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Amid the chaos of our everyday lives, it is often difficult to focus on what we truly want. We can achieve ...
2021-04-12 09:00:00
healthy living

The Intentional Life
How to Cultivate Intentions

The Intentional Life

Intentions are sown so that they’ll grow; you have to care for them. These seeds represent our deepest longings. Mallika Chopra found a way to discover them inside yourself and live in accordance with them.

Read in 9 minutes

She never has enough time; she feels guilty that she screwed up somewhere. She forces herself to do as much as possible both in parenting and in her professional life. She keeps herself going on sugar and caffeine. When she sits in traffic, she dreams about the blessed life of a person who’s rested and full of energy, eating healthy and exercising every day. She imagines losing another four or five kilos...or seven...and meditating so she can live and work mindfully. She imagines that she’s with her friends, having a quiet dinner with her husband, spending time with her daughters Tara and Leela, with no plans. And she thinks about being active in the community. This imagined reality falls apart even before the kids jump into the car and she drives them to soccer practice. Oh no, she’s forgotten to pick up the dog from the groomer, and she still has to buy vegetables for dinner! When she puts the kids to bed, she’s worn out.

Well, which adult human being isn’t? Who doesn’t lie down to sleep with a strong determination to improve some aspect of their life, starting tomorrow? From the New Year? Who doesn’t float in such imaginings? Who hasn’t experienced the clamour of thoughts, which rather than strengthening, just tire you out even more?

Mallika Chopra, a speaker known in the US for promoting mindful living, the daughter of the famous doctor of classical medicine and alternative Indian medicine Deepak Chopra, openly admits that she’s one of us. In a 2015 TEDx talk in San Diego, she speaks openly about how though she had meditated since she was nine years old and taught thousands of people how to meditate, she herself stopped doing it for many years. About how she can’t stand yoga, and can’t properly perform the downward facing dog. And how once during a speech about intentionality and balance, she started to think: “I gotta go pick up the dry cleaning, get the dog food, and oh, shoot, my daughter has a soccer game, I forgot to get the snack. In fact, the conversation in my head got so frenzied that I decided to ask the audience to meditate. That way I could deal with my own drama in peace,” she says, and the TEDx audience bursts out laughing.

Guidance on the subject of spiritual development often flows from people who seem to be on such a high level that we automatically reject it. Or we think: that’s not my tradition, not my movie, not my story. But when a person who comes from India, who learned to meditate as a child, admits that it can be hard for her, too, our souls immediately lighten up. We find space for the question “And maybe I could lead a more conscious life?”

During her talk that went off the rails, Chopra felt that she was lying to people, that she still didn’t know the answer to the questions that she had been asking herself as far back as childhood. She reached the conclusion that she had to ask herself what health and happiness really meant for her. For a year, she read everything about mindfulness, meditation, exercises; she also talked with people including the German spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle (whose works include The Power of Now) and Dr Dan Siegel, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA. As she admitted to Tolle, despite her efforts to do something significant with her life, at the end of the day she would feel that she was just a soccer mom, carting her children around from one lesson to another. Eckhart replied: “It’s the everyday people, who do extraordinary things, who are increasing the frequency of this planet. There is nothing more important, more special that you can do than be a soccer mom at this stage in your life, but do it with love, with compassion, and with conviction, and you will be living a life of purpose.”

What are intentions? Mallika explains: intentions relate to what we long for at the most basic level. They’re connected with who we want to be as members of a family, a society, citizens of the Earth. In contrast to the goals that come from our mind and are oriented toward tasks, intentions come from our soul, and represent our deepest needs. In one of her speeches, she references a quote from the Upanishads, a series of Hindu religious-philosophical texts: “You are what your deepest desire is. As your desire is, so is your intention. As your intention is, so is your will. As your will is, so is your deed. As your deed is, so is your destiny.” She points out that the concept of intention appears not only in Hinduism and Buddhism (‘right intention’ is the second step on Buddhism’s Eightfold Path to Enlightenment), but also in the Hebraic tradition, as kavanah – ‘intention, sincere feeling’, which should penetrate every moment of our life. In explaining intention, the metaphor is used of the seeds that the ovule of a mature plant has. But for them to be able to grow, you have to water and fertilize them. To consciously concentrate on ideas and take steps so that the seed can sprout.

That sounds beautiful, but how do we translate it into practice? It’s not quite clear what to start. Sometimes we’re so busy performing our daily tasks that we forget to take care of ourselves. Or we just don’t have the space that would allow us to ask what we really want. That’s why Chopra offers several helpful activities and exercises that come together in the acronym INTENT. These six concrete stages are: Incubate, Notice, Trust, Express, Nurture and Take Action.

1. Incubate

Quiet your mind to reach to your deepest intentions. See where this exercise takes you.

– Go for a walk, and notice how a flock of birds all turn at the same time, or an army of ants march rhythmically. Don’t feel pressure to do anything more. Don’t listen to music, only that which is happening around you.

– Meditate. Find a place where you feel safe, and for a few minutes, breathe freely. You can arrange it as needed, but you don’t have to. Don’t control your breathing, allow yourself to relax. Start with five minutes a day; you can add another five minutes each week. The optimal time for meditation is 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes in the late afternoon. During the exercise, ask yourself: Who am I? What do I want? What can I do for the world? Don’t feel guilty if one day you don’t manage to meditate.

