Intention and Action: the secret behind every outcome

Beating myself up never got me meditating.

It’s funny. I do all this research and writing on how we can shape the brain to create a more adaptive mind so I’ve known for a long time that regular meditation is good for you. But I had a huge resistance to sitting down every day and doing it. I’ve been to lots of retreats, I know how to meditate, I practice in a million other ways through the day and I teach it to kids, yet I just. didn’t. want. to. sit and do nothing.

I’d long ago decided not to lecture myself about it and accept that I wasn’t there yet. So nobody was more surprised than me when one day I sat down and got started. And I’ve never stopped. I love it. It’s easy. I feel great for hours afterwards. Master Chen Yen

If you feel a nagging ‘I should be meditating’ feeling (about anything in your life) here’s the thing: that nagging, the guilt and tsk tsk-ing, is doing damage to you. This appears to be true even for things we are convinced are unforgivably unhealthy, like being overweight. Weight may be a risk factor but it is impossible to disentangle it from the damage caused by constant self-flagellation and other poor lifestyle choices.

Not meditating is not damaging you. Sure you might benefit from meditating, but only if you can do it without resentment.

This is one of the tensions that runs through so much of our lives. We know that eating unprocessed food is the best choice. We know that lots of activity through the day is the best choice. We know that kindness, getting enough sleep, getting things done rather than procrastinating, helping others, socialising regularly with supportive people, being involved in our community, keeping our brain active and taking time for self-care are good choices. We’re smart cookies.

So why don’t we make the best choices all the time? Because there’s other stuff going on for us. Survival stuff. Habits. Efficiencies. Desires. Mistaken understandings. Competing needs.

To beat ourselves up about the choices we make is as useful as carrying big rocks in our backpack. One of the great side effects of leaving the rocks behind is that we’re suddenly lighter, we have more energy and we are more nimble so we find it much easier to change direction and make different choices.

I strongly believe in the power of focus. What we focus on we notice. What we notice we become familiar with. What we become familiar with we practice. What we practice we become. You know the drill.

Where we put our focus is everything.

When it comes right down to it there are surprisingly few areas of life over which we have a choice. Where we put our focus is one of the things we do get to choose. If you apply this to social systems you can see why I am so fervently in favour of policies that support and motivate us to behave pro-socially rather than pouring our resources into punishing us when we fail. Punitive discipline is not only less effective than positive discipline but causes long term damage. The same is true in corrective justice, physical and mental health (prevention is better than cure) and even in national security. Nowhere in the human system is it overall better to focus on a post-hoc punitive approach than to focus on a pre-emptive supportive approach even when the punitive approach has short term payoffs.

But we are, after all, human.

So back to the meditation. Around the time I began my daily meditation practice my children all started school, my husband was away and I had just finished a number of big projects that had been consuming me. I’d had the intention for a long time but suddenly I also had space, solitude and time. It was a rare window of opportunity to take action and do what I knew was a good choice for me anyway. So I did it.

When the best choice is also the easiest thing to do we’ll make the best choice every time.

If you’re beating yourself up about something and want to make a different choice here’s your formula:

Intention + Action + everything, ever, up to that point in time (the past) = Outcome.

The past is out of your control and you can’t do anything to the outcome, that’s just the result of the intention and the action. So you only have two places to go looking for solutions. Only two places you can make changes: your intention or your action.

1. Intention

Geraint Rowland Menu

Two choices on the menu: Intention and Action


2. Action


3. The past


4. Outcome

There are only two choices on your menu. The past is everything that has influenced the situation. In a restaurant that might be the location, decor, chef, the other staff and customers.

The outcome is like the bill at the end of the meal. When that’s handed to you it’s too late to decide you wanted a cheap feed or a different ambiance. You get to choose the restaurant and the meals but you don’t get to decide how much they take off your credit card.

It is all about focus. We spend so much of our time focusing on the past (he said… she said… I should have said/done…) and on the outcome (Me! My life! Happiness! The cure for cancer!) but that’s like trying to change what the actors on tv have done or are going to do next. You can’t because it’s already been filmed. The dishes are done, man.

So focus on what you can do something about. Contrary to popular goal-setting belief that does not mean you should be focusing on a future outcome – you’re still just watching tely as long as you’re worrying about the way the shows will turn out. Or to go back to the restaurant analogy, you can think about the bill all you like but unless you change your intention to eat out or your action to order those same meals the bill will come out the same as it always does. Goal setting is only as effective as its ability to guide our intentions and motivate our actions.

Practice returning your focus to your intention and action. And even if you’re not sitting on a cushion just yet, you’ll have started your meditation practice.


Tanya Burke is the creator of the Wise Child Happy Child series of practical tools for teaching Emotional Intelligence and co-author of A Doctor’s Dream.

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