This illustration is what happens when I mix my metaphors.
The alternate title for this post was "Thoughts Become Words", but then the illustration would have made even less sense.
I've been having a lot of conversations about intention lately. I really think it's important to live deliberately - to live on purpose, not by accident, not to just get swept along. To have dreams, and to pursue them.
But there's a balance. You gotta know what you can control and what you can't, and you have to make your peace with what you can't.
Reality is like an ocean. You don't control the ocean by wading out and punching the waves. That's what crazy people do. But just because you can't control the waves doesn't mean you give up and go limp and drown. Instead, you learn to surf.
Surfing is responding to life intelligently, taking what comes and working with it in a constructive way. Surfing is intelligent behavior.
Behaving intelligently requires that you're aware of the urges behind your actions so you can see the urge and think about it and respond with intelligent action. I heard a story once from a meditation teacher about how she was at a retreat and her teacher gave her the instruction: "Don't do anything unless you are first aware of the urge." So she was in the cafeteria eating and stood up out of her chair, and then realized she hadn't first been aware of the urge to stand up. So she stood for a moment, trying to figure out what to do, and then shrugged and sat back down.
Living that way would be pretty drastic, but stop and think: every action you take, from the most life-changing decisions to the slightest gestures of a fingertip, are preceded by an urge. How often are you aware of the urge before the action occurs?
"Carefully watch your thoughts, for they become your words. Manage and watch your words, for they will become your actions. Consider and judge your actions, for they have become your habits. Acknowledge and watch your habits, for they shall become your values. Understand and embrace your values, for they become your destiny."
In her awesome book, The Charisma Myth, Olivia Fox-Cabane talks about Hollywood before method acting. Back then, the craft of acting was just trying to control outward action to play a character. Now we look back at those movies and they look comically absurd. Women waving their arms around, wide-eyed, deranged. Men gesticulating wildly with absurd facial expressions. They were trying to act by starting with the action. It doesn't work.
Then method acting came along and said, start with the thoughts. Get into the character. Visualize. Do these mental exercises to make your thoughts those of the character. Then let your thoughts become your words.
You can't change your behavior, brute-force. You have to start with the thought, the urge. You have to see the intentions motivating the action.
It's tempting to think we always know what our intention is, but we don't. That's pretty much the whole point of Freud's subconscious: we have motives we don't know about, and we mistake them for other (usually nobler) things. I had breakfast recently with a friend who teaches meditation whose group has been practicing with intention recently. He said it's been really humbling to practice with his group because even after many years of practice, when he sits down to meditate with them, he realizes he's unaware of his intentions almost all the time.
It's important to practice seeing our intentions for three reasons:
1. It lets you know there is an urge and intention behind all your actions, even if you're unaware of it. If you don't see this, when your life is problematic, you can only blame circumstances, reinforcing a sense of helplessness, or grit your teeth and muscle your way through it without actually addressing the core problem.
2. It gives you a positive, productive response to anger, frustration, despair, and hatred. These can be tough experiences because for a lot of us when they arise, our conditioning is to act them out in harmful ways, to try to push them down and go numb so we don't have to feel them, or to spin up stories in our heads that just reaffirm the experience, explain it, and amplify it, making things worse and worse. As you practice watching your thoughts, it gives you a healthier way to handle these experiences. When they come up, you can start to see them and say, "Oh, this is my trigger to sit down and see what's happening." Over time that becomes more habitual and replaces the harmful reactions.
3. As you get more comfortable feeling these urges and seeing the underlying intentions, you really can work with them. You can decide to change, and you can do it in a way that feels much healthier. Self-aggressive forcible approaches to change that rely purely on will power are like a rider trying to steer a stubborn elephant by shoving him around. But the elephant and the rider are both you. When you can see and work with your deepest intentions, the rider and the elephant work together in harmony.
Here's a practice for getting in touch with your intention. You can do this anywhere - at a stoplight, in a checkout line, or right now, in the time you decided to spend reading this post. You have to try it and see what works and tweak things to make the practice your own, but here's a starting point that has been very helpful to me:
1. Take a few minutes to still yourself. Sit down in a space where you won't feel self-conscious, get comfortable (but not so comfortable you fall asleep), and just focus your attention on something tangible like the breath, an object you can see, the feelings in your foot, it doesn't matter. I'm sitting near gate 77B of SFO airport right now and I just focused on the tail of an airplane I can see out the window for a while. Just train your concentration on something, and when your attention wanders, gently bring it back. Do this for a few minutes until things feel like they've settled down a little.
2. Bring to mind a project you're working on, something that is important to you that you are putting effort into. Ask yourself, "Why am I doing this?" And then pay attention to what comes up. If it's hard to identify emotions, look for physical sensations in the body: Tightness in the chest? Clenching of the jaw? Maybe anger. A hollowness in the throat? Maybe sadness. A calm relaxation through the torso? Maybe happiness. A fluttering in the pit of the stomach? Maybe anxiety, maybe excitement, maybe dread. This gets clearer over time as these sensations become familiar. In your head, name the ones you see. "Angry." "Nervous." "Restless." "Peaceful."
Remind yourself, as you do this, that this isn't about judging yourself critically. Everyone I know who does this admits that a lot of the time, the underlying intention is not the noble thing we want it to be. I'll bring to mind a project I'm working on at Bungie, secretly hoping to see a pure, selfless intention, and what comes up will be, "Huh, I'm angry at that one guy who I think is smug and actually part of why I'm working on this is I want to see him proven wrong."
But also remind yourself that intention is rarely a single thing. The longer you sit, the more will arise. Here's the second metaphor: seeing your intention is like watching animals at the zoo. When I start this, the first things that come up are the strong, volatile stuff. It usually looks something like this:
Anger, pride, insecurity, sorrow. It can be startling and sometimes difficult, but just like animals at the zoo even if your gut reaction is terror, the reality is they can't actually hurt you. It takes bravery to stay still in the face of all this, but if you do, eventually those vicious animals get bored and wander off. And when they do, more stuff comes up, subtler, quieter stuff. They are timid creatures, too shy to share space with the angry ones, and too quiet to be heard over the roar. As the strong emotions start to settle down I'll usually start to feel a peace, a relaxed kind of sweetness, a sense of my heart breaking at the beauty surrounding it all. This is the part of me whose intention is caring and love, the part that wants to do the work because it is helpful and can yield joy.
When you get in touch with this side, an amazing thing becomes very obvious: you'll realize it feels good. It's a wonderful feeling, an expansive sense of joy and love and gratitude. When you're in this state of mind, it's very apparent that the way we normally are, with more aggressive emotions, is simply unpleasant. It's tense, it closes down the mind, it focuses us on judgment and negativity.
As you do this practice over and over, that state of joy and gratitude starts to get more familiar. At first it might feel revelatory or cathartic, which is very pleasant, but then you keep doing it so it stops feeling revelatory and starts feeling normal. It becomes more accessible. You can more readily bring that state to mind. You experience first-hand how much more successful your actions are when you're in that state, how they don't cause collateral damage and don't leave you with the hangover of regret.
Like most things, this is not a practice you finish. If you start doing this today, in ten years maybe you'll be in touch with your intention 1% of the time. But that's not really the point. You'll have more patience with yourself, and you'll have tools for working with tough situations. You'll have a much healthier set of habitual responses, and you'll know that state of acting, every so often, from a place of compassion and loving-kindness.