On setting intentions and manifesting dreams
I have a love/hate relationship with the word “intention”. I feel similarly about the word “manifest”. In the coach-y personal development world that some of my work fits into, people like to say things like “you have to set your intention in order to manifest your dreams”.
That kind of statement always makes me cringe a little.
The cringe comes from years of experience that has taught me that, despite what we want to believe, the universe is not an ATM machine that will spit out crisp, beautiful, unwrinkled dreams if only we punch in the right code. There is no simple magic – unless you’ve put something into the account, the ATM machine has nothing to pump out.
It also comes from the part of me that is fed up with the me, me, me culture we live in that I wrote about in my last post. We can’t expect our dreams to come true unless we are willing to invest in the collective dreams of our community.
In addition to those reservations, I also continue to believe that there is a God who orders the universe, and most of the time, we don’t get to see the big picture the way God does. There are times when we’re going to have to live through devastating disappointment – when our dreams come crashing at our feet – and we won’t understand the value in all of that heartache until we’re far into the future looking back in the rearview mirror.
All of that being said, I haven’t entirely given up on the word “intention”.
About ten years ago, I read a book about naming your personal mission and setting the direction you want to head in your life. At that time, I was employed in a government job that made me miserable and I was looking for some path out of it and into something more in line with who I am and what I’m passionate about. In the book was the suggestion that you should write out a “day in the life” journal page as though you are writing it five years in the future. The author of the book claimed that nearly everyone she knew who’d done that ended up almost exactly where they wanted to be.
I wrote my journal page, and you know what? The things I wrote about doing are almost exactly the things I spend my time doing now – teaching, hosting workshops, and writing. It took a few more than 5 years, but I landed where I’d hoped to land. The only part that didn’t come true was my wish for a house with a front porch and a porch swing. (I’m still holding out hope.)
There is definitely something about naming and owning your desires that helps you move in their direction.
So, despite my reservations, I still believe in intention-setting. I just believe in a little realism thrown in for good measure.
Here are a few of my thoughts on intention-setting:
- Your longings and passion are there for a reason. God gave you a desire to do the things that you love to do and it’s not selfish to want to do them. It’s only selfish if you keep them to yourself or if you do destructive things with them. Explore the deep longings in your heart and set an intention based on who you truly are and what you have to offer the world.
- Be prepared for a lot of detours on the path. Just because you set an intention doesn’t mean you’re going to get a straight path to its realization. Like I often tell clients, your journey is like a labyrinth. You always know that the centre is your destination, but sometimes you turn the corner and find yourself further from the destination than you were before. A few years after my journal-writing, for example, I found myself out of government and in a non-profit job that I loved, but that wasn’t quite where I expected to be. I learned a lot from that job though, so I have no regrets. Keep following the path and one day you’ll reach centre, though centre might not always look like you expected it to look.
- Hold your intentions lightly. Sometimes, on the path to making your dream come true, you’ll realize that there’s actually a bigger and better dream in store for you, or that you were dreaming the wrong dream, or that your dream is rather selfish. The things I teach in many of my workshops now are actually even more close to my heart than what I wrote about in the journal because I’ve done a whole lot of learning in the intervening years. Much of that learning came in the form of really tough lessons and disappointments. Be prepared to adjust your dreams or let some of them go.
- Even when you go through the dark night of the soul, trust that the light will return in the morning. In the past couple of years while I’ve been building my self-employment dream, there have been many, many times when it’s been so hard I’ve been tempted to give up. And yet there continues to be this driving force in me that hasn’t given up hope that I’m doing the right thing. It takes a lot of trust to get through the darkness, but once you’re through, you begin to realize the value in that dark path. I have learned, for example, that my work in the world is partly about helping people navigate in the dark. I couldn’t do that work unless I’d been in a few dark places myself.
- Be a gift-giver. Don’t make the realization of your dreams be solely about you and what you have to gain. Be a community-dreamer – set intentions for the collective good instead of your selfish good. Give your gifts to the community and be prepared to let your dreams change in the face of what your community needs. In my journal page dream, I was rather ego-focused, dreaming of the kinds of workshops I wanted to facilitate on my own. Since then, though, I’ve been immersed in the Art of Hosting and I realize that the work I now love to do, and the work that I believe will change the world, is more about co-hosting in circle and getting my own ego out of the way.