The Flow of Intention

What the river taught me about influencing the future

I’ve just returned from six days of ecstatic river rafting with three of my kids on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho. I was fed on every level and through every sense, from outrageously beautiful scenery and fabulous company to delicious food and physical challenge. We were tended by guides who generously and joyfully shared their passion for and knowledge of the river, along with a boggling panoply of skills.

Before the trip, I’d been immersed in thinking about the effects of intention — that is, how what we think and do can shape the world. What if we knew that every thought, every breath and interaction, was radiating out and creating an effect? How would that knowledge transform our sense of place in the universe and responsibility to the future? How would it change our lives?

Thanks to popular authors like Wayne Dyer and Deepak Chopra, there’s a lot of interest in the role that intentions might play in love, business, and personal growth. In fact, the degree to which human consciousness shapes the world we see has intrigued thinkers from both the East and the West for thousands of years. With the rise of Western science and its mechanistic view of the universe, the idea went underground for a few centuries, but it has resurfaced over the past several decades. Today, a growing number of scientists are as drawn to these questions as the ancient philosophers were, and a few will even admit it.

My river mates were not aware that I’d been obsessing over all of this, and for a few days, at least, I focused on the world around me. There’s nothing like floating along a river for days to feel what it is to be in the flow. And there’s nothing like white water — particularly when you are alone in a little inflatable rubber-ducky boat in class IV rapids — to give you instant feedback about being out of the flow.

I shouldn’t have been surprised that my journey proved to be all about intention, but nonetheless I was. As our third night approached, we set up camp near a hot spring. Drenched and cold, I took a soak and then went for a hike that quickly devolved into a nap against the trunk of a ponderosa pine, the river flowing before me. I woke up with the idea that the large boulder I could see in the middle of the current held a message about the nature of intention, but I couldn’t quite decipher it. I went back to camp and ate until I collapsed in my sleeping bag like a sated puppy.

I have to admit that one of the most blissful benefits offered by our outfitter was that the guides set up camp for us, and so we landed in our tents completely randomly. The next morning when I was packing up, I found a note under my sleeping pad that read: “This is a lucky tent. Here you will find your life’s in-tent-ion.” It turned out to be the handiwork of one of my fellow travelers, who had no clue which of us would end up with the note. But there it was — another little synchronicity, a gentle reminder of the mysterious connections between all of us.

As our trip continued, most of us got dumped in the water and were duly humbled by the river’s incessant power. There were a few heart-stopping moments, but no more than were strictly necessary for us to feel fully alive. I think all of us felt the exhilaration of being entirely in the moment. It’s telling that the only time I was actually frightened was when a moment of indecision wrapped me around a large rock in a swift and choppy part of the river.

One evening a deer strolled within feet of us into the water. She swam across more quickly and elegantly than I could have imagined, letting the current carry her as she crossed. The next morning we woke to clear water that suddenly turned a deep coffee color, smelling of dirt and topped with beige foam. Apparently a storm we’d heard upriver during the night had unleashed a huge landslide whose effect was just reaching us. That day the water splashed brown on every surface. As the guides explained, the turbid waters make it even tougher for the salmon on their long, relentless journey upriver to spawn.

At the heart of intention lies the idea that everything in the universe is infused with a creative power. Some call it intelligence, the mind field, even love. A related concept can be found at least as far back as the third-century philosopher Plotinus. More recently, the thinker Alfred North Whitehead, among others, envisioned a similar universe in which events are linked in an ongoing process, an ever-changing flow.

As Wayne Dyer puts it in his best-selling book The Power of Intention, ultimately intention is not “something you do, but rather a force that exists in the universe as an invisible field of energy.” Dyer acknowledges his debt to the late anthropologist Carlos Castaneda, who in The Power of Silence calls the force intent. Castaneda’s characters belong to a lineage of ancient Mexican sorcerers who spend their lives trying to perceive and harness that force. Today, certain Western scientists are on their own quest, investigating the bizarre world of quantum physics. They’re studying the way atoms can share information instantly — what Einstein called “spooky action at a distance.” Their stated goal is to build an ultrafast computer, but who knows: Maybe they’ll shed some light on the healing power of prayer or “psi” phenomena like precognition.

What I took from the deer and fish was less heady. I couldn’t say at first why their relation to the river moved me so much, but there was something profound in their unselfconscious grace as they moved within it. Upon reflection, I see that the deer exemplifies the fact that it is generally more efficient to go with the flow. But the salmon’s swim upstream reminds me that following a deep instinct or calling often involves struggle and sacrifice.

