INTENTION: Blinded by the Gold




Blinded by the Gold

When there is harmony between the mind, heart, and resolution then nothing is impossible

—Rig Veda

In our heads we have an image of an ideal life: our relationships, how we spend our time in work and leisure, what we want to achieve. Even without the noise of external influences, certain goals captivate us, and we design our lives around achieving them because we think they will make us happy. But now we will figure out what drives these ambitions, whether they are likely to make us truly happy, and whether happiness is even the right target.

     I have just come out of a class where we discussed the idea of rebirth, Saṃsāra, and now I am strolling through the quiet ashram with a senior monk and a few other students. The ashram has two locations, a temple in Mumbai and the one where I am now, a rural outpost near Palghar. This will eventually be developed into the Govardhan Ecovillage, a beautiful retreat, but for now there are just a few simple, nondescript buildings set in uncultivated land. Dry dirt footpaths divide the grasses. Here and there, monks sit on straw mats, reading or studying. The main building is open to the elements, and inside we can see monks working. As we walk, the senior monk mentions the achievements of some of the monks we pass. He points out one who can meditate for eight hours straight. A few minutes later he gestures to another: “He fasts for seven days in a row.” Further along, he points. “Do you see the man sitting under that tree? He can recite every verse from the scripture.”

Impressed, I say, “I wish I could do that.”

The monk pauses and turns to look at me. He asks, “Do you wish you could do that, or do you wish you could learn to do that?”

“What do you mean?” I know by now that some of my favorite lessons come not in the classroom, but in moments like this.

He says, “Think about your motivations. Do you want to memorize all of the scripture because it’s an impressive achievement, or do you want the experience of having studied it? In the first, all you want is the outcome. In the second, you are curious about what you might learn from the process.”

This was a new concept for me, and it blew my mind. Desiring an outcome had always seemed reasonable to me. The monk was telling me to question why I wanted to do what was necessary to reach that outcome.


No matter how disorganized we might be, we all have plans. We have an idea of what we have to accomplish in the day ahead; we probably have a sense of what the year holds, or what we hope we’ll accomplish; and we all have dreams for the future. Something motivates every one of these notions—from needing to pay the rent to wanting to travel the world. Hindu philosopher Bhaktivinoda Thakura describes four fundamental motivations.

  1. Fear. Thakura describes this as being driven by “sickness, poverty, fear of hell or fear of death.”
  2. Desire. Seeking personal gratification through success, wealth, and pleasure.
  3. Duty. Motivated by gratitude, responsibility, and the desire to do the right thing.
  4. Love. Compelled by care for others and the urge to help them.

These four motivations drive everything we do. We make choices, for example, because we’re scared of losing our job, wanting to win the admiration of our friends, hoping to fulfill our parents’ expectations, or wanting to help others live a better life.

I’m going to talk about each motivation individually, so we get a sense of how they shape our choices.

Fear Is Not Sustainable :

In the last chapter we talked about fear, so I’m not going to dwell on it here. When fear motivates you, you pick what you want to achieve—a promotion, a relationship, buying a home—because you believe it will bring you safety and security.

Fear alerts and ignites us. This warning flare is useful—as we discussed, fear points out problems and sometimes motivates us. For instance, the fear of getting fired may motivate you to get organized.

The problem with fear is that it’s not sustainable. When we operate in fear for a long time, we can’t work to the best of our abilities. We are too worried about getting the wrong result. We become frantic or paralyzed and are unable to evaluate our situations objectively or to take risks.

The Maya of Success :

The second motivation is desire. This is when we chase personal gratification. Our path to adventures, pleasures, and comforts often takes the form of material goals. I want a million-dollar home. I want financial freedom. I want an amazing wedding. When I ask people to write down their goals, they often give answers describing what most people think of as success.

We think that success equals happiness, but this idea is an illusion. The Sanskrit word for illusion is maya, which means believing in that which is not. When we let achievements and acquisitions determine our course, we’re living in the illusion that happiness comes from external measures of success, but all too often we find that when we finally get what we want, when we find success, it doesn’t lead to happiness.

Jim Carrey once said, “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of, so they can see that it’s not the answer.”

