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At Yom Kippur, Jews are invited to recall their sins of the past year. This is performed in the spirit of teshuva, which means "returning"--in this case, from brokenness to wholeness, and to original intentions. After expressing remorse for your misdeeds, you let them go, and refine your kavanna so you live truer to it in the future.
The everyday version of this is to forgive yourself if you don't follow through on your intentions--and then try once more, says Rabbi Myriam Klotz, whose teachings integrate Judaic philosophy with yoga. "The only way you're going to know what it means to progress and grow truer in your intention is by going through the experience of falling down and getting back up again."
Keep it real
Christianity is less specific about intentions, but the Rev. Wayne Muller, author of Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal and Delight in Our Busy Lives, sees them as critical to the path. "When we set our intentions, we imagine we're entering into a partnership with God," says Muller. "The presumption for Jesus is if we just do a little bit, God will do the rest."
Muller believes that with the parable of the mustard seed (Matthew 13:31-32), Jesus was telling us to be more mindful of how the smallest of intentions can have great power. "As a seed, it is the smallest of them all," Muller explains, "but it grows into a lush, verdant plant. There's a lot of emphasis on doing small things well as a way to begin building a solid foundation." Starting too big--as with the intention of being a perfect parent, as opposed to the more modest intention of helping your children with their homework--sets you up to fail.
Muller is also concerned about the way intention is misrepresented. "Some teachers and self-help books talk about intention as a magic bullet, and if intentions aren't realized, it's because you haven't fervently believed in them enough."
That's childish, and grandiose, thinking, he says. "What happens when people get cancer, when there's warfare and innocent women and children are blown up? Did they just not set their intention correctly?" It's important, Muller notes, to acknowledge the Buddha's teaching that every life is allotted 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows. Intend for the best, be grateful for your joys, and accept the sorrows that inevitably come in the span of a human life.
I know I try to keep something similar in mind to preserve my own sanity in difficult times. At least, that's my intention.