Exploring the Neuroscience and Magic Behind Setting Your Intent – And Creating an Optimal Future for Yourself
"Life is a mirror and will reflect back to the thinker what he thinks into it" - Ernest Holmes
You are always creating your future. You bring it forth through your thoughts, actions, feelings, beliefs, values, goals and dreams. You do this regardless of the level of your conscious awareness. Your present moment awareness coupled with the future that you create is a deeper reflection of your subconscious programming.
All of your future goals and dreams are not only a reflection of your subconscious thinking, they are also mediated by your Reticular Activating System (RAS). The RAS is the part of your brain that serves as a filter between your conscious mind and your subconscious mind. The RAS, which is located in the core of your brain stem, takes instructions from your conscious mind, and passes them on to your subconscious mind.
Because of this biological function, whatever you are thinking about or focusing upon will seep down into your subconscious mind only to reappear at a future time. Have you ever decided that you wanted to buy a certain car, and shortly there after, you see cars everywhere like the one you wanted? That is how the RAS works.(1)
Setting your intent plays a key role in encouraging your subconscious mind to bring forth a desired goal, as well the most optimal future. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word intent is derived from the word intend, which means to direct the mind and proceed on course towards a goal. The word intent originated from the Latin intendere, which means to stretch towards.
When you set your intent you are directing your Reticular Activating System to stretch towards your desired goal and future, and to also enjoy the journey getting there.
To gain an experience with setting your intent and positively programming your RAS, try saying the following three sentences to yourself:
- "I hope to enjoy my dinner tonight." (Notice how you actually think about this – your internal pictures, voices, and feelings.)
- "I want to enjoy dinner tonight." (Notice how you actually think about this – your internal pictures, voices, and feelings—what is different from the first question?")
- "I intend to enjoy my dinner tonight." (Notice how you actually think about this—your internal pictures, voices, and feelings—what is different from the first two questions?")
Pay attention to how each of these simple changes in your language creates a very different experience. For most people, the first question will produce some doubt. In other words, multiple images will appear in your mind representing different possibilities—one is that you may enjoy dinner and the other one being that you won’t.
The second sentence should produce a different representation. When you say, “I want to enjoy dinner tonight,” you will typically see what you want in the future, but you may not see yourself having it now. The future then may feel compelling because you see what you want. But there is still some room for doubt because it is more difficult to put yourself into the actual experience of achieving it.
The third image of intending to enjoy your dinner should put you into the act of fully enjoying your experience and being present to it. Intending for something to happen will generally associate you into the experience of achieving your goal and all the feelings, images and sounds that go with it.
When you set your intent, you are marrying your subconscious mind with your conscious will to make something happen. It is like you are sending your Reticular Activating System a message that you are “expecting” the event to happen, and there is absolutely no room for uncertainty.
Setting your intent is a way of preparing your subconscious mind and RAS for the kind of journey that you will have in achieving your desired goal. While setting your goal represents the end result you want to achieve. For example, Sir Richard Branson set a goal early in his career to create one of the most successful business empires in the world. He also set his intent to have as much fun and adventure as he could along the way. By staying focused on his goal and staying true to his intent, Branson achieved great success in the business world while having a lot of FUN along the way.
We originally learned about the idea of setting intent from a Peruvian shaman who we worked with years ago in the deserts of Southern Utah. We were with a group of NLP Practitioners who were modeling the healing powers of the shaman. One of the men in the group, Charles, had the beginning symptoms of early Multiple Sclerosis, and asked the shaman if he would do a healing with him.
The shaman said, “Yes,” and laid Charles down on the ground, and engaged him in a rather unusual healing ceremony. He first got a rattle out, and shook the rattle over the Charles’s head, and chanted and sang for a long time. He then picked up the Charles’s arm and gently spoke to it. He kept doing these kinds of activities for almost an hour.
Finally, the shaman looked at Charles and told him to stand up. He reached out his hand to help. When the shaman was finished, Charles, stood up and proclaimed with excitement, ‘I feel a lot better!”