The illusion of success is tied not just to income and acquisitions but to achievements like becoming a doctor or getting a promotion or… memorizing the scriptures. My desire in the story above—to be able to recite every verse from the scripture—is the monk’s version of material desire. Like all of these “wants,” my ambition was centered around an external outcome—being as impressively learned as that other monk.

American spiritual luminary Tara Brach, founder of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, DC, writes, “As long as we keep attaching our happiness to the external events of our lives, which are ever changing, we’ll always be left waiting for it.”

Once, as a monk, I visited a temple in Srirangam, one of the three major holy cities in South India. I came upon a worker high up on a scaffold applying gold powder to the intricate details on the temple’s ceiling. I’d never seen anything like it, and I stopped to watch. As I gazed upward, a dusting of gold floated down into my eyes. I hurried from the temple to rinse my eyes, then returned, keeping a safe distance this time. This episode felt like a lesson torn from the scriptures: Gold dust is beautiful, but come too close, and it will blur your vision.

The gilt that is used on temples isn’t solid gold—it’s mixed into a solution. And, as we know, it is used to cover up stone, to make it look like solid gold. It’s maya, an illusion. In the same way, money and fame are only a facade. Because our search is never for a thing, but for the feeling we think the thing will give us. We all know this already: We see wealthy and/or famous people who seem to “have it all,” but who have bad relationships or suffer from depression, and it’s obvious that success didn’t bring them happiness. The same is true for those of us who aren’t rich and famous. We quickly tire of our smartphones and want the next model. We receive a bonus, but the initial excitement fades surprisingly fast when our lives don’t really improve. We think that a new phone or a bigger house will make us feel somehow better—cooler or more satisfied—but instead find ourselves wanting more.

Material gratification is external, but happiness is internal. When monks talk about happiness, they tell the story of the musk deer, a tale derived from a poem by Kabir, a fifteenth-century Indian mystic and poet. The musk deer picks up an irresistible scent in the forest and chases it, searching for the source, not realizing that the scent comes from its own pores. It spends its whole life wandering fruitlessly. In the same way we search for happiness, finding it elusive, when it can be found within us.

Happiness and fulfillment come only from mastering the mind and connecting with the soul—not from objects or attainments. Success doesn’t guarantee happiness, and happiness doesn’t require success. They can feed each other, and we can have them at the same time, but they are not intertwined. After analyzing a Gallup survey on well-being, Princeton University researchers officially concluded that money does not buy happiness after basic needs and then some are fulfilled. While having more money contributes to overall life satisfaction, that impact levels off at a salary of around $75,000. In other words, when it comes to the impact of money on how you view the quality of your life, a middle-class American citizen fares about as well as Jeff Bezos.

Success is earning money, being respected in your work, executing projects smoothly, receiving accolades. Happiness is feeling good about yourself, having close relationships, making the world a better place. More than ever, popular culture celebrates the pursuit of success. TV shows aimed at adolescents focus more on image, money, and fame than in the past. Popular songs and books use language promoting individual achievement over community connection, group membership, and self-acceptance. It’s no surprise that happiness rates have consistently declined among Americans adults since the 1970s. And it doesn’t just boil down to income. In an interview with the Washington Post, Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Center for Sustainable Development and an editor of World Happiness Report, points out: “While the average income of people around the world definitely affects their sense of well-being, it doesn’t explain all that much, because other factors, both personal and social, are very important determinants of well-being.” Sachs says that while generally American incomes have risen since 2005, our happiness has fallen, in part because of social factors like declining trust in the government and our fellow Americans, and weaker social networks.

