Buddhist “Intention Setting Ceremony” for New Years (and Refuge Recovery)

Several candles laid out ceremonially with meditation bells and a copy of the Refuge Recovery book
A quick photo of the candles from our New Years intention setting ceremony at the Montreal Refuge Recovery meeting.

“Intention setting” is a concept you can find in a variety of Buddhist contexts, either as a daily practice done by an individual, or a communal ceremony performed by a sangha (community) of Buddhists. Often intention setting ceremonies are performed around the new year, as a more wholesome replacement for “New Years resolutions”.

This article describes an intention setting ceremony I synthesized for my Refuge Recovery group that meets each week. I’m sharing it for the sake of any Refuge Recovery groups, other Buddhist meetings, or anyone else who wants to try a ceremony like this!

Table of contents


The core idea is that instead of doing “new years resolutions” – which don’t work and are a capitalist mesa – we pick an “intention” for the new year and work to keep that wholesome motivation in our heart at all times. We’re less likely of “screwing it up” with a single action than with a “resolution” and the intention gives us something we can come back to on a day to day basis to improve ourselves over the year.

I’ve done them at an Against The Stream meeting as well as my local True North Insight meditation group , and in my experience they are very beautiful and motivational. The theme of setting intentions also fits really well with the Refuge Recovery program and there’s even a perfect reading to use right there in the book!

In addition to integrating what I remember from the ceremonies I’ve attended, I read a few articles that gave me ideas and inspiration for the steps and guided meditation below. Here are the ones I found most useful:

We tried out the script below last night with the Refuge Recovery Montreal sangha and it turned out AMAZING! Everyone enjoyed the process and participate with so much sincerity it filled my heart with mudita (celebration). Each person’s share was inspiring to everyone else and we were nodding our heads off at the importance of each intention and the good ideas for protecting the intentions that people had (see the details below for what I mean).

Also the candles were a big hit, so if you can, use candles. They were like “lets always have candles!” and I can’t really argue ?

One note is that you really want to have time for everyone to talk, so if that’s not normal in your group, plan the time carefully and maybe keep the earlier meditation shorter and/or time people’s shares carefully.

Alright, enough preamble! Below is the full process we used. Of course you can change it up and write your own introductory text about the importance of intentions, or change whatever you want! I included everything I think was important to the success of our meeting.

Intention-Setting Ceremony Steps

  • Before starting the meeting, light a large candle next to enough small, unlit candles for each of the participants. Let the mystery build.
  • Normal meeting preamble, introductions etc.
  • Do a meditation that goes with the theme of intentions.
  • Read from the start of Chapter 6: Intention (page 41) of the Refuge Recovery book, and continue for as long as you like.
    • We read about 1 page worth, until “and not the act itself.” but there are lots of good places you could stop if you want to read more.
    • See below for an appropriate quoted excerpt from the Refuge Recovery.
    • Of course if you’re using this ceremony outside RR, just read something else, see the reference links for inspiration!
  • Introduce the idea of an intention-setting ceremony for the new year.
    • Explain how it replaces a “resolution” with something more wholesome.
    • I mentioned how this is a common daily practice in Tibetan Buddhism (see links).
    • Emphasize how this intention is something they should be keeping in mind throughout the year, and of course for the rest of their lives.
    • You can also talk about the relationship of between “motivations” (the underlying/subconscious motivations for our actions) and “intentions” (the chosen/conscious ideas that drive our actions), and how in Buddhism we try to use mindfulness to empower our “intentions” to be wise and in control of our action, while disempowering our subconscious “motivations” (like greed, hatred and delusion) from controlling us.
  • Ask everyone to get back into a sitting posture for a short, guided meditation where they will choose an intention for the year.
  • Lead the Intention-Setting Guided Meditation (described below).
  • At this point, they probably have something to say!
    • Leave a few quiet moments for them to process it if they haven’t decided yet.
  • Explain the Process for Intention-Sharing  (described below) which will serve as the “sharing” component of this meeting.
  •  Let people volunteer to share one at a time, lighting their candle and explaining their intention and how they will nurture and protect it throughout the year.
  • When everyone who wants to share has done so, continue with the meeting announcements and dedication of merit as normal.

Intention-Setting Guided Meditation

  • Get comfortable and start to breathe smoothly and deeply.
  • As is common in Tibetan meditation practice, do a few very deep breaths, filling your lungs like a jar being filled with water right to the lip,  as if it would overflow, then slowly but fully emptying them.
  • Each time you breathe out, ask yourself “What is my deepest intention”
  • Breathing in, as deep as you can
  • Breathing out, asking yourself “What is the change I need in my life, and what are the intentions that will bring that change to fruition?”
  • Pause
  • “What intention will bring peace and happiness for myself, and for those I love?”
  • You can think of just one, or several. Listen to your deepest heart as you breathe out.
  • Pause
  • “What motivations are blocking these intentions from being fulfilled in my life?”
  • Pause
  • “What is my deepest intention for this coming year?”
  • Pause
  • Ring bell

Process for Intention-Sharing

  • One at a time, people volunteer to come forward to where the candles are.
  • Pick up an unlit candle and, holding your chosen new year intention in your heart, light the candle as a symbolic commitment to follow through on that intention. (i.e. do it slowly and mean it!)
  • Sit back down and talk about your intention:
  • What was the intention, and why is it important in your life?
  • What can you do, in the coming year, to support this intention and help it come to fruition?
  • What underlying motivations and related wholesome states will support this intention?
  • What underlying motivations will hinder this motivation, and how will you stand on guard with mindfulness against these defilements and challenges?

That’s it! Like I said, it worked great for us, and everyone had something to say.

Please feel free to copy this and try it out now or just after new years! Change anything you want!

If you’ve got other ideas, share them in the comments ?

Appendix i: Excerpt from Chapter 6 of Refuge Recovery

We renounce greed, hatred, and delusion. We train our minds to meet all pain with compassion and all pleasure with nonattached appreciation. We cultivate generous, kind, and compassionate wishes for all living beings. We practice honesty and humility and live with integrity.

We intend to meet all pain with compassion and all pleasure with nonattached appreciation, to be generous and kind to all living beings, to be honest and humble, to live with integrity, and to practice nonharming.

Our intentions are always based on our understanding. Therefore, it is important, first and foremost, to understand cause and effect. Wise intention means that we take full responsibility for all our actions and the consequences of our actions. In this factor of the path we are asked to intentionally align our actions with kindness, compassion, generosity, forgiveness, and understanding.

Intentions are the goals or aims of our actions. They are the reasons behind our actions.

Having learned the truths of existence, we must now align our thoughts and intentions toward the goal of recovery and freedom from suffering. This consists of redirecting our thoughts and intentions from the negative karma-producing intentions like greed, hatred, and delusion to the positive intentions of kindness, compassion, generosity, forgiveness, appreciation, and understanding.

In order to recover, we must aim our life’s energy and actions toward being free from all forms of hatred, ill will, aversion, and wishing harm on ourselves and others. We must also be free from the greed for pleasure, which is clearly the cause of much of our addictions. Greed is desire out of control. Our intention doesn’t need to be free from desire itself, but only free from the extremes of craving, clinging, attachment, and greed. Wanting something is not a problem, but having to have something is—it’s a setup for suffering.

Intention plays a central role in the spiritual life. All our volitional actions come from our intentions—the actions that are at the heart of karma, which literally means action. Most of us misunderstand karma: we think that it refers to the result. Something bad happens and we say, “That was my karma” or “That was her karma.” Actually, karma is action itself. The result is the karmic fruit. And that karmic fruit—the outcome of an action—comes from our intention, not the act itself.

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