Article: Connecting with your heart’s compass


As we begin the new year, I would like to explore with you the concept of setting our intention for our practice and for our life. As you know, this is an important reflection that I invite you to do at the start of each meditation session, setting the compass of your heart in the direction of what matters most to you in life. As Zen master Suzuki Roshi said: “The most important thing is to remember the most important thing”.

In order to answer those questions “what matters most to me, what is my deepest intention to practice, or am I following a path with heart?”, the first step is to quiet the body and mind, to come into presence, so we can become still and listen deeply, to let the answer come to us. Jack Kornfield invites us to listen to our heart as if it were a good friend. You might remember the words of the poet Martha Postlewaite: “Create a clearing in the dense forest of your life.” We need to create a clearing to reflect on what really matters.

The pace of modern life and the emphasis placed on ambition, competitiveness, materialism and individualism have cut us off from this deep connection with our heart, and with what matters. So, we need to re-learn this ancient practice of speaking directly with our heart.

The Zen teacher Richard Baker has described the very heart of practice as intention and attention. And you’ve probably noticed it, the more that our intention is deep and awake for kindness or presence, the more our attention actually is full. And vice-versa, the deeper our attention, the more we’re in touch with what matters. So in Buddhist psychology, it’s really considered that intention is the seed that creates our future. And so, it deserves attention.

Buddhist tradition teaches that all of life is precious. As we learn to bring our full attention to life through our practice, and the quality of presence grows is us, we start to feel our love for the whole of life, for our planet and beings, and this love begins to permeate more and more our actions and our life. As we deepen our practice, and we start to wake up, that sense of caring gets very clear, and it guides us. It’s a compass of the heart.

But on the way, as the psychologist and meditation Tara Brach reminds us, we get waylaid a lot. She uses this quote by Rumi to describe in vivid terms what actually happens: “Gamble everything for love if you’re a true human being. Half-heartedness doesn’t reach into majesty. You set out to find God. But then you keep stopping for long periods at mean-spirited roadhouses.”

I love that image, that we are all on this unfolding path to really manifesting the love and the awareness that’s here. And we get waylaid. And so, the question is: how do we investigate so that we don’t get derailed by intentions that we’re not aware of?

So, we need to remember to pause and ask ourselves: what are my motivations? In Buddhism, it is said that life is lived out of the tip of intention. Very often our intentions are unconscious, so we need to start to investigate what is under or behind what we’re thinking, saying, and doing, because if there’s suffering, our intention is shaped by fear and grasping, the reactivity of our survival brain.

The psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach uses the word “marbled” to describe our intentions. It’s not like we’re either pure in intention or we’re in a kind of limbic/survival grasping. For example, when we get controlling with our children, we can sense that there’s fear and attachment mixed in with our love for them. So, the challenge is to bring to our consciousness all the unconscious energies that we are operating from.

It happens every day, to all of us, that we make choices based on an unconscious intention to avoid fear– fear of failure, embarrassment, or rejection. We’re grasping after approval, proving ourselves right, going for temporary gratifications. And of course, a lot of what we do during the day is totally functional and necessary, we are fulfilling our responsibilities. So how can we remember our deep intention throughout the day, as we go about our life business?

At the end of each day, it is helpful to remember some of your activities and choices, and to sense what the mood behind the activity / choice was. Was it the kind of survival brain intentions of getting away from discomfort and trying to prove yourself, or relieve your own anxiety about how much you have to do? Or was there a sense of care, kindness and presence? 

This enquiry helps us to start recognizing that we have unmet needs that need attention, otherwise the fear and wanting are going to keep driving our actions if we don’t pay attention. So, we start to become mindful of what Tara Brach calls “limbic intent.” This is the intention coming from our survival brain, because in some way it feels like it’s not getting what it needs. One of the images that you might remember from other teachings is the circle of awareness with the line going through. And everything that is above the line is what is conscious. And everything that is below the line is unconscious. And when we are acting from fear or grasping, then we are below the line. We are driven by our survival brain. If we can become aware of that and become compassionate toward that, not judging it, then we can ask the question, really, what is my true intent?

This is an enquiry that I find very helpful when I sense myself being caught in something. I will ask myself what is really going on, what are my unmet needs, so I can begin to sense what is driving me and bring compassion to it. And then I can start to investigate, what it is that I really care about. For example, this is really helping me in my relationship with my mum. In the past, it has been a difficult relationship because I felt that she did not see the real me, she had not been able to care for me the way I would have liked her to, and I found it hard to accept her the way she is, and the decisions that she has made in her life. So, there was a lot of reactivity on my part in the relationship, and this stopped us from being able to express our love to each other. Through my practice I learnt to pause, bring self-compassion to my suffering and my unmet needs in this relationship, and ask myself, what am I really caring about here? I was able to get in touch with my longing for connection with my mum, and to feel the love between us. For this I had to release my expectations that things would be different.

Tara Brach calls this process “Not my will, but my heart’s will”.


To conclude, I would like to add that there are three key elements of a living aspiration. The first is that a true aspiration or deepest intention always has to do with manifesting potential, who we are beyond the separate self. It’s not the aspiration or intention to hike the Inca Trail or to impress somebody or to win something. It always has to do with manifesting our deepest potential for presence and kindness.

The second part is, it’s embodied. A true aspiration is felt in our bodies. When it’s true, your entire body will feel it..

And the third is that it can be experienced right in this moment. You can’t hike the Inca Trail in this moment. But you can experience the fullness of kindness and awareness in this moment. Once you’ve felt your true intention, get familiar and intimate with it, really get to know it.

You can practice reflecting on your aspiration at the beginning and end of each day and at the beginning and/or end of a meditation sitting. In addition, as you move through your day, try to pause periodically and inquire as to what matters to you. In any moment that you remember what you care about, you can move in the direction of your heart’s compass.



Tara Brach, True Refuge, MMTCP teaching on The Power of Intention

Jack Kornfield, A Path with Heart


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