Duty and Love :

If fear limits us and success doesn’t satisfy us, then you’ve probably already guessed that duty and love have more to offer. We all have different goals, but we all want the same things: a life full of joy and meaning. Monks don’t seek out the joy part—we aren’t looking for happiness or pleasure. Instead, we focus on the satisfaction that comes from living a meaningful life. Happiness can be elusive—it’s hard to sustain a high level of joy. But to feel meaningshows that our actions have purpose. They lead to a worthwhile outcome. We believe we’re leaving a positive imprint. What we do matters, so we matter. Bad things happen, boring chores must get done, life isn’t all sunshine and unicorns, but it is always possible to find meaning. If you lose a loved one and someone tells you to look for the positive, to be happy, to focus on the good things in your life—well, you might want to punch that person. But we can survive the worst tragedies by looking for meaning in the loss. We might honor a loved one by giving to the community. Or discover a new gratitude for life that we pass on to those who have supported us. Eventually, the value that we see in our actions will lead to a sense of meaning. In the Atharva Veda it says, Money and mansions are not the only wealth. Hoard the wealth of the spirit. Character is wealth: good conduct is wealth; and spiritual wisdom is wealth.”

Purpose and meaning, not success, lead to true contentment. When we understand this, we see the value of being motivated by duty and/or love. When you act out of duty and love, you know that you are providing value.

The more we upgrade from trying to fulfill our selfish needs to doing things out of service and love, the more we can achieve. In her book The Upside of Stress, author Kelly McGonigal says that we can better handle discomfort when we can associate it with a goal, purpose, or person we care about. For example, when it comes to planning a child’s birthday party, a parent might be more than willing to endure the unpleasantness of staying up late. The pain of lost sleep is offset by the satisfaction of being a loving mother. But when it comes to working late at a job that same woman hates? She is miserable. We can take on more when we’re doing it for someone we love or to serve a purpose we believe in rather than from the misguided idea that we will find happiness through success. When we perform work with the conviction that what we do matters, we can live intensely. Without a reason for moving forward, we have no drive. When we live intentionally—with a clear sense of why what we do matters—life has meaning and brings fulfillment. Intention fills the car with gas.


Fear, desire, duty, and love are the roots of all intentions. In Sanskrit the word for intention is sankalpa, and I think of it as the reason, formed by one’s own heart and mind, that one strives for a goal. To put it another way, from your root motivation you develop intentions to drive you forward. Your intention is who you plan to be in order to act with purpose and feel that what you do is meaningful. So if I’m motivated by fear, my intention might be to protect my family. If I’m motivated by desire, my intention might be to gain worldwide recognition. If I’m motivated by duty, my intention might be to help my friends no matter how busy I am. If I’m motivated by love, my intention might be to serve where I am most needed.

There are no rules attaching certain intentions to certain motivations. You can also perform service to make a good impression (desire, not love). You can support your family out of love, not fear. You can want to get rich in order to serve. And none of us has just one motivation and one intention. I want us to learn how to make big and small choices intentionally. Instead of forever climbing the mountain of success, we need to descend into the valley of our true selves to weed out false beliefs.

To live intentionally, we must dig to the deepest why behind the want. This requires pausing to think not only about why we want something, but also who we are or need to be to get it, and whether being that person appeals to us.

Most people are accustomed to looking for answers. Monks focus on questions. When I was trying to get close to my fear, I asked myself “What am I afraid of?” over and over again. When I’m trying to get to the root of a desire, I start with the question “Why?”

This monkish approach to intention can be applied to even the worldliest goals. Here’s a sample goal I’ve chosen because it’s something we never would have contemplated in the ashram and because the intention behind it isn’t obvious: I want to sail solo around the world.

Why do you want to sail around the world?

It will be fun. I’ll get to see lots of places and prove to myself that I’m a great sailor.

It sounds like your intention is to gratify yourself, and that you are motivated by desire.

But, what if your answer to the question is:

It was always my father’s dream to sail around the world. I’m doing it for him.

In this case, your intention is to honor your father, and you are motivated by duty and love.

I’m sailing around the world so I can be free. I won’t be accountable to anyone. I can leave all my responsibilities behind.

This sailor intends to escape—he is driven by fear.

Now let’s look at a more common want:

My biggest want is money, and here’s Jay, probably about to tell me to become kind and compassionate. That’s not going to help.

Wanting to be rich for the sake of being rich is fine. It’s firmly in the category of material gratification, so you can’t expect it to give an internal sense of fulfillment. Nonetheless, material comforts are undeniably part of what we want from life, so let’s get to the root of this goal rather than just dismissing it.

