When your yoga teacher invites you to “set an intention” for your practice at the beginning of class, it’s for a good reason that extends beyond your yoga mat. Intentions can play an important role in your life when you’re faced with difficulty, whether you’re struggling to find ease in a pose or dealing with emotional turmoil.
Intention is essentially the capacity to stay in touch with the core values that you wish to live by as you pursue your life’s goals and engage with others. Being grounded in your intention literally changes what you perceive in a situation and how your mind interprets what you perceive; it also affects how you act on what you perceive. Knowing what is essential to you allows you to respond to life’s ups and downs with a clear mind and an open heart. Your intentions also support you in making choices and decisions, help you endure anxiety and stress, and enable you to bear disappointment and difficulty with equanimity.
Of course when difficulties arise, it’s easy to get swept up in strong emotions and lose awareness of your intentions. You may do or say something that isn’t aligned with your intentions and regret it later. So, just like learning new yoga poses takes practice, developing continual awareness of your intentions also requires practice.
There is one practice that you can start straight away, with very little effort or investment of time, that can immediately enhance your ability to live from your intentions. I call this practice “starting your day with clarity”. If you try it for just
5 to 30 minutes after you wake up each morning, while you’re still lying in bed, you can dramatically improve your sense of wellbeing and reduce the amount of emotional chaos in your life. You may be skeptical and think this sounds too simplistic, but if you give this practice a try, you’ll quickly discover that the period of time just after waking up in the morning provides an incredibly rich opportunity for developing new habits of mind.
Think about that moment when you first wake up. You may not have even opened your eyes yet, but your mind is already busy forming an attitude about how you feel and about the day ahead. What your mind does right after waking strongly affects you throughout the day; it creates the context for how you will perceive, interpret and respond to all the things that will happen to you.
Your mind is fresher, quicker, more flexible and less perturbed in those first moments after waking up than at any other point in the day. Therefore, it’s the perfect time for orienting yourself and grounding yourself in your intentions. You are less defined by your stories, less consumed by the soap opera of your life and not so trapped in your persona. (This is the reason that spiritual communities consider the early morning hours to be ideal for prayer and meditation.)
The practice of starting your day with clarity begins with becoming mindful of what’s true in your body and your mind when you awaken. So while you’re still lying in bed, notice if you feel rested or if you’re still tired. Is your body tense or at ease? What parts of your body are relaxed? Next, observe your mind and notice whether it is relaxed or tense, quiet or busy. Is it resting, planning, complaining, rehearsing or remembering a dream? Is it fuzzy or clear? Is it experiencing an emotion such as excitement, dread or fear? Now you know exactly what needs your attention.
The next step is to use your body as an object of contemplation. Let’s say that on a particular morning you don’t feel rested; or you feel rested, but parts of your body are tense; or, when you think about your day, parts of your body tense up. All of these states are common. But even if your body feels fine, taking a few moments to appreciate the feeling can have a positive effect on your mind, and it can greatly enhance your ability to stay relaxed in your body throughout your day.
In response to whatever you discover to be true in your body, continue to lie in bed and do a body scan. In a body scan, you progressively tense and relax each part of your body as you imagine healing energy moving through it. You can start at your head and move down your body, or begin with your feet and move upward. Invite your breath to move into those places in your body where you feel tightness, pain or numbness. Not every part of your body will completely relax in response to the body scan, but most people report experiencing an increased sense of ease afterward.
If you have a high degree of emotional turmoil in your life or a great deal of pressure at work and wake up tense every morning, this progressive relaxation can help you release that tension before beginning your day. This in turn makes your day much more bearable and can even help you be more effective in dealing with challenges. When the body feels relaxed, the mind tends to relax and become more able to absorb the shocks that you encounter throughout the day.
If you are dealing with a physical and/or emotional trauma that is either happening now or is a relic of your past, an early morning body scan can help you distinguish between the emotional disturbance and the physical challenge, which oftentimes are conflated in your mind. This discernment makes it possible for you to soothe yourself and calm your mind. Consequently you may find that your view of the trauma changes. Rather than viewing it as fixed, you start to see your trauma as an event in the stream of your life that is characterising your experience at this moment but that does not define you forever.
Quiet your mind
Once you’ve completed your body scan, turn your attention to what’s going on in your mind. There are some people who wake up every morning with a sense of ease, quiet and spaciousness in their mind. However, most people tend to wake up feeling tense, anxious or even fearful. They become overwhelmed just thinking about all the things they have to do and begin to feel dread or antipathy toward the day ahead. Does this sound familiar? As you begin to notice what your mind does when you wake up, you may discover that you are caught in a pattern of looking for the difficulty that lies ahead in your day and making negative comments to yourself about what has to be done. This negativity creates tension and establishes a bad attitude. What an unskilful way to start your day!
Notice too how your mind reacts to having either a good or a bad night’s sleep. If you slept well, you may take it for granted, never pausing to appreciate the good fortune of peaceful, refreshing sleep. But if you stay mindful, you will discover that a feeling of gratitude can be calming to your nervous system. If you had a poor night’s sleep, you may feel sorry for yourself and complain internally. Be mindful of how this attitude toward your sleep affects you. Does the complaining, irritation or frustration serve you in any way?
Now begin to focus on your mind, just as you did with your body. Is there underlying tension? Is it racing? Jumpy? If so, invite the mind to relax. You can evoke this feeling of relaxation by focusing on a soothing memory or image, or reflecting on something you’re grateful for. Over time, the practice of starting your day with a relaxed mind helps create a new habit of maintaining a relaxed mind throughout the day. Another benefit is that you become more skilful at relaxing your mind whenever it becomes tense during difficult moments.
