Monthly Archives: January 2009

Eightfold Path: Right Intention

Once we have an understanding of Right View, we can explore Right Intention, the second aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path. Right View, as I said before, can be experienced as a subtle yet life-changing shift within ourselves to a deeper more spacious vantage point where we sense (or are at least open to the possibility of) connection, wholeness, integrity.

These first two aspects of the Eightfold Path go hand in hand, each dependent on the other. Without Right View, there is no possibility of Right Intention, for our intentions are rooted in our view of the world. If our view of the world is rooted in fear, we go into lockdown mode. We create protective barriers and see ourselves as totally separate. Separate from other people, separate from nature, separate from the world. From this view, our intention is automatically set on defending the fortress we have created to keep ourselves ‘safely’ separate from life.

Conversely, Right View without Right Intention could create a practice and a life that is more spacey than spacious. Right Intention adds a level of precision, attention, mindfulness and active engagement. Right Intention makes it possible to stay in touch with Right View. It keeps us anchored to a sense of wise understanding.

Right View and Right Intention together set the stage for the rest of the Eightfold Path. It may be useful to think of Right View as the foundation and Right Intention as the hook that anchors us to the foundation. Once they are in place, the other aspects of the Eightfold Path arise in natural alignment.

Another way to think of it is with a musical analogy: Your life is the instrument you have been given. Right View lets you see that your instrument is part of a great orchestra, and you have the opportunity to co-create the symphony of life. Right Intention tunes your instrument. Then all the others – Right Speech, Right Action, etc. — are attuned and resonant, melodic life expressions rising from a deep wisdom. Without the understanding of Right View, there is no symphony. Without tuning of Right Intention, the resulting music is discordant.

Right Intention
Right Intention for our purposes as meditators and Buddhist practitioners is three-fold: First, to develop a regular practice of meditation. First things first, we need to get ourselves to the cushion! Second, to bring our awareness to the present moment, both in our meditation and in our lives. And third, to practice kindness to ourselves and others.

Just adopting these three intentions in our lives can make a remarkable difference. You can see how in the practice of meditation, bringing in Right Intention to bring us back again and again to the breath, to bring our awareness back to sensation and anchoring us in the present moment is a wonderful gift. And when we bring Right Intention into our daily life, we find ourselves being kinder in our interactions and more present for the rich experience of living.

But to fully embrace the idea of Right Intention, it may be helpful to explore our understanding of the word ‘intention’. In English this word has an inherent weakness about it. Think of the expression, “I’m sure he had the best of intentions, but…” And then there is the excuse, “I intended to do it, but other things got in the way.” And of course we all know that “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

So is there no better word than ‘intention’ we could use? Resolve has more power but resolutions are better known for being ‘broken’ than ‘kept.’ So we are inclined to think of the word ‘goal’ as the more powerful serious option. Goal setting is a skill that go-getters have and that’s why they achieve things that others don’t. This is our cultural truth. So why are we playing around with this wishy washy word ‘intention’?

Here’s why: As goal-setters we achieve our goal only to have to set another. Our lives are all about the goal, as we’re playing a game of football or hockey. ‘Keep your eye on the prize.” we are told. But with our eyes locked on the goal, we miss the present moment. We see this moment only to the degree that it serves or hampers us in our pursuit of some future moment that will be perfect in every way. Thus we are not present for the rich experience of life fully lived. We are not present for our loved ones when they talk to us. We are not present to notice the multi-layered complexity and beauty of each moment as it reveals itself. No, we are holding out for that goal of a perfect moment when we will have what we so desperately want. But when we get to that perfect moment we have only developed the habit of looking forward and we have no skills at being present, so we miss it! That perfect moment we longed for! Poof! Gone! As unappreciated as all the other moments that preceded it. So what’s the point?