Wealth is your desired outcome. Why?

I don’t ever want to have to worry about money again.

Why do you worry about money?

I can’t afford to take the vacations I dream about.

Why do you want those vacations?

I see everyone else on exotic trips on social media. Why should they get to do that when I can’t?

Why do you want what they want?

They’re having much more fun than I have on my weekends.

Aha! So now we are at the root of the want. Your weekends are unfulfilling. What’s missing?

I want my life to be more exciting, more adventurous, more exhilarating.

Okay, your intention is to make your life more exciting. Notice how different that is from “I want money.” Your intention is still driven by the desire for personal gratification, but now you know two things: First, you can add more adventure to your life right now without spending more money. And second, you now have the clarity to decide if that’s something you want to work hard for.

If a person went up to my teacher and said, “I just want to be rich,” my teacher would ask, “Are you doing it out of service?” His reason for asking would be to get to the root of the desire.

If the man said, “No, I want to live in a nice house, travel, and buy whatever I want.” His intention would be to have the financial freedom to indulge himself.

My teacher would say, “Okay, it’s good that you’re honest with yourself. Go ahead, make your fortune. You’ll come to service anyway. It may take you five or ten years, but you’ll get to the same answer.” Monks believe that the man won’t be fulfilled when he finds his fortune, and that if he continues his search for meaning, the answer will always, eventually, be found in service.

Be honest about what your intention is. The worst thing you can do is pretend to yourself that you’re acting out of service when all you want is material success.

When you follow the whys, keep digging. Every answer provokes deeper questions. Sometimes it helps to sit with a question in the back of your mind for a day, even a week. Very often you’ll find that what you are ultimately searching for is an internal feeling (happiness, security, confidence, etc.). Or maybe you’ll find that you’re acting out of envy, not the most positive emotion, but a good alert to the need you are trying to fill. Be curious about that discovery. Why are you envious? Is there something—like adventure—that you can start working on right away? Once you’re doing that, the external wants will be more available to you—if they still matter at all.


Take a desire you have and ask yourself why you want it. Keep asking until you get to the root intention.

Common answers are:

To look and feel good




Don’t negate intentions that aren’t “good,” just be aware of them and recognize that if your reason isn’t love, growth, or knowledge, the opportunity may fulfill important practical needs, but it won’t feel emotionally meaningful. We’re most satisfied when we are in a state of progress, learning, or achievement.


As monks, we learned to clarify our intentions through the analogy of seeds and weeds. When you plant a seed, it can grow into an expansive tree that provides fruit and shelter for everyone. That’s what a broad intention, like love, compassion, or service, can do. The purity of your intention has nothing to do with what career you choose. A traffic officer can give a speeding ticket making a show of his power, or he can instruct you not to speed with the same compassion a parent would have when telling a child not to play with fire. You can be a bank teller and execute a simple transaction with warmth. But if our intentions are vengeful or self-motivated, we grow weeds. Weeds usually grow from ego, greed, envy, anger, pride, competition, or stress. These might look like normal plants to begin with, but they will never grow into something wonderful.

If you start going to the gym to build a revenge body so your ex regrets breaking up with you, you’re planting a weed. You haven’t properly addressed what you want (most likely to feel understood and loved, which would clearly require a different approach). You’ll get strong, and reap the health benefits of working out, but the stakes of your success are tied to external factors—provoking your ex. If your ex doesn’t notice or care, you’ll still feel the same frustration and loneliness. However, if you start going to the gym because you want to feel physically strong after your breakup, or if, in the course of working out, your intention shifts to this, you’ll get in shape and feel emotionally satisfied.

Another example of a weed is when a good intention gets attached to the wrong goal. Say my intention is to build my confidence, and I decide that getting a promotion is the best way to do it. I work hard, impress my boss, and move up a level, but when I get there, I realize there’s another level, and I still feel insecure. External goals cannot fill internal voids. No external labels or accomplishments can give me true confidence. I have to find it in myself. We will talk about how to make internal changes like this in Part Two.


Monks know that one can’t plant a garden of beautiful flowers and leave it to thrive on its own. We have to be gardeners of our own lives, planting only the seeds of good intentions, watching to see what they become, and removing the weeds that spring up and get in the way.