– Try yoga, or develop your current practice (in the end Chopra managed, though she had to break through her embarrassment and her feeling that she wasn’t good at it). Or find an alternative activity: tai chi, qigong, dance. Notice how your mind reacts to movement.

2. Notice

Ask yourself what gives meaning to your life.

– Notice how your thoughts affect how you feel.

– For one day, be aware of your words: don’t complain, don’t criticize other people.

– Write in a journal what you eat over a single day.

– Every day, before you go to sleep, write down a few things you’re thankful for.

– Draw a balance circle (including categories like rest and sleep, relationships with your family, friends, community) and ask yourself whether in a given area you’re suffering or blossoming. Don’t think about it, just feel.

3. Trust

Rely on your knowledge and intuition. Let them guide you forward.

– Before you eat your next meal or snack, ask yourself: Am I really hungry? What do I want?

– When you find yourself in a stressful situation yet again, stop for a moment. Take three deep breaths and think about how you feel. And only then act further. Trust your body’s feelings and reactions.

– Dreams sometimes give a window into our subconscious desires. Start a dream journal, write them down for a week, and at the end of the week think about their content. Perhaps your dreams will suggest what you should do to achieve your intentions and accomplish your life goals?

4. Express

Write down your intentions, say them out loud, share them with others, to be able to help yourself along your journey.

– Write down your intentions for a particular day or week. You can write down the same one every day.

– Practice love for a single day. Hug somebody you love, call an old friend, sincerely thank your greengrocer, smile at a petrol station employee.

– Draw a mind map: what makes you happy? Don’t think about it too much. Draw out the most important things. Choose one of them and ask yourself how you can improve this aspect of your life. Write down a simple intention on this subject. For the next week, think about it in the morning, before going to sleep or at the end of your meditation. Keep the mind map and return to it.

5. Nurture

Be gentle with yourself when you’re looking for your path. Allow yourself to experiment and to fail; this is often a key part of the process.

– Think about a task you’re avoiding. Ask somebody to help you complete it.

– Who can you support? Think about this for 20 minutes. Think about how you can help somebody over the next week. Try to do this, and observe what you feel. Then think who could support you in accomplishing your intentions.

6. Take Action

If you have your intention, maybe even a few of them, don’t sit and wait for them to be magically fulfilled. Instead, take practical steps. It will be easier to start if at the beginning you choose one intention and set yourself short-term goals.

– Set a realistic, measurable, concrete goal around your intention and try to accomplish it.

– Imagine what it will be like when you accomplish one of your intentions.

– Think about which of your friends could share this intention with you; talk with them and try to accomplish it together.

A year later, Mallika is still eating sugar and hasn’t lost those extra kilos. Nor has she got more organized or initiated great changes in the world. But during this time, she learned who she is, and accepted her true self – the Mallika who’s wise, talented, uncertain, silly, strong, quiet, capable of being wounded. Her mission now is to let that person be, at every moment, as loving, joyful and present as possible. Everybody wants to find out who we really are. In living every day with the best, the most precious intentions, we find our path in life.

There are a lot of studies on intention, though science still hasn’t supplied hard evidence of the effectiveness of the practices connected with it. But the connection between convictions or beliefs and our health has been demonstrated multiple times – if only in the placebo, which helps treat mild symptoms of depression and can mitigate the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, Crohn’s disease and dementia. Since our thoughts affect our bodies, why not take advantage of this? That’s what Mallika’s asking. Why not think about your intentions and the means of accomplishing our goals, if in this way we can take better care of ourselves and our loved ones? Maybe these practices will make us better people, better parents, friends and colleagues. If all of us make the effort, maybe the world around us will become a little bit better?

Eryk Lipiński – drawing from the archives (no. 825/1961)
Eryk Lipiński – drawing from the archives (no. 825/1961)

Questions for balance

Practical steps to changing your lifestyle. Don’t give rational answers; feel them.

  • In a given area, am I suffering or blossoming?

  • Do I feel rested?

  • Am I sleeping properly?

  • Am I eating enough healthy, energy-giving meals?

  • Am I moving enough?

  • Do I have healthy relationships in my family, with my friends, in my community?

  • Do I like my job and what I do every day?

  • Do I feel financially secure?

  • Am I getting enough intellectual stimulation over the course of – let’s say – a week?

  • Am I laughing and having fun?

  • Do I feel spiritually fulfilled?

  • Do I have a sense of meaning and purpose?

This article was based on sources including Mallika Chopra’s book Living with Intent: My Somewhat Messy Journey to Purpose, Peace and Joy (2015), her TEDx San Diego talk Living with Intent (2015), her TEDx Berkeley talk (2013), her 2017 TEDx talk and her website


Translated from the Polish by Nathaniel Espino

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Maria Hawranek

is an independent reporter, born in 1987. She works alongside Szymon Opryszek, with whom she published the books “Tańczymy już tylko w Zaduszki” [We Only Dance on All Soul’s Day Now] (2016) and “Wyhoduj sobie wolność. Reportaże z Urugwaju” [Grow Yourself Some Freedom: Reportage from Uruguay] (2018). A lover of Latin America and life in the countryside.