Two Exercises for Turning Intention into Motivation
How do we motivate ourselves to live true to our best aspirations?
– Thupten Jinpa
Framing our days between intention setting and joyful dedication, even once a week, can change how we live. It’s a purposeful approach of self-awareness, conscious intention, and focused effort—three precious gifts of contemplative practice—by which we take responsibility for our thoughts and actions and take charge of our selves and our lives. As the Buddha put it, “You are your own enemy / and you are your own savior.”
The Buddha saw: our thoughts, emotions, and actions are the primary sources of our suffering. Equally, our thoughts, emotions, and actions can be the source of our joy and freedom. Living, as much as possible, with conscious intention is the first step of this transformation. So, the following two exercises in intention and dedication are the first step to greater clarity and cohesion in our life, our work, and our relationship with others.
Not only that, when our aspirations include the welfare and happiness of others, our deeds and our life as a whole acquire a purpose that is greater than our individual existence.
In everyday English, we often use the words intention and motivation interchangeably as if they mean the same thing, but there’s an important difference: deliberateness. Our motivation to do something is the reason or reasons behind that behavior, the source of our desire and the drive to do it. We may be more or less aware of our motivations. Psychologists define motivation as the process that “arouses, sustains, and regulates human and animal behavior.” Simply put, motivation is what turns us on. For some it might be fame; for others, it might be money, excitement or thrill, sex, recognition, loyalty, service, a sense of belonging, safety, justice, and so on. The force of motivation develops through a mutually reinforcing cycle of desire and reward—when something we do is rewarding, we want to do it again; if we do it again, we are rewarded again, and want to do it more…
Intention, on the other hand, is always deliberate, an articulation of a conscious goal. Intention is necessarily conscious; motivation, as Freud pointed out, need not be conscious even to the person himself. We need intentions for the long view. We set and reaffirm our best intentions to keep us inclining in the directions we truly mean to go. But, we need motivations to keep us going over the long haul. If our intention is to run a marathon, there will be times, when the alarm clock goes off for a ten-mile run before work, or in the middle of running, when we’ll ask ourselves, quite reasonably, “Why am I doing this?” We need good, inspired answers to get us over such humps. Conscious or unconscious, motivation is the why, and the spark, behind intention.
You could do this intention-setting exercise at home, first thing in the morning if that is convenient. You could also do it on a bus or a subway on your commute. If you work in an office, you could do it sitting at your desk before you get into the day. You only need two to five uninterrupted minutes. The Tibetan tradition recommends setting our intention and checking with our motivations, in this manner, at the beginning of the day, at the start of a meditation sitting, and before any important activity. Our intention sets the tone of whatever we are about to do. Like music, intention can influence our mood, thoughts, and feelings—setting an intention in the morning we set the tone for the day.
Exercise One: Setting an Intention
First, find a comfortable sitting posture. If you can, sit on a cushion on the floor or on a chair with the soles of your feet touching the ground, which gives you a feeling of being grounded. If you prefer, you could also lie down on your back, ideally on a surface that is not too soft like a sinking mattress. Once you have found your posture, relax your body as much as you can, if necessary with some stretches, especially your shoulders and your back. Then, with your eyes closed if it helps you to focus, take three to five deep, diaphragmatic or abdominal breaths, each time drawing the inhalation down into the belly and filling up the torso with the in-breath from the bottom to the top, like filling a jar with water. Then with a long, slow exhalation, expel all the air from the torso, all the way. If it helps, you can exhale from your mouth. Inhale… and exhale…
Once you feel settled, contemplate the following questions: “What is it that I value deeply? What, in the depth of my heart, do I wish for myself, for my loved ones, and for the world?”
Stay on these questions a little and see if any answers come up. If no specific answers surface, don’t worry, simply stay with the open questions. This may take some getting used to, since when we ask questions we usually expect to answer them. Trust that the questions themselves are working even—or especially—when we don’t have ready answers. If and when answers do come up, acknowledge them as they arise and stay with whatever thoughts and feelings they may bring.
Finally, develop a specific set of thoughts as your conscious intention, for this day, for instance. You could think, “Today, may I be more mindful of my body, mind, and speech in my interaction with others. May I, as far as I can, avoid deliberately hurting others. May I relate to myself, to others, and to the events around me with kindness, understanding, and less judgment. May I use my day in a way that is in tune with my deeper values.”
In this way, set the tone for the day.
Once we become more familiar with intention setting, we can do this practice in a minute or less. That means we can find opportunities during the day to check in with our intentions. Doctors who have taken the compassion training, for example, have used the time it takes to wash their hands between patients to return to their intentions, and report how this makes them feel more centered and present for the next patient. We can even skip the three-phased formal practice and do a quick reset by reading or chanting a few meaningful lines. You could use the Four Immeasurables prayer:
May all beings attain happiness and its causes.
May all beings be free from suffering and its causes.
May all beings never be separated from joy that is free of misery.
May all beings abide in equanimity, free from bias, attachment, and aversion.
The intention-setting practice is paired, in Tibetan tradition, with another contemplative exercise called dedication. The role of this exercise is to complete the circle, as it were. At the end of a day, or a meditation, or any other effort we have made, we reconnect with the intentions we set at the beginning, reflecting on our experience in light of our intentions and rejoicing in what we have achieved. This is like taking stock at the end of the day. It gives us another opportunity to connect with our deeper aspirations.
