At the turn of a new calendar year, we are often invited to set our intentions for the coming year in the form of resolutions. In theory, our intentions set our direction, so this would seem to make sense—but in practice we often move in directions contrary to our stated intentions, which is one reason why resolutions are so often broken or abandoned not long into the year. What makes the most sense to me, then, is to periodically pause to examine our actions, and reset our course if necessary.
We could think of an action as a vector. In physics, vectors are quantities that have magnitude and direction. The classic example of this in the physical world is velocity. The magnitude of your velocity is your speed, but speed alone doesn’t tell the whole story: if you say your speed is 60 mph, I still have no idea where you’re going. But if you say your velocity is 60 mph due east, now we’re getting somewhere (so to speak). 🙂
Similarly, the actions we take in our lives have a direction and a magnitude of their own, though perhaps not as easily measured. There are large and small actions that take us varying “distances” from our starting point—these have different magnitudes. And there are actions that take us in different directions, moving us toward or away from different states of being. Vectors can add up over time, too, so that a series of small actions can take us a great distance, as long as they’re all pointed in (more or less) the same direction. But if instead we have some nebulous intention to go one way while our actions are carrying us another way, it’s like driving a car while looking out the window at some other destination: we’re making forward progress, but we’re not getting any closer to where we really want to go (and if we’re not paying attention to where we are going, we may not like the end result!).
But when we’re mindful, our intentions do set our direction. So while we may make resolutions on January 1, it’s also important to check in with them throughout the year and see if they are still guiding our actions. Because in the end what matters most is not what we intend, it’s what we do.
If I intend to be a writer, I must write.
If I intend to improve my fitness, I must exercise regularly.
If I intend to be more compassionate, I must actually show more compassion.
Intentions are abstract, in our heads, but the end results we aspire to are not. They are concrete and (hopefully) reachable states of being—and to reach them, even small action vectors will accomplish more than we might think, if they’re pointed in the right direction.