In a 1973 experiment called “From Jerusalem to Jericho,” researchers asked seminary students to prepare short talks about what it meant to be a minister. Some of them were given the parable of the Good Samaritan to help them prep. In this parable, Jesus told of a traveler who stopped to help a man in need when nobody else would. Then some excuse was made for them to switch to a different room. On their way to the new room, an actor, looking like he needed help, leaned in a doorway. Whether a student had been given materials about the Good Samaritan made no difference in whether the student stopped to help. The researchers did find that if students were in a hurry they were much less likely to help, and “on several occasions, a seminary student going to give his talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan literally stepped over the victim as he hurried on his way!”

The students were so focused on the task at hand that they forgot their deeper intentions. They were presumably studying at seminary with the intention to be compassionate and helpful, but in that moment anxiety or the desire to deliver an impressive speech interfered. As Benedictine monk Laurence Freeman said in his book Aspects of Love, “Everything you do in the day from washing to eating breakfast, having meetings, driving to work… watching television or deciding instead to read… everything you do is your spiritual life. It is only a matter of how consciously you do these ordinary things…”


Of course, simply having intentions isn’t enough. We have to take action to help those seeds grow. I don’t believe in wishful “manifesting,” the idea that if you simply believe something will happen, it will. We can’t sit around with true intentions expecting that what we want will fall into our laps. Nor can we expect someone to find us, discover how amazing we are, and hand us our place in the world. Nobody is going to create our lives for us. Martin Luther King Jr., said, “Those who love peace must learn to organize as effectively as those who love war.” When people come to me seeking guidance, I constantly hear, “I wish… I wish… I wish…” I wish my partner would be more attentive. I wish I could have the same job but make more money. I wish my relationship were more serious.

We never say, “I wish I could be more organized and focused and could do the hard work to get that.” We don’t vocalize what it would actually take to get what we want. “I wish” is code for “I don’t want to do anything differently.”

There’s an apocryphal story about Picasso that perfectly illustrates how we fail to recognize the work and perseverance behind achievement. As the tale goes, a woman sees Picasso in a market. She goes up to him and says, “Would you mind drawing something for me?”

“Sure,” he says, and thirty seconds later hands her a remarkably beautiful little sketch. “That will be thirty thousand dollars,” he says.

“But Mr. Picasso,” the woman says, “how can you charge me so much? This drawing only took you thirty seconds!”

“Madame,” says Picasso, “it took me thirty years.”

The same is true of any artistic work—or, indeed, any job that’s done well. The effort behind it is invisible. The monk in my ashram who could easily recite all the scriptures put years into memorizing them. I needed to consider that investment, the life it required, before making it my goal.

    When asked who we are, we resort to stating what we do: “I’m an accountant.” “I’m a lawyer.” “I’m a housewife/househusband.” “I’m an athlete.” “I’m a teacher.” Sometimes this is just a useful way to jump-start a conversation with someone you’ve just met. But life is more meaningful when we define ourselves by our intentions rather than our achievements. If you truly define yourself by your job, then what happens when you lose your job? If you define yourself as an athlete, then an injury ends your career, you don’t know who you are. Losing a job shouldn’t destroy our identities, but often it does. Instead, if we live intentionally, we sustain a sense of purpose and meaning that isn’t tied to what we accomplish but who we are.

If your intention is to help people, you have to embody that intention by being kind, openhearted, and innovative, by recognizing people’s strengths, supporting their weaknesses, listening, helping them grow, reading what they need from you, and noticing when it changes. If your intention is to support your family, you might decide that you have to be generous, present, hardworking, and organized. If your intention is to live your passion, maybe you have to be committed, energetic, and truthful. (Note that in Chapter One we cleared out external noise so that we could see our values more clearly. When you identify your intentions, they reveal your values. The intentions to help people and to serve mean you value service. The intention to support your family means you value family. It’s not rocket science, but these terms get thrown around and used interchangeably, so it helps to know how they connect and overlap.)

