It’s important to have goals. How can you build or create anything without first envisioning it, imagining it, wanting it?
Yet clinging too tightly to a specific outcome is destructive to the living, breathing evolutionary process that any real growth entails. How can we make peace with this paradox? How can we simultaneously hold fast while letting go?
An essential quality of wisdom is the ability to discern between intention and attachment.
Intention is a powerful condition of consciousness, a thought-action that reverberates out into the surrounding field, re-ordering the elements of the field. Like radio waves, intention travels unseen at the speed of light, bending around corners and influencing the fabric of space and time. Our intentions draw things toward us the way magnets attract and align iron filings. In true intention there is no attachment to any particular outcome – that would be hubris and ultimately destructive to our aims. We simply set intentions, take the next indicated step, and let go.
Attachment, on the other hand, is a pathological, egoic, fear-based need to control the people, situations, and events in the world around us. Imposing our private preferences on the uncarved whole of the world robs life of its spontaneous, evolutionary energy. Our short-sighted craving places limits on the unlimited potential of the now moment – limits that ultimately restrict the flow of the universe’s infinite abundance into our lives. It’s a terrible irony – by craving we push everything away.
Intention is a state of deep receptivity. Attachment is an impenetrable shell.
Intention is a state of deep cooperation with what is. Attachment is a futile struggle against what is, characterized by resentment, fear, and victim-consciousness.
Intention roots deep in the consciousness of gratitude and savors the journey. Attachment is a childish sense of entitlement fueled by grandiose fantasies and fixation on selfish and arbitrarily contrived expectations.
So how do we put this into practice?
Let’s start with a vision. If money were no object, and if the path was wide open, what would you be doing with your life? In other words, if the how were taken care of, what would you be? It’s vitally important to separate the how from the what because once you really commit in full intention to the what, the how takes care of itself. Intention is an aligning energy that orders the surrounding field. Fixating on the how – the logistical complexity and all the hurdles – draws precious energy and resources away from the womb of intention, the great Mother that gives birth to the what.
So you want to be a large animal veterinarian, or a professional musician, or publish a book, or create a non-profit service organization, or work to reverse environmental degradation, or write the next great app? How do you begin?
Let’s talk about farming.
A farmer intends to raise a crop of tomatoes. But she knows she doesn’t really control the process. She merely cuts the channel through which the power of life flows, fully aware that she is not the source of the power. Her stance is one of deep cooperation, not imposition.
It begins with the end in mind – a vision of a bountiful yield. Then comes all the hard work – learning everything you can about every aspect of your endeavor, preparing the soil, finding the right seeds, putting the right kind of team together, co-creating the best possible conditions in which your seeds can unfold from the core of their essential nature, willingly and reverently sacrificing your time, talent, and treasure in the singular focus of your aim, all the while knowing that anything and everything could change, and at any given moment you might have to start dancing.
Then you wait.
Remember, you are as much witnessing this process as creating it. A state of deep humility is far more productive than arrogance. We don’t control the weather – the frost, the rain, the heat, the drought – nor do we control the caterpillars or the blackbirds that come and pluck the caterpillars away. We do everything we can to prepare for all likely situations, but in the end our only sane stance is complete and utter surrender. When our fists are clenched we feel only our own fingernails digging into our palms. When our hands are open we feel the sun and the moon and the wind, and we are more readily able to receive what is given. And when the harvest is ready, a budding joy comes to fruition along with our tomatoes because there is nothing more satisfying than aligning our energies with the larger forces around us.
This is the great paradox – it is only through surrender that we grow strong, it is only through generosity that we receive everything we need, it is only by emptying out that we become full, it is only by letting go of our slavish attachment to a particular outcome that the highest possible good is able to manifest itself in our lives. Yet there must be intention and clarity of vision. Cooperating with what is already unfolding is different than sitting back and waiting for something to happen. The first requires a state of great alertness. The second looks a lot like napping.
When we fail to discern the difference between intention and attachment, two confusions emerge. The first confusion is the mistaken belief that intention and attachment are the same – that intention is just a fancy word for self-centered craving and hence is to be avoided. People who hold this mistaken view tend to hide from the world, hide their own light, shun success, and see ambition as a dirty word. They distrust powerfully creative people while secretly envying them. They bad-mouth the trappings of success and cop an attitude of smug superiority to ward off the chill of their own poverty of spirit.
The second confusion is the mistaken belief that self-seeking and clawing your way to the top is the highest good. Here the line between healthy growth and selfish craving is blurred. The empty pursuit of fame, wealth, and glory may result in an accumulation of the outward trappings of success, but the hole inside is never filled. In both of these mistaken approaches, our authentic joy is never realized.
That’s why discerning the difference between intention and attachment is so important. It may be the most important thing of all. Otherwise, all our work is muddled and confused, lost in the dark and far away from the light of the truth that our deepest joy is inexorably intertwined with the joy of others, and only when we work in the consciousness of service are we liberated from cage of our own ego.
Have a vision. Feel deeply where your heart wants to go, and cultivate the courage to follow. Be truthful, have clarity and be specific. But keep a loose hold on the reins and let the road show you where to go. The end is secured by the confidence of the intention. Attachment, on the other hand, constricts the flow and leads only to stagnation. Stay open and highly alert. Perception and awareness are more important than cleverness and guile. Answer the call of your soul – begin now to do the important work of discerning the difference between intention and attachment.
Peter Bolland is a writer, speaker, singer-songwriter, and professor at Southwestern College where he teaches comparative religion, Asian philosophy, ethics, and world mythology. You can find him on Facebook (www.facebook.com/peter.bolland.page), follow him on Twitter (www.twitter.com/peterbolland), or write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org