Exercise Two: Making a Dedication
At the end of day, for instance, before you go to bed or as you lie in bed before sleeping, reflect on your day.
Briefly review the events of the day (including significant conversations, moods and other mental activity) and touch back on the spirit of the morning intention setting. See how much alignment there is between the two. It’s important not to get caught up in the details of what you did and did not do. The idea is not to keep exhaustive scores, but to broadly survey to see the synergy between your intentions and your life that day.
Whatever thoughts and feelings this reviewing might bring, just stay with it. There’s no need to push them away if they have a negative quality; or grasp at them if they seem positive. Simply stay with it for a while in silence.
Finally, think of something from the day that you feel good about—a helping hand you gave your neighbor, an empathetic ear you lent a colleague in distress, not losing your cool in the drugstore when someone cut the line. Then take joy in the thought of this deed. If nothing else, take joy in the fact that you began your day by setting a conscious intention.
Keep this exercise short; three to five minutes is a good length. If you normally do some reading before bed, you could set aside three to five minutes at the end for dedication time. If your habit is to watch TV, could you watch three to five minutes less? Or go somewhere quiet during commercials? Taking joy in the day, at the end of the day, even in the simple fact of the effort we have made, is important. It gives us something positive to carry into the next day and helps us harness motivation in the service of our intentions.
Sometimes, however, it’s helpful to do a more focused review. We set intentions around being kinder to ourselves. In turn, at the end of a day, our dedication might pay special attention to kindnesses we may have shown ourselves that day.
Now, when we undertake such a targeted assessment, most of us will find that we fall short. We will see the gaps between our intentions and our behavior, between our aspirations and our actual life. When this happens, it’s important not to beat ourselves with negative judgment and self-criticism. We simply acknowledge the difference and resolve to try again the next day. This awareness itself will help us be more attentive the next day, opening opportunities to bring our everyday thoughts and actions into closer alignment with our goals.
How Intention Becomes Motivation
It matters that we set an intention, and it matters what intention we set. However, as anyone who has ever tried to keep a New Year’s resolution knows, setting an intention, even a really sincere, good intention, is by no means a fait accompli. We may wish to be compassionate and caring toward others, and say this to ourselves in the morning, yet find ourselves that very afternoon—or much sooner—in a rather more self-interested, judgmental place. The relationship between our conscious intentions, on one hand, and the often not-so-conscious motivations that drive our thoughts and actions, on the other, is complex. But with persistent awareness and reflection, we can, over time, bring our motivations more into line with our intentions.
The Dalai Lama once suggested a simple way of checking our motivations, by posing these questions to ourselves:
Is it just for me or for others?
For the benefit of the few or for the many?
For now or for the future?
These questions help clarify our motivations by bringing critical self-awareness (critical in the sense of objective and discerning, not judgmental) to our relationship with what we do. They also help remind us to bring compassion to bear upon our thoughts and actions. We can ask these questions before we do something, while we’re doing it, or after we have done it—there will always be another opportunity to (re)set our intention and another chance to act in accordance with that intention.
The question of how we motivate ourselves to pursue our deeper aspirations has been a major interest in the long history of Buddhist psychology. In Buddhist thinking, motivation is a matter of desire, more specifically the desire to act accompanied with a sense of purpose. Say, in the case of being more compassionate, it’s by making emotional connection with compassion and its objectives that we arouse in ourselves the desire to act. And it’s through seeing the benefits that we acquire a sense of purpose in being more compassionate.
Contemporary psychology has only relatively recently come to appreciate the role of emotions in motivating our behavior. For a long time, the Western theory of action was dominated by rational choice theory, and emotions were accused of clouding the process rather than being an integral part of the system. To articulate the dual dimension of our motivation—cognitive awareness of and emotional connection with our goals—Buddhist psychology uses a term that is almost impossible to capture in any single word in English. The Sanskrit term shraddha (depa in Tibetan) has a broad range of meaning, the important ones being “faith,” “trust,” “belief,” or “confidence,” connoting “appreciation” and “admiration” as well. Shraddha is a felt sense like trust, rather than a cognitive state like belief or knowledge. Experientially, shraddha feels something like attachment or attraction to our goal, like being inspired to play guitar when you see a rock star do it. It’s this quality, shraddha, that primes our heart and mind to roll up our sleeves and play.
How do we tap our emotional reservoir? Cognitions play a critical role, which the early Buddhist texts characterize as seeing the value of doing something. Through cognitive engagement, such as seeing the benefits, we connect intention with motivation. So, within this causal nexus, the crucial link to watch for is the one between our awareness of the goal and why we would go for it, our feelings about the goal, and our desire or will to pursue it.
Then, again, it’s the joy we take in our efforts—the courage to try, the dedication to stick with it—and their results that helps sustain our motivations over the long run. Or, in other words, makes us want to keep trying and keep doing it. Parents who have struggled with their child taking up a new instrument will recognize how everything changed the moment the child began enjoying it. This is called intrinsic motivation, as opposed to the extrinsic motivation of, for example, the parent rewarding the child with more screen time for practicing her instrument. From decades of motivation research, we know that intrinsic motivation is far more stable and enduring. The process of setting intentions and joyfully reflecting on them in dedication is how, over time, we transform extrinsic into intrinsic motivations, and thereby sustain the energy and purpose to live true to our best aspirations.