“When your intention is clear, so is the way.”
– Alan Cohen
I love the word “intentional”. The word intention means to be completed on purpose or deliberate. Being intentional isn’t a reaction, it’s an action. It’s engaging the mind to control the brain.
Our brain is an instinctual, reactionary organ. Neurons fire and our bodies follow. Childhood experiences, learned behaviors and sometimes, traumatic events build connections in our brain. Over time, our brain reacts when confronted with similar situations that remind us of these experiences. And so, we just go where the neuron takes us - instead of acing. These brain habits won’t change without engaging the mind.
Your mind controls rational thoughts and analyzes the world around you. The mind is our ability to think before we act or talk. The mind manages time and communicates with others around you. Think of the mind as the CEO of a company that delegates, analyzes and responds in thoughtful ways. You need the CEO of your brain to act instead of react.
This is the crux of mindfulness: using your mind over your brain. In other words, being intentional.
Think of mindfulness as a toolbox. There are different tools for different situations and needs. One tool doesn’t work with everything and the tools you use may not work for other people. These tools are unique to you and your brain. But there are common tools that help us engage the mind.
Journaling can feel overwhelming. I’m not a great journal person myself but I’ve developed an understanding that journaling is really a research exercise. It allows my mind to begin working on what my brain may be hiding. Journaling in an app or typing in a document may work, but I always suggest people write out their thoughts when possible. The act of writing forces the left brain and the right brain (creative and logical, respectively) to work together. It’s in this writing space that our brains work as a whole, and the mind begins to be fully engaged. Staring a blank piece of paper can feel overwhelming, but what you write doesn’t matter. Just start writing. You’ll be amazed at what flows out on the paper.
When our brains react, our bodies follow. When we feel stress and anxiety, the body tenses up and, ultimately, you get less oxygen to your brain. Breathing forces oxygen into the lungs and the brain. The breaths remind your brain that you really are okay and this allows your mind to begin to work again. Slow breaths in and out are best, but it’s about being intentional in the breathing: pay attention to the breaths, the sounds you make while breathing and the rise and fall of your chest. These deliberate actions bring your mind online and reminds your brain that you aren’t in danger through getting needed oxygen to your brain. This simple act will create space for thoughtful intention.
Counting is a simple way to bring your mind back online to control your brain. The way you count isn’t important, but the counting allows your frontal lobe to start working again, which is the very thing you need to begin to be intentional. Counting to five, ten, backwards, from 100…. all of these work. It’s important to find the best fit for your unique brain.
Being intentional is really about setting aside time to change. Change doesn’t just magically happen – we have to be intentional about developing new brain habits. A few suggestions to help you get into the change spirit:
Wake up 15-30 minutes early and give yourself the time to be intentional about the change. You can journal, read a self-care book, do guided meditation, or create space for a spiritual practice. The act that you create isn’t as important as it is for you to find space to be intentional about change.
Make time 15 minutes before you go to sleep to journal or reflect on your day. One of my favorite exercises is to write down three good things that happened that day. Sometimes, it’s that I had shoes on my feet, a roof over my head and food on my table. This gratefulness exercise helps me remember to focus on the positive things happening in my life and engage that overworked mind to decrease the brain’s reactions.
Set an alarm for a certain time during the day to take deep breaths….and then reset it for another time when you are no longer responding to the alarm. Our brains naturally stop “listening” to noises it doesn’t deem as necessary so resetting the alarm for different times will allow you to be intentional in the practice.
Increase these intentional moments when stress is heightened. When we’re stressed, our brains go back to status quo so make sure you’re being more intentional during these times.
The secret is to be intentional about change. New habits don’t happen over night and it’s up to you to tell your brain what to do.