Living intentionally is much simpler and more complex than we think. On the one hand, living intentionally seems easy. We just have to choose where we spend our time and money, how we treat people, what we put in our minds and bodies, and what we focus on in our thoughts. We all know we should do these things with purpose and intention, and a majority of us (especially if you are bothering to read a blog like this) intend to do it.
But then there’s the complicated part. Food has an emotional component that shifts how we eat. Unexpected expenses arise and mess with our budget, we don’t like how other people act, so we respond in kind. We get drunk and other people don’t like then we act, and they respond to us in kind. We come home tired at the end of the day and just want to watch reality TV or videos of little kids running into things on YouTube instead of reading our book or going for a walk.
It’s easier to sit and browse Reddit than it is to do the dishes or have an intentional conversation with our partner. Meditation takes time and energy, exercise takes time and energy, everything good for us takes time and energy.
This blog is not only about why living intentionally matters, but also about how to do this. The catch always seems to be what happens when we aren’t focused on what we are doing. Our mind wanders from time to time, we lose our focus, we say and do things that are less than intentional and ideal. This is just how life works, but we can always work to do better.
We will start with three things:
- Proper expectations: Diligence versus Perfection
- Staying Steady: Learning to Concentrate the Mind
- Being Aware: Cultivating Mindfulness
Setting the Right Intention: Diligence versus Expectations
This is important.
Perfection is a non-concept and it will derail us every time we try to do anything if we allow it to be present. Think about it.
What would a perfect day look like?
A day off of work, hanging out with our loved ones, going to Disneyworld?
These are fun and maybe even ideal days, but are they perfect? Does absolutely nothing go wrong? You don’t have to use the bathroom, you don’t get tired, the temperature is exactly where you want it, your car doesn’t burn any gas? No bugs, no bad smells, no annoying noises?
What does a perfect relationship look like? Do you never fight, never disagree, always know what the other one wants and are ready to provide it? Do they do that for you? Do you like the same food, same music, same movies, and the same hobbies? Always want sex at the exact same time?
Does a perfect job pay you an infinite amount of money to do nothing? Does a perfect home have a lot of rooms you have to clean or a few rooms that limit your space? Does perfect weather mean warm and dry so we can all sit outside or sunlight and rain so that plants can grow?
Where does snow fit in? What if you want to ski?
Perfection isn’t Real
These are absurd questions because perfection is an absurd idea, but one that many of us are stuck on. It is something we strive for. The recovery community aims for it in the form of telling us we’ve fallen all the way down some fictitious mountain if we slip up. We think we’ve blown our health if we eat a cheeseburger. Our minds are wired to notice imperfections and things that aren’t working, so they dominate our consciousness if we aren’t careful.
Everything works in a certain way in our world. Things like time and energy are used up, things move toward states of disorder– glasses fall off of tables and break, they never jump onto tables and put themselves together.
This is reality.
So, with this in mind, set an intention to practice living intentionally with diligence, not perfection. Diligence to notice where you make mistakes, and correct them. No beating yourself up. No analyzing and debating things endlessly. No berating yourself for ruining some nonexistent record.
Diligence, not perfection.
Meditation and Mindfulness
Why would I put these two things at the very beginning of a discussion about living intentionally?
It’s simple: we cannot be truly intentional until we can keep our mind in one place. If we can’t focus, we cannot sustain intentionality (my friend Meredith writes about thoughts and their effect on us all the time).
Meditation does a few things for us. It helps builds concentration and mindfulness, and it can also serve as the first step into a more intentional life. By having a practice that we do each day, for s specific length of time, we begin to bring intentionality into our lives in a real way from the very beginning.
So how do we do this?
We start with the breath, and nothing more:
- Find a quiet place.
- Sit securely and with good posture. Let your hands rest comfortably. Let your eyes close naturally.
- Begin by being aware.
- What do you hear?
- What is your body experiencing?
- Be aware of these things without claiming them as “yours”.
- Be aware of what is going on in your body.
- Make note of sensations associated with your body without claiming them as “yours”.
- Turn your attention to the breath.
- Breathe deeply into the body, letting the belly expand and contract with each breath.
- Consciously slow the breath, letting the out-breath be a little longer than the in-breath.
- What does it feel like to breathe?
- Turn your attention to the breath in the nose.
- Find the place in your nose that is slightly cooler than the rest on the in-breath and slightly warmer than the rest on the out-breath. Let this place anchor your awareness, and return here anytime you realize you have become distracted.
- Distractions are neutral, no matter what their content may be. Do not judge, criticize or evaluate them, simply return to your breath. Do not judge or criticize yourself for becoming distracted, simply return to your breath.
- Return to your breath as many times needed – becoming distracted a thousand times simply means you have a thousand opportunities to train your attention by returning to your breath.
- Judge nothing, criticize nothing.
- When you are ready to finish, move your fingers and your toes before slowly opening your eyes, maintaining a downward gaze for a moment. Take a final deep breath. Embrace everything that is around you.
Do this every day, even if only for 5 or 10 minutes. You’ll find that it helps cultivate the idea of the breath as a place of calm, a place where intention can thrive because we aren’t always caught up in the rush of tumultuous thoughts and emotions. It helps us see the difference between the situations we face and our opinions on the situations we face. We can get underneath the stories our mind tells us, and we start to learn that the stories themselves are what bring us suffering.
Once concentration is more of a norm for us, we can begin investing in mindfulness, something we’ll spend the next few months digging into.
Why Bother Living Intentionally?
“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” Marcus Aurelius
Our lives are short.
I know it seems like you’re not going to die. It seems like that is something that only happens to everyone else. The thing is, we’re all going to die, and it probably won’t seem like the logical conclusion of some huge storyline. It will be mundane and unexpected.
I hear stories all the time that bring home how close death is at every turn.
A young man goes to bar and has a few drinks. They find him in the river the next day.
A woman runs to the store to grab brown sugar for a desert, not thinking about the student that will run the red light and T-bone her car.
A man in his 30’s goes to sleep and never knows that his house catches fire in the middle of the night.
A man goes out to confront his neighbor for banging on his fence, a source of long-standing acrimony between them. He doesn’t see the gun.
A young grandfather goes to sleep, excited about his grandson’s first birthday the next day, and never wakes up.
Take a moment and put yourself in the shoes of the people you see who die every day on the news or that you know (or know by association). It’s very rare that someone knows they are walking into the moment of their death – this isn’t a movie, there’s no somber or inspiring ambient music playing, the light doesn’t start to shimmer. It’s all very ordinary until it’s over.
This is why living intentionally matters – this all ends, so we need to be wise in how we spend it.
We’ll spend the next few weeks and months exploring mindfulness as a deep, intentional practice with the goal of bringing it into our lives as a foundation for being more intentional in everything we do. This will include blogs like this one, mini-blogs on Instagram, podcast episodes, and the occasional video (here’s a post about many of the things we get wrong about mindfulness practice if you want to get a headstart).
I am also hard at work building courses, eBooks, and journals for a subscription library, which I am hoping to launch in the next few months. My goal is to create in-depth, specific, and concrete resources to help people on this path of intentionality. I wanted a way people could have access to everything for a single price, rather than having to buy something new every time they found a new area of intentionality to address or I created something. I’m excited about it.
I’m also excited about walking this out with everyone who is reading this. If there is a specific topic I could cover, a resource I could create, or something I’m missing, don’t hesitate to let me know. This is a collaborative process – I do all of this because helping other people walk this path helps me walk this path. It’s a good deal.
Looking for something more?
I write, podcast and make videos about living in freedom through mindfulness, intentionality, compassion, and equanimity.
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