Intention: The Leading Edge of Change
“If you look hard enough for something, eventually it will appear”
Dynamic psychotherapies tend to emphasize the causal role of the past in the present, with little emphasis on the shaping impact of awareness going forward. It has been left to “new age” spiritual psychologies to fill in that vacuum with various forms of “thinking from the end”, the fundamental idea that consciousness manifests that which it focuses on. Visualization, affirmation, positive thinking, and prayer, for example, are said to “create” whatever outcome is desired.
We can use the metaphor of pushing and pulling to explore these ideas of cause and effect. If we think of the past as a push and visualization as a pull, push and pull come together in the present moment by influencing how we interpret and respond to events in an ongoing fashion. In the act of bringing new awareness to the present moment, the next moment is already changed because of the alteration in view. In this way, awareness (or insight about) how something was brought about may become the beginning of what comes next. In metaphysical terms, energy follows thought.
Without resorting to metaphysics, the concept of intention in Buddhist psychology elegantly illuminates the complexity of this process. Intentions are an important dimension of thought because what we intend directs our energy and attention. Intentions frame our interpretations and determine how we hold things in mind. When we form a conscious intention, this then becomes an integral part of what unfolds next. Attention and intention light up experience and support living from the inside out.
Simple examples abound. If you are looking for someone to marry, everyone will be evaluated as a prospective mate. If you are angry and have the energy of ill-will, you will find someone to have a fight with. If you expect good things to happen, the quality of your attention will itself amplify possibilities of something good.
Because intentions are what ‘incline the mind’ in one direction or another, it behooves us to be conscious of what these intentions are. Having clear intentions is a soft form of “thinking from the end”. When our purpose is clear and coherent, we are on course towards a particular outcome. Moreover, intentions keep us centered in the moment by keeping our attention focused on what is important, and that helps us stay optimally responsive to what is unfolding.
Clear seeing and clear intention segue into strategies for action. Once we are clear about what the desired outcome is, we are poised to take whatever action is appropriate and indicated. (And conversely, our failure to see or understand important aspects of the current situation keeps us blind to important possibilities). Intention leads to constructive action in the spontaneous unfolding of the journey forward. It remains only to commit to what we most deeply value and stay on the path defined by putting one foot in front of the other.
By acknowledging the importance of intention, deep inquiry invites change. As the psychoanalyst Alan Wheelis put it, “something lies behind us, something goes before us, consciousness lies between”. This blueprint for change is expressed in the following aphorism:
Then comes action, without which understanding is ineffective
Finally, understanding and action become one 1.