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Goals / Intentions - a matter of words or a matter of meaning?

In the eighties and well into the nineties the dominant model of personal achievement rested on setting clear and measurable goals with the implication that the clearer they were defined and held the greater the likelihood of  "success". We were encouraged to set SMART goals or Well Formed Outcomes.

The approach was justified logically along the lines of  "if you don't know where you want to go then you're not going anywhere". And clearly it holds a certain truth. If I know for sure that I want to be on the steps of the National Gallery in London at 10.00 am on the morning of January 3rd -- and commit strongly to this goal -- then I will almost certainly get there. If I can't fly then I will catch a train. If the trains are not running then I’ll go by car. My desired outcome is clear enough that I can keep adjusting to changing circumstances, correct course and arrive at my destination.

This way of 'programming' the mind to achieve a desired outcome is analogous to how a cybernetic missile locks on to its target and continuously uses feedback to correct course until it achieves iris mission.

And many people have simplistically applied this approach, not only to business where it is most applicable (though still limited), but also to their personal life and direction.

They have worked rigorously and achieved many of the goals that they set and committed to. And sometimes too they have paid the cost of rigidity, missed opportunities and alienation from their own self -- which has desires that evolve with experience, and are communicated via the inklings of the heart more than through the logic of the mind.

I remember setting strong goals and experiencing the buzz of empowerment and knowing that if I stayed with it then the goals could be achieved. All too often though, a few weeks or months down the line, these same goals would feel like mill stones round my neck. I had no real feeling for them but I had said that I would do them so I bloody well would -- and this required buckling under and struggling forward. What had started as an inspiration had become an external should and my self-worth was mixed up with getting there.

There were exceptions. Within a month of starting Alexander Lessons in 1984 I knew that I would train as a teacher. I didn't know how I would do it or even if I would be any good at it but I knew that I would train. And then I set about contacting the schools, getting accepted on a waiting list and the rest of the process. And during the first year when finances were a challenge, as well as teaching in a college part time I identified 14 possible private teaching slots -- and filled every one. It was demanding, but not a struggle.

At other times I have tried to use the methodologies of goal setting to emulate this experience and drive me through -- and it has not been fun or sustainable.

So what makes experiences like this different, how can we recognise their presence or absence, and perhaps most importantly how can we best function when we don't have this alive persistent clarity in our life?

I now believe that the powerful goals of life, such as my desire to be an Alexander Teacher, or somebody else's ambition to be a doctor or a musician are not so much set as recognized, acknowledged and acted on. They come from another part of our being than our logical mind and are empowered by our deepest emotions -- and then our planning mind plays it's appropriate and necessary part. But when we attempt to use our logical minds to define meaning and plan our lives then they become inherently meaningless and we end up playing a soul-less part in our own script.

Now, when I don't have a natural goal recognized in this way, I find it much better to work with the looser framework of intentions. This frees me up, keeps me open to new opportunities and directions, makes the process NOW one of enjoyment and attraction (rather than pain and struggle) and perhaps most importantly allows me to clarify and adapt my intentions as I go without a feeling of failure.

An every day example can illustrate this. Lets say that I am on holiday and want a cup of tea.

Goal setting techniques might have me get very clear about what I want -- perhaps too clear! I may have visualized the kind of table I am sitting at, a bone china tea cup with Earl Grey and a little tea room with water colours on the walls. I want it served by a waitress in long black skirt and traditional lace blouse, and want soft chamber music played in the back ground. Oh and by the way I want it between 4.00 and 4.30 in the afternoon.

So I get on my mobile and contact Tourist Information -- there is nothing in this place fits what I am asking for but they suggest a cafe in a town about 40 miles down the coast. It is now 3.30 and no buses are running for at least 2 hours so I find a car rental office and set off at speed to make my deadline. On route I phone the cafe and check out the scene. After initial resistance, and very large financial incentives, they agree to get a different skirt for the waitress and to send out for some different CDs for the chamber music. They already have the Earl Grey! There is some nice scenery along the way but most of my attention is with the phone call and getting things set up just right. I arrive at the place and feel a surge of personal power at creating what I wanted -- a lesser man would have settled for second best. After a few minutes I feel a little restive and wonder what I shall make happen next. Has the goal setting approach served my life or has my life been used up serving goals?

