Intentions for a New Year (PART ONE): Discovering Your Sankalpa

In part 1 of this series, you’re invited to explore setting intentions for the year ahead in a way that doesn’t start with classic self-improvement but rather begins from a place of wholeness. I hope you’ll indulge in this 15 minute meditation to help you explore intentions based on your heart’s deepest desires.  (Part 2 includes 4 encouragements to help you live out your intentions.)

“Love is the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being.” 

 – Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2392

The Beginning of a New Year

Having marked the Baptism of the Lord last Sunday, we are now past the Christmas season and have moved through the sweetness of Christ’s Epiphany.  Indeed, we have finally landed squarely, solidly, in Ordinary Time. Hallelujah! 

I always feel a sense of sweet relief in this quiet space between so many Holy Days and Lent.  There’s no pressure here, nothing to mark, note, or celebrate, nothing big to make a lot of magic for, and nothing crucial to teach my children relating to fundamental theological meanings and how that should be integrated into their lives.  Instead, I can focus on the simple things, like Love.  (Ha!  I know — Love is as complicated as it is simple.)  

However, it is still January, and turning the calendar to a new year can bring up a lot of emotions.  It can be exhilarating, as if we are opening up a world of possibilities that somehow we couldn’t access in December.  And it can also produce feelings of anxiety, overwhelm, or even dread. If we expect ourselves to enact a long list of changes we think we need to make, or countless “shoulds” we don’t even want to think about, “Day One” of our Big New Plan might find us plowing ahead doing the same old things we’ve always done.  We can find ourselves in an elaborate attempt to avoid change. In this case, burying our heads in the sands of Ordinary Time seems mighty convenient.

Resolutions & Intentions

Awhile back I let go of traditional new year’s resolutions and have focused on setting particular intentions that help guide my decision-making, both large and small.  Traditional new year’s resolutions aren’t bad. In fact, they’re wonderful when used as clues to deeper longings. They usually point toward the deep human longing for loving attention, respect, security, and companionship.  In my experience, though, I noticed that “setting resolutions” didn’t quite help me change my behavior beyond a couple of days. They usually felt big and unwieldy, “out-there” theories without any practical applications to go along with them:  I will be healthier.  I’m not going to be selfish.  I will lose all the baby weight.  I’ll practice yoga more. I’ll stop complaining.  I won’t eat sugar. I will exercise everyday.  Do any of these sound familiar?  Big goals like “I will ______” or “I won’t ______”  can seem random or even shallow, and sometimes completely out of reach.  In this vein, our approach to resolutions can lack an action plan, or a set of mini-goals that act as stepping stones to get us where we think we want to go.  Intentions, while still existing within the mind and heart, can function like those much needed stepping stones by offering a foundation of relevance – the big Why.  For instance, if your goal is to lose weight, what’s the reason? Is it to feel better, look better, fit into your clothes better? It might be, and those are all appropriate responses. And deeper than those, would losing weight allow you to move through the world in a different way, experience kind attention, connection, respect, and love? If so, is losing weight the only way, or the best way, I can experience this? Look for the reasons beneath your goals to find your intentions.

Intentions & Sankalpa

Basically, an intention is how you want to show up in the world and why.  In Yoga practice intentions are born out of your Sankalpa.  Sankalpa is a vow or commitment to a higher truth and refers to a heartfelt desire, an expression of your deepest longing to be of service to something greater than you.  In short, it is your heart’s truest path, your dharma, and when you’re on it, you feel a sense of purpose, gratitude, and joy (typically, in that order!).  In Christian practice, sankalpa can be likened to God’s calling for you, your vocation, which can grow and change as you move through different phases of your life.  Both sankalpa and God’s call assume that you are already all that you need to be to manifest this truth.  This is a wildly different approach than the classic I’m not good enough as I am.  And I won’t be good enough until I do X, Y, and Z.  This coming from a place of wholeness (rather than a place of brokenness) is one of the greatest comforts I know and is a true gift.  

Living what you are meant to live can feel as though you’ve finally slipped in the last shape of a 1,000 piece puzzle.   There’s a sense of completeness, that you’ve finally figured it all out, that you know who you are and why you’re here. However, because life includes aging, tragedies, and all manner of suffering, the path will not always feel smooth, nor will it always roll out obviously and effortlessly in front of you.  Purpose, gratitude, and joy are definitely part of the emotional experience of living out sankalpa, but so is challenge and difficulty, and sometimes even confusion because we are human and occasionally stop paying attention, ending up sideways.  Both sankalpa and God’s call acknowledge a powerful paradox, or mystery — that while we come from a place of wholeness as sacred beings who share in divine nature, we are also always in the process of realizing, or manifesting this fact. In many spiritual traditions, including Christianity, this is sometimes referred to as becoming fully human, or, being and becoming.  

