Awakening 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. This is a core part of my approach – believing that the truth of your path, lies inside of you.
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 to be able to feel and embody the sense that you hold the truth 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 know yourself – for example, other people and systems can hold keys to parts of you that you didn’t yet know existed.
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 in practice and 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 agency 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. The desire to heal, grow, awaken or change are all important, but seeing yourself through the lens of innate buddha nature allows you to come 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 – you don’t need to overthink or do anything special, you can trust that your true nature will naturally shine through. 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 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 how you imagine life will be different if and when you can 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 can make as much difference to your progress as the type of practice you are doing and this is one of the first things I cover with people when I meet them and we go through this intention setting exercise.
Here are some things that reliably help people orient to practice in a healthy, whole-hearted way.
Low Floor, High Ceiling
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.
It’s also good to make room for plenty of ambition and desire in practice by stoking the fire of where you would like it to take you.
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.
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 more effective.
Our society creates a lot of people with a strong inner critic. This critical energy comes from our mind; it’s great for problem solving but not so good for clean motivation. Empowered discipline, or warrior energy, can come from a more embodied aspect of your being.
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. Firstly let it say its piece, then 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 do the things that you need to do from a place of compassionate wisdom. 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.