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Basic Propositions and The Neurology of Intention

Good Intentions - Part One
by Dr. Rick Hanson

The Neurology of Intention

Neurological, Contemplative, and Practical Perspective

Basic Propositions

Everything, both inside our minds and outside in the world, happens because of preceding causes. These causes lead to right results that are either beneficial or harmful, for ourselves and others.

Causes originate within yourself and outside of yourself. The primary source of the causes that originate inside you are your own intentions. As Joseph Goldstein puts it: “Everything rests on the tip of motivation.”

Some of our intentions are very deliberate and conscious, while others are shadowy or altogether hidden. Multiple intentions dance around, join with, and oppose each other in the mind. Some have more power than others do, and our actions are the result of the net sum of these at any one time. Our actions reveal our true intentions.

The sphere of intention is vast, ranging from the items listed on a shopping list to our loftiest aspirations. It encompasses our goals, aims, values, drives, purposes, wants, and ideals. The influence of our intentions pervades our entire life.

This means that through establishing our intentions, we have tremendous influence over our life. Therefore, our intentions bring us both great responsibility and great opportunity.

In sum, becoming more aware of our intentions, observing their effects – for better or worse – and becoming more skillful with them is an absolutely fundamental and powerful source of good for ourselves and others.

The Neurology of Intention

Our intentions arise in the brain, are represented in the brain, and are pursued in the brain. Therefore, a basic understanding of how intentions work in the brain – and thus in your mind – is a very useful thing to have.

The Executive Functions

The brain is like a committee, with many parts or “members” working together – or at cross purposes! The frontal lobes are like the chair of that committee. Or, to use a different metaphor, if the psyche is altogether a vast land, with a capital and many provinces, the frontal lobes are like the city managers of the capital.

But, of course, that does not mean that they are the owner of the country! This is an error that the frontal lobes, and the self structures that identify with them, tend to make – to the loss and often the rebellion of the provinces.

As you can observe in your own experience, it is possible to have effective “executive functions” in the mind – those capacities that plan, organize, monitor, and direct – without much, if any, sense of personal self in the mix.

A Proper Balance

To be sure, those executive functions are very important. A healthy nation needs both its capital and its provinces. Balance or “the middle way” is everything in the brain, as in life.

You might ask yourself, are you tilted either way:

  • Toward an excess of executive functions, too much top-down control, not enough
    life breathing in the provinces, too much “head” and not enough “body” or “heart,”
    too much regulation, suppression and scorn directed at parts of the self, too many
    high judges and critics in the mind scolding the inner children and the passions, too
    much superego and not enough id, living too much behind city gates and not
    enjoying and exploring enough the rich and fertile lands outside those walls. . .?
  • Toward an excess of unruly provinces, too much influence bubbling up from the
    bottom, not enough self-control, flooded with affect, impulsive and inattentive, a
    mental popcorn machine. . .?

Most of us are, indeed, tilted too much one way or another not just as a temporary imbalance but as a longstanding tendency. Certain moments call for more from the “capital” and others for more from the “provinces,” and being able to move nimbly in one direction or another without limitation or creakiness is very helpful in navigating the twists and turns of life.

So, when you see which way you are tilted, then restoring greater balance – and becoming stronger and more able with the other aspect of the psyche – can become a strategic goal for growth.

The primary way to develop your “weak suit,” in terms of optimal balance for yourself, is simply to identify the elements of it that you want to strengthen and keep them in mind. That will mobilize resources for yourself that will gradually build up those capacities over time. Truly, 50% of personal growth is identifying the issue – whatever it is – and committing to work on it. Just that! Which is really very good news.

Held in a proper balance, establishing clear intentions – which is a way the frontal lobes call the other members of the committee to order and establish what the agenda is – is a powerful, skillful means to getting anything good done either inside your own head and heart or in the outer world.

This article is Part One of a series.  Part Two – Right Intention

Part Three – Expressing Your Intentions

© Rick Hanson, PhD

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