Eightfold Path: Right Intention

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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.

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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