Setting Intentions by Emma Newlyn

6 January 2016

We asked writers to talk about the idea of setting intentions for 2016. Picking up on some of the themes in Tibet’s Secret Temple each blog post relates to the exhibition from the perspective of the writer. Kicking us off is Emma Newlyn, a Yoga teacher, writer, musician and massage therapist.

Bringing ancient tantric Buddhist teachings into modern-day life

January is abundant with ‘newness’ and a new year often calls for a new year’s resolution or intention.

The word ‘intention’ has the potential to have different definitions within different contexts: it’s often described as a “thing intended; an aim or plan”, but interestingly within the field of medicine, it also refers to “the healing process of a wound”. The word is derived from the Latin intendere or intentio, which means both “stretching” and “purpose”. In essence then, when we make a new intention, we aim to stretch ourselves with the purpose of healing something we believe needs fixing in our lives. If we didn’t feel “broken” in any sense at all, many of us probably wouldn’t think to make a resolution or intention.

There often comes a time, though – around mid June – when all those good intentions we began the year with are long forgotten and we end up in need of “healing” again.

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This posture is named Natarajasana, representing the deity Shiva, who is strongly linked to tantric Yoga practices.

The thing with intentions is that unless they’re combined with the power of the mind, they don’t get us very far. It’s easy to say you intend to do something, but to actually set your mind to it and allow that intention to flourish into action is an entirely different thing.

The difference between Goals and Intentions

Setting an intention is very different to setting a goal: goals are concerned with the future and encourage us to work towards something which may happen later; an intention is something which – once set – affects our every thought, word and action from that moment on. An intention is concerned with exactly what is happening now and it marks every moment. This is something which is very important to understand about Tibetan Buddhism and Tantra in particular; there is no later, there is only now.

The word Tantra is actually derived from the root word tan, which means “to stretch or expand. This concept very much focuses on expanding the mind’s awareness beyond our usual habitual patterns of thinking (i.e. worrying about the past and the future and never actually having the ability to truly “be present”) and encourages us to experience every facet of life – the good, the bad and the ugly – with insight, compassion and mindfulness.

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While Padmasana, or “lotus pose”, is often referred to as the classic meditation position, the ancient Yogic texts note that in fact the most important posture to sit in is Sthirasukhasana: “any motionless posture is in accordance with one’s pleasure”.

Tatric Buddhism recognises enlightenment, but also recognises that there are many stages and experiences to go through before reaching it; you’ll see this by looking at the Lukhang, a secret temple of Lozang Gyatso, the Fifth Dalai Llama; the very same secret temple you’ll be able to see murals from at Wellcome Collection’s exhibition. These murals encompass all experiences of life, including rapture and terror, and depict self-transcendence.

Each floor of the three storey Lukhang represents a stage of consciousness, from lowest to highest, with the sacred meditation chamber at the very top. The word Lukhang means “Temple To The Serpent Spirits”, referring to a vision the Fifth Dalai Llama had in which a serpent-like aquatic spirit, or Lu,warned him that the Potala Palace he was beginning to construct was disturbing the serpents’ realm. To reconcile this, the Fifth Dalai Llama promised to build a temple to appease the Lu after the Potala Palace had been completed. This promise was realised and made manifest by the Sixth Dalali Llama (often known as “the rebel Llama”), a poet and revered much-loved national hero, who proceeded to take up residence there and live a controversial life filled with sex, wine and the singing of love songs.

Yoga, meditation and the “magical movements” of Trul Khor

If you visit the Tibet’s Secret Temple exhibitionat Wellcome Collection, you’ll soon realise how Tibetan Buddhism understands that we are all far more than we appear to be on the outside. The practices of Yoga and meditation within the Tantric Buddhist aspect work with subtle energies of the body and essentially create a transformation from the inside-out. They’re not much like what you’d see in the London Yoga classes of today; these postures bring about a radical change, not just “relaxation”.

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Parivrtta (“to turn”) Surya (“sun”) Yantrasana (“instrument” and “pose”): this posture represents a compass traditionally used for navigation at sea.