Let's approach the same situation with the intention to have a cup of tea. Holding an intention is like shining a spotlight in a particular area and illuminating what is possible. Putting it another way, holding the intention draws my attention to what connects with and supports that intention. But my gaze is soft and I allow it to rove around and for new intentions to arise.

As I walk down the promenade, the clouds clear, I feel the sun on my face and notice a tent down by the beach with people coming and going. Perhaps it is a refreshment tent. I had thought of a little cafe somewhere but now think it might be fun to go somewhere with seats outside. Enjoying not knowing what I will encounter I walk across the beach, stop to take my shoes off and enjoy the feeling of sand between my toes. It's just after 4.00 and I am having a good time. As I get closer to the tent I hear the sounds of Salsa and, rounding the corner of the tent, see a makeshift wooden floor with people dancing. There is a woman with flame red hair who smiles and invites me to dance. I have never danced Salsa, but the learning and the fumbled footwork produce laughter, not regret, and we enjoy a couple of numbers. Time for a break and I remember that I feel like a cup of tea. I ask if she will join me and some minutes later I am sitting on the sand, drinking thick tea from a polystyrene mug, Salsa in the background, the sun twinkling on the waves, and chatting with my new friend. I am enjoying an experience very different and richer than I might have originally imagined.

OK so I am being biased here and taking things, both positive and negative, to absurd extremes, but perhaps you get a feel for what I am talking about.

Goal setting and achieving, when not grounded in things that really matter to us and inspire us, can become an addiction accompanied by restless struggle and activity. The sense of satisfaction comes not so much from the final experience and the process in the moment but rather from the self-image of being an achiever. This path leads to the phenomena of 'success' being accompanied by a sense of emptiness and 'so what?'.

The opposite extreme is when people romanticize living in the moment and going with the flow, without acknowledging that they really do care about what happens and that there are things that they do really want. They are in denial, caught up with the self-image of being in the moment and out of touch with themselves.

Working with intention is a middle ground that sometimes fits closer to the reality of how most people can best function.

Sometimes we do have very clear desires, which we work consistently towards, and this can correlate to setting very clear and measurable goals. The difference is that because we really do want the outcome we are drawn forward rather than driving and cajoling ourselves. Times may be hard but they are not a struggle.

At other times we have a vaguer notion of what we want and then holding an appropriate intention moves us into action yet still open to opportunities and changing direction.

The process of clarifying and articulating intentions may use some of the same who, what, when and how questions of goal setting but the difference is in how we hold that process. We are clarifying what is true for us, which may be clear at this time but does not have to be. We place a high value on authenticity.


Finally, if you have a sense of Spiritual connection then holding intentions fits with a desire to align with our soul's journey. The soul can be thought of as that part of us that holds our deepest aspirations and meaning -- living with soul. Language is not important here. If you prefer to speak of living from the wisdom of the heart or listening to your higher self then you are probably referring to the same intangible sense of guidance and direction that comes from a far larger perspective than the goals of the personality.

Sometimes our soul gives us clear directions or goals. Other times we are more in a process of unfoldment like the petals of a flower opening. Then we live more with inklings and a general sense of where to go next. Our soul has experiences and learning awaiting us. At these times our intention is simply our best expression of how we perceive and interpret these inklings and even while we take action towards these intentions we know that we may be asked to change course.

Holding this paradigm allows us to appreciate and learn from all that happens and then to open up to what comes next. Our past intentions have led us to where we are now which is where we are meant to be. If things change there is no failure, just a realization that we are now moving on to new experiences and can fundamentally trust in life. Our intentions were like a boat that has carried us to THIS shore. At the appropriate time we leave the boat behind us and move forward.

In contrast, holding strong goals that WE must MAKE happen leaves us with a sense of failure if things don't work out as we believe they should. We may have arrived at a new shore but refuse to leave the boat or else trudge forward with the boat strapped to our back.

Really the choice of whether to use goals or intentions is a personal one and the above is simply my experience and opinion. No one can say that a paradigm or belief is ultimately true or not. What is true is that our EXPERIENCE of life is affected by the meaning that we give it and by the paradigms that we choose.

My intention for you is that you make happy choices.


Warm wishes,
Duncan