This coming from a place of wholeness is one of the greatest comforts I know and is a true gift.  

Heart-work like this takes patience, courage, and fortitude.  Pray for God’s Divine Providence and guidance, the Holy Spirit’s power and truth, and Christ’s unfailing, steadfast support that is always and forever at your very core.  With wisdom and discernment, all you need to do is ask, seek, and knock (Matt 7:7-11).

Discovering Your Sankalpa, A Meditation

Please know that it’s totally okay that you’re reading this mid-January.   And it’s super-okay if you are reading this in February, or at the end of March.  Nothing needs to happen on the first day of the year, the first day of the month, or the first day of the week.  Any time, Wednesday at 1:37 in the afternoon even, is the perfect time for a new beginning. It’s quite a beautiful practice to give space and time to allow intentions, ideas, and plans to percolate for a bit at the beginning of any new season.  For me, taking the first week of Lent to allow God to nourish in me the actions I’ll take over the next few weeks takes all the pressure off. Basically, we don’t need to have it all figured out before we start — another sweet relief!

For those of you who follow the liturgical calendar, you might have begun your new year on the first day of Advent, and perhaps you are already in a sweet groove of manifesting your intentions.  If so, this meditation can serve as a reminder, reset, reimagining, or a reinvigoration. Think of it as encouragement when your courage is waning and as a heartening for your heart’s truest path.

A MEDITATION PRACTICE FOR DEEP INNER LISTENING

Inspired by the work of Richard Miller, Kelly McGonigal, and Thomas Keating, I’ve created the following meditation to provide time and space to be curious.  

Set-Up

Choose a time of day when you can allow fifteen minutes for the meditation and anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes for reflection.  

Before you begin, notice that reflection questions are provided for you below the audio file.  Collect a journal, pen, and any art supplies if you’d like to draw your reflections.  

Set up a yoga mat with supportive props.  A chair is another option, as you can practice this meditation lying down or seated.  If you think you might fall asleep, choose to sit upright in a sturdy chair. If your body is in need of restoration, choose a deeply supportive version of corpse pose using blocks, bolsters, and blankets arranged in “queen’s pose/lazy boy pose,” any other savasana variation, or legs up the wall pose.  Then start the audio posted below.

Meditation for Discovering Your Sankalp by Amy Dobson Secrist

_____________________________________________________________

_______________________________________________

Reflecting on Your Heartfelt Desire 

Based on your meditation, consider answering any or all of these questions in words or drawings to discover your sankalpa:

  • What brings me joy?
  • What experiences allow me to feel fully alive?
  • What is my heartfelt desire?  (State your heartfelt desire in the present tense rather than in the future.  This reminds you that you have all you need and are already capable of manifesting your higher truth.)

Setting Intentions

Based on your meditation, consider answering any or all of these questions in words or drawings to help set your intentions:

  • Because I am already capable of living my heartpath, I make a commitment to show up in the world as I truly am, a person who is  ______________.  
  • What resources are already in place for me to follow my heartpath?
  • What other resources might I pursue?
  • In my daily life, what actions am I already taking that manifest my heartfelt desire?  
  • What actions can I commit to in my daily life that support my calling?  Are there any specific decisions or changes that I can commit to that support my intentions?
  • Because I am already capable of living my heartpath, the first step I will take is __________.

Next Steps

By practicing this meditation and reflecting on what you’ve discovered, you’ve already taken a big first step.  From here, take care not to pressure yourself to get it all right, exact, or correct. Invite the Holy Spirit to work in you and through you. 

One practice that can feel like perfect swaddling is to choose just one word, almost like a theme for the year ahead. Many Christians practice this by spending time in prayer during the weeks of Advent, or throughout the Christmas season and holy days, or for a shorter time at the beginning of the calendar year.  Your time spent with God in meditation, uncovering your sankalpa, can be a part of this word-choosing as well. Consider inviting the Holy Spirit to reveal your word to you, either through deep inner listening, scripture reading, or interactions with friends, family, and others. Your reflections on this inner listening meditation can most likely be distilled and encapsulated in one word.  Take a look, offer it to God, and see!

