Friday, January 7, 2022

Living With Intention


As I write, the world outside my north facing window is all soft shades of gray and white and ever-green as the first  (and possibly only) snowstorm of the year blankets the island.  The snow feeds the young child yearning in me for the magical gnomes created by the way the snow shapes the new Leyland Cypress trees on the border between the neighbor’s home and ours.  A quiet day that leads to reflection as another calendar year begins.

Sunday’s sermon is taking shape - musings on living with intention.  Somewhat different than creating resolutions for the year or setting goals that draw into an uncertain future.   I reflect on Rabbi Art Green’s explanation of the Hebrew word: kavannah. (in These Are The Words-A Vocabulary of Jewish Spiritual Life): Kavannah literally means “direction.”  In Judaism it refers to kavannat ha-lev, “directing the heart to
God: praying, studying, performing mitzvot* in such a way that we are inwardly turning toward God’s presence, offering our words or deeds as gifts upon an inner altar.

Phillip Moffitt, in an article titled “The Heart’s Intention” suggests there is a difference between resolutions and goal setting on the one hand and setting an intention on the other: With goals, the future is always the focus: Am I going to reach the goal?  Will I be happy when I do?”  “What’s next?”   Setting an intention, least according to Buddhist teachings, is quite different than goal making.  [Setting an intention] is not oriented toward a future outcome.  Instead, it is a path or practice that is focused on how we are “being” in the present moment.  [When setting an intention] our attention is on the ever-present “now” in the constantly changing flow of life. We set our intention based on what matters most to us and make a commitment to align our world action with our inner values…

We are entering another year that already promises a lot of uncertainty.  As a people, we are nearing exhaustion with concern over COVID, climate change, the state of our democracy, inflation…  On the personal level a health crisis, the death of a loved one, uncertain finances all add to the over arching global concerns.  So many of us experience a sense of fatigue, a strange disconnect from the passage of time, a loss of resilience that  affects how we live together in community.
In a conversation after worship last week, I heard a woman observe that the spiritual discipline that will define our times is that of learning how to live graciously and confidently and authentically in the midst of pervasive uncertainty. Being able to cultivate our intention for healthy, creative living in the midst of chaos and uncertainty is a profound spiritual calling.

“What matters most to me at the level of my spirit?  What are my deepest soul values?  From the depths of my heart, what do I want to bring to the world in my own being?”  No less a figure than Taoist LaoTzu,  author of the Tao Te Ching, sends us inward to find the source of our highest intentions.  He wrote “At the center of your being, you have the answer; you know who you are, and you know what you want.”   The answer to the questions will be different for all of us, but they have the potential to lead us on the journey to more authentic and intentional living.

 An intention has the power to mold my way of being in the world.  What delight might follow if, on waking in the morning, my intention went like this: “May gratitude for all the beauty and order in nature guide me through the day.”

How might a day unfold differently if I started out with a classic heart centered Buddhist intention based in lovingkindness: May I be filled with lovingkindness.  May I be well in body and mind. May I be happy and at ease. May I be free from danger.   It takes only seconds to offer that same intention for those close to me, for those with whom I am in conflict, and then for those whom I will never meet.  An intention sets positive energy in motion in way that resolutions and goals lack.

One of the most challenging and transforming intentions for me is one that I use regularly.  It jumps off the page of my Jewish prayer book.  It is an intention that sets my day in motion in a particular way: May nothing I do mar the holiness of life by causing any other creature to lose the joy of living.

I like to imagine how the mundane encounters in our lives might be transformed by living “intentionally.”  How might we be transformed?   How might a simple thing like shopping at Stop and Shop be transformed by offering the intention on entering the store:  “May all beings be be happy; well in body and mind; be free from danger…”  

What might budget and ministry meetings at church or synagogue look like if they began with the intention:  “May we and all beings be filled with lovingkindness” or, perhaps, May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, our Rock and our Redeemer. (Psalm 19:14)

When I am anticipating a challenging interaction with a friend or family member,  an intention like “May I be at ease.  May I be filled with patience, May I be peaceful” has the power to affect the outcome of a potentially difficult conversation.   Setting the same intention for the other  parties  may have the power for creating a more harmonious interaction. May he/she be at ease.  May he be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.  May she be peaceful. In a sense, when I have created an intention for myself, I am entering each moment more mindfully, more present to what is rather than creating scenarios that might or might not happen. Setting an intention helps to mitigate anxiety as I enter the next moment. I tend to create less drama when I can locate my intention from the deep desire in my heart to create more harmony and less suffering in the world. When I am more present to any situation or interaction with a clear and simple intention, it is more likely to unfold in a more satisfying  way.

We are still on the threshold of a new year.  With all the negative news that continually bombards us, it is tempting to submit to the “brain fog”, the moments of despair or helplessness that inevitably present their seductive pull on our consciousness - - taking us out of the complete perfection of the present moment.   We have the power of intention to shape a different reality from the one that seeks to impose itself upon us.  The intentions that arise out of our deeply held heart values have the power to change us and to change the world wherever we encounter it.

Setting an intention may begin simply with the question: How do I want to enter this day as I try to live out my highest values arising from the my heart center?

And so a prayer from Howard Thurman as I begin another year:

 Keep fresh before me the moments of my high resolve.  Despite the dullness and barrenness of the days that pass. If I search with due diligence, I can always find a deposit left by some former radiance.  But I had forgotten.  At the time it was full orbed, glorious, resplendent.  I was sure I would never forget.  I had forgotten how easy it is to forget.  There was no intent to betray what was so sure at the time.  My response was whole, clean, authentic.  But little by little, there crept into my life the dust and grit of the journey.  Details, lower level demands, all kinds of cross-currents - nothing momentous, nothing overwhelming, nothing flagrant - just wear and tear.  If there had been some direct challenge - a clear-cut issue - I would have fought it to the end, and beyond.  In the quietness of this place, surrounded by the all-pervading presence of God, my heart whispers: Keep fresh before me the moments of my High Resolve, that in fair weather or foul, in good times or in tempests, in the days when the foe are nameless or familiar, may I not forget that to which my life is committed.

*Also according to Art Green: A mitzvah (singular) or “commandment” is a deed in which humans are given an opportunity to fulfill the will of God.  That will is inherent in creation itself, as God has created a world that is not yet perfect.  The claim of the mitzvah is that there is work left for us to do, work that will make us partners of God in the world’s creation.

"Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally.
The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you.”   L.R. Knost

Vicky Hanjian


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