I came across an article in Scientific American recently on The Willpower Paradox. Briefly, folks who adopt a “Will I?” approach are significantly more successful in meeting a goal than folks who adopt an “I will” approach. Counter-intuitive, but profound.

We explore the implications of that research below in Reflections (the link is in Resources). As we move further into a year of setting intentions and meeting goals, may these reflections and tools be useful to you and yours.

REFLECTIONS on Intention

Psychologist Ibrahim Senay of the University of Illinois researched willfulness v. willingness through self-talk – the inner voice that articulates what we are thinking, spelling out our options and intentions, hopes and fears, when it comes to motivation and goal-directed actions.

Senay had groups of volunteers works on a series of tasks, one group “primed” to think about doing the task, the other group “primed” to wonder whether they would do the task. A subtle difference between will power – “I will do this” and willingness – “Will I do this?”

The results were unexpected. People with “wondering” minds completed significantly more tasks than did those with “assertive” minds. Senay’s hypothesis of explanation: wondering – the mode of openness to possibility – could foster intrinsic motivation and personal responsibility – the mind-set that creates success. Determination – the mode of adhering to an external (sometimes rigid) standard – could foster a focus on performance rather than possibility and could be a set-up for failure.

These findings on a focus on possibilities rather than performance, on open-mindedness and emergence rather than a mode of assertion that could narrow the focus of possibilities, provide useful guidance to our own practices of setting intentions.

Scientists increasingly know that setting intention works, powerfully. I love this clear synopsis from the book Awakening Joy: “Neuroscience tells us that setting an intention “primes” our nervous system to be on the lookout for whatever will support what we intend to create for ourselves. In his book The Mindful Brain, Daniel Siegel writes, ‘Intentions create an integrated state of priming, a gearing up of our neural system to be in the mode of that specific intention: we can be readying to receive, to sense, to focus, to behave in a certain manner.’ ”

Intention creates possibility.

Scientists increasingly know how intention works. We’ve reported here before: focused attention causes neurons in the brain to fire. Repeated attention, repeated firings, creates and strengthens neural pathways that support “learning” in the direction we choose. fMRI imaging shows that the repeated intention to focus attention (in the “will I?” mode to be most successful) actually creates brain structure to support the intention: i.e., violinists develop more brain structure in the motor cortex to support the movement of the hand; taxi drivers memorizing the crazy-quilt streets of London develop a larger hippocampus – key in visual-spatial memory. Tibetan monks adept in mindfulness and compassion practices have increased brain volume in the areas of the brain that focus attention (anterior cingulated) and feel the pain of others (insula).

Our repeated intention to incline the mind creates the neural platform for actual movement toward a goal lofty or down to earth. (Remembering to repeat-refresh our intention is so important, even the full title of Ram Dass’s classic Be Here Now is Remember: Be Here Now.)

Setting intentions to create the conditions in mind and heart that will help us achieve our goals fits well with all wisdom traditions, too. The Buddha taught: Whatever a person frequently thinks and reflects on, that will become the inclination of the mind. Jesus taught, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Even the motto of my alma mater, Northwestern University, says, “Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report;… think on these things”.

What do these scientific findings and these teachings from wisdom traditions mean for our personal practice of intention?

I see usefulness in both top-down and bottom-up approaches.


I’ve deeply learned in James Baraz’s Awakening Joy course and from offering adjunctive Deepening Joy groups: Choose the highest happiness: all else will follow. Set the wise intention to cultivate the most wholesome qualities: kindness, gratitude, generosity, flexibility, resilience, ease, and all else falls into place. Aiming for the highest happiness acts as an overarching compass; “smaller” goals naturally emerge along the way. Showing kindness to a crotchety neighbor, expressing gratitude even for the rough patches that deepened our insight, less withholding of our gifts and talents out of contraction or defensiveness, more options (possibilities rather than standards), more courage. (I can rather than I will.)

Jack Kornfield has told this story of a higher intention shaping day-to-day choices – and the benefit of inclining the mind toward openness and possibility – many times. For those of you who have heard it many times, too, please forgive any inaccuracies in my paraphrasing.

A soldier is standing in line at the local PX, noticing that the woman in front of him is taking her time showing off her baby to the cashier. Impatience arises as the soldier notices the woman even handing the baby to the cashier to hold. (!) The soldier is about to protest when he remembers the 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction training he has just completed. He chooses to slow down his reactivity and just let what is happening happen.

When it’s his turn to check out his groceries, he simply says to the cashier, “Cute baby.” And hears from the cashier, “Oh, yes. That’s my daughter. My husband was killed in action a year ago; I’ve had to work here to make ends meet. My mother brings in my daughter twice a day so I can see her for a few minutes.”

Wise intention – patience, open-minded wondering rather than the goal-oriented switching to a faster line – shapes the moment–to-moment choices that lead us to our larger goals of awareness and acceptance.


Sometimes the simplest, laziest, even misguided intentions can lead us to wiser, more wholesome experiences when the willingness to remain open remains open.

How often have we wearily sunk into the sofa to watch a mindless TV show or a fluffy DVD from Netflix and been struck my some new aha! Or crossed some threshold into a new perspective we didn’t even know we were looking for, couldn’t have known was waiting to happen?

