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March 12, 2013

Intending for Change

This weekend I heard about a curious study suggesting the power of collective intention. Researchers instructed groups as small as 25 to sit in a circle with a brick placed in the center of the group. Participants were then asked to intend, pray, focus on heating up the brick. After 10 minutes the brick’s temperature was raised.

I learned about this study a whole 24 hours ago, and what I take to be the heart of the study—that our internal intentions have an external effect—has infused my thoughts and actions. I noticed that I dedicated about 60 seconds of time thinking about a woman I just saw and intending love and peace to fill her being. I noticed I paid attention during my son’s goodnight prayers and experienced some fervency where I usually find monotony. I noticed that I thought about a dear and estranged friend, sending care and love to him and wondering if he might literally be feeling it. I noticed that my thoughts about Move to End Violence were accompanied with exuberance and hopefulness.

If a group of 25 can change the temperature of a brick by their intentions, isn’t it arguable that we--a cohort of 20 who are infinitely more invested and committed to our task than our brick heating counterparts--can shift the climate in our world away from violence and towards human flourishing?

I think so. I FEEL so. And, even if you can’t make this intellectual leap with me, perhaps you can make the following:  My faith in the neuroscience study impacted my activities, and those activities impacted other people’s experiences. Because I believed in the brick heater-uppers, I spent 60 seconds focusing on a stranger. I listened to my son’s prayers. I wished goodwill towards a person with whom I cannot see eye to eye. Consequently, a stranger received a smile. A 4-year -old received an un-rushed goodnight ritual. A man may receive a drop more of empathy in his next tense interaction with an estranged friend (me). My intentions shaped my activities that in turn impacted another’s experience.

And the same may be true with my experience with Move to End Violence. I spent four glorious days in the thoughtful, dynamic, and powerful company of 19 other leaders who share the common goal of ending violence to women and girls. In being a part of the collective, my temperature changed. Let me explain a specific shift.

Jennifer Buffett, co-founder of the NoVo Foundation, articulated NoVo's commitment to shift culture from one marked with domination to one marked with collaboration, to create a world where every girl and woman is safe and empowered. She spoke of NoVo’s intention to invest deeply in the work. As I listened, I realized that so often our organization has functioned with the question, “How can we make the most out of the very least?” I was inspired to wonder, “What would we create if we had all of the resources that we need?” Parker Palmer, a Quaker writer, explains, “In the human world, abundance does not happen automatically…Whether the scarce resource is money or love or power or words, the true law of life is that we generate more of whatever seems scarce by trusting its supply and passing it around.” As I listened to Jennifer Buffett I found myself leaning into the possibility that we will have all the resources we need to realize our vision. I found myself accepting the invitation to dream about what we want to do rather than fret about how we could do it.

This internal shift—pondering abundance rather than assuming scarcity—ensued from sitting in a circle of 20. Perhaps, my next meeting with a funder will be marked with more ambition and less reservation. Perhaps my faith in abundance, similar to my faith in the hot brick, will shape my actions that will, in turn, impact the experience of others.

Or perhaps the brick did heat up after all. Perhaps it is true that our collective intentions will literally shift reality. Perhaps violence against women and girls will decrease and human flourishing will increase because we sat in a circle and intended it to. Or perhaps violence against women and girls will decrease and human flourishing will increase because we sat in a circle and we were changed. Or perhaps it is not either/or but both/and. That’s my hope. Or better yet, that’s my intention.

Art by lizar_tistry