Setting Intentions by John Renshaw

27 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. This time we hear from John Renshaw, a second level teacher of yantra yoga.

It is common in many yoga classes to hear the teacher say “set your intention (Sankalpa) before you practice”. Like a vow of deep truth from the depth of your being, this is a beneficial focus that can work on many levels.

Looking at the murals in Wellcome Collection’s ‘Tibet’s Secret Temple exhibition and reflecting on my own practice was like coming home: familiar images of yogis in positions and movements that are similar to practices I’ve been training in and teaching for many years. Setting intentions in Tibetan Buddhism is similar, but there are differences: there is a common practice which can be done every day, several times a day or simply whenever you remember. The principle is already integrated into the practice. It’s typically at the beginning, when we take refuge and generate “bodhicitta”, or altruistic intension.

Depending on lineage or tradition we use different words: mantras, visualisations or mudras. Essentially, the meaning is the same. In terms of the exhibition, the images mostly display Dzogchen practitioners, which is a more radical take because the main principle of the view is “kadak and lhundrup” which can mean “since the beginning self-perfected with infinite potential”. So there is no need for antidotes, there’s nothing to avoid, renounce or transform, because everything is already perfect. Why would I need to modify anything or set intentions?

Well, it’s not so easy to be in this “perfect” state. Until it’s reached, our demons constantly tap us on the shoulder, telling us “go on, you know you want to”, “just one more drink”. Or we get a demon reminding us to create tension, rejecting good things. Of course, it’s all relative and the yogis in the murals and Dzogchen practicioners try to work more with circumstances. After observing ourselves we get to know our condition: our strengths, limitations and qualities. We then practice accordingly.

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The interconnecting blood vessels. (Image credit: American Museum of Natural History)

We’ve just been through the festive season, which for some is a time of excess, of overdoing things. An attitude of “enjoy now, pay later” pervades. If I’m at a party, how do I behave? There is likely to be heightened sensory input of thoughts, feelings and emotions, as well as an opportunity to practice applying one of three options.

  1. The way of renunciation I either don’t go or I leave early and am mindful of what I consume and how I behave.
  2. The way of Tantra If I have more capacity I may become the life and soul of the party, transforming my reality and working with the energy and awareness.
  3. The way of self-liberation Working more with circumstances and integration, but governed by the knowledge and capacity of my body, voice and mind.

So, I’m at this party. If I set my intentions beforehand, it may be in the form of an antidote which I could use to inform and help balance my condition, as there are certain guidelines that are beneficial to follow (what I should/shouldn’t eat and drink, ways of behaving, etc.). The paintings in Wellcome Collection’s exhibition show yogis who are probably working in a similar way, but at a very subtle level: the mind and emotions are still moving (rLung is the energy emotion and Sem the mind). In Tibetan Biddhism there is this metaphor used to understand this relationship: the mind is the lame rider and the blind horse represents our energy. If the horse is nervous and reactive, it may throw the rider; if the rider is dominant and not connected to the horse, our energy suffers. So the yogis practise equipoise and the integration of both.

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The Minor Connecting Blood Vessels. (Image credit: American Museum of Natural History)

Some of the yogis depicted show the various channels and chakras inside their body, but essentially they display the solar, lunar and central channels. Many practice using breath and visualisations to control and move energy about the body and, depending on the practice, use these three channels to purify and balance the three root emotions: attachment, aversion and ignorance.

Another way to look at setting intentions has to do with the qualities of everything we do, whether that’s meditating in a cave or being a party animal. In Tibetan it’s called “yon-tan, in Ayurveda three gunas”. For example, if we are living a lifestyle which is naturally “pure” and balanced, it may be easier to find a state of calm and clarity. This is called Satvic. We sometimes seek this state out, especially when making a New Year’s resolution, going on a “detox”, taking a holiday, and so on.

When we’re looking for sensory stimulation, such as an increased intake of food, drugs or alcohol, or more active behaviour, this stirring things up is more of a yang energy: action, change and movement. This is Rajistic. We also use this in yoga; it has a more dynamic quality, as long as we end up in the Satvic state at the end where we relax or meditate, even if this is temporary.

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The 3 root emotions, by Iasen Sokolov.

The problem is that in times of plenty, and relative freedom, we lean more towards the excessive. Because we like it so much and want to have it or do it many times over, we become skilful in maintaining self-medication in our search for happiness. Over a sustained period of time this depletes our vital energy and essential life substances; coupled with stagnation, this leads to a state of inertia. This Tamistic state, when misused like this, can become very difficult to change.

The yogis in the murals may have the following essential intentions.

  • Try not to be distracted; being present can govern everything else
  • Take refuge in wholesome, sustainable activity and behaviour that balances your unique body, voice and mind
  • Do everything with an altruistic attitude
  • Follow the divine middle way free from the extremes of aesthetic denial and destructive excess

May your practice ultimately result in being in one’s authentic real nature.

John Renshaw is an Acupuncturist, herbalist, body work therapist, yoga therapist and second level teacher of yantra yoga, the Tibetan yoga of mindful movements with breathing and meditation.