Setting Intentions by Kitty Wheater

22 January 2016


We asked writers to talk about the idea of setting intentions for 2016. Picking up on some of the themes in Tibet’s Secret Temple each blog post relates to the exhibition from the perspective of the writer. Kitty Wheater, Anthropology DPhil Student at the University of Oxford, gives her take.

Mindfulness, Setting Intentions, and Appeasing the Serpent Spirits

Tibet’s Secret Temple’ has a captivating foundation story. Lukhang, the name of the island temple shielded by willow trees behind the Potala Palace in Lhasa, translates as “Temple to the Serpent Spirits (lu)”. The temple was built in the seventeenth century when the Fifth Dalai Lama, who was building the majestic Palace that would form the new seat of government in Tibet, received an unexpected apparition. A lu, a serpent-shaped water deity, surfaced during the Dalai Lama’s meditations to warn that the Palace’s construction was damaging their underground realm. By way of appeasement, he promised to build a temple.

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Lhasa Potala Palace by David Bickerstaff. (Image credit: David Bickerstaff 2015)

His successor, the controversial Sixth Dalai Lama, completed the Lukhang: it housed a shrine to the Lord of the lu; its lower-level architecture honoured the lu in style. Its uppermost chamber contained murals depicting advanced Tantric practices for the spiritual betterment of the head of government; murals that, digitally recreated, are the centrepiece of Wellcome Collection’s ‘Tibet’s Secret Temple‘ exhibition.

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Close up detail of model of the Lukhang by Capital Models, 2015. (Image credit: Wellcome Trust)

I visited the exhibition at the turn of the New Year. I enjoyed the idea of temple-building as an act of appeasement, responding to a metaphysical knock on the door by an unfortunate and disenfranchised lu. To me it resembled the processes of setting New Year intentions and resolutions that at this time of year fill both the newspapers and our reflective moments. These new, or renewed, intentions are often grounded in a sense of appeasement, or reconfiguration; something has been knocking on our metaphysical door. The new year has an impetus, a sense of ending and beginning that invites reassessment of where one is going, and an opportunity to redirect the course: to build a metaphorical temple that honours something we had forgotten, or that has been left behind.

While we’re told to make our New Year resolutions specific, measurable and achievable for the best chance of success – “I will go to the gym three times a week for an hour” – an intention is somewhat different from a goal and deserves equal consideration at this time of year. Among the mindfulness practitioners with whom I practise, teach and conduct research, intention is a frequently-cited concept. It is bigger-picture in scope than a goal and doesn’t have a specific tick-box or end-point. It’s more of an orientation; a direction that, like all directions, is an emergent property both of where we are now and also of where we hope to go next. It doesn’t belong solely to the separate, better ‘us’ that we will be in six months’ time; it is forever formative, expressed through our sense of direction in the here and now. This is what gives an intention its sense of resonance and meaning.

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Statue of the 5th Dalai Lama. (Image credit: photograph by James T. Murray)

In recognition of this, secular mindfulness practices in the West focus on seeing the ‘now’ more clearly, so that we attune more acutely to the ways in which we are both intentional and unintentional. Mindfulness, taught in a variety of contexts from schools to hospitals, retrains the attention to pick up on a wider variety of experience: to include what is usually neglected or ignored – our own personal lu; to hold in wider perspective what we usually zoom into – that magnificent palace on whose building we’ve set our hearts. By allowing our experience to include both of these, we can reflect on whether the palace is the goal that we will pursue at any cost, or whether the arrival of the lu is a warning sign that we have actually strayed from our bigger-picture direction – whether that’s towards compassion, clarity, learning, creativity or health – that now requires some remedial action.

The idea of setting our intention presupposes bravery, because it assumes that we as individuals have the capacity in some way to set our own course. It also requires the willingness to be creative when life throws a lu into the works. We grant the lu an audience because we trust that whatever it asks, we will have the capacity to respond in some way that honours our principles, even if we can’t call a halt to the construction of the Palace and even if we don’t have enough bricks specifically for a temple. In fact, because an intention is somewhat bigger-picture than a goal, it has a little more resilience and autonomy than a goal when we come up against conditions that limit our capacity to act. Our intention is not something that we will achieve or conquer, although we can delight in the accomplishment of a goal well-met. Instead, it is something to which we ‘stay true’ or ‘align’: it’s the direction we choose to take when events arise that are both expected and unexpected, congruent and incongruent.

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Full model of the Lukhang Temple by Capital Models, 2015. (Image credit: Wellcome Trust)

The lu was an unexpected and incongruent guest, but ultimately an enriching one. If it had never visited, the Fifth Dalai Lama would have built his Palace, just as he had planned, and pursued his intention of spiritually-inspired statesmanship as well as he could, but he would never have built the temple with its celebrated murals. If the lu had visited and been turfed out on its tail, perhaps the water deities would have risen up and destroyed the Palace, reclaiming the land for themselves.

Instead, its warning were heard and the Fifth Dalai Lama and his successor built both a Palace and a beautiful temple. The lu were appeased, the Lukhang and its murals enriched the spiritual practice of successive Dalai Lamas and Tibetan statesmanship retained its new palatial home. Here’s to setting intentions in 2016 and to watching their trajectories unfold.

Kitty is an Anthropology DPhil Student at the University of Oxford, researching and teaching mindfulness-based approaches. You can follow Kitty’s blog.