Imagine your day
After relaxing your body and mind as best you’re able, the next step is to contemplate what lies ahead. First, picture the day in your mind. Observe your attitude as you imagine the various aspects of your day and the tasks you will be undertaking; it will shift dramatically depending on what activity you’re focused upon.
Likewise, you will notice different physical sensations in your body depending on which activity you are thinking about. When you focus on something that’s difficult or requires
a lot of attention, pause, breathe and allow your body and mind to relax. Repeat this process of imagining, noticing and relaxing until you feel centred. This feeling of centredness becomes your reference point when you’re actually engaged in the difficult activity you imagined.
Visualise your intentions
After a few weeks of imagining your day and noticing how your mind and body respond, add the practice of remembering and clarifying your intentions. While you’re lying in bed, invoke the intentions you are committed to living from every day. Imagine your day and visualise how you will manifest your intentions during your various activities. You don’t need to go into a lot of detail; the purpose of this practice is to cultivate a general feeling of living from intentionality.
Reconnecting to your intentions clears up negative, anxious and resentful attitudes that may already be present when you wake up or that could potentially surface later in the day. If you are anticipating that a difficult situation will arise, you might imagine some of the ways you could become lost, anxious, fearful, greedy or desperate and then visualise how you might respond differently from your intentions. Having just a moment’s clarity about this “hot spot” in the early morning will be a major help to you when you are actually going through it later in the day. The situation won’t feel so charged, and you’re less likely to get caught up in your habitual reaction. Even though it is challenging, you will be OK because you’re grounded in your intentions and not grasping at a particular outcome.
The nature of the mind-body connection is such that if you begin to contract in response to a difficult situation, you will feel it in your body as fatigue, nausea or tension. The practice of visualising your intentions early in the morning can provide you with a technique for grounding yourself if you start to experience any of these sensations in your body. Wherever you are, whether it’s your workplace or your home, take a few minutes by yourself to become aware of your body, relax it deeply and remember your intentions.
The point of this practice is not to visualise happy endings to the various activities in your day but rather to develop the capacity to meet them skilfully, with clarity and ease. The chances that you will experience a positive outcome are greater if you are focused on how you are engaged in the activity rather than if you are focused on the outcome (for a practice, see The Love Inside, above left). When your mind is relaxed and you are grounded in your intentions, you are more likely to find a creative or intuitive way to bring about a positive result.
What’s your story?
A final reflection that you may want to incorporate into the morning practice is mindfulness of your story. In fact, because of your unique history, you have evolved a series of stories that you repeatedly return to throughout your life. These stories determine how you see yourself and how you interpret what is happening to you.
Your stories can be so powerful that your life becomes a re-enactment of them. You may be over-identified with your stories and not see that they represent only one view of your circumstances. The morning practice helps you recognise your stories and see the suffering they cause you. Your fresh mind can see them for what they are—just stories—and can watch them come into play in anticipation of your day. I’m not suggesting that you get rid of your stories but rather that you begin
to recognise them as merely thoughts stemming from memories, associations, interpretations and projections that you’ve strung together. Any given story might be true, might have practical implications, and may come from a genuine feeling of suffering, betrayal or failure, but you do not have to be defined by that story. It is one of many things arising in your mind, and it is just something that characterises the moment. If you pay attention to the story and don’t cling to it, the amount of distress it causes you will be dramatically reduced.
No matter how good your life circumstances are, you are affected by your stories. You may not even recognise them as stories; to you, they may seem like worries or just the way you are. If this is the case, my advice is to be more curious and to look more closely. We all have stories about how the world is, how love works, what’s possible in a relationship, what it means to raise a child and so on. We even have stories of an archetypal nature, meaning stories in the collective unconscious that we share as humans. Your stories can limit what you believe to be your choices and define what happens to you in your day. As you gain clarity about your various stories, you gain clarity about your choices and what truly matters to you.
The simple practice of starting your day with clarity creates the momentum for you to connect the disparate events of your day into an integrated whole based on your intentions. Imagine the effect of a steady daily practice over weeks, months or years. What new possibilities might open up for you if you indeed awaken each day with clarity? Isn’t it at least worth a sustained effort to find out?
Adapted by arrangement with Hudson Street Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), from Emotional Chaos to Clarity by Phillip Moffitt. © 2012 by Phillip Moffitt
The love inside
Tap into your most intuitive, intentional self with this seven-step reflection.
YOU CAN ENHANCE THE PRACTICE of starting your day with clarity by cultivating an attitude that focuses on your effort rather than on the results. I call it an “as best I’m able” practice. The goal is to align your values with your words and actions throughout the day.
- Ask yourself if you truly want to make this practice a core attitude in your daily life and, if so, what it means to you.
- Engage in this practice each morning by stating to yourself, “I intend to treat each part of this day as an offering by living it as best I’m able.”
- Throughout the day practice being mindful of your attitude as you go about your various activities.
- Remind yourself throughout the day that you intend for all your words and actions to arise from an attitude of “as best I’m able”.
- Notice when your attitude is one of judging yourself for not doing your best, and consciously remind yourself, “Even in these circumstances, I wish to do the best I’m able”.
- Be mindful of those times when you actually speak or act from this attitude, and acknowledge to yourself that you have lived out your commitment.
- When others demand that you meet their expectations, respond by saying that you are doing the best you are able to do. However, beware of making a false claim, and don’t fall into the trap of using hindsight to redefine your best effort.