Setting an intention is very different. Here’s an example from my own life:
Will and I study Spanish every day together. We have set the intention of sitting down after breakfast together to study verbs and read to each other from Spanish children’s books. The intention is fulfilled each morning in each moment of our time together, as we laugh and stumble through the challenge of learning a foreign language, and in the process enjoying each other’s company.

But sometimes we can forget to just stay with the intention, and get caught up in a goal of becoming fluent in Spanish. When we do that we have a very different experience. We waste our time beating ourselves up, being frustrated that our brains can’t remember vocabulary, and feeling like we should just give up. How is this in any way useful? This eye on the goal is really sabotaging the likelihood of achieving it! When we stay with our intention, lo and behold, we are increasingly more fluent with each passing month.

So should we not set goals at all? What a radical notion! It might be interesting to take a holiday from our goals just to see how that change affects our lives. We might find that we are more available for opportunties and life experiences that we could not have even imagined from the limited view of our goal setting.

If throwing out a goal is too radical then, at the very least, it’s important to question it to be sure it is aligned with our deepest values, that it’s not just an expression of our grasping or comparing mind, not a way to prove to the world how great we are. This only builds our fortress walls higher. Goals rooted in fear can only create further suffering.

But upon close examination, even fear-based goals might have a seed of love in them. Sometimes with kind attention we can reframe a goal so it is more authentic. The goal of “I want to be a famous movie star” (i.e. I want people to admire me, I want to project an image, I want to have power and control to protect myself from harm, I want to prove to so and so who dissed me that I’m great, etc.) might on closer inspection contain within it a more loving and authentic desire. Perhaps it is “I want to explore life through a variety of roles and share my expression of my explorations with others.”

You can see how that switches from a distant goal that has no depth or substance into a meaningful moment to moment way to be in the world that arises organically from our own natural skills and unique gifts. This reframed goal has more of the quality of an intention. An intention leans toward connection and is acted upon in every moment. A goal leans toward separation, individuation, and is distant, pulling us out of the moment.

Now we can’t talk about Right Intention without acknowledging that we already have all sorts of unspoken and unexamined intentions in our lives, whether we are aware of them or not. We can get a clue as to our intentions by looking at our behavior – the things we say and do, how we interact with others, how we lead our lives. An unskillful intention can be destructive, causing suffering all around. An unskillful intention is based in fear and is an attempt to protect ourselves from a perceived threat.

Seeing these intentions as bad and setting the intention to get rid of them is simply more fear-based activity that will not produce the desired result. The more skillful way is to bring compassionate attention to them and to provide a safe spacious mind for them to reveal themselves. It’s important for us to remember that inside every unskillful intention is a hurt but loving heart, trying its best to protect us from perceived threats.

Through regular meditative practice and bringing our awareness into the present moment we begin to see these unskillful intentions more clearly. Eventually, with kind attention, we can see we don’t need to protect our identity or transform ourselves into some superhuman to secure respect or love. We can let go of these unskillful intentions as the veils of illusion fall away.

If we have had trauma in our lives that makes self-exploration difficult, it may be useful to seek help with a therapist in examining the fear and the unskillful intentions and behavior. But otherwise, a regular sitting practice, a willingness to notice our thoughts and question their validity, and a great deal of patience to let this lifetime process unfold as it will, is all we need to enjoy the ongoing fruits of practice.

As we practice Right Intention – developing a regular practice of meditation, bringing our awareness back to the present moment, and practicing kindness to ourselves and others — we begin to see its quiet power, and as our understanding increases, the meaning of the word ‘intention’ becomes not just powerful but meaningful, and richly satisfying.

Inaugural Blessings

Pausing in our ongoing exploration of the Noble Eightfold Path, I would like to simply be present for this moment when such strong (and mostly jubilant) emotion is being felt throughout the world.

I want to send metta (loving kindness blessings) to President Obama, his family and his administration. May they be safe and free from harm. May they be happy. May they know peace in their hearts. These are blessings we wish for every being.
For the newly elected leader of a nation I add: May you stay fully in touch with your deepest wisdom. May Right View be the foundation of your every decision. May you be fully present to hear and understand the needs of the people, the planet and the times. May you find peace within yourself and spread that peace throughout the world.