The Tibetan Buddhist Trul Khor, also known as “magical movements” or “Yantra Yoga” preceded the more subtle practices undertaken during various phases of waking, sexual union, sleeping, dreaming and dying. Often sequenced as 23 Yogic exercises and pranayama (breathing techniques), each movement is carried out with the breath held below the navel while visualising oneself as a Vajra Yogini in union with her consort. Designed to clear any blockages impeding the flow of energy throughout subtle bodily channels known as nadis (you could imagine them a little like invisible veins carrying prana or “life energy” throughout the body).

Lessons from Tantric deities

Tantric deities are unlike many other worshipped religious deities. They are not there to be worshipped; they exist in order to provide challenges in life and the means to overcome those challenges. They encourage growth, expansion and freedom of the mind’s limitations, to transcend egocentric concerns and live up to our highest potential.

Avalokitesvara (meaning “Lord Who Looks Down On The World”) embodies compassion and encourages Tantric Buddhist practitioners to embody this too. The thousand-armed Avalokitesvara is said to have vowed never to rest until having freed all human kind from samsara, the cycle of birth, life and death. Generally, the more arms a deity has, the “busier” they’re known to be. Freeing the world is a pretty demanding task, hence this deity’s abundance of arms. Avalokitesvara teaches us to live with compassion for others and is highly revered by all Llamas who attend the Lukhang, where a large statue of this deity is placed.

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Bakasana/Crow or Crane pose. One of the first arm balances students will often learn in Yoga class.

Another respected figure is Garuda. Depicted as an eagle, this animal symbolises strength, power and vision. Tibetan Buddhist teachings reveal that the Garuda soars beyond all limitations and fears; a very important teaching indeed.

Impermanence; no time to wait, no time to waste…

Impermanence is an important subject within Tantric Buddhism and it’s no coincidence that Tantric and Tibetan Buddhism is also known as Vajrayana Buddhism, meaning “The Thunderbolt Way” or “The Indestructible Way”. The subject of impermanence can be difficult to grasp in our every-day modern lives, especially when we tend to base our lives around an attachment to material possessions, physical appearance and relationships – all of which are completely impermanent.

This awareness of impermanence is in no way a reason to grieve; it’s a reason to engage fully with life and to live it with purpose. Vajrayana Buddhism was established at the very same time as the instigation of the Dharma King Trisong Detsen, a little before the year 767. “Dharma” is very closely linked to Buddhist teachings and often refers to “life purpose”. It is, however, not something we wait for: it’s something to understand and live by. Everyone has a purpose, whether we’ve realised it now or whether it’s still latently bubbling under the surface. The point is that we are only likely to realise that purpose or dharma when we live life fully, embracing each moment and making full use of it with the awareness of this fleeting life and the impermanence of it.

Once we understand impermanence, there’s no time to sit on the couch any more, there’s no time to wait and no time to waste. We realise there is only now. We’ve all heard of mindfulness by now, of the saying “be here, now”, and the constant reminder that “you only live once!”, but it’s all just words until we put them into action with the power of intention.

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Urdvha Mukha Svanasana/Upward Facing Dog pose.

A Tibetan Buddhist named Je Tshongkapa who lived from 1367-1419 created a beautiful poem which identifies what impermanence means, and is something definitely worthy of sticking to the fridge to remind you of your intention throughout the year:

This precious human body, at peace with itself,
Is more precious than the rarest gem.
Cherish your body
It is yours this one time only.
The human form is won with difficulty,
It is easy to lose.
All worldly things are brief,
Like lightning in the sky
This life you must know
As the tiny splash of a raindrop
A thing of beauty that disappears
Even as it comes into being.
Therefore recall
Your inspiration and aspiration
Resolve to make use of every day and night
To realise them.

So, what’s my new year’s resolution? There is no resolution and I don’t wait until 1 January to make one. Living with intention happens now and it has the power to take us from mind-fullness and into mindfulness, allowing us to truly make use of every day and night.

That’s the plan anyway.

About the author

Emma is a Yoga teacher, writer, musician and massage therapist. She writes for a variety of health and wellbeing blogs, specialising in Yoga philosophy. Currently managing the Brighton Yoga Festival, Emma’s intention is to spread the awareness of the benefits of Yoga to everyone, and aims to live as an example of the teachings she shares.