Thupten Jinpa teaches us two great practices to start and end every day.
In the Tibetan tradition, we recognize compassion as both the highest spiritual ideal and the highest expression of our humanity. Even the Tibetan word for compassion, nyingje, which literally means the “king of heart,” captures the priority we accord compassion.
In Compassion Cultivation Training, an eight-week program which I developed, we begin every session with a practice called setting your intention. This is a contemplative exercise adapted from traditional Tibetan meditation, a kind of checking-in where we connect with our deeper aspirations so that they may inform our intentions and motivations.
In everyday English, we often use the two words, intention and motivation, interchangeably as if they mean the same thing, but there’s an important difference: deliberateness.
Our motivation to do something is the reason or reasons behind that behavior, the source of our desire and the drive to do it. We may be more or less aware of our motivations.
Intention, on the other hand, is always deliberate, an articulation of a conscious goal. We set and reaffirm our best intentions to keep us inclining in the directions we truly mean to go. But, we need motivations to keep us going over the long haul. If our intention is to run a marathon, there will be times when we’ll ask ourselves, quite reasonably, “Why am I doing this?” We need good, inspired answers to get us over such humps. Conscious or unconscious, motivation is the “why,” and the spark, behind intention.
You could do this intention-setting exercise at home, first thing in the morning if that is convenient. You could also do it on a bus or a subway on your commute. If you work in an office, you could do it sitting at your desk before you get into the day. You only need two to five uninterrupted minutes. Our intention sets the “tone” of whatever we are about to do. Like music, intention can influence our mood, thoughts, and feelings—setting an intention in the morning we set the tone for the day.
Practice: Setting an Intention
First, find a comfortable sitting posture. If you can, sit on a cushion on the floor or on a chair with the soles of your feet touching the ground, which gives you a feeling of being grounded. If you prefer, you could also lie down on your back, ideally on a surface that is not too soft.
Once you have found your posture, relax your body as much as you can, if necessary with some stretches, especially your shoulders and your back.
Then, with your eyes closed if it helps you to focus, take three to five deep, diaphragmatic or abdominal breaths, each time drawing the inhalation down into the belly and filling up the torso with the in-breath from the bottom to the top, like filling a jar with water. Then with a long, slow exhalation, expel all the air from the torso, all the way. If it helps, you can exhale from your mouth.
Once you feel settled, contemplate the following questions: “What is it that I value deeply? What, in the depth of my heart, do I wish for myself, for my loved ones, and for the world?”
Stay on these questions a little and see if any answers come up. If no specific answers surface, don’t worry; simply stay with the open questions. This may take some getting used to, since in the West, when we ask questions we usually expect to answer them. Trust that the questions themselves are working even—or especially—when we don’t have ready answers. If and when answers do come up, acknowledge them as they arise and stay with whatever thoughts and feelings they may bring.
Finally, develop a specific set of thoughts as your conscious intention. You could think, “Today, may I be more mindful of my body, mind, and speech in my interaction with others. May I, as far as I can, avoid deliberately hurting others. May I relate to myself, to others, and to the events around me with kindness, understanding, and less judgment. May I use my day in a way that is in tune with my deeper values.”
In this way, set the tone for the day.
Once we become more familiar with intention setting, we can do this practice in a minute or less. That means we can find opportunities during the day to check in with our intentions. We can even skip the three-phased formal practice and do a quick reset by reading or chanting a few meaningful lines. You could use the four immeasurables prayer:
May all beings attain happiness and its causes.
May all beings be free from suffering and its causes.
May all beings never be separated from joy that is free of misery.
May all beings abide in equanimity, free from bias, attachment, and aversion.
Practice: Making a Dedication
The intention-setting practice is paired, in Tibetan tradition, with another contemplative exercise called dedication.
The role of this exercise is to complete the circle, as it were. At the end of a day, or a meditation, or any other effort we have made, we reconnect with the intentions we set at the beginning, reflecting on our experience in light of our intentions and rejoicing in what we have achieved. This is like taking stock at the end of the day. It gives us another opportunity to connect with our deeper aspirations.
At the end of day, for instance, before you go to bed or as you lie in bed before sleeping, reflect on your day. Briefly review the events of the day (including significant conversations, moods, and other mental activity) and touch back on the spirit of the morning intention setting. See how much alignment there is between the two. It’s important not to get caught up in the details of what you did and did not do. The idea is not to keep exhaustive scores, but to broadly survey to see the synergy between your intentions and your life that day.
Whatever thoughts and feelings this reviewing might bring, just stay with it. There’s no need to push them away if they have a negative quality, or grasp at them if they seem positive. Simply stay with whatever you experience for a while in silence.
Finally, think of something from the day that you feel good about—a helping hand you gave your neighbor, an empathetic ear you lent a colleague in distress, not losing your cool in the drugstore when someone cut in line. Then take joy in the thought of this deed. If nothing else, take joy in the fact that you began your day by setting a conscious intention.
Keep this exercise short; three to five minutes is a good length. If you normally do some reading before bed, you could set aside three to five minutes at the end for dedication time. If your habit is to watch TV, could you watch three to five minutes less? Or go somewhere quiet during commercials?
Taking joy in the day, even in the simple fact of the effort we have made, is important. It gives us something positive to carry into the next day, and helps us harness motivation in the service of our intentions. Joy plays a crucial role in our motivation, especially in sustaining motivation over a prolonged period of time.
Exercise: Focused Review
Sometimes it’s helpful to do a more focused review. This is especially true if we are struggling with a particular issue or are engaged in some endeavor, such as an eight-week compassion training course! Each week in Compassion Cultivation Training we work on certain qualities and attitudes we seek to foster. Say, one week it’s self-compassion. During this period, we set intentions around being kinder to ourselves. In turn, at the end of a day, our dedication might pay special attention to kindnesses we may have shown ourselves that day.
Now, when we undertake such a targeted assessment, most of us will find that we fall short. We will see the gaps between our intentions and our behavior, between our aspirations and our actual life.
When this happens, it’s important not to beat ourselves with negative judgment and self-criticism. We simply acknowledge the difference and resolve to try again the next day. This awareness itself will help us be more attentive the next day, opening opportunities to bring our everyday thoughts and actions into closer alignment with our goals.
This is adapted from Thupten Jinpa’s new book, A Fearless Heart: How the Courage to Be Compassionate Can Transform Our Lives, with permission from Hudson Street Press.
Read Thupten Jinpa’s feature in our forthcoming publication, “The Dalai Lama” — a celebration of His Holiness’ 80th birthday.