Beyond sending metta, I want to bring full awareness to this moment. First, I want to express gratitude for the skillful means with which every four to eight years our government manages the peaceful, sometimes even cordial, transition of power. All the pomp and circumstance that surrounds this transition helps to ensure the understanding of the importance of this emblematic moment.

Every moment is a moment of transition. Every moment in our lives has the potential to be pivotal. But some moments are the pivotal points in the lives of all beings on our planet at the same time, whether they are aware of it or not. And January 20, 2009 a few minutes after noon EST was one of those. The ramifications of this shift of such a powerful government from operating out of fear to operating out of love, hope and openness are huge. None of us know what the future will hold, whether the promise will bring hoped for results, but the potential is certainly there for positive change.

President Obama has been clear all along that he cannot save the world. He can only inspire us to do so. His greatest gift is his ability to empower us to be the change we want to see in the world. The ‘Obama Era’ is one of service. Each of us in our own way has the opportunity to enrich our own lives and the lives of others by spending some of our time volunteering. It’s up to each of us to look into ourselves to find what it is we would most like to offer. If you are interesting in finding opportunities in your area, go to http://www.volunteersolutions.org/ .

While I have been volunteering for a number of years, for some reason this call to service reminds me more of my father than myself. He had a prestigious career in arts administration as Director of the San Francisco Museum of Art and President of the Philadelphia College of Art, and none of us were surprised when he retired and got out his oil paints and brushes and set up an easel in the spare room. We would not have been surprised if he had volunteered to teach art in the community. But we couldn’t help but be a little surprised that he signed up to be a bus boy at the local free dining room. That volunteer job brought him so much joy. He truly loved the people he served and missed them when his health no longer permitted him to be of service. Years after his death, I still enjoy trying to imagine him busing tables in the St. Vincent de Paul Dining Room in San Rafael, CA. In the scope of his whole life, it was a very small part, but it’s the part that shines the brightest all these many years out.

Eightfold Path: Right View

Right View (aka Wise Understanding) is the first guidepost on the Eightfold Path, and rightly so. Without the Right View, we might approach the Eightfold Path as a checklist of goals to be achieved. There is nothing to achieve. Striving to achieve takes us out of the present moment, and only in this moment can we fully experience life. Without the Right View we might take the Eightfold Path as strict rules to follow and beat ourselves up if we fail to adhere to them. So we need the Right View in order to be in a healthy relationship with the seven other aspects of the Eightfold Path.

So what is this Right View? Well, like any ‘view’ it depends a lot on our vantage point. If we are down in the valley we have a different view of the world than if we are on the hill top. The sun and moon seem to rise later and set earlier than when we are atop a mountain. So with our inner life, vantage point informs our view of what is.

The vantage point for the Right View is both deeper and more expansive than the limited surface view of life we often have. From this vantage point we feel more embodied, more present with whatever sensation arises.

From this vantage point our heart is not finite and fragile in need of protection, but open, infinite and radiant.

From this vantage point we see through the illusion that we are our thoughts. Our mind is spacious, with room for all that arises, like the sky has room for all weather.

From this vantage point we can see how our fear-based defensive behavior keeps us feeling separate and causes suffering in ourselves and others.

From this vantage point we see others with great compassion. The things about them that may have annoyed us from our limited view, we now see as merely unskillful responses to the tangle of suffering caused by their own limited vantage point. We see through all that to the authentic, lovable being with whom we are connected.

From this vantage point, the world is not a mess. It is a wondrous mystery: a rich, vital and volatile mix of pain and pleasure, cause and effect, patterns of cycles and seasons. All that birth, death, decay and rebirth! From this vantage point our awe increases and our harsh judgments and our need to be right simply fall away. Yet we are more able to be powerful agents of change from this vantage point.