Living your intention means having it permeate your behavior. For instance, if your goal is to improve your relationship, you might plan dates, give your partner gifts, and get a haircut to look better for them. Your wallet will be thinner, your hair might look better, and your relationship may or may not improve. But watch what happens if you make internal changes to live your intention. In order to improve your relationship, you try to become calmer, more understanding, and more inquisitive. (You can still go to the gym and get a haircut.) If the changes you make are internal, you’ll feel better about yourself and you’ll be a better person. If your relationship doesn’t improve, you’ll still be the better for it.


Once you know the why behind the want, consider the work behind the want. What will it take to get the nice house and the fancy car? Are you interested in that work? Are you willing to do it? Will the work itself bring you a sense of fulfillment even if you don’t succeed quickly—or ever? The monk who asked me why I wanted to learn all of the scripture by heart didn’t want me to be mesmerized by the superpowers of other monks and to seek those powers out of vanity. He wanted to know if I was interested in the work—in the life I would live, the person I would be, the meaning I would find in the process of learning the scriptures. The focus is on the process, not the outcome.

The Desert Fathers were the earliest Christian monks, living in hermitage in the deserts of the Middle East. According to these monks, “We do not make progress because we do not realize how much we can do. We lose interest in the work we have begun, and we want to be good without even trying.” If you don’t care deeply, you can’t go all in on the process. You’re not doing it for the right reasons. You can reach your goals, get everything you ever wanted, be successful by anyone’s terms, only to discover you still feel lost and disconnected. But if you’re in love with the day-to-day process, then you do it with depth, authenticity, and a desire to make an impact. You might be equally successful either way, but if you’re driven by intention, you will feel joy.


Alongside your to-do list, try making a to-be list. The good news is you’re not making your list longer—these are not items you can check off or complete—but the exercise is a reminder that achieving your goals with intention means living up to the values that drive those goals.


Let’s say my goal is to be financially free. Here’s my to-do list:

  • Research lucrative job opportunities requiring my skill set
  • Rework CV, set up informational meetings to identify job openings
  • Apply for all open positions that meet my salary requirements

But what do I need to be? I need to be:

  • Disciplined
  • Focused
  • Passionate


Let’s say I want to have a fulfilling relationship. What do I need to do?

  • Plan dates
  • Do nice things for my partner
  • Improve my appearance

But what do I need to be?

  • More calm
  • More understanding
  • More inquisitive about my partner’s day and feelings

And if you have a clear and confident sense of why you took each step, then you are more resilient. Failure doesn’t mean you’re worthless—it means you must look for another route to achieving worthwhile goals. Satisfaction comes from believing in the value of what you do.


The best way to research the work required to fulfill your intention is to look for role models. If you want to be rich, study (without stalking!) what the rich people you admire are being and doing, read books about how they got where they are. Focus especially on what they did at your stage, in order to get where they are now.

You can tour an entrepreneur’s office or visit an expat’s avocado ranch and decide it’s what you want, but that doesn’t tell you anything about the journey to get there. Being an actor isn’t about appearing on screen and in magazines. It’s about having the patience and creativity to perform a scene sixty times until the director has what she wants. Being a monk isn’t admiring someone who sits in meditation. It’s waking up at the same time as the monk, living his lifestyle, emulating the qualities he displays. Shadow someone at work for a week and you’ll gain some sense of the challenges they face, and whether those are challenges you want to take on.

In your observations of people doing the work, it’s worth remembering that there can be multiple paths to achieve the same intention. For example, two people might have helping the earth as an intention. One could do it through the law, working with the nonprofit Earthjustice; the other could do it through fashion, like Stella McCartney, who has helped popularize vegan leather. In the next chapter we’ll talk about tapping into the method and pursuit that fits you best, but this example shows that if you lead with intention, then you open up the options for how to reach your goal.

And, as we saw with the example of sailing around the globe, two identical acts can have very different intentions behind them. Let’s say two people give generous donations to the same charity. One does it because she cares deeply about the charity, a broad intention, and the other does it because he wants to network, a narrow intention. Both donors are commended for their gifts. The one who truly wanted to make a difference feels happy and proud and a sense of meaning. The one who wanted to network only cares whether he met anyone useful to his career or social status. Their different intentions make no difference to the charity—the gifts do good in the world either way—but the internal reward is completely different.

