Intention and Attention in Psychotherapy and Meditation

January 15th, 2017 by Dr. Nina Asher

I have thought a lot about the concept of intention as it applies to both psychotherapy and meditation. My life’s intention is an ongoing commitment to working on myself. My work as a psychotherapist allows me to help others in their commitment to this journey. My meditation practice creates a space in which I can quietly reflect on my thoughts, and like in contemplative psychotherapy, see what is arising.

Whereas psychotherapy is a relational process that involves a steady attuned connection between two people, meditation is a contemplative process of being in relation to oneself. The two interface in their intention of bringing awareness to that which is waiting to be seen.

I have thought of specific intentions for myself over many years. They often take the form of stating a commitment to a particular area of myself that I feel needs “more work.” For example, “I want to be kinder with myself when I am struggling;” or, “ I need to work on reaching out more quickly when I need or want contact with someone.” At other times, my intentions go to how to “do” more – be more active in things I believe in such as self-expression through writing and social action.

Recently, while meditating, the word attention arose. In the next breath, I saw the word intention. Then I felt my breath contract with urgency. I paid attention to the tightening, noticing that the word attention resurfaced allowing me to relax. I wondered if at times the concept of intention revealed pressured thoughts about things I “should” do. By contrast, attention provided openness of noticing. And both words emerged in a meditative state amid insight.

Maybe the best way to hold to the intention of working on myself was to make a commitment to paying attention to that which calls for it?

Once the words “more,” or “should,” or “trying,” or “doing” came into the picture, I felt pressured and trapped with expectations that might never be met. I have seen myself locked in lofty, albeit good intentions, that do nothing but keep me stuck “trying” to do, losing track of simply being.

I see this in my work with patients who want to, “get better,” as if this is a goal with a direct, perfect route. I focus with them on what I believe helps the most; that is, staying in a process of looking inward within the therapy relationship, and learning from each piece that unfolds. In doing so, I gently set the intention to pay attention.