10 min read

The Key to a Mindful Life Might Not be Meditation. This Probably Is.

The Key to a Mindful Life Might Not be Meditation. This Probably Is.
Photo by Jamie Street / Unsplash

2 days of meditation sound scary?‌‌
Don't worry. I got my money's worth in 20 minutes.

Last weekend, I attended my 2nd meditation retreat at the Shambhala Center in Austin.

Both times, in days, I learned what might've taken years.
‌‌The learnings continue to unfold as I write.

In my next 4 essays, I'll share my 4 biggest learnings from the retreat.
‌‌(To get the next 3, sign up here.)

Lesson #1: Intention, not meditation, may be the atomic unit of a mindful life.

Despite occasional accusations of being overly deliberate, strategic and calculated, I never did this before meditation.

I'd done it in yoga. Before important negotiations. In cabs before first dates.

Entering our first meditation of the retreat, we were instructed to set an intention.

Previously, I only meditated "for its own sake" - a pure act.

Before, I would've told you that setting an intention risks "contaminating" the practice. How can you "be here now" if you're trying to go somewhere else?

But an intention is only a direction, not a destination. ‌‌

You set intention to give to the present, not to expect from the future.

After the Experience

Meditating without intention is like walking into a building, going nowhere in particular.

Are you seeking the back exit, the top floor, the rooftop or a specific room? Maybe you're there to lounge in the lobby. All are fine, but without intention, you're wandering the hallways, whether or not that's what you came to do.

Wandering is an acceptable option.‌‌
But not the only one.

By the end of the first 10-minute meditation, many of the inner conflicts I brought to the retreat were on track to resolution.

I came feeling burned out and rudderless.‌‌
With intention, my rudder found water again.

Applications for life after retreat

As Ram Dass says, "it's easy to be a sadhu (holy person) in a cave. Try being one in Manhattan."

As far as I can tell, nearly every activity benefits from intention.
It is not just a tool for meditating 2 days a year.

Similar to my discovery of defaults 2 years ago, this seems like a 100x unlock.

I'm experimenting intention setting in all important areas of my life. Join me in applying liberally.  I've been pleased with what I've found. I think you will be too.

Below are my most substantial findings.

#1: A 1,000x Better Question than "What do I want?"

Soul-wrenching, blood-curdling screams.
Head and limbs restrained.
Eyes peeled with branding irons.
Forced to watch -
Everyone you love -
As they burn alive.

Howls from the base of your soul launch into the universe.
Seeking its outer edge, they grip your spine, shred your throat, and thrash your kidneys.

The mind and body finally collapse in throbbing, exhausted defeat.
Gasping for air amidst uncontrolled stutters, mom says -

"I'm sorry honey, I can't choose the toy you get.
I promise. We'll get you another Happy Meal next week."

She picks up your battered little body, guiding your head to rest on her shoulder. She rocks you in reassurance. The stillness of her heart gives you peace.

Between staccato sobs, you use your last strength to lift your head. You point at the sign displaying the toy of your ultimate dreams, the object of your everlasting happiness. You let out a final wail -


You collapse. You've given everything. You lost the fight.

This is your brain on desire.

Desire is the most complex paradox of our lives.
It keeps us alive.
But enslaves us.
It seduces our ego.  

"Give me this last thing and I'll  finally give you what you really want."

What most of us really want is some version of "feeling ok," inner peace, equanimity.

But desire never delivers that final payoff.
Every time we think we've gotten there,
There's no there there.

Unlike us, desire does not fatigue. It lives to fight another day.

As children, we learn that we must temper desire's harrowing effects with tools like narrative, reason and acceptance. We're taught "good things come to those who wait," "if you really want it, you gotta earn it," "you can get whatever you want if you just give enough people what they want." But few of us have qualified teachers.  Even fewer follow these early lessons to completion.

Regardless of reason, we abort our training in desire too soon.

We continue to believe that there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
We age. We dress desire in fancier clothes and continue to indulge in the illusion that there's a there there.

Happy meal toys become sports trophies, academic achievements, college degrees, respectable careers, attractive mates, material wealth, enviable lifestyles, children, homes, vacations, retirement, grandchildren, dreams of legacy and, hopefully, an easy death.