Moving Out into the World

Your intentions guide your days moment by moment, or decision point by decision point. When you find yourself ready to make a particular choice about something, what you’ll say, how you’ll act, touch back into your sankalpa, your intentions, or your one guiding word. Your inner truth that lives deep within will nudge you in the right direction. Don’t be afraid to follow your path!

Transcript 

Welcome to your meditation practice of deep inner listening.  In your own time, allow your eyes to close or soften your gaze, and begin to notice your body through sensation.  Notice where your body makes contact with the supports beneath it and any sensations that might be present here. Notice any amount of gravity, a gentle downward force connecting your nervous system to ground.  Invite a sense of spaciousness into your body, a sense of non-compression in your joints. Notice any sensations of heaviness, lightness, or both of these. At your own command, invite a deeper breath – a comfortably deep inhalation, and an easy exhalation.  Take two more breaths like this. Now, give the work of breathing back over to your body and give the weight of your body into your supports. Allow the body to breathe you, rather than you breathing the body. Notice how it feels to be breathed, to be cared for. 

If it is in your practice to do so, please begin your deep inner listening by consenting to God’s presence and action within you.  A nod, a smile, a big hello inward in God’s direction. Invite the guidance and wisdom of the Holy Spirit to be present within and around you.  Know the comfort of God’s great care for you.  

Bring your awareness back to sensation.  Notice any sensations anywhere in the body as they arise, stay for a moment, and fade away.  Notice that your body is breathing. Notice the breath coming and going. Now, notice who is noticing.  This is your awareness, the part of your mind that knows experience. Invite your awareness to notice your mind and any thoughts present here.  Allow them to settle. Release any amount of expectation feeling safe and secure, cradled in God’s great care. Return to this experience of ease, your inner sanctuary, at any time.

Suspend judgment for the next few moments. Suspend analysis.   Invite a sense of spaciousness, invitation, and inquiry. Become curious about your heartfelt desire.  Welcome, with a sense of hospitality and friendliness, whatever arises. Any thoughts, images, emotions, and sensations that come into your awareness are like messengers.  Welcome them as guests and be curious about what they wish to share with you. As you practice this self-inquiry, allow your thoughts, imaginings, and emotions to be spontaneous, without analysis, or judgment, and without feeling the need to change, fix, or wish they were different.  It is normal and okay to not have an immediate response, or to not know the answers. Remember that you come from a place of wholeness. 

Begin to notice your connection to ground.  Notice your breath. Your inner sanctuary. 

Now, imagine yourself smiling and happy.  Notice what happiness feels like in your body.  Notice what brings this about in you.  

Call to mind any specific goals that you have been wishing for or working toward.  Do these goals inspire your smile or bring about your happiness?  

What deeper longing lies beneath these goals?

What amount of this experience that you deeply long for is already present in your life?

Now imagine yourself smiling and joyful.  What does this feel like in your body, where does joy live in you?  Consider what experience allows you to feel this profound joy.

What opportunities to experience joy and comfort are already present in your life?  How are you already exploring more experiences that allow you to feel joyful, comforted, and fully alive?

In your own time, notice any obstacles that might be present.  Notice one obstacle and welcome it as a messenger. Does it have a shape, a texture, a color?  What else do you notice about this obstacle?  

Become aware again of your awareness, and the presence of God within you.  Notice any amount of security, comfort, and ease that exists here. Know that this is available to you at any time.  Touch back into God’s presence. Know that you are secure, deeply loved, and held. You do not need to be fixed. Know that your wholeness depends on nothing.  You are a whole human being, fully present, and fully alive.  

Invite your awareness back to your breath.  Notice that it’s been here all this time, caring for you.  In your own time, invite your awareness back to your body. Notice any amount of heaviness, lightness, or both of these sensations.  At your own command, invite your breath to deepen. Breathe in comfortably deep, and breathe out in any way that feels right. Take two more breaths like this, noticing how your body responds to this bigger breath.  Before inviting formal movement, simply notice your fingers and toes, hands and feet, your arms and legs, neck and head. If you feel it would be interesting, consider blinking open your eyes or lifting your gaze to notice whatever texture, color, or shape is in view.  Notice that your are fully awake while your body is very much at ease. When you feel ready, invite movement into your fingers and toes, your hands and feet, then arms and legs, neck and head. Then, begin to move and breathe in any ways that feel right.  

In your own time, find your journal and supplies.  Write or draw about your experience in your own way, or use the written questions to guide your reflection.  May you know peace and wholeness.