It should be said that no intentions are completely pure. My charitable acts might be 88 percent intended to help people and 8 percent to feel good about myself and 4 percent to have fun with my other charitable friends. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with cloudy or multifaceted intentions. We just need to remember that the less pure they are, the less likely they are to make us happy, even if they make us successful. When people gain what they want but aren’t happy at all, it’s because they did it with the wrong intention.


The broadest intentions often drive efforts to help and support other people. Parents working overtime to put food on the table for their families. Volunteers devoting themselves to a cause. Workers who are motivated to serve their customers. We sense these intentions from the people we encounter, whether it’s the hairdresser who really wants to find a style that suits you or the doctor who takes the time to ask about your life. Generous intentions radiate from people, and it’s a beautiful thing. Time and again we see that if we’re doing it for the external result, we won’t be happy. With the right intention, to serve, we can feel meaning and purpose every day.

Living intentionally means stepping back from external goals, letting go of outward definitions of success, and looking within. Developing a meditation practice with breathwork is a natural way to support this intention. As you cleanse yourself of opinions and ideas that don’t make sense with who you are and what you want, I recommend using breathwork as a reminder to live at your own pace, in your own time. Breathwork helps you understand that your way is unique—and that’s as it should be.


The physical nature of breathwork helps drive distractions from your head. Breathwork is calming, but it isn’t always easy. In fact, the challenges it brings are part of the process.

I’m sitting on a floor of dried cow dung, which is surprisingly cool. It’s not uncomfortable, but it’s not comfortable. My ankles hurt. I can’t keep my back straight. God, I hate this, it’s so difficult. It’s been twenty minutes and I still haven’t cleared my mind. I’m supposed to be bringing awareness to my breath, but I’m thinking about friends back in London. I sneak a peek at the monk closest to me. He’s sitting up so straight. He’s nailing this meditation thing. “Find your breath,” the leader is saying. I take a breath. It’s slow, beautiful, calm.

  • Oh, wait. Oh okay. I’m becoming aware of my breath.
  • Breathing in… breathing out…
  • Oh I’m there…
  • Okay, this is cool…
  • This is interesting…
  • Okay.
  • This…
  • Works…
  • Wait, I’ve an itch on my back—
  • Breathing in… breathing out.
  • Calm.

My first trip to the ashram was two weeks long, and I spent it meditating with Gauranga Das every morning for two hours. Sitting for that long, often much longer, is uncomfortable and tiring and sometimes boring. What’s worse, unwanted thoughts and feelings started drifting into my head. I worried that I wasn’t sitting properly and that the monks would judge me. In my frustration, my ego spoke up: I wanted to be the best meditator, the smartest person at the ashram, the one who made an impact. These weren’t monk-like thoughts. Meditation definitely wasn’t working the way I had thought it would. It was turning me into a bad person!

I was shocked and, to be frank, disappointed to see all the unresolved negativity inside myself. Meditation was only showing me ego, anger, lust, pain—things I didn’t like about myself. Was this a problem… or was it the point?

I asked my teachers if I was doing something wrong. One of them told me that every year the monks meticulously cleaned the Gundicha Temple in Puri, checking every corner, and that when they did it, they visualized cleaning their hearts. He said that by the time they finished, the temple was already getting dirty again. That, he explained, is the feeling of meditation. It was work, and it was never done.

Meditation wasn’t making me a bad person. I had to face an equally unappealing reality. In all that stillness and quiet, it was amplifying what was already inside me. In the dark room of my mind, meditation had turned on the lights.

In getting you where you want to be, meditation may show you what you don’t want to see.

Many people run from meditation because they find it difficult and unpleasant. In the Dhammapada the Buddha says, “As a fish hooked and left on the sand thrashes about in agony, the mind being trained in meditation trembles all over.” But the point of meditation is to examine what makes it challenging. There is more to it than closing your eyes for fifteen minutes a day. It is the practice of giving yourself space to reflect and evaluate.

