Once more, with intention

I used to have goals.

Used to set resolutions.

In elementary school, I resolved to “stop biting my nails.” I don’t remember this because I fulfilled my resolution. I remember because my teacher had each of us identify a resolution and then illustrate it, to be hung for all to see on the bulletin board outside our classroom. I drew a picture of a hand with fingernails that extended beyond fingertips. This exercise did not help me manifest beautiful fingernails. It did not help me develop the discipline to break the habit. (A habit I used, and still use, as a coping mechanism for anxiety and ADHD.) What it did was set my stomach churning with guilt and failure each time I passed. Until those resolutions finally gave way to Valentines, I kept my eyes off the bulletin board and off my tiny, nibbled nails.

Throughout the years, I got better at setting realistic goals and resolutions. But the practice still sat wrong with me. Inherently, I knew that motivation, change, and movement in life-giving directions oftentimes required more than articulation of desire, more than a box I could check or, more often, not.

In 2015, I attended a retreat in which we were invited (not required) to set an intention each day, to write it on a post-it (meaning they had to be short), and then to put it on the large wall at the back of the room. I tried it. Wrote, “I intend to show up as fully as possible,” then slapped it on the wall next to other participants’ words. And instead of instilling guilt, this posted intention inspired me. The next day, I wrote another. The day after, another.

You see, intentions, unlike goals, are flexible. They move with the shape of your life–can expand with you or contract as needed. If goals and resolutions are the solid things one hopes to accomplish, intentions are more like liquid or gas, capable of adapting to the true contours of life even as it changes. As a person whose inner state has always been protean, and who cannot keep a daily rhythm to saver her life, intentions felt do-able, felt possible. Felt like slipping on a sweet pair of flexible sweatpants after years of wearing jeans about a half size too small.

I began to use intentions to define how I wanted to show up each day, each week, at work, in my relationships. I found that my intentions connected me to my deeply held values in ways that my goals never had. In fact, I began to wonder whether my goals had ever originated from within, or whether they were more reflections of what I thought I should become in the eyes of others.

As I lived into my intentions, I relied less on quantitative information to determine my success and instead adopted qualitative ways to reflect. I began to think more in terms of stories and events than in terms of tasks and lists. To see if I had success in, for example, holding greater compassion for a cranky toddler, forced me to think in greater nuance about my life. No, my sharp tone at the tail end of a tantrum hadn’t been the most compassionate, but what about the hour spent snuggling with books after that? Intentions required that I locate more grace for myself, a practice I think we all need.

By the time pandemic hit, intentions felt natural, and they helped me adapt my expectations for myself to reality. Even when I couldn’t cross goals off my list, even when I could accomplish next to nothing or felt like what I did accomplish was limp and half-hearted, I could hold intentions. To connect. To nurture. To be present to myself and those I live with. No matter how small my life became, I could occupy it fully, intentionally. Even as unpredictability made planning anything nearly impossible, I could count on my capacity to hold an intention.

So again this year, I set intentions for different arenas of my life: relationships, work, spirituality, household, health and wellness. I said, in plain terms, how I hoped to occupy the space of this year, come what may. I know I won’t do it perfectly, that some intentions will be easier to hold than others. But perfection has never been the goal, anyway.

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