, tapping into your brain’s delta waves to achieve healing rest and transformation. It’s also a powerful part of other yoga practices. For example, your guide may have the class recite an intention before flowing through a vinyasa sequence, as you let the reflective time on the mat and the juicy neurochemicals produced by exercise sink that statement into your brain’s neural circuitry.
What Does an Intention Encompass?
An intention can entail anything you want to change, improve, cultivate or manifest in your life. It encompasses the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual planes. For example, sample intentions might look like the following:
- I spread loving-kindness to everyone I meet.
- I am strong enough to respond to life’s challenges.
- I reflect my faith in all I do.
- I make healthy choices for my body and mind.
- I control my anger— I do not let it control me.
How to Set an Intention
You can set as many intentions as you like. For example, many people have a favorite intention that they return to repeatedly over months, even years. However, they may also set smaller, daily intentions to work on specific goals. First, you need to know how to compose one. Here’s how to set an intention.
1. Get Mindful
The best-phrased intention in the world won’t work if it doesn’t vibe with your soul. What is it you want to manifest more of in your life? How do you answer the question “why?”
You don’t have to contemplate the deeper meaning of human existence if that’s too heavy — ask yourself this. Why do you include the items you do on your daily to-do list? What greater goals do you hope to achieve through your actions?
2. Make It an Affirmative Statement
Here’s the problem with saying “I will” — it implies an elusive future time, not something you are doing here and now. It’s like dreaming of humankind one day living among the stars when you’re currently unhoused on Earth. One thing builds on another, and you can’t skip the foundation and framing if you want a well-constructed building.
Therefore, phrase your affirmations as “I am” statements. For example, consider the difference between these two intentions:
- I am sober.
- I will get sober.
Which one tells you to take immediate action, to put down that bottle right now? Which one doesn’t leave room for the excuse, “I’ll start getting clean tomorrow. I can’t today because I have too much stress and need a drink.”
That’s the power of making your intention an affirmative statement.
3. Keep It to a Single Sentence
An intention must be a phrase you can return to time and again, reciting it like a mantra to remind you of your larger goal and purpose. Therefore, it has to be something you’ll remember.
Keep it to a simple sentence you can readily memorize. Making your intention concise is also a fabulous way of narrowing it down and making it specific, one of the defining characteristics of a SMART goal.
4. Make It Actionable
Ideas only come to life when you translate them into action. This step is more of a meditative one than a part of your actual intention statement. For example, perhaps your intention is, “I will treat others with loving-kindness.”
What does it look like to treat people with loving kindness in reality? It could mean various things, like:
- Being patient with a slow service worker who might simply be having a bad day instead of involving management.
- Saying “good morning” with a genuine smile to everyone you meet.
- Going slightly out of your way to do a favor for a stranger.
Contemplate what your intention will look like in action. Spend at least a minute or two visualizing various scenarios. For example, if your intention is “I make healthy food choices,” imagine yourself going to lunch and overcoming the temptation of french fries, opting for the salad instead.
5. Write It Down
A fun way to manifest your intentions is to write them down in your planner each day. After all, you probably look at its pages — or your app — multiple times daily. If there’s no separate space for it, include your intention as the first item on your to-do list.
You can also write down intentions anywhere you’ll see them frequently, like:
- Your computer or phone lock screen background.
- A sticky note on the desktop lamp in your cubicle.
- A beautiful framed cross-stitch that you hang on your wall.
6. Watch Out for Limiting Beliefs
The best intention won’t work if you don’t first have a deeply held core belief that it can. However, we often have toxic limiting beliefs that undermine our success.
Journaling is a powerful way of uncovering limiting beliefs that can derail your progress. If your intentions aren’t helping, perhaps spend 15 to 30 minutes freewriting about how you see the world and identifying ideas you may need to reframe.
For example, you might believe you’ll never succeed because you have too many strikes against you — your age, body size or other physical characteristics, racial or ethnic background, sexual or gender identity or disability status. While it’s a reality that you face a harder road, there are still ways to create a rich and meaningful life where you succeed on your terms. Use your journal to visualize it.
7. Live Your Intention
The best way to manifest your intentions is to live them every day, even in ways that may seem small or insignificant. It’s often impossible to know what the future effects of our actions today may bring, but acting in alignment with your larger purpose will only attract more of what you want and less of what you don’t.
Recite your intentions often, even in your head. For example:
- Reflect on your intention for a minute or two before giving a big presentation at work.
- Recall your intention before interacting with others to remind yourself to behave in an assertive yet respectful manner that helps advance your purpose.
- Rehearse potentially triggering events before they occur — for example, reflecting on your intention to be sober before attending a happy hour event.
How to Set Intentions in Practice and Life
Intentions can help you improve your life from the inside out. They improve your mental health by restoring your sense of agency and purpose, making it easier to go about daily to-dos free from resentment or asking, “why?” They can help you manifest the life you dream of by living it in tiny ways each day.
Use this guide to set intentions in your yoga and meditation practice and life. You can create the life of your dreams, one manifestation at a time.
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