Different traditions and cultures have different intentions around spiritual practice. Some intentions and values you may find include forgiveness, liberation, alignment, surrender, belonging, salvation, acceptance, beauty, peace, truth, freedom, divinity or love.
The path that I am sharing with you is focused on awakening to your true nature and the true nature of the Universe. This includes waking up to the depths of your unique inner world – your true nature will be different from everyone else’s and your true nature will affect how you experience the depths of reality.
Rather than following a dogma that exists outside of you, the path is about becoming sensitive to the ways that the depths of experience manifest themselves through you. It takes practice and the cultivation of discernment to be able to embody the sense that you hold the true experience of your path inside of you.
This doesn’t mean that it isn’t useful to train in existing traditions or practices. Deep immersion into different worlds and aspects of experience is one of the best and most important ways to learn about the world and yourself; there is always more to discover and other people and systems can hold keys to parts of yourself or the Universe that you didn’t yet know existed. Or that you knew might be there, but didn’t know how to get there.
An aspect of navigating your path successfully is starting by recognising that there are almost endless different spiritual practices out there in the world. Different practices open different portals or doorways into different aspects of experience and it takes a bit of time and detective work to find out which practices will be most beneficial, meaningful and effective for you.
Setting your intentions for practice is a way of giving space to the depths of your being. It can help you understand what makes you you and can give you the tools to be able to communicate and share this with others. It also gives you a compass to navigate from, rather than feeling around aimlessly in the dark.
Everyone has intentions, assumptions and desires within them and if these things are left in the unconscious, they will drive you on a subtle level that you aren’t aware of. They become a shadow. By making your core intentions conscious, you are bringing them into the light and giving yourself the capacity to work with them.
The purpose with intention setting is to come into alignment with who you truly are, rather than letting other people decide this for you. In order for the intention setting to stay real it’s important to include your real life experiences – to ground them in the truth of your practice – as well as to make space for your deepest desires and highest aspirations.
One of the most helpful things you can do for your practice is to start from a place of wholeness. In the same way that when you look at nature, there is no such thing as a tree that is wrong or a mountain that is broken, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with your natural self. You and every part of you is an aspect of the natural unfolding of the cosmos – it is all an expression of Buddha nature.
Being in touch with the naturalness of all experience doesn’t mean that you have to let go of the parts of you that feel broken, difficult, imperfect or challenging. It means that those imperfections are part of what makes up the whole of you in this moment. It also doesn’t mean that you have to accept the world or yourself as you are and do nothing about it. The desire to heal, grow, awaken or change are all an important aspect of that naturalness; however, connecting to your underlying buddha nature allows you to approach growth from a place of self-worth, rather than self-critique.
Below is an intention setting exercise, which is designed to allow you to be yourself. This exercise allows you to start where you are, by bringing your unique desires and ways of relating to awakening into conscious experience.
It’s the first thing I ask someone to do before I meet with them to discuss their practice, either for a coaching session or before a retreat. Basically everyone reflects back how much of a useful process it was. It gives people clarity on what matters most to them and the direction they would like their practice to go, as well as an opportunity to recognise how far they have already come.
1. Set a timer for 2 mins, then write a list of all the best things you have gotten out of your practice to date. Don’t filter just let it flow. The timer is to help you avoid overthinking.
2. Set another two minute timer, this time list your biggest challenges in practice and in life. Again, don’t overthink just let it all flow.
3. Look at this list of intentions. Choose three words that you would most like to cultivate in your life and through your practice. Write a short description of what each word means to you.
4. Set a final two minute timer. Describe what awakening means to you and what it would mean for you to embody this.
Setting intentions is about aligning with the depths of your being. Intentions show you the things that are most important to you and once you know what yours are, you can notice what is in alignment and what is out of alignment with them.
I have done this exercise with a lot of people and there are some common themes that come up time and again as well as some things that can be wildly different for each person.
People often have common desires for things like love or connection, but no two people are the same and recognising and validating the unique way that you approach practice and life is an important step for you to be able to find and embrace your path.
You may want to spend some more time with your answers. Either thinking more deeply about what the answers really mean to you or envisioning what a practice could look like that supports your desires and intentions.
If you would like to use your intentions to reflect on your practice, you could start by answering these questions:
- What are some practices that are most likely to cultivate more of what you have found most beneficial?
- What might you need to do to overcome your challenges?
- Which practices might move you in the direction of your intentions?
- What do you think the stages might be on the way to your idea of awakening?
Your attitude to practice affects your progress as much or more than the type of practice you do. Here are some things that reliably help people orient to practice in a healthy, whole-hearted way.
Low Floor, High Ceiling
It’s great to have high aspirations in practice, but I like to pair this with fairly relaxed expectations.
A good first step is releasing some self-judgement about what counts as good practice. When I started practicing I remember hearing about someone who had meditated every day for 30 years; the way they did it was by counting it as a meditation if they sat on the cushion for even one second.
One of the biggest barriers to practice is just starting, so reducing this barrier is helpful. Meditation is hard and it’s useful to aim for feeling good about yourself for doing it, rather than bad about yourself for not always doing it perfectly.
Life is hard. Just recognising this fact is so important. People tend to be really hard on themselves, especially people who are self-aware enough to want to practice.
Awakening usually includes facing a bunch of hard stuff, as well as discovering hidden beauty.
Finding something that feels joyful rather than punishing is super helpful for making practice engaging. The best case of this is finding the thing – whether it’s a person, a practice or a goal – that inspires something in the depths of your being.
If something is joyful rather than punishing, then you have a lot more capacity for hard work. It’s also the part of the point to learn to be able to enjoy the journey.
My favourite practical recommendation for bringing some joy into practice is meditating to music. Choose some music, lie or sit down and use your body and your emotions as a concentration object. Notice how the music moves you and what it brings up in you. It can be deeply transformative and insightful.
There is no doubt that discipline and commitment to do hard practice is important; however, self-discipline that comes from a place of love, rather than judgement is generally much more aligned with people’s intentions for spiritual practice.
Western society creates a lot of people with a strong inner critic. This critical and judgemental energy can be great in the right moment for problem solving but it’s not so good for inspiring or motivating you.
Compare an inner critic to the empowered discipline of an athlete; an athlete’s embodied warrior energy is a lot more focused on cultivating growth and working through hard things to grow and develop. It’s about working hard to bring out the best in you.
To get a felt sense of these two modes of being you can imagine two archetypal figures within you.
Firstly imagine a critical energy that is being judgemental about everything you do. You can let it say its piece but once you’ve got the jist, thank it for its perspective and see if you can turn down the volume on it or if you can place it somewhere further away in your experience, like in the next room.
Now imagine a motivational energy, more like an inspiring leader, who has your best interests at heart. They are going to hold you to account and ensure you can do the things that you need to do from a place of compassionate and strong wisdom. This includes making sure you have the resources to do everything you need to do. Remember what this feels like and create an image that you can come back to when you need it.
Practice is more powerful when it comes from a place of being aligned with the depths of your being. When you are clear about what your values or intentions are, it means you can start from a place of realness and integrity. Getting clarity on your deepest intentions can also inspire you through difficult times and provide a compass to help you orient towards what is most meaningful to you.