A Perspective on Break Week

Hey Yogis,

Martin Luther King, Jr. day marks the beginning of our week away from studio classes (at least my studio classes!).  I’ll be spending some time reconnecting with my closest people, the little ones, the medium one, and the big one.  And hopefully trying something new to broaden my perspective.  My invitation to you is to do the same:  connect with your people & explore:  Keep trying different yoga styles online and in person.  Keep trying different teachers within the same tradition or style.  Or dip your toe into a new movement practice like Qigong, Tai Chi, cross-country skiing or snowshoeing, or join your people in some of their favorite activities.

Speaking of perspective, when I find interesting quotes or pictu20190110_071606253820426862122972.jpgres, I print them out and hang them on my walls, so I’m reminded to look beyond my present thoughts, ideas, and opinions.  Currently, I’ve got a lot up there in the kitchen, as well as some random ones in the hallways.

One day I noticed markings on my signs, went up close to take a look, found that someone had been doing some underlining.   A few days later I noticed the little one flitting around the house with her pencil, popping up to my “sacred signage,” and making marks!!  I noticed that this caused me anxiety, as well as surprisingly strong feelings of attachment to these insignificant pieces of paper.  After reminding myself that the pieces of paper are, indeed, insignificant (compared to my love for this little graffiti artist), I smiled, exclaimed my surprise at this turn of events, and kindly asked her to stop.  At which point she sheepishly began erasing the underlines.

Two things happened:  first, my ego-self immediately felt the sacred signage would be even more damaged by the erasures, and second, my true-self realized that I had been too attached and too harsh.  So I told my little one not to worry about the marks but to refrain from making any new ones.

20190117_1146132145429584809381195-1.jpg

She told me she was sorry and explained that she’d only been underlining the most important words.  I walked over to see which words she had chosen and found these:  Pause, Courage, Mystery, Love, Admiration.

Wow!  I thought,  this was profound.  “Emma,” I said, “You can underline the words on my signs any time!”

“Well,” she replied, “I really just wanted to try out my new mini pencil.”

There are so many different ways of seeing.

********

My prayer for all of us is this:

May we practice awareness,
look closely,
pay attention,
and suspend judgement.

May we pause,
take courage,
embrace the mystery,
and love one another
as though our lives depend on it,
as though we are extensions of the same Ground of Being.

May we take time
to look for the jewels
in our own lives and the lives of others,
even when the jewels are hidden in the dirt
and buried beneath the snow:

Pause
Courage
Mystery
Love
and Admiration.

…and try out something new…!

Amen?  Amen.

The Spaciousness of Love

If love is kind,
it is not cruel .
If love is not jealous, 
it is supportive.
If love is not pompous,
it is humble.
If love is not inflated,
it sees rightly.  
If love is not rude,
it is enlightened.  20180422_112959.jpg
If love is not self-seeking,
it is generous. 
If love is not quick-tempered,
it is tranquil.
If love does not brood over injury,
it is forgiving.
If love does not rejoice over wrongdoing,
it offers compassion.
If love bears all things,
it does not turn away.
If love believes all things,
it does not deny. 
If love endures all things,
it does not cede. 
If love never fails,
it always triumphs.

In the tenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, a scholar of Jewish law asks Christ, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus says to him in reply, ““What is written in the law? How do you read it?”  The scholar responds with what we know as The Greatest Commandment:  “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”  Jesus replies to him, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live” (Luke 10:25-8).

From this quick exchange it seems our purpose on earth is simple, our mission, obvious, and the answer to the question of inheriting eternal life, a short one: love.  That’s it.  Nothing more, nothing less.

However, as simple as love appears to be, isn’t it simultaneously complex?  What, exactly, is love?

In his first letter to the Corinthians St. Paul articulates clearly and beautifully what love is and what it is not, what love does and what it does not do.  And he acknowledges that our actions can be either devoid of love or infused with it.  We can serve in bitterness and resentment or in humility and compassion.  Even our most helpful of actions can be empty of love, performed in a negative spirit that crushes our own and that of the recipient.   St. Paul even goes so far as to proclaim that love is the greatest of all virtues, greater than faith and greater than hope:  “Love will remain even when faith has yielded to sight and hope to possession” (USCCB Commentary).

Thankfully we can look to these guidelines and explanations of love to give us a starting point, a kind of pathway forward, but I know how much I stumble and wander about aimlessly, how often I fall and clamber in the dark of my ignorance, for even though I hear the encouragement, “love one another as you love yourself,” it is as if I do not have ears; I still find myself screaming, in my most wretched hour, “How?”

