Wise Intention to the rescue!

Intention plays such an important role in our lives but so often we are completely unaware of what our intentions are in any particular endeavor.

If we look again at the Eightfold Path cooking pot analogy, we can see that Wise Intention is the flame that lights the fire that cooks the pot that creates the steam. Without that flame of intention, there will be no cooking tonight!

In all activity and non-activity we have motivations — thoughts that provoke us, inspire us or give us an excuse to do something unskillful. These instigators are clearly not always wise, and the least wise aspect of them is that they are running around directing the show without our being conscious of them!

It’s easy to understand why Wise Intention is first and foremost to be aware, mindful, present in this moment, anchored in physical sensation. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the first of our paired intentions when we begin to meditate.

The second is to be kind. This kindness is not a thin layer of niceness but a deeply rooted and infinite well-wishing for all beings. You can’t fake this! But it does arise quite naturally through meditation. It even arises just when we slow down a bit in our lives.

Ever notice how when you’ve given yourself plenty of time to do your shopping, you have a pleasant time, get along with fellow shoppers and sales clerks, and you aren’t bothered by anything? When we try to do too much in too little time, our motivation is neither to be present or kind but to be outtahere as fast as possible, and we can be ruthless in our mindless rush. The funny thing is that we are much more effective when we slow down and make time for enjoying being present. We make better decisions and fewer mistakes. We don’t have to go back to the store later for the thing we in haste forgot. We don’t have to appear in court or traffic school because of the speeding ticket we got. Slowing down and being present creates kindness, and it also creates more time!

When we talk about intention, you might remember that we looked at it in the Five Aggregates. It is one aspect of Volition, which also includes urges and impulses.

Intention is purposeful. But not all intention is mindful or kind, so we benefit by looking at our intentions in any given situation. You might think of a situation in your life where you feel you keep trying but never get anywhere. Perhaps you feel stuck in a motivational quagmire. You set a goal but never get there. When you slow down and pay attention to the motivations you try to inspire yourself with, you might find that these intentions aren’t sufficiently powerful. They are not rooted deeply enough to be truly inspiring.

Here’s an example:

“I had been gaining weight and knew it would be good to lose that weight, but it was difficult to find a compelling motivation. The strongest I had was that I wanted to fit in the clothes I had and not have to go out and buy the next size up. I also didn’t want people to think ill of me, that I had no will power. But I could also feel some motivations that kept me from losing weight: I knew people who got cancer and lost a lot of weight and it seemed like a good idea to have extra weight to lose. I was afraid that maybe if I lost weight I’d draw attention from unwanted sources. I’m a grandmother and my image of a good grandma is well-padded. And I had the feeling that I would look back and regret not having indulged myself while I had the chance to really enjoy treats I like. 

“But then I had a little medical scare and ended up in the cardiology ward of my hospital. Everything turned out to be fine, but the cardiologist told me I should lose some weight because that would be kind to my heart. 

“Kindness to my heart felt like one of my intentions in meditation. And the doctor’s words filled me with a strong sense of kind intention. I had never thought of being kind to my heart before, but now I saw the sense in it. 

“Then I realized that the other intention — to be present in the moment, anchored in physical sensation — is often lacking from my mindless grazing activity. I set these two intentions and feel much more solid in my plan to lose weight. As if I’d been wading around in a quagmire of confusing emotions and now had found a solid rock of Wise Intention to stand upon.”

You can see from this example that we make many unskillful choices in a mindless way, and this mindlessness can become an unkindness, sometimes even a cruelty, to ourselves or to others. We don’t realize it because we are mindless! With Wise Intention we set the stage to apply Wise Effort that is sustainable, and to see more clearly, helping us develop Wise View.

We look at the feelings we are experiencing and see that they are centered around a particular situation, problem, challenge or concern. We look to see if the cause of our suffering is the unskillful actions or words of ourselves or others.

When you look at an area where you struggle with motivation, perhaps you can see unskillful motivations that sabotage your intention. Perhaps all these conflicting motivations feel like a bit of a quagmire, dragging you down in the mud of muddled thinking.

Now look at where there might be an unkindness or even a cruelty involved that you may not have even considered before.

Reframe your intention in the form of our paired intentions at the beginning of meditation: To be present in this moment, anchored in physical sensation so that you are aware of what is happening and not getting lost in the quagmire; and to kind to yourself and to others. Because often our unskillful actions cause harm to others and in our mindlessness we conveniently ignore noticing how that happens.

If there isn’t any specific challenge you are dealing with and you don’t feel there is any area in which you struggle in the quagmire of conflicting motivation, that’s great. But even so you can notice the motivation at the core of any situation or interaction. You can see if things turned sour at some point, and ask, ‘Okay, what was my intention in that interaction?’