The thought stayed with me as we traveled downstream, stopping for a hike to a huge stone amphitheater marked with petrogylphs, a place known as Veil Falls where a stream of water from a spring fell down through the air, each drop distinct and hypnotic. Jesse, 21, a third-generation river guide, called it his favorite place on the river. It once had been a stronghold of the Sheepeater Indians, he said, before they became the last of the region’s native peoples to be forced onto a reservation. We all felt something sacred in the play of the water weaving among us as we stood below in clouds of spray that danced up into the clear blue sky.

On our last night, in the heart of a great oval canyon ringed by moon shadows, we sat in a circle and talked about our journey together. A dear friend I’ve known for half my life spoke up, asking the others to do what amounted to a bit of intending on his behalf. Richard is a New York City boy to the bone, with degrees in both business and law, and he can often be found juggling two phones, a laptop, and a Blackberry.

“Think of me as Richard Salmon River, or Richard Middle Fork,” he said. He wanted the group to picture him in the elemental power of the river, to help him keep in touch with the parts of himself that he tends to lose track of in the busy, concrete urban world.

Nice try. Later that night, I blurted out that I couldn’t think of him that way; it just seemed too pompous. But I did promise to think of him as Richard Ducky, bobbling along in a little inflatable boat, paddle held aloft, wet and triumphant. I assured him it was a more powerful image, given the added juice of laughter and a dash of the absurd.

Michael, 19, had a question: “Do you really believe that you can send each other energy?”

“Absolutely,” we said.

“Is it just because you feel connected to each other, or is it possible for all of us to send our intentions out that way?” There was that word again: intention.

Well, we had to agree that a special sense of connection helps. But we told him we also believe that people are constantly sending out ripples and have the power to do it consciously. As our conversation unfolded, I realized that Richard and I were being accorded the status of elders. Michael was asking heartfelt questions about our core beliefs, and I believed what I was saying in response more deeply than ever before.

That night, on the beach, I told the group I hoped to write about intention, and told them they had to find a way to end my story. We all laughed at my demand and then we laid out our sleeping bags and pads in that moonlit canyon and fell asleep under the stars.

The next day, we had one last set of rapids to run, an intimidating new stretch formed by a landslide the year before. As we approached the white water, Jesse, the guide, stood up in the stern of a paddleboat to address us. He started to say that we could take the beauty and power of the river with us if we chose to, but his words were cut short when the boat lurched and nearly threw him over. I took it as one final lesson on the nature of intention — it’s not always synonymous with having things (like endings) just they way we want them. The river has its say.

In one last brush with the river’s power, the safest boat in our flotilla, the oar boat, flipped in the last rapids, but we all made it out. Off the water, we boarded a bus. Soon thereafter we were peeling off in every direction across the country, trailing our sense of connection like the wisps whirling off Veil Falls.

So what did I take from the river? Certainly joy and respite, but, beyond that, a deepening faith in the flow of life itself. And a more refined set of core beliefs: There is a current that is taking us somewhere, and there is a creative intelligence underlying it.

As I thought back over the trip, I remembered that rock in the middle of the current and finally understood its message to me. That rock and our intentions are much alike. They change everything that happens downstream in large and subtle ways. And yet they too are mutable in the endless process of things, ground down or pushed on by landslides and other forces of nature. We plant our willful intentions like rocks in the stream, but then we leave them behind in what amounts to an act of faith in the power or the energy or the love that bears everything along. We know that we are in that flow when we feel ourselves to be surrounded by strength and ease, carried by the current like the deer crossing the river. When we’re touched by beauty and magic. When synchronicity tickles us. And when we’re bounced out of the boat but still come up laughing.

By learning to navigate that energy, or at least trying to learn, we gain access to new ways of thinking and being. Given the serious challenges that face our world, that’s essential. Einstein again: “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”

As for the conclusion I asked the others to help me find, it turns out we were shaping it together as we talked that last night on the beach. The questions we ask, the intentions we form, and the depth of our sincerity as we do so — all are right now making our future. It is the conscious weaving of ourselves into the net of connection that carries us through doubt. The life force that binds us all together was here before we were and undoubtedly will outlast us. But for this fleeting leg of the journey, at least, we can choose where to place our intentions as we ride its current.

Nina Utne is chair and CEO of Utne.

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