You know when you meet someone who just blows you away with their togetherness and spirituality…? That is how I felt when I first heard Alan Wallace speak back in March about ‘cultivating conative intelligence’. Wallace, who counts the Dalai Lama as one of his close friends is described on his website as ‘dynamic lecturer, progressive scholar, and one of the most prolific writers and translators of Tibetan Buddhism in the West’.
Before trying to explain what conation and conative intelligence is and inevitably not doing justice to his concept, I feel I need to preface this post with a few lines about The other three types of ‘intelligence’ Wallace touches on; attentional, emotional and cognitive (a.k.a mindfulness).
Attentional intelligence, Wallace argues, is knowing how to direct attention to the right things, and then sustaining that attention in a focused fashion. This is important as we want our attention to be in high definition and congruent with the original idea. Emotional intelligence (EI) is the ability to recognise emotions, to discriminate between different feelings, and to use emotional information to guide thinking and behaviour. Cognitive intelligence meanwhile is bringing all your understanding, wisdom, intelligence to the task at hand.
This was interesting to me as I knew all about emotional intelligence (not necessarily from having a great deal of it) as I had recently been trained to deliver EI diagnostics, and attentional intelligence seemed to me to be a no-brainer, especially given all the things that now compete for our attention every second. Where I struggled previously was with the concept of mindfulness. Like many inquisitive people, the more I kept hearing the word the more I was desperate to ‘get it’, to ‘master mindfulness’, but many of the people I spoke to about it likened it to meditation, which the cynical part of me instantly dismissed. It wasn’t until Wallace referred to mindfulness as cognitive intelligence and explained this simply meant ‘bearing in mind’ that I began to see the illuminating effect these three intelligences might have when combined.
The fourth ‘intelligence, ‘conation’ according to Mr Wallace ‘is the mental faculty of purpose or design’, it is the ‘where do you want to go’. By extension conative intelligence is ‘thinking which desires and intentions truly lead to one’s own and others well-being and adopt them, whilst releasing desires and intentions that undermine one’s own and others well-being’. To borrow a phrase from Life Coach Maria Nemeth, this could be translated as ‘doing what you say you are going to do, with clarity, focus, ease and grace’ – this, she argues, is how you can master life’s energies and be successful.
Conative intelligence is about having sound, meaningful aspirations and intentions, and acting on them and them alone. What most of us find is these sound intentions are often hijacked, or we do attend to them but in a dysfunctional way. Wallace argues we need to better understand which desires and intentions will truly lead to happiness. Not hedonistic happiness which is derived from what we can get from the world around us, but genuine happiness, derived from what we bring to the world. We then need to draw on our capacity for mindfulness, bearing in mind these sound intentions and topics without distraction or forgetfulness.
Wallace argues that one of the reasons we as humans struggle with concepts like mindfulness is that we have become addicted to stimulation; to sensory and intellectual stimulation, to perpetual ideation, and to activity itself. When I hear these things laid out I certainly see a lot of these in me and my ‘excuses’ every time I explain why ‘mindfulness is not for me’. But what I have realised is that it is not my capacity for mindfulness that is in question, it is in developing my attentional and conative intelligence that I stand to gain the most.
So I have decided is that CONATION is for me. I want to devote my energies to only those things that will add to my well-being and the well-being of those around me. I also want to be ATTENTIONALLY INTELLIGENT, to be able to attend to my goals with ‘clarity, focus, ease and grace’ (thanks Maria Nemeth!). Finally, I hope to do this in an EMOTIONALLY INTELLIGENT way, using my understanding of my emotions to guide my decisions and behaviours in a way that is congruent with my original idea… If I pursue only those goals worth pursuing, and do so in a focused and attentional fashion, perhaps the mindfulness might not seem such an alien concept to me. I think I’ll start now.