Making big life decisions involves being confused. And meditation can help.

By tuning out surface-level thinking, meditation can lead to deep insights, even clarity about your intentions.

There’s this counterintuitive thing about meditation that’s one of its biggest benefits.

While it helps you stay present — not lost in thinking about the past or future — it can also help you come to deep insights. And sometimes these insights are about your intentions, which are informed by the past and impact the future.

During a seven-day silent meditation retreat last year, I outlined two book ideas and finally settled on a design for my first tattoo — which I got tattooed on my arm an hour after leaving the retreat center.

All that silence and meditation had turned down the volume on my surface level thinking. It soothed my worrying, planning, ruminating, reminiscing, etc. until those thoughts were less interesting than how my body felt breathing and what the meditation room sounded like.

This allowed deeper thoughts to bubble to the surface, thoughts that felt so true I couldn’t deny them. Some of these thoughts were intentions.

What do I mean by intentions?

I used to work in the tech industry helping IT companies win business with the federal government. I hated it from the beginning, but I got pretty good at suppressing what I felt in exchange for the job’s benefits. I could afford living in Washington, D.C., during the 2008–10 recession, felt smart and productive, seemed “normal,” and was making my parents proud.

I always knew I would leave someday but couldn’t figure out what I really wanted to do and how to make the switch.

I slowly realized those questions didn’t matter so much. What was holding me back from leaving where the whys. Why was I still working there? Why did I want to leave? Why did I spend most of my free time writing, meditating, and being an activist?

As I began to explore these questions — truly sit with them, without pretending I had the answers — the job became even less attractive. The pointless emails seemed more pointless. A white colleague’s casual racism towards our Muslim CEO began to bother me. What really bothered me, though, was that I didn’t say anything to him about it.

I was finally admitting that who I was at the office and who I was after work were very different people. I was getting in touch with my intentions, which shone a 1,000-watt spotlight on the fact that my job wasn’t aligned with my values.

By then, I had started meditating regularly. I slowly saw that I was working a corporate job because it made other people happy for me. That was my intention for being there.

Around the same time, I was offered a job in the labor movement helping working people fight corporate power. When my new boss called me with the offer, I barely noticed that I was about to take a $20,000 a year pay cut. My anxious thoughts sounded like a kid upset about not getting ice cream and having to settle for cake. They were surface-level, easy to tune out.

Big life decisions — if we’re lucky enough to be in the position to make them — can be years in the making. But you have to be willing to sit with the questions without thinking you know the answers.

You have to be willing to be confused. You have to be willing to admit: I don’t know.

There’s an ancient Russian tale about an old woman named Baba Yaga that illustrates this point. She lives in a hut deep in a forest where she stirs a pot waiting to tell the truth to whoever visits her.

In the story, three people visit.

The first visitor, a young man encouraged to visit by his parents, knocks on Baba Yaga’s door.

“Are you on your own errand or are you sent by another?” she asks.

“I am sent by my father,” the young man says. Baba Yaga throws him into the pot and cooks him.

The second visitor is a young woman who entered the forest on her on. Again, Baba Yaga asks, “Are you on your own errand or are you sent by another?”

“I am on my own errand,” the young woman answers. Baba Yaga throws her into the pot.

The third visitor, a young woman confused about the world, approaches.

“Are you on your own errand or are you sent by another?” Baba Yaga asks.

The young woman says, “In large part I’m on my own errand, but in large part I also come because of others. And in large part I have come because you are here, and because of the forest, and something I have forgotten, and in large part I know not why I come.”

Baba Yaga says, “You’ll do,” and invites her into the hut.

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Writer, meditation teacher, and host of the “Meditation for the 99%” podcast. Get meditation tips straight to your email inbox:

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