But few of us make it to the promised land.
We just end up collapsed on mom's shoulder.

Most of us are on a treadmill of wanting, pursuing and collapsing when the immediate object of desire fails to bring the ultimate payoff.

Intention is a path off this treadmill.


You're bored.
You open the pantry.
You browse your favorite snacks.
You muse - "hmmm, what do I want?"

This may seem innocent, but it it's a moment of  slavery.

In this moment, you create a universe where, somewhere, out there, is something that holds the key to your satisfaction. With enough search/sacrifice, you can find it and use it to scratch that itch.

You are Dorothy searching for The Wizard, Indiana Jones for the Holy Grail,
Gollum for "his precious."

But there's nothing there. There is no satisfying object, waiting for you to unveil its riches.

All of this is a story you invented. Your dissatisfaction that produces the desire that leads you to pursue satisfaction via something outside of yourself.

It's just a story.

There is no dissatisfaction. There is no magical satisfying object. There's no journey to go on. There's no true satisfaction at the end.

It's just a story - the most recent version of the perfect Happy Meal toy.

Try this instead.

You're bored.
You open the pantry.
You browse  your favorite snacks.
You realize you're beginning an exercise in futility.
You ask "what's my intention?"

"My intention is to  satisfy my substantial hunger."

You realize that you will not be able to execute on your intention with the snacks in your pantry. You move to the fridge to get the ingredients for a real meal. You make your food. You have a great lunch.

You fulfill your intention.

Or perhaps you realize "my intention is to satisfy my boredom."

With this frame, you realize that you're not hungry at all. You ate 20 minutes ago and felt stuffed. But there's a nagging pull in your neck. You stretch it out. Stretching feels great. You indulge in 5 more minutes of stretching. Suddenly, you feel energized. You go for a walk, run, bike ride or catch up on household chores. You experience plenty of novelty.

You fulfill your intention.

Or perhaps you realize "my intention is to get this project done tonight, come hell or high water. My intention is to give myself the best of what I've got. To practice focus and dedication. To honor my commitments. To show myself the excellence I've cultivated over years of deliberate practice."

You close the pantry and ask yourself "what am I doing here?"
You get to work, feeling focused and satisfied.

You fulfill your intention.

Intention is agency. Agency is freedom.

While you can get into philosophical thin slicing of "isn't this just a different kind of desire," don't. This is philosturbation.

Don't overthink it. Just try the tool.

Start by setting intention for something.

I now set an intention for every day in the morning. Throughout the day, I set intentions for specific activities - commutes, work sessions, meals, workouts, writing sessions, meditations, etc.

Likewise, when I catch myself ruminating or cycling through options ad nauseam, I use this as a cue to ask "what's my intention?" (more on this in "Intention Simplifies," below).

I've yet to find the upper bound on intention setting.

As someone that's struggled with analysis paralysis, paradox of choice and other exhausting, anxiety-inducing desire loops for years - the relief has been immense. The clarity is stunning. It is a far kinder, more stable way to treat myself than appeasing any number of desires.

"What is my intention" is the question that releases desire from its job as Chief Executive Carrot Dangler.

You tell it, "I'm set on carrots. I've got it from here."

You consult desire for its wisdom when it benefits your intentions, but you do not install it as your CEO.

You are the CEO. Desire is a respected advisor at best.

Welcome to your new home.

Intention is a Mega-Lever for Developing & Maintaining "Good" Habits

As of this writing, I've read Atomic Habits ~30 times. ‌‌I reread it most days.

It's how I've lost 40+ pounds, found lasting gratitude/happiness and generally built a life that I enjoy.

Despite how early I am in my exploration, I am confident that intention setting is a game changer for habit development.

  1. Setting an intention is the ultimate "Atomic Habit" - An atomic habit is the smallest, irreducible unit of a desired behavior. Once you build this incredibly easy habit, you stack other tiny habits on top of it. In time, each habit becomes easy and you build up to the ultimate desired behavior (or well beyond).