Years ago I blithely agreed to go with a friend to Bonnie Jonsson’s Year To Live group at Spirit Rock. I think I thought it might be a good way to meet a guy. (And truly, how frequently does our yearning to be social, romantic, connected, even just not alone lead us into transformative experiences we never could have foreseen?) I didn’t’ meet a guy there that year, but I did meet nine other women to share a profound journey with, of “waking up” to the miraculousness of being alive at all, let alone alive in a world where practices of conscious compassionate connection (the top-down compass I stumbled into) could so transform the heart and mind into wholeness.

May the following resources to set intention from the top down and the bottom up lead to a fulfilling aliveness and wholeness in your life and in the lives of all you meet in this unfolding year.


…it is a serious thing

just to be alive
on this fresh morning
in the broken world.
I beg of you,

do not walk by
without pausing
to attend to this
rather ridiculous performance.

It could mean something.
It could mean everything.
It could be what Rilke meant, when he wrote:
You must change your life.
-Mary Oliver, excerpt from Invitation

* * * * *

Until one is committed there is always hesitancy,
The chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness,
Concerning all acts of initiative and creation,
There is one elementary truth,
The ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans:
The moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too.
All sorts of things occur to help that would never otherwise have occurred.
A whole stream of events issues from the decision,
Raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen accidents and meetings
And material assistance which no man could have dreamed
Would come his way.
– W.H.Murray, deputy leader of a l951 expedition to climb Mt. Everest

* * * * *

When we pay attention to the intention to bring more happiness into our lives, we are more likely to notice the actions, opportunities, people and things that can bring that about for us. It’s sort of like recognizing which piece of a jigsaw puzzle will fit in the picture.
– James Baraz and Shoshana Alexander

* * * * *

Tend to the moment, and the hours, days, years, will tend to themselves.
– Mattieu Ricard

* * * * *

Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.
– W.H. Murray quoting Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

* * * * *

Submit to a daily practice.
Your loyalty to that
is a ring on the door.

Keep knocking, and the joy inside
will eventually open a window
and look out to see who’s there.
– Rumi

* * * * *

The Gardener

It’s really hard not to go where my whims urge me to go
But I know what sort of person I’m longing to become.
If I want to help anybody in this world before I die,
If I want the suffering all around us to subside,
I have got to be more conscious of the things I do and don’t do.
Every little seed in time will flower.
Plant the ones that lead me down a path toward really helping.
I am the garden, but I’m also the gardener.

In this very moment I reap fruit from choices past;
Choices for the future are made now.
Certain habits, deeply rooted, flourish in the heart of me.
Repetition, like the seasons, comes naturally.
Some of it’s good; some of it’s not;
Right now this is all I’ve got,
But it doesn’t mean it’s all I’ll ever be.

Choosing which part of me to act from is easier
When I know what I want to become.
I am and garden, but I’m also the gardener.

This planting of seeds is more subtle than it first appears
Its’ not just about a dollar to the homeless man.
It’s about perceiving what’s happening in this very moment
And deliberately choosing to extend love.

It’s really hard not to go where my whims urge me to go
But I know what sort of person I’m longing to become.
If I want to help anybody in this world before I die,
If I want the suffering all around us to subside,
I have got to be more conscious of the things I do and don’t do.
Every little seed in time will flower.
Plant the ones that lead me down a path toward really helping.
I am the garden, but I’m also the gardener.
– Eve Decker, sung at the Awakening Joy course, January 2010


I learned of a egregious mis-translation of the King James bible last weekend at dinner that has deep resonance with the theme of setting intention toward possibilities rather than standards. My friend Stan Stefancic, former minister of the First Unitarian Church in San Francisco, among many other stellar roles in a long life of selfless service, shared that he once read that Jesus originally taught “Be ye therefore whole, even as your Father in heaven is whole.’’ Very different from “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” A profoundly more useful compass on intention.

The practical benefit of an over-arching wise intention “compassing” our day-to-day choices:

My friend Marilynne’s car was rear-ended on the freeway while stopped I backed-up traffic and hit at 35 mph. The impact of the accident on Marilynne’s spine set in motion endless rounds of choices: about treatment – medical and/or holistic; about finances – using health insurance and/or paying out of pocket for adjunctive treatment; career – consolidating a clinical practice into a home office with phone sessions and/or maintaining a regular office, lying on the floor between seeing clients to relieve the pressure on her spine; about lifestyle – lying down in the back of an auditorium for a professional training/concert and/or watching training videos/movies on an i-Pad which could be hand held in bed and turned at any angle.

Throughout these daily challenges, Marilynne could draw on years of practicing wise intention – inclining the mind and heart toward integrity, patience, perseverance, compassion, equanimity, joy to shape every day-to-day choice. Still walking the ridge trail near her home every day for ten to twenty minutes of cardio vascular exercise, but also to stay in touch with the awesome beauty of nature that sustains all levels of heart functioning. Wearing scarves rather than necklaces to keep any weight off her neck while honoring beauty and harmony as resources of resilience. Combining holiday shopping at multiple stores for multiple people into one group online contribution to SEVA’s eye care programs in Nepal and Tibet. Aiming for wholeness rather than perfection, informing every moment-to-moment choice.

