This isn’t a meditation in and of itself, but should be a process that you go through every single time you sit down on the meditation cushion. Setting an intention isn’t just one of the most important parts of meditation practice, it’s also one of the most important parts of living a successful and meaningful life. Before you embark on any endeavor, you should examine your motivation and set an intention that you believe truly accords with this motivation. If you aren’t satisfied with your motivation, then make a conscious effort to change it so that you can direct your energies towards your goal as directly as possible.
Setting a proper motivation before practicing meditation is important because otherwise you’re just playing a mind game with yourself. Actual meditation requires a tremendous amount of focus and discipline to keep from wandering into the comfort of dullness, so setting a sufficiently strong motivation that truly accords with your inner motivation is necessary to engage with your practice as fully as possible. Otherwise, it’s easy to allow yourself to be led off into distractions. Your motivation should form the heart and soul of your practice, giving you that energy to persevere through difficult sessions and keeping you constantly striving towards deeper levels of insight.
Most importantly, be honest with yourself about your motivation. This is not as simple as it sounds. As with all things, there is very rarely a single motivation for engaging in meditation, but rather a complex web of reasons that bring you to the cushion. In psychological terms, this is called the principle of multiple determination. Spend some time analyzing exactly what it is you’re hoping to accomplish through practicing meditation and why this is the case. Who are you meditating for? Before any of my meditation sessions with Tibetan Buddhists, they always encourage the group to set the motivation to strive to achieve wisdom for the sake of helping lead all sentient beings to enlightenment. This is a beautiful intention for serous practitioners, but it is often unrealistic for the average layperson. It’s easy to tell yourself that this is your motivation, but unless you really embody that feeling in your practice, it’s an empty intention. There’s no shame in setting your intention a bit lower. Again, be honest with yourself! If you try and fool yourself into thinking that you’re motivated by something loftier than you truly are, it will hardly add any weight to your practice. In fact, if you set a motivation that is too high and then become aware that you aren’t actually energized by it, you might fall into a state of guilt, which is entirely unproductive for practice.
That being said, not all motivations are good. It is possible to have an unhealthy motivation for meditation. Below, I list 10 forms of unhealthy intention that are often problematic for Western practitioners, though they are hardly limited to those in the West and there are many more forms of unhealthy motivation than I list here.
1) Quest for perfection and invulnerability. This is not what meditation is for. This type of motivation is most often guided by a feeling of narcissism, a desire to be self-sufficient, and to rise above ‘worldly concerns.’
2) Fear of individuation. This form of unhealthy motivation is guided by a fear of taking responsibility for one’s own life in the belief that this can be avoided by a defensive pursuit of ‘egolessness.’
3) Avoidance of responsibility and accountability. Freedom from ‘egocentric needs’ can rationalize avoidance of anxiety-producing situations (i.e. taking charge of life), causing one to retreat into meditation.
4) Fear of intimacy and closeness. Retreat into the idea of ‘no-self’ can appear to provide a way of neutralizing hurt by avoiding close relationships.
5) A substitute for grief and mourning. Similar to #4, the idea of ‘no-self’ can provide a refuge from painful emotions if misinterpreted.
6) Avoidance of feelings. This type of unhealthy motivation is guided by the belief that the goal of meditation is to reach a state of non-feeling, rather than becoming better attuned to our feelings.
7) Passivity and dependence. ‘Egolessness’ can masquerade as a way of causing one to suppress their feelings of anger and self-assertion, as well as to disguise codependency as compassionate service to a loved one
8) Self-punitive guilt. This entails using the idea of ‘non-attachment’ to act out underlying feelings of unworthiness and guilt (“Feelings are bad and therefore I’m bad for having them.”)
9) Devaluing reason and intellect. Belief in the idea that meditation solely promotes experience over rational thinking can reinforce avoidance of thinking as a way of blocking self-understanding.
10) Escape from intrapsychic experience. Similar to #4 and #5, this involves attempting to ‘let go of the ego’ as justification for repressing anything that produces anxiety or insecurity.
Notice that in many of the examples above, I place Buddhist terms in quotation marks. This is to highlight the fact that they refer not to the true Buddhist concept, but a misconception of it twisted to fit the psychological needs of the individual. All of these forms of unhealthy motivation reveal a misunderstanding of what meditation is designed to accomplish and, as such, cause the practitioner to engage in practice for the wrong reasons. It is important to examine our reasons for practicing so that we don’t fall into any of the pitfalls listed above. If your practice has previously been guided by one of these motivations, that’s okay. In order to change your motivation to something more healthy, you first need to recognize that your previous intention was misguided and not giving all the strength to meditate that you’re truly capable of mustering.
As time goes on, it’s inevitable that your meditations will change. Even day to day, your meditation is likely to be guided by different intentions. What is most important is to be aware of these various motivations and, whenever possible, to set an intention that you can truly believe in. It is only through setting a healthy motivation that you can fully get behind that you can dive as deeply as possible into practice and your own mind.