They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
I came across the concept of “intention” for the first time in 2007 in an infomercial for Wayne Dyer’s The Power of Intention. The infomercial showed Dyer teaching a huge crowd of people who seemed to hang on his every word. Many sought to scribble notes as he talked about “emanating from the source” and energy. My husband and I chuckled every time he talked about “the source” and gestured in the direction of a paper lantern on the stage.
In this excerpt from a 2005 interview with New Age retailer, Dyer spoke about one particular intention:
The No. 1 principle in the universe is “I intend to feel good.” Feeling good is what you should be doing every day of your life.
A friend of mine visited Swami Muktananda back in the 1970s in India. As my friend was going into the ashram, Muktananda stopped him and said, “Do you know the difference between good and God?” and my friend said, “Zero.” Muktananda held up a zero and said, “That’s right. When you look at God and good, the only difference between them is one little zero.”
So, when you are saying you want to feel good, what you really are saying is you want to feel God….
Dyer shared that same story about “God” and “good” and the difference of one little “o” in his talk. Our trained-in-the-Biblical-languages brains could not handle any more of his nonsense, so we turned him off, likely to binge-watch Lost or whatever Netflix DVD had most recently come in the mail. But I think there could be some small nugget of wisdom, at least in his title—there can be something powerful about setting an intention.
I came across “intention” for the second time that same year, this time in Dallas Willard’s Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ, one of the first required books for our pastoral residency.¹ In it, Willard lays out a pattern for spiritual transformation: Vision, Intention, Means (VIM). According to Willard, personal transformation begins with a biblically-informed vision of the kingdom of God. Next, we must “intend to live in the kingdom as [Jesus] did.” And we need the means (for example, the skills, resources, and community) to do so.
Willard does not explicitly define “intention,” but he does describe it. To him, intention differs from a wish or a want because it implies a decision to act to bring about what we hope for. Willard states, “[T]he robust intention, with its inseparable decision, can only be formed and sustained upon the basis of a forceful vision.”
Nowadays I hear the word “intention” in yoga class. As we begin our yoga practice in prayer pose or child’s pose, our instructor invites us to set an intention for the practice. Inwardly, I am anything but calm and quiet. My sit bone, or toes, or forehead—whatever is closest to the floor presses into the mat not to ground myself but because I am angry and want to yell, “Can we cut the new age lingo? I have no idea what you’re talking about!” (Okay, who couldn’t benefit from a one- or two-sentence explanation of the yoga jargon?)
Merriam-Webster to the rescue! Of the six definitions listed in my dictionary, I think the first is the definition I am after: “a determination to act in a certain way: RESOLVE.”² Here is the list of synonyms: intent, purpose, design, aim, end, object, objective, and goal. When you parse out the definitions of these words with similar meanings, you discover differing degrees of determination, deliberateness, and ability to measure what has been accomplished.
On December 31, 2017, I chose to set intentions for 2018 instead of resolutions or goals. I did so because I liked the freedom of intentions. To this perfectionist, broken resolutions are failures, as are unattained goals. And I do not need that type of failure right now, not when I trying to live into what I perceive God calling me to be and do.
But, as Willard says, we have to decide to act our intentions, or else they stay in the wish-and-want realm. Failure to act on our intentions gets us nowhere.
In 2018, I have paved my road with good intentions. But I am not merely standing on the road, staring at the scenery, pondering my awesome intentions. I am acting on them–not every day, but often enough to see that my road is going somewhere good.
I wrote my intentions on a pale blue Post-It note and stuck it to the wall in my office. It’s at eye-level. Even if my laptop is open, I can still see my intentions. When I sit down at my desk to grade a paper, look up a recipe, study the Bible, or check Facebook, I see four words in all caps in teal ink: FLYWHEEL, INQUIRE, WRITE, and WALL. Each word represents one intention for this year.
If you want to know more about those intentions—what they mean, why I set them, and what I am learning as I act on them—then stay tuned for the rest of this series.
¹ Willard, D. (2002) Renovation of the heart: Putting on the character of Christ. Colorado Springs: NavPress, p. 87-89.
² Intention. (1993) In Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. (10th Ed.) Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc, p. 608.
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