Urges, impulses and intentions, oh my!

The fourth Aggregate is volition. Like feeling tones and cognition, this is a mental formation, made of thoughts and emotions. But unlike the others, volition is what causes action to take place. It is not the action itself, but the arising urge to act.
For example, we are in a conversation, have the compelling urge to say something and blurt it out. In the moment before we speak, there is volition. Maybe we don’t notice volition as we whiz right past it into speech or action, but it is there. And it is a guaranteed life-enhancer to spend some time understanding what really happens at that point of volition.

Thinking back, most of us can see that there have probably been occasions we wish we had paused to consider the wisdom of speaking or acting out. With mindfulness practice, we learn to take that pause, see the urge, the volition, and see if it is coming from a place of kindness and connection or if is arising out of fear in a hunger for approval or the need to defend our sense of separate self.

In sitting practice we might watch how feeling tones, especially unpleasant ones, spark volition. The desire to move, scratch or stretch, for example, rises out of nowhere and now we are sitting with it. Ordinarily we would scratch or move without even being aware that we did so. But here we are sitting with a strong intention to be still, present and compassionate. So we can see volition in operation, pushing hard for an action, taunting us to do something about this now seemingly intolerable situation of a leg falling asleep or some other physical sensation that calls out for action. We are still, creating with our attention to the breath or other physical sensation a quality of spaciousness and clarity. We watch how, as we continue to notice the volition, it eventually falls away.

This is not to say you ‘must not scratch or move’, because nothing will make us itchier or more restless than the idea that we can’t. But in simply noticing the volition, we can get curious. We can pause before acting to question whether it is necessary. Maybe it’s not. Maybe if we just sit and observe the volition, it will pass. It always does, but sometimes not soon enough and we find we are no longer able to sit with it. So we act. But that awareness is there. We notice. That’s the valuable skill of mindfulness we are developing.

Just like the other aggregates, we discover volition is insubstantial and impermanent, no matter how urgent it seems at the time. Unheeded, it dissolves into nothingness, sooner or later.

Volition is also ungovernable. We didn’t make up this itch. It happens in the field of our experience. We will either be mindless and act upon it, or mindful and discern whether the action it calls for is skillful.

Clearly this insubstantial, impermanent and ungovernable volition is not who we are, but it is a valuable place to rest our awareness because it is the place we have the opportunity to be skillful, creating ease and happiness instead of suffering.

There are two kinds of volition:

  • The first is volition that is conditioned by past actions that have set in motion the arising of the same destructive decisions over and over again.
  • The second is the conditioning decisions we make in the present that affect our current and future experiences.


Each of us has plenty of source material to look at as we develop mindfulness in our lives. We can notice the arising of a decision to do something. At that moment of noticing we can skillfully pause and examine the ‘strings attached’ to this volition, this urge to do something. We can notice:

  • What thoughts or emotions preceded the urge?
  • What cause or condition sparked it?
  • Does the cause resonate with some memory of a similar situation?
  • If so, are we reacting to some long ago distress that we haven’t faced and just use as a mindless basis to keep making poor choices?


Regular Insight Meditation helps us to see through the maze of patterned responses that seem to dictate our lives, the ones we have identified as ‘I’ ‘me’ ‘my’ and ‘mine’. This examination is non-judgmental, patient, kind but clear-seeing, so that the patterned excuses we come up with are seen as well. We create a safe space to be honest. Knowing that none of this is who we are, that we don’t have to shore up and protect our identity, we can acknowledge where we are unskillful and set the intention to be more skillful by noticing the urge to act or speak and pause there.


Developing the ability to be compassionate with ourselves and others, we are seeding our present and future with the conditioning volition of kindness, compassion, joy, wisdom and peace.


Here is a quote by a 19th century Buddhist teacher and poet, Patrul Rinpoche.
Do not take lightly small misdeeds, believing they can do no harm.
Even a tiny spark of fire can set alight a mountain of hay.
Do not take lightly small good deeds believing they can hardly help
For drops of water one by one in time can fill a giant pot.


We are most of us familiar with the term karma, but we have not discussed it in this class before. A discussion of volition is the perfect spot to look at karma. We can see how our urges, choices and decisions to say or do something have the potential to set in motion actions and words that determine how our future will play out. Through awareness and compassion, we are able to seed karma that has the potential to dissolve suffering.


When we see conditioned volition arising in the present from the seeds of greed, hatred or delusion we planted through mindlessness in the past, we can meet it with the conditioning seeds of kindness, compassion, generosity, peace and wisdom. At every point where we pause and choose wisely, we are laying the groundwork for current and future happiness.


Perhaps we get impatient for our mind to cease producing urges that are painful and destructive. If we can remember that these are leftover seeds and that we have in every moment the power and the opportunity to stop feeding them by acting upon them, then we can take heart in that. Each time those urges arise, if we meet them with compassion and wisdom, they lose their potency to take us on a wild painful ride of mindlessness.


In each moment we always have a choice of which seeds we feed, which volition we act upon.

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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