"Where did the day go? Five minutes ago I was waking up at eight o'clock, and now it's nine pm and I haven't gotten a single thing done."
Why is it that life roars by faster and faster as we age? Think back to childhood. It seemed like we had time to do everything we wanted when we were children. I can't recall ever being pressed for time, nor worrying that I wouldn't be able to get a task done. In adult life, admittedly, there are many more demands for our time. Not only do we have our hobbies, but now work demands our time, as do responsibilities such as house cleaning, laundry, yard work, home repairs, and cooking. So while the number of hours in a day has not changed, the number of things we try to squeeze into our waking hours has. And yet I still have days where I accomplish responsibility after responsibility, respond to emails, read for an appreciable time, write a short essay, play a game of chess, and still have time to meditate and spend the evening with my fiance. How can we have more days like that? The answer is intention.
On those amazing days like I described above, I find that a clear intention--all too often unconsciously set--carries me through. I say "unconsciously set" because while sometimes I consciously state my intention with each new activity, many times I only notice when reflecting back on my day how intentional everything was. I observe after-the-fact that as I finished the laundry, I confidently decided to meditate for 20 minutes. After that, I resolutely chose to write for an hour.
How does this compare to a "normal" day, when we seem so pressed for time? On these days, we tend to go about our day intention-less. It's really easy to move through life without intention. We have this vague mental construct of our tasks, and as we proceed from one to the next, there is no clear delineation between them. Further complications arise in that we are usually thinking about tasks 5, 6, and 7 while we are working on task 4, and occasionally our minds drift back to task 3.
On the contrary, when we set a specific intention before beginning a task: "I will sit and write for 1 hour," this provides a structure, a frame, within which our minds can work. With resolution, we place our minds in an optimal state for completing the task in front of us. We've noted our goal, defined the specific conditions for its outcome, and know our timeframe. Given this structure, our minds are assured that once the time for this task is up, they will be allowed to think about the other tasks--this helps us be mindful and focused on the current activity. Additionally, once we have completed this task, we then set our intention for the next task, and this provides a clear boundary between activities, to which our mind seems to respond very well. This "break in the action" allows our mind to regenerate, to rest momentarily and switch gears to function optimally on the new task.
From a Buddhist perspective, such conscious intention-setting allows us to break our karmic habits and choose our next actions with mindfulness. When we allow all our activities to run together, it is extremely easy to get caught up in our habitual thoughts and actions because we haven't given any direct instructions to our mind otherwise. However, by setting our intention, we have set the stage to see our habitual responses to life and, therefore, have the ability to change our response to one we deem more skillful. Setting our intention before each activity is truly an act of mindfulness, one with immediately observable benefits. It is also an act of compassion because it gives us the space within which to examine our responses and ensure that they are motivated by compassion, not ill will. As we age, we tend to get caught up in our habitual responses. We lose the mindful curiosity of our childhood. Things are no longer "new" to our minds, and so as we gain experience, it becomes ever easier to automatically respond as we have in the past. Conscious intention-setting counteracts this tendency and gives us a tool through which to develop compassionate, mindful action.
1-Minute Contemplation: Where do you find yourself getting pulled through life, time passing you by? In what way would intention practice help in your specific circumstances? Can you resolve to set your intention in these areas, and see what effect it has on your life?