The Power of Right Intention and Radical Acceptance

Right Intention and radical acceptance are two of the most important qualities of living a life filled with great purpose and inner peace.

However, if we want to find happiness we have to hack our biology because we’re not hardwired for happiness: we’re hardwired for survival. Modern scientific breakthroughs from fields such as positive psychology teach us techniques for cultivating contentment and improved emotional well being. Ancient wisdom traditions and great contemplative figures also offer us time tested tools for achieving similar aims.

In Radical Acceptance, meditation teacher and clinical psychologist Tara Brach talks about the importance of acceptance for healing, happiness and mental health. In Chapter 2, “Awakening from the Trance,” Brach writes: “When I first started practicing yoga and meditation I didn’t realize that acceptance was at the heart of spiritual life” (Brach 31).

I certainly didn’t realize this either when I first started practicing yoga or meditation. In fact, I didn’t appreciate the extent to which acceptance was so central to spirituality until I read this passage in Tara’s book. As I’m currently enrolled in a Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Training with Tara and Jack Kornfield I’ve wrestled with the wisdom of this statement over the past few months.

Radical Acceptance highlights the need for a challenging and often under appreciated act in a society that associates strength with aggression and dominance: the power of forgiveness, of oneself and of others. Tara talks about the “trance of unworthiness” in which so many of us are caught. Underlying this trance is the nagging feeling that we’re not quite good enough.

I’ll be honest: when I read this is I thought to myself: “I can see that what she’s describing is relevant for many people, but I don’t have that problem. I have the opposite problem: I have too much pride.”

But Tara’s work reminded me of the nuanced ways in which emotions are inseparably connected. While excessive pride is certainly problematic it also has a subtle shadow side: the underbelly of unworthiness. A superiority complex is an inferiority complex in disguise. When we witness someone else who is in the grips of a superiority complex this is often quite obvious to us.

Launching Hacking the Self has been an invaluable exercise in reflecting on my own intentions. I started this podcast because I wanted to connect with like minded people, to express myself creatively, and to hopefully provide some content that others might find useful.

Yet I’ve found that years of meditation and yoga and studying spiritual texts hasn’t made me immune to the same old temptations that seduced me in the past: to measure my success by the approval of others. Same game, new variables: how many people viewed the website, how many downloaded the podcast, how many new likes and shares and followers on social media?

Gain, praise, blame, loss, the tried and true infatuations of the ego, the same old set of mental traps that conspire to ensnare us in the most pernicious web of lies: that we will finally find happiness and fulfilment in some distant imaginary point in the future, when it’s graciously bestowed upon us by the approval of others.

One of the classic spiritual texts of India, The Bhagavad Gita, offers a powerful lesson in setting right intention and finding radical acceptance for one’s predicament in the most challenging of terrains.

At several points in The Gita, Krishna instructs Arjuna that he has a right to his actions alone, but not to the fruits of his actions. In other words: do what you’re doing without any expectation or attachment to a particular outcome.

Buddhism makes a similar point, with its emphasis on right intention, right action, and non attachment. The great Stoic poets of Rome, such as Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, expressed the essence of this wisdom as well.

Today, research from positive psychology has consistently demonstrated that intrinsic motivations for our actions are far more reliable sources of happiness than extrinsic considerations. Translation: when you do something because you genuinely love it you are far more likely to find happiness. When your actions are inspired by external motivations (money, status, the approval of others) it tends to be a very poor predictor of joy.

Here are three questions to ask yourself before every action (and if you forget to do so beforehand, at least to reflect upon after!):

  • What’s my deepest intention for doing this?
  • Towards what end am I aiming?
  • Who am I serving?

To hardwire our beliefs into our brains we need rituals. One great ritual for setting intentions is journaling.

Tim Ferris persuaded me to start journaling and he’s right: it’s an excellent form of self therapy. Journaling involves carving out a small chunk of time each day to be real with yourself about what brings you joy, what triggers you, and what’s holding you back from realizing your full potential. Have a set time each day when you reflect upon your own reasons for your actions. Tim suggests doing it within the first hour of waking up; usually, I do the same.

Having a conversation with someone you trust is another option. Research on how we learn demonstrates that metacognitive activities such as writing and speaking play an important role in how we process information and learn. At the very least…wrestle with these questions in your head!

Neuroscientists and psychologists have shown us why social media is so addictive: receiving a “like” on social media triggers a dopamine surge, similar to taking a drug. This is why organizations like the American Marketing Association write articles like “Social Media Triggers a Dopamine High” with a subheading like: “Here’s how it works and what marketers can do about it.” No, this is not a headline from The Onion.

Science affirms a central tenet of the Buddha’s teaching: that the impermanent nature of the senses makes worldly pleasures ultimately unsatisfying (the work of Rick Hanson and Robert Wright are excellent for those who crave a scientific explanation for this state of affairs). It’s what positive psychologists call the hedonic treadmill: the concept that “humans will return to a relatively stable level of happiness regardless of which events, positive or negative, happen in our lives” (“Break the Twitch: An Intentional Living Philosophy”).  

We spend so much of our effort striving for a particular outcome–often bound up in status symbols and how others will perceive us–thinking such extrinsic motivations will bring us happiness. Yet experience and research are quite clear that such satisfaction is transitory.

If the secret is acting without attachment to a particular outcome how do we actually go about doing this?

Here’s a hack for practicing non attachment to the outcome: offer everything. One of my meditation teachers, Sally Kempton, taught me this practice in an excellent course that I took with her on The Bhagavad Gita.

Start small. Offer your meal or a cup of tea or your morning yoga practice. You can offer it in a completely secular way, such as for the benefit of all beings (it needn’t be so lofty either, if that doesn’t work for you). Then start offering other actions, serving others in small ways. If you look at the great spiritual teachers they all do this to the point where their actions become an endless series of offerings, a life fuelled by service.

At times the most meticulously planned of our efforts will inevitably fall short of our own standards and those of our loved ones. But if our actions spring from right intentions–motivations that flow from a sense of innate joy and a virtuous intention to have a positive impact on others–it will be much easier to find the radical acceptance and true forgiveness that all of us require to flourish.

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