By now I’ve had many beautiful meditations. I’ve laughed, I’ve cried, and my heart has felt more alive than I knew possible. The calming, floating, quiet bliss comes eventually. Ultimately, the process is as joyous as the results.


As you’ve probably noticed, your breathing changes with your emotions. We hold our breath when we’re concentrating, and we take shallow breaths when we’re nervous or anxious. But these responses are instinctive rather than helpful, meaning that to hold your breath doesn’t really help your concentration, and shallow breathing actually makes the symptoms of anxiety worse. Controlled breathing, on the other hand, is an immediate way to steady yourself, a portable tool you can use to shift your energy on the fly.

For millennia, yogis have practiced breathing techniques (called prānāyāma) to do things like stimulate healing, raise energy, and focus on the present moment. The Rig Veda describes breath as the path beyond the self to consciousness. It states that breath is “the life, like one’s own son,” or as Abbot George Burke (also known as Swami Nirmalananda Giri) describes it, “the extension of our inmost life.” In the Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutta, the Buddha described ānāpānasati (which roughly translated means “mindfulness of breathing”) as a way to gain enlightenment. Modern science backs up the effectiveness of prānāyāma for myriad effects including improving cardiovascular health, lowering overall stress, and even improving academic test performance. The meditations I present here and elsewhere in the book are universally used in therapy, coaching, and other meditation practices throughout the world.

When you align with your breath, you learn to align with yourself through every emotion—calming, centering, and de-stressing yourself.

Once or twice a day, I suggest setting aside time for breathwork. Additionally, breathwork is such an effective way to calm yourself down that I use it, and suggest others use it, at points throughout the day when you feel short of breath or that you’re holding your breath. You don’t need to be in a relaxing space in order to meditate (though it is obviously helpful and appropriate when you are new to meditation). You can do it anywhere—in the bathroom at a party, when getting on a plane, or right before you make a presentation or meet with strangers.


Here are powerful breathing patterns that I use every day. They can be used as needed to either induce focus or increase calm.


For the calming and energizing breathing exercises I describe below, begin your practice with the following steps.

  1. Find a comfortable position—sitting in a chair, sitting upright with a cushion, or lying down
  2. Close your eyes
  3. Lower your gaze (yes, you can do this with your eyes closed)
  4. Make yourself comfortable in this position
  5. Roll back your shoulders
  6. Bring your awareness to
  • Calm
  • Balance
  • Ease
  • Stillness
  • Peace

Whenever your mind wanders just gently and softly bring it back to

  • Calm
  • Balance
  • Ease
  • Stillness
  • Peace
  1. Now become aware of your natural breathing pattern. Don’t force or pressure your breath, just become aware of your natural breathing pattern.

    At the ashram we were taught to use diaphragmatic breathing. To do so, place one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest, and:

  • Breathe in through your nose, and out through your mouth
  • When you inhale, feel your stomach expand (as opposed to your chest)
  • When you exhale, feel your stomach contract
  • Continue this in your own pace, at your own time
  • When you inhale, feel that you are taking in positive, uplifting energy
  • When you exhale, feel that you are releasing any negative, toxic energy
    1. Lower your left ear to your left shoulder as you breathe in… and bring it back to the middle as you breathe out.
    2. Lower your right ear to your right shoulder as you breathe in… and bring it back to the middle as you breathe out.
    3. Really feel the breath, with no rush or force, in your own pace, at your own time

    Breathe to calm and relax yourself

    Do this after you’ve done the breathwork preparation above:

    • Breathe in for a count of 4 through your nose in your own time at your own pace
    • Hold for a count of 4
    • Exhale for a count of 4 through your mouth

    Do this for a total of ten breaths.

    Breathe for energy and focus (kapalabhati)

    Do this after you’ve done the breathwork preparation above:

    • Breathe in through your nose for a count of 4
    • Then exhale powerfully through your nose for less than a second (You will feel a sort of engine pumping in your lungs.)
    • Breathe in again through your nose for a count of 4

    Do this for a total of ten breaths.

    Breathe for sleep

    • Breathe in for 4 seconds
    • Exhale for longer than 4 seconds

    Do this until you are asleep or close to it.






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