20180424_144356.jpg

The Greatest Commandment, love one another as you love yourself, assumes that we already know how we are to love ourselves.

Zen priest and founder of the Center for Transformative Change, Angel Kyodo Williams, describes love as space:  “[Love] is developing our own capacity for spaciousness within ourselves to allow others to be as they are — that is love”  (OnBeing interview with Krista Tippett).

If love is space, it is not a vacuum; it does not pull all things into itself but expands and allows people to be who they are.  Love makes room for the full expression of the human experience.  Unfortunately, there have been many times in which I’ve been loveless.  I’ve had a habit of pulling all things into myself, making myself the center of the multiverse, sucking the life out of life, leaving no air left to breathe, not even for myself.  I have been selfish, prideful, vain, and vacuous, full of disdain, contempt, and self-righteousness, as I suspect most of us have at one time or another.  It is a crushing cycle to find oneself in, as it hurts others, as well as ourselves, and on multiple levels.

I want to choose space.

Choosing space is hard.

It’s good to remember that love is not passive; it’s an action.  To love is an act of the will; it is to choose, and we can’t make choices without awareness.  To be aware is to choose to see rightly, to see ourselves as we really are, without quite so many labels, inherited or created, without stories in which we are always the protagonist; but instead, to choose to see ourselves simply as children of God worthy of love, worthy of forgiveness, by our sheer existence.  Awareness can help create this space to see, this space in which we can choose, this space to act in love.

20180427_161244.jpg

But all this takes practice.  When we work on our yoga mat to create space in the body for healing, we do so with awareness.  When we work on our meditation mat to create space in the mind for choice, we do so with awareness.  And when the mind is able to choose, we are able to work in our daily lives to create space in the spirit for loving, ourselves.  The hope is that if for a moment we can focus on the newly budding leaf, instead of the tree trunk, perhaps we will be able to notice for even an instant our constant spirit, instead of our changeable thoughts and emotions, and from inside this space, this separation between ourselves and our thought-feelings, we will find compassion for ourselves, for our families, for our friends, and for each person we encounter.

Creating space isn’t  easy.  It requires openness of mind and heart.  This can be unnerving and can seem irrational.  As human beings we strive to protect ourselves from the possibility of physical, mental, and emotional harm and to fulfill our basic needs.  This is survival mode, and it causes us to lose touch with others and even with our truest selves.  As we frantically search and scan our surroundings, our circumstances, we become absorbed with negativity.   When this is our baseline functioning, we run the risk of closing in on ourselves, forgetting who we are, and who we are in relation to those around us.

20180427_161028.jpgBut we can try, little by little we can try to find that necessary spaciousness.  What can we practice letting go of to make space for something else, something like welcoming, like embracing?  Making space for ourselves, and making space for one another are true acts of love.  Even paying close attention is loving, for where we place our attention, there also is our love.  Bringing our awareness to the present moment, including the people and events within that moment, and allowing space for the moment to be what it is, is living in love.

Our practice will lead us to the answers.  We’ll figure out what needs letting go of through practice, as it is truly our own best teacher.  Yoga instructor Bryan Kest speaks of a yoga practice on the mat as being like a mini-day, or a mini-life in which we encounter obstacles and challenges, and we practice being with them with equanimity, so that when we go out into the world we function from this baseline of non-reaction, with gentleness and self-compassion as our default mode.  It is only practice that teaches us, only practice that creates in us the capacity to grow in wisdom and expand in love.  It is when we retreat, when we hide, when we close in on ourselves through fear that our chests tighten, our hearts constrict, and our capacity for love diminishes.  Kyodo Williams encourages us when she says, ” for people who are not monastics, the world is our field of practice.”

So we get on our mat every day; we let go of reactiveness, harsh self-criticisms, vanity, and greed; we start to create space for healing, for choosing, and for seeing rightly.  Then we take that spaciousness off of our mat and into the moments, the circumstances of our lives, and we practice some more, and we practice again, and unceasingly, like prayer.20180427_161316.jpg

Love is not cruel; it is supportive and humble.  Love sees rightly and is enlightened.  Love is generous, tranquil, forgiving, compassionate, courageous, honest, eternal, and triumphant.

Love bears all things because love is spacious.  When we understand this and put it into practice by giving ourselves the space to be who we are without judgment, we will be able to give this same nonjudgemental space to others.  From this place we will hear the encouragement, “Love one another as you love yourself,” and we will know.

Space is ever-expanding.  So is love.  Love never ends.