We were all impressed by this, and asked the shaman, “When did the healing actually take place?”
The shaman looked really confused by our question and replied, “The healing took place took place when I set my intent. The rest was ceremony.”
What the shaman meant by this comment is that when he was clear on his intent, it made it easier to achieve his goal of healing the man. Hence, the shaman recognized that if he and Charles entered into the same system, any change he made would be reflected in the bigger system including Charles's health.
In Systems Thinking, there is a presupposition that if one part of the system changes, then the rest of the system has to change. Anthropologist and systems thinker, Gregory Bateson, metaphorically addresses the power of intent from a systemic perspective in his book, Steps to Ecology of the Mind.
"When the phenomenon of the universe is seen as linked together by cause and effect and energy transfer, the resulting picture is of a complexly branching and interconnecting chain of events. In certain regions of this universe (notably organisms in environments, ecosystems, societies, and computers), these chains of relating events form circuits which are closed, in the sense that causal interconnection can be traced around the circuit and back through to whatever position we chose as the starting point of the description. In such a circuit, events at any position within the circuit may be expected to have an effect on all of the positions at later times." (2)
Setting your intent is a powerful way of directing your conscious energy and attention towards your future goal, which in turn helps your subconscious mind and RAS stay focused on the desired outcome. Your subconscious mind and conscious mind are a system that co-exists within a larger system that we call reality.
How we think, act, and behave has a direct influence on the greater system of our external reality. When we set our intent, we are influencing both our inner reality, and our outer reality in a way that sets a chain of events into motion. We are bringing forth a new chain of events that are directly related to our deeper subconscious thinking, as well as our overall intent for the desired outcome and journey that unfolds.
Hence, the shaman was clear on the fact that the actual “healing ceremony” offered Charles’s subconscious mind something to wrap this process around. The healing ritual or ceremony was a way to comfort Charles’s subconscious mind, but the action took place systemically. You can't change one part of a system without impacting the entire system. So, when you set your intent, not only are you sending a positive message to your RAS to create what you want– you are also influencing the greater system around you.
Not only does intent setting work well with goals and creating your optimal future, it's also extremely useful to do throughout the day. For example, you might set your intent to find a parking space quickly and easily when trying to park your car in a crowded area. Or perhaps you have a big meeting with your boss and you want the meeting to run smoothly and effortlessly. You could then set your intent to be calm and to speak clearly throughout the meeting.
Here is an easy process for setting your intent around certain goals and your future:
- Think of the goal or situation that you would like to set your intent for.
- Set intent for yourself in terms of the experience that you want to have in that situation, or in achieving your goal.
- If there are other people involved, then set your intent for the kind of interaction that you would like to have with them. Perhaps you would like to have fun, learn something new, be productive, feel peaceful, be happy or loving, feel respected, be calm and helpful, or feel connected with others.
- Create a mental movie of what you will be like in that optimal, future situation. Notice what you are experiencing in the situation once you have set your intent. What are you hearing? What are you saying to yourself? What are you seeing and what are you feeling? (3)
- Write it down, Make it Happen by Henriette Anne Klauser (Simon & Schuster, 2000).
- Steps to an Ecology of Mind by Gregory Bateson (Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. 1972).
- The Intent Setting process originated from the WealthyMind™ program developed by Tim and Kris Hallbom in 2000.
Kris Hallbom is an international trainer, author and professional coach. She is the co-founder of the NLP & Coaching Institute of California and WealthyMind™ International. She trains in many parts of the world including Europe, Australia, South America, Russia and throughout the United States. She is also a contributing author to the best-selling books, "Alternative Medicine - The Definitive Guide" and "Innovations in NLP.
Tim Hallbom is an international NLP trainer, developer, author and coach. He directs training at the NLP & Coaching Institute in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is co-author of the book Beliefs: Pathways to Health and Well-Being, and NLP: The New Technology of Achievement. He has been training NLP for 25 years, and is known for his precision, humor, and his ability to make NLP easy to learn and understand.