Intention – our most powerful resource
Welcome to part 1 of a new series of articles about Intent.
We start by looking at our imaginal future-building superpower and consider why leaving it on autopilot is not wise…
On superpowers, heroic journeys and finding the key to the whole gnarly mess
What’s your superpower? Do you have one? Do you need one? Or would the world be a better place if we all let go of the various heroic journey mythologies and accepted all the wonder of life as it is?
Superpowers are great and if you have one that you’re using for the betterment of planet and people, then please keep powering on. But for most of us, aiming for the superhero badge is a recipe for dismay, despondency and chronic depression. Our culture is being driven fast to the bottom of our collective brainstems by algorithms designed to harvest our attention (and our money) and part of their power is pushing us to ask too much of ourselves individually.
We suffer daily from the stories of cultural achievement which tell us nothing is impossible, everyone can become super-human and falling below average is a sign of mortal failure, not an arithmetic inevitability for half the population on any given spectrum. It’s bad all the time, but just now, as the year rolls from old to new, we are freshly bombarded by celebrations of individual success: Person of the Year, Influencer of the Decade, Richest, Fittest, Fastest, Thinnest, Most Capable of Diverting Public Funds into Private Hands (that one only counts if you’re the governing party in a failing democratic system, obviously). It’s grand for the people who get their names checked, but it’s hard for the rest of us not to feel ground down by the high bars they set.
And then, this year in particular, we’re adding a greater sense of urgency: if we don’t step up/stand up/act up, our collective cultural act of pathological narcissism will destroy what’s left of all that’s good and right and beautiful and we’ll die leaving a wasteland to our kids.
This doesn’t feel good, so we who care push ourselves ever harder until we burn out and reach for help, at which point, we find ourselves facing the well-defined therapeutic/spiritual paradox whereby if we can only learn to accept ourselves completely, we will become more fluid, resilient, open-hearted, strong-hearted, clear-hearted, full-hearted and thereby…change. ‘Look at me! I’m enlightened! And suddenly we’re back to square one, watching other people erect bars we’ll never meet.
None of this is new. Most of it is self-evident.
But it all assumed we keep on missing one of the keys that could potentially unlock this whole gnarly mess: human intention.
Simply put, this is our capacity to set and hold a clean, clear intent and see it through. And the thing is, we’re using it all the time, whether we like it or not, whether we think about it or not, whether we acknowledge it, or not. It’s just that often it’s fuzzy and self-destructive when it could be…rather different.
Part of what makes us human is that we’re experts at imagining alternate futures: its one of the things that has got us to here.
‘What happens if I sharpen this stone and tie it to the end of a long stick? If the sabre-toothed tiger leaps on me now, will I survive?’ progresses to: ‘If I use this argument as we explore possible actions, is everyone more likely to agree with me – and (more to the point) does this enhance my power and status and mean the seriously cool person across the other side of this space be more likely to like/fall in love with/agree to sleep with me as a result?’ which in turn progresses to: ‘When I walk into work tomorrow, the office bully will be waiting just inside the door, and I am going to have the Day from Hell, notch my ulcers up a couple of grades, edge closer to the brink of full-on cardiac arrest and meanwhile, running all the gory details on auto-repeat through the night means I’m not sleeping so I’ll be less able to cope tomorrow when it all happens to plan.’ This one is closely followed by ‘Bad stuff didn’t happen today so that means it’ll be much, much worse tomorrow, and here’s the full technicolour detail playing out through the night while I’m lying wide awake stressing about being unable to sleep.’
This progression of imaginal future-building may be a superpower but leaving it on autopilot is not wise.
Primatologist Robert Sapolsky’s seminal book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers describes exactly why it’s possible to be a stripy equid living on a savannah surrounded by actual predators and be relatively peaceful. If the lions catch you, you’re lunch, so no stress. If they don’t catch you, someone else was lunch and now the lions are full…so no stress. It’s our capacity to imagine things that haven’t happened yet as if they were actually real, that can drive us quite literally to drink, disease and untimely death.
So why don’t we harness this astonishing capacity to create real impacts on the future?
There are a host of reasons and each of us has different strategies for getting in our own way, but mostly they boil down to:
1) I don’t believe human intention has any power at all, so I won’t try.
This, itself has two parts.
– It’s just scientifically impossible (despite any evidence to the contrary which is clearly anecdotal) so I’m not going to try
– It’s possible, but I, uniquely out of all humanity, can only make bad stuff happen, not anything anyone would actually want, particularly not for myself, so I’m not going to try. (NB: This is often linked to, ‘Not only can I make bad stuff happen, but if I so much as think about death/disease/disaster, it will happen, so I’m not going anywhere near this.)
2) I don’t deserve anything good, so I won’t try.
3) I can’t think of anything I want, so I won’t try.
4) ‘I wants don’t get’ (a favourite saying of my grandmother’s) so even asking for anything not-bad is likely to offend The Powers That Be and ensure bad stuff will happen (see 1b, above)
5) I may have a sense of what would be good and have overcome the internal voices telling me I don’t deserve it, but I haven’t got the time to put into envisioning anything not-bad, so I won’t try. (Plenty of time to lie awake imagining the not-good stuff, mind you).
6) I’ve watched a bunch of distressingly polished, obscenely wealthy internet gurus selling candy-striped promises of health, wealth and conspicuous consumption and the whole thing is so tacky, I don’t even want to be on the edges of it, so I’d rather not try.
I ended up in category 6 for a really long time. Then I began to meet people with genuine integrity, like Mary Reynolds, garden designer and author of The Garden Awakening, and We are the Ark. She set a clear intent that her amazing wild garden project would win the gold medal at the Chelsea Flower Show, despite nothing of this sort having won before, despite her never having entered before, despite all the good reasons why this couldn’t possibly happen…and she won the Gold Medal.
You can loop back to point 1 in our list and argue that setting intent made her group work harder, or speak to people differently, or wild gardens were part of the zeitgeist that year so it was inevitable, or any of the thousand other reasons why it had nothing to do with Mary setting intent. Or you can start listening to people who have got result and then work out what the component parts are so you can make them work for you.
I long ago gave up trying to understand exactly how the world works. I’m firmly in the camp that believes if the web of life was simple enough for us to get our heads around, we’d be too simple to get our heads around it. It’s not my business to say how this works. It’s my business to work out who’s doing it well and then to find out what’s happening under all the smoke and mirrors to help other people make it work. Because seriously, this is one of the most powerful forces on the face of the planet and if we’re going to use it at all, I’d rather it wasn’t looping round stress-tracks at four in the morning, making ourselves too ill to find the joy in life, when there’s an option instead, to envision-into-being a thriving, flourishing world where people live full lives as integral parts of the greater web.