Two friends are focusing on possibilities from the bottom-up by participating in Team in Training this spring, the fundraising arm of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, a non-profit organization that funds medical research seeking a cure for blood cancers, and by expanded findings, for all cancers, and provides patient support services for those in treatment.

My friend Katherine, 63 and not an athlete, has committed 250 days of her life this year training to run-swim-bike a triathalon in June 2011.  (1 mile swim, 26 mile bike ride, 6 mile run – 63 and had never owned a bike or pair of running shoes in her life!)

Katherine’s astonishment at the deepening of her intention was palpable and contagious during our lunch last week.  I’ve known Katherine for years.  I’ve known for years that her sister died too young of cancer,  that her mother-in-law died too soon of leukemia.  There was something different in watching Katherine’s eyes light up as she shared with me: when she’s panting around the track she can hear her sister’s voice, “You can do it, Kate.”  The initial commitment to “get fit to benefit others” has grown into a genuine transformation of consciousness.  Katherine is opening to the courage to face the fragility and vulnerability of all of us, experiencing in her willingness the inter-connectedness of all of us to all of us.

Similarly, original intentions have deepened and broadened for Casey Horvitz, the 25 year old daughter of my friend Gary.

“I originally joined Team in Training because I wanted an activity in New York that was mine and wasn’t work and wasn’t because I was tagging along with someone else.  That grew to meeting new people, being part of a team, getting in shape, setting goals of personal athletic accomplishment (two half marathons this year: Brooklyn in May and Lake Placid in June, and a third full marathon later in the year) …and changing my life.

“Why would I run 4.5 miles at 6am in rain and snow?  To train for a goal that has now become so much larger.  We’re running for people who can’t run, for people near and dear we have loved and lost to cancer.  We’re running for the research to bring us closer to a world without cancer, where we won’t have to keep running anymore.  We’re becoming a force to be reckoned with.”

As are we all.  For more info:

Casey Horvitz: and delightful blog:

Katherine Mapes-Resnik:


I have so struggled with my techno-aversiveness. I can get so overwhelmed-frustrated-disregulated-panicky so easily when my computer suddenly sends a document I’ve slaved over for hours into cyber-oblivion, or my cat walks across the keyboard and gives a command I’ve never even heard of. (This morning was translating what I had written into Arabic. Who knew?)

Two weeks ago I set the intention to change my entire relationship to my computer from the top-down. I now say, every time I open the computer for the day:

“Dell…out of reverence and respect for your amazing capacities as a tool of communication, connection and creativity, the light within me honors the light within you. (I really do say this, hands folded over my heart.) I want to collaborate and cooperate with you. I promise to regulate myself and not curse. (That’s the most important part.) Let’s work together and let’s have fun.”

This “may I’ stance – wondering and willing – has transformed my experience at the computer. Swear words still shoot out of my mouth when I’m suddenly startled by some wayward weirdeness, but I do catch myself and I do come back to the larger intention of communicating, connecting and creating through collaboration and cooperation with this (truly amazing) computer.

1. Identify a realm in your life you would like to change your relationship to, even a relationship you would like to change your relationship to. [I’ve written here before of my setting an intention to shift my disappointment-criticism of my partner by saying “Compassion!” every time I caught myself being caught in the old habit. It took months of repetition to re-wire my brain, but the practice did work.]

Set an intention to adopt a new behavior toward this object, activity, person from a larger, wiser intention and a stance of willingness – “May I?”

“I set the intention of showing more appreciation to the people important to me; may I take out the garbage/put away the dishes/pick my papers/clothes up off the floor every night this week.”

“I set the intention of listening more deeply to the people important to me. May I remember to sit face to face with my kid/spouse/dog for at least five minutes every night this week.”

“I set the intention to show up for my life. May I do one thing this week I’ve avoided for months. (Fix the leak in the toilet, do the taxes clean out the closet.) May I appreciate my sincere efforts to live up to my larger intentions as I do so.”

2. From How We Choose To Be Happy by Rick Foster and Greg Hicks. Creating a Nourishment List form the bottom up as taught in Awakening Joy.

a. In four minutes write down everything that brings you joy. It can be the simplest thing, like eating a peach, or something exotic, like windsurfing, or anything in between: walking your dog, listening to music, etc.
b. Check the items you do regularly in your life.
c. Circle the items that are realistic to include more of in your life these days.
d. Choose three items from the list you will focus on this week in the spirit of “May I.”


The link to The Willpower Paradox in Scientific American:

Just One Thing [a free e-newsletter that suggests a simple practice each week to bring you more joy, more fulfilling relationships, and more peace of mind. From Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain: Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom, and editor of the Wise Brain Bulletin. Written in Rick’s incredibly clear, breezy style on topics such as Don’t Be Alarmed, Trust in Love, Give No One Cause to Fear You, Stay Right When You’re Wronged, Receive Generosity, See the Good in Others.

“A small thing repeated each day adds up over time to produce big results. Just one thing could change your life.”