How do we come to the Right View?
Chances are if you are reading this, you have at least had glimpses of Right View. Or if not even glimpses, you have some sense of its existence because you feel its absence in your life. Perhaps reading and hearing about it feels like coming home to you.

Giving yourself regular opportunity to experience Right View through the practice of meditation on a daily basis is the simplest and most effective way to access this vantage point. By staying physically relaxed yet mentally alert in our practice and mindful of our thoughts and behavior, we deepen our ability to access Right View. Through regular practice this will become more and more your natural vantage point.

An Introduction to the Noble Eightfold Path

Now we begin on the Fourth Noble Truth. To review the first three:The First Noble Truth is that there is suffering, the Second that it is our tendency to grasp and cling that causes this suffering, and the Third is that the end of suffering is possible. (For more in depth discussion, refer to prior posts in the archive at right.)

The Fourth Noble Truth is that The Noble Eightfold Path is the means to end suffering by developing Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.

On our first encounter with the idea of there being ‘right’ views, speech, etc., we may bristle. We don’t want to be forced into a particular way of speaking or thinking. We want to speak authentically and think for ourselves.

For me the single most powerful sentence the Buddha spoke, the one that drew me to Buddhist study in the first place, was “Be a lamp unto yourself.” (Before I ever undertook to study Buddhism, I had that quote on the back of my book, Tapping the Wisdom Within, A Guide to Joyous Living.) For me, this list of do’s and don’ts just didn’t jive with that statement.

Since becoming a Buddhist practitioner it has been easy to just ignore the subject. There are so many rich veins of Buddhism to explore that even over the course of many years The Eightfold Path rarely came up in any dharma talks in weekly classes or retreats I attended.

But then when the upper retreat hall and residences were built at Spirit Rock, they installed a beautiful hand-painted prayer wheel in the pedestrian entry gate. It is adorned with illustrations of the Eightfold Path. As you walk through, you take a handle — perhaps the one named ‘Right Effort’ — and spin the wheel. Then that focus of Right Effort (or whichever handle you took) stays with you as an intention.

In my comings and goings, I always enjoy spinning the prayer wheel. I remember one day I was walking through, and I had a bit of an aha moment about the Eightfold Path. I recognized that I had resistance to being told what to do, but that in fact, these were not dictates that I must subscribe to or rules of behavior I have to live by, lest I fail to be a good Buddhist. Instead I could see them as useful guideposts, so that when I am suffering I can see them in the fog of my misery shining a helpful light to help me see the cause of my suffering.

For example, say I am feeling oddly discomforted and don’t know why. I can mentally review the Eightfold Path to see if there is anything there to guide me. Say that on this occasion when I come upon Right Speech, and then I remember that the night before I had been talking about someone, telling a story that wasn’t mine to tell, and now I have this residual sense of ickiness, as if I truly have wandered into a sticky and stinky bog in my mind. But now I can see that by not adhering to Right Speech, I had wandered off the Eightfold Path.

That guidepost sheds the light of awareness on my behavior and brings me back on the path. Each time I find my way back, I have learned something valuable. And though I will probably wander off the path many times in many ways, these guideposts help me return more quickly, so that my suffering is shortened as I develop the habit of looking to the guideposts for cues to my current discomfort.

If a path sounds constricting, like a ‘straight and narrow’ path, the truth is that this path is incredibly spacious. For by staying on the path, we free ourselves to be fully present in every moment in an unencumbered way. And that is deep authentic connection indeed.

Over the coming weeks we will explore the aspects of the Eightfold Path. Each is a facet of the same jewel of wisdom, and they are so deeply inter-related that insight in one aspect brings understanding in another. Together they have the capacity to enrich our lives, sweeten our relationships and deepen our practice.

Yes, the Buddha told us to be lamps unto ourselves. But he also offered these guideposts to shed light on our path in order that we may brighten and strengthen our own inner light.