Updated: Dec 21, 2020
Uncover your deepest intentions through words, meditation, and embodiment.
In my blog post “Living Life On Purpose, Part One,” we explored the practice of setting an intention - Sankalpa - as a means to move toward living life with purpose. More specifically, we focused on the secondary type of Sankalpa: that act of setting an intention as a present-tense goal that is measurable and is acted upon over a long period of time (six to eighteen months). Working with a Sankalpa as a goal - something smaller and measurable - is a more rudimentary practice, but one that can help us uncover our heartfelt desire - the primary type of Sankalpa practice - which can connect us with our highest truth. Similar to a goal, the heartfelt desire is stated in the present tense and is worked on for a long period of time. Yet, it can be more challenging than a goal to uncover and commit to because it’s not as tangible or measurable and speaks to the larger meaning and purpose of our lives.
How do you discover your heartfelt desire?
Sankalpa as a heartfelt desire can be discovered and explored, in my experience, by a practice of inner listening inspired by the Vedanta tradition. The practice isn't forceful like a bulldozer knocking over a brick wall, but rather it’s softer in tone like peeling a ripe banana or turning a page of a book. While the practice can vary from lineage to lineage and teacher to teacher, as I’ve practiced it, there are three steps - sravana, manana, and nididhyasana.
The first step in this listening practice is sravana. The word translates from Sanskrit to English as “ear” and is the act of listening to divine teachings and sacred texts usually through a guru. Traditionally, a guru is a master teacher often connected to a yoga lineage or a religion like Hinduism or Buddhism. Personally, as a student of yoga who grew-up and lives in the west, I am very skeptical of guru as master teacher. I feel that we are moving away from forms of spirituality that require a guru - or priest-like figure to disseminate knowledge, be an intermediary between the divine and earthly existence, or to claim moral authority. Instead, I believe that all of us are divine beings capable of realizing our Buddha-nature and experiencing spirit directly. It can be extremely helpful to have teachers and guides that shed a light on our path while we’re walking along our human journey, but ultimately I believe our path is a solo one - even amidst supportive family (blood or chosen) and healing community networks.
As for spiritual texts, bring it on! I love being surrounded by books of inspiration. As a practitioner of yoga, I find The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, to be a positive source for divine teachings. The Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali, like the Tao and the Bible, is collectively perceived as a spiritually significant text. However, I don’t believe that the only source to hear one’s heartfelt desire are those texts or people who are collectively perceived as spiritually significant. Oral and written teachings that shed light on our path and provide guidance that we wish to reference repeatedly, can also be from poets like Audre Lorde and Maya Angelou as well as from a grandparent who tells parables disguised as adventurous stories and embodies the title of wise elder. Ultimately it’s up to each of us, with compassionate discerning hearts balanced with a keen eye for ethics, to decide for ourselves what text and words serve our practice of inner listening and living more meaningful lives of purpose.
The second step in this process of inner listening is manana. Manana is the act of contemplating the truth. In sravana, we’ve absorbed wisdom and inspiration through texts and teachings, now manana will encourage us to cultivate the stamina to be able to turn to and welcome in truth, sit with it, and then reflect deeply and honestly. From my experience, a meditation practice can facilitate this process.
Meditation, whether practiced sitting, lying down, or walking, acknowledges a commitment to inner listening and is a process where focus on the external world is dialed down, and quiet and singular focus becomes front and center. This can be quite the challenge for busy modern folks, whose lives are governed by “productivity” and “busyness”, but meditation can help lead us out of contracted stressed states and dualistic thinking that make it impossible to hear our heartfelt desire. This part of inner listening can be uncomfortable; it can reveal parts of our reality where we previously feigned ignorance or tried to escape or distract ourselves from. It may also open us up to the mysteries of the universe. Sometimes, this can feel expansive - like taking off clothes that are too tight - or it can feel frightening where life is less certain.
The third step in the process of inner listening is Nididhyasana. Nididhyasana is confirmation of the heartfelt desire through embodiment. This last step is where we genuinely live and breathe the truth of our heartfelt desire in action and deeds. It may sound simple, but as I’ve moved off of my meditation cushion and tried to embody my heartfelt desire in the world, practical application can provoke sweat, tears, trembles, and a shit load of discomfort and doubt.