    Setting an intention is incredibly easy.  You don't have to lift a finger. This makes it a perfect place to start for any habit you want to build.
  2. Setting an intention makes the behavior more attractive and craveable. Endowed with intention, the behavior PULLS you in instead of having to PUSH yourself. Once you set an intention, you're not just "hitting the gym," an undesirable grind after the initial enthusiasm wears off. You're "honoring the work you've put into your mind and body over X years." You're "giving yourself the opportunity to discover how strong you are today." You're "clearing the clutter in your mind the best way you know how." You're "giving yourself the respect that you deserve by honoring your internal commitments."

    Setting an intention renews your interest in the endeavor and makes it relevant to that moment, not some distant past.

Perhaps most importantly -

#3. Intention Increases Satisfaction and Creates Immunity to Dissatisfaction.

If your intention is to preserve your strength gains as efficiently as possible, why grind on the treadmill for 40 minutes?

If your intention is to satisfy your thirst, why reach for another stick of gum?

If your intention is to escape on a far-away journey, why choke down a book written like a manual?

By setting an intention, you realize, "this isn't what I came here to do."

As a result, you quit the wrong behaviors more quickly and make room for the right ones. ‌‌The right behaviors bring desired payoffs more consistently. ‌‌More consistent payoffs build your desire to repeat productive behaviors because "what gets rewarded gets repeated" - James Clear, Atomic Habits.

That's how you build a great habit. ‌‌The easy, enjoyable - intentional way.

Intention Simplifies. Simplicity is Freedom. Freedom is Good.

I'm laying awake because I have too much energy.

I went too hard on the holiday sweets.

"Great! Too much energy? I'll wake up early and hike before work!"
I've never done this, but I can't wait.

Morning comes.

I spend 45 minutes troubleshooting a dishwasher appointment.
I can still hike, but if I do, I won't make it to work on time anymore.

I remain attached to last night's plan.

I start to feel anxiety. I'm pulled to hike, but I know this will throw my week off. It's wiser to follow my proven (read: default) Monday morning routine to have a productive day and week ahead.

And so the cycle goes.

Finally, I ask myself, "what is my intent right now?"
I write the following:

My primary intent for today is to center myself and consolidate my mind for success in all pursuits this week. I want to cast as many votes for my desired behaviors as possible. I want to make it easy to say no to the non-essential. I want to give myself the opportunity to make meaningful progress on the essential few, once I can clearly see what they are.

I sigh with relief. I'm not going hiking.

I get into the shower, free and light. I don't worry if I'm betraying myself. I know that I'm fulfilling my intention. I trust myself to honor my values, giving each an intentional time and place. I become curious about other mornings when hiking may be viable.

I didn't "bitch out" or let myself down.
I'm guilt and worry free.

Intent clarifies what to say no to.

The easier it is to say no to the trivial many, the easier it is to say yes to the essential few.

The more essentially we live, the more enjoyably we live.
We honor our deepest values and aspirations.
We give the world the best of what we have.

(Many of the ideas in this section come from Greg McKeown's Essentialism - The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. I'm actively cultivating greater essentialism in my life. Results? 5⭐️'s. Would essentialize again.)

What's Next

1. Deeper on Intentionality

Intention setting has countless applications beyond meditation, eating well and working out. I look forward to discovering and sharing them with you in the future.

You'll find these on my Twitter, Facebook, Instagram & LinkedIn (in roughly that order).

Follow if you'd like.

2. Next in this Series

Over the past few years, despite major improvements in my life, some of my dearest relationships have gone sour. This has brought me pain, anxiety and sleepless nights. In the next installment of this series, How to be Loved, I'll share the lesson that's given me peace, clarity and strength. It's released me from victimhood and given me new confidence in these relationships and others.

To get this update, subscribe here.

3. Me & you. You & I.

As always, if anything here resonated with you, please let me know in the comments below.

Your feedback is my greatest motivation to keep discovering, experimenting and sharing.

Likewise, if you think this can help 1 other person, please be kind and pass it along.

Special Thanks to the Shambhala Center in Austin

Thank you for teaching and cultivating community. ‌‌I hope to join you on many more retreats and offer anything I have to give.

If you're in the Austin area, I recommend checking out their classes & retreats. Wherever you are, consider donating to keep volunteer-run spaces like this open so we can continue sharing and learning from their timeless wisdom.

Finally, thank you to Loden Nyima, our visiting instructor from the Drala Mountain Center in northern Colorado. If you're in his neck of the woods, look him up. He leads retreats every month.

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