Most of us do not examine our intentions.
If we did we might discover that our intention is to shore up our belief in a separate self and to deny the nature of impermanence.

Remember that formula of how dukkha (suffering) is created?
Denial of annica (impermanence) and annata (no separate self) creates dukkha.
When we hold on tight to the belief that we can somehow keep the world from turning, we suffer.
When we hold on tight to the belief that we are defined by this body-mind as a unique disconnected isolated separate self that needs to be puffed up, shored up, pointed out, admired, singled out, awarded, etc. rather than an intrinsic part of the ongoing and ever-changing whirl of life that thrives on the joy of that sense of connection, then we suffer.

Nothing to Fear, Nothing to Hide, Nothing to Prove
On a long silent retreat a few years back, I realized that I had nothing to fear, nothing to hide and nothing to prove. This was a deeply liberating insight for me. I made note of it and pinned it up on my bulletin board at home, and it’s a phrase I have turned to again and again. When we have these insights, these understandings, it is like we’ve given ourselves the key to unlock our patterns of suffering. Again and again, when my mind would be gnawing away at some personal dilemma, just repeating those words would once again free me.

So let’s look at the intentions we hold at times when we believe we have something to fear, something to hide and something to prove.

Believing we have something to fear is seeing the world as separate from us, a dangerous foreign place where there is no room for trust. Our intention is to protect our separate-seeming self, to hold back, to feel in control, to not reach out to others, to be cautious and wait for them to reveal their intentions first.

What happens when we act on that intention? Even if we think we are holding back, we are always putting out a certain quality of energy that is felt, so others read that resistance and react with caution or perhaps even aggression. By believing the world is an unsafe place, we make it unsafe for us..We put ourselves in the role of victim and those around us pick up on and possibly act on that.

Believing we have something to hide is seeing ourselves as separate and uniquely flawed, as if everyone else is somehow perfect, very different from us. We feel shame about the most universal experiences. We somehow believe we are unique in this, that everyone around us is as put-together as they appear when we see them walking about. We can’t imagine that they too have the same struggles and imperfections. We do ourselves such a disservice with this false belief.

What happens when we act on that intention to hide, protecting our natural beingness from view? We withdraw and don’t connect with others. It took me a long time to realize that it is in our very imperfections that we find connections with others. When we acknowledge our flaws, people relate, and in that moment there is warmth and interaction. When we are so perfectly polished, others believe us to be totally self-sufficient without any need of them, and that polished surface reflects back only judgments about them.

So by hiding our failings, we cut off connection. By being open (not over-sharing personal information, but just being the vulnerable beings we are) there is an ease and simple joy in being alive, all in this messy thing called life together.

Believing we have something to prove is also seeing ourselves as separate and in need of shoring up, to be ‘special’ in some way that will be admired and accepted.
What happens when we act on that intention? First, it’s a lot of work so we are exhausted from all that ambition! By having something to prove we set up a competitive rather than collaborative relationship with others. We cut ourselves off from true connection and joy. The comparing mind is very demanding and mostly miserable. Even accomplishments and accolades are difficult to celebrate, because there is such a sense of not-enough-ness.

So when we are stuck in a difficult situation and find ourselves struggling, we can pause in our struggles to look first at our intention. We can ask:
  • What am I afraid of?
  • What am I trying to hide?
  • What am I trying to prove?


The answers to these questions will remind us that we are delusional to rail against the impermanence of life and to hold on doggedly to the belief that there is any separate self that needs shoring up. This exploration opens us to the very real possibility that we have nothing to fear, nothing to hide, and nothing to prove.

There is a last part of the insight I had on that retreat, and it is: I have something to give.

We each have something to give. All life does. There is no expression of the life force that isn’t there to offer something. This recognition acknowledges the oneness of being, our intrinsic connection with all life, that every leaf on every plant has a role to play and so do each of us. This frees us to grow, explore and discover the nature of what we have to offer. We don’t have to struggle with it; we simply allow it to come forth in as natural a way as possible.

That recognition that we each have something to give allows our intention to be more wholesome, without the distortions of misunderstanding the nature of things that cause us to suffer.

Recently my beloved aunt told me that she and her boyfriend, both blind and feeling their advanced age, recognize that they are not just taking up space in life, that when they are just sitting there they often find they are listening to other people tell them their stories. This simple act of being present and listening is a form of giving, a generosity of time and attention. Perhaps it’s not the only giving we do, but it is a big part of it. If we are bringing our full attention to this moment, whatever this moment holds, and we are holding whatever is going on in kindness, then we are giving!

It is important to look at the motley assortment of motivations that drive us, acknowledge them as very human but essentially destructive, and to come home to the intentions to be present in this moment with whatever is going on, and to be kind to ourselves and others.

This is Wise Intention.

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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