What is your true intention?
Jack Kornfield says that setting a long term intention or vow is like setting the compass of your heart. I love that. A compass of your heart. Wherever you find yourself in your thoughts, emotions, decisions and challenges, there’s the compass of your truest intention that can guide you.
In fact all eight aspects of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path form a helpful guide for us to rely on when we find ourselves at a crossroads. And we are always at a crossroads, because whatever our current situation, even if we can’t change the circumstances, we have a choice about how we relate to what’s arising in our experience. We can mindlessly react out of fear and potentially do something unskillful, even harmful. Or we can align ourselves with our truest intention, use our wisest effort, deepen our understanding of the nature of things, cultivate mindfulness and come up with the wise words and actions that make the best possible response to the situation.
And if we have done something unskillful, we can use the Eightfold Path to figure out where we went wrong. Instead of wallowing in misery, guilt and self-loathing, we can actively investigate and then renew our intention. It’s a very handy-dandy guide indeed!
Over the next eight weeks we will explore all eight of these aspects. We begin with intention, in part because it is the first week of the new year, but also because finding our truest intention will help us in our exploration of the other aspects. The other aspects might help us to refine our intention as well.
For now, we can test whatever current intentions we may have to see if they are true. Especially right after the new year when we to one degree or another often create resolutions. Most popular ones are to lose weight, to exercise more, etc. Nothing wrong with either, but they are not our truest intentions. And if our short term goals are not aligned with our truest intentions, they usually fail.
Why do they fail? Because they are rooted in fear. It’s like choosing to run on a gravel road barefoot. How long will you last? The ‘gravel’ is all the negative inner thoughts we have to contend with that force us to constantly question and justify our set intention. There’s another option. One that is full of kindness and compassion, and rooted in a deeper understanding of life. We can choose to run on the Eightfold Path that is truly supportive.
To find our true intention we might start with the intention to meditate on a regular basis. If we follow that intention and develop a regular habit of meditating, we find an opening, an easing of tension, a softening of that harshly critical mind — the one that builds walls rather than bridges, that strives to be clever rather than kind, the one that thinks it has something to prove. We discover that our striving comes from a sense of separation, and that sense of separation is rooted in fear. We discover we have nothing to hide, nothing to prove and nothing to