When we focus on where we would like to be, anything short of that can seem unsatisfactory. Being over-focused on the future, we may lose out on the present.
Our minds allow us to imagine a better life - and to work towards achieving that. When we throw our energy into career, home or health, we have an initial idea of what success would look like. We then check in with that mental image to see how we are matching up in our life. We plan how to close the gap between the ideal and the reality. We call this goal setting. Goal setting is a way to keep a bigger picture in mind. For example, to forgo a desired treat, recalling that we want to save money, or lose weight. It is an essential function in our lives. But we can also be too goal-oriented. When we focus on where we would like to be, anything short of that can seem unsatisfactory. Being over-focused on the future, we may lose out on the present. Setting a major goal can be galvanising for a time, but it can also throw things out of balance. An intense focus on career can impact on our relationships or health. Goals are measures of achievement, but they may not speak to our day-to-day quality of life. And we may set arbitrary goals. I have sometimes noticed this around birthdays, "At this age, I should have achieved this or that". I believe that I have failed for not measuring up. Setting an intention is an alternative way to think about the direction we wish to take. It is a gentler approach that can avoid the pitfalls of focusing too much on the goal. Here, our attention is more on the means than the end. I can shift and change my intentions. Deciding to walk to a hill-top, I keep that destination in mind. I will take a selfie when I get there and tell my friends. But I might choose to take a rest, or even change my destination if I get too puffed out. I can take in the landscape, the trees and birdsong as I walk. I choose to be alive to the moment, not only the target. Being mindful, I can enjoy the journey. But I may also find that I am worrying, or annoyed by something that happened before I left. Now, my intention is be curious of my experience and without judgement. Mindfulness can help calm the mind and body. But it also enables me to get to know myself better, warts and all.
Somewhere between a goal and an intention is what we can call a nudge. Suppose my intention is to be as present as I can be, but I find that I am dull and sleepy. I can nudge myself in the right direction by moving my body or splashing cold water on my face. Or, I have anxious repeating thoughts about something that might happen. I can nudge myself into the present by focusing on my breath for a few minutes. This may not solve the problem, but it can get me into a more balanced state of mind. From where, I am likely be more constructive in dealing with whatever does happen. All human beings want to be happy. But to be happy in every moment is an impossible goal. The irony is that when we hold tight to an idea of happiness, we create further distress. The word happy shares a root with the word happen. Here we have a different idea that happiness arises when we are in tune with what is happening and not fighting against it. This can be true even when things are difficult or painful.
I can try to relax and let go. Sometimes this works. But sometimes, the trying itself creates further tension. "Why can't I relax? What's wrong with me?" Sometimes, the most useful intention is to accept how things are. Whether that is pleasant, painful or indifferent. We drop the idea of trying to change or improve our experience. If I have tension in my body, I can try to relax and let go. Sometimes this works. But sometimes, the trying itself creates further tension. "Why can't I relax? What's wrong with me?" An alternative is to turn towards the tension, without trying to get rid of it or to change it in any way. Sometimes, the sensations melt away on their own. Or they may intensify for a time, in which case I can follow an intention to sit with the discomfort. It may happen quickly or take a while, but experience always shifts. With greater maturity we can understand that we ourselves are a process of change. And that life is never going to be comfortable all the time. Making peace with these facts promotes a deeper relaxation. We are no longer fighting with the everyday reality of life.
We can only ever achieve larger goals through small steps. Setting the right intention is what helps us, in the present moment, to do what needs to be done. It also helps us to review our goals and to recognise when they are unhelpful, or unrealistic. And acceptance helps us to come to terms with life as it actually is, rather than how we wish it was.