For many years I’ve worked with the heartfelt intention “I am love”, uncovered through consistent yoga practice including the more rudimentary form of Sankalpa - setting a goal. To remind myself of this intention I repeat “I am love” while I’m out and about as well as before or during meditation. Saying this intention is one thing; being and embodying the intention is another. The being and embodying of this intention has looked like asking for support from my boss when a workplace situation felt unsafe; skipping a yoga postures (asana) that doesn’t feel healthy for my body in a group class; addressing the harm a white womxn caused me for grabbing my afro during a womxn’s circle that was supposed to be a “safe space”; revealing to my vegetarian and vegan friends that I was eating meat after years of avoidance in order to correct a health issue; and admitting fault and apologizing to my partner when I’ve been unnecessarily critical. Nididhyasana calls us all into aligned, integrous action. And it personally calls me to reflect upon my choices and how they demonstrate both love for myself and love for others.
The word love is often reduced to “Hallmark” moments in our culture. But for me, love is a verb. Love is an act of being vulnerable, not people-pleasing, telling a difficult truth with compassion, standing up for myself, sharing power and resources, and taking responsibility for mistakes and making amends. This kind of action can be difficult, and where there is difficulty, mistakes will be plentiful. When I make mistakes I think of Advaita Vedanta teacher and clinical psychologist Richard Miller, PhD. In Yoga International’s article “How to Create a Sankalpa,” Miller doesn’t refer to failures as mistakes but rather as moments where you’re “moving away from yourself”. Thinking about failure in this way allows me to stay present, feel my feelings, forgive, and keep showing up for matters of importance - instead of spiraling into shame.
Doubt on our Sankalpa journey
When we move through this process of inner listening to uncover a heartfelt desire, doubt may arise. Questions may come to mind like, “is this really my intention?”, “how do I know if this is real?”, “should I try the process again?’. Doubt is normal and like any feeling, wants to be listened to and felt. Doubt can also be an invitation for further reflection - to talk with a more experienced teacher or mentor, or to step back from the process and try it again at a later time. I’ve also used doubt as an invitation to be content with the secondary type of Sankalpa - the tangible and measurable goal. Tangible and measurable goals, for me, feel less demanding, more targeted and more certain - which is calming for my mind and nervous system.
Additionally, I’ve revisited my measurable goals as a way to gently question the genuine feeling around my heartfelt desire. I’ve dubbed this process “compassionate inquiry” in my journal, but feel free to give it any title that suits your sensibilities. Let’s check out what “compassionate inquiry” looks like in relation to my goal “I wake up with my first alarm every morning” I discussed at length in part one of this blog post. My journal process for this looks like:
Question: Why is waking up with my first alarm every morning important to me?
Answer: Because when I don’t wake up with my first alarm it causes me to rush in the morning and forget important items I need for the day.
Question: Why do I care that I rush in the morning and forget important items I need for the day?
Answer: Because it causes internal frustration and a lack of self trust.
Question: Why is internal frustration and a lack of self trust problematic?
Answer: Because if I feel frustrated and I cannot trust myself - then it’s hard to be productive.
Question: Why is being productive important?
Answer: Because I want to be of service to others and have time to meet my own needs.
Question: Why is being of service to others and meeting my own needs important?
Answer: Because I want others to live in the expansive state of love and I want to live in the expansive state of love.
The last answer, love, is at the core of my goal and reconfirms my heartfelt desire. When I wasn’t waking up with my first alarm every morning, the love I wanted to be attuned to for myself as well as how I showed up for others would become distorted or obfusticated.
No dogma here
The journey of living a life of purpose while truly seeing ourselves and knowing the Self can be fun and exciting as well as exhausting and full of discomfort. This is a journey that is with us the whole of our lives, so there’s no rush. It’s just about taking one step at a time and being present with wherever we are on the path. Additionally, working with a Sankalpa is just one of many practices that can lead to more purposeful living. There is no dogma here, just a sharing of information.
Have further thoughts on how to live life on purpose? Have you been on a path of uncovering your heartfelt desire? I would love to hear from you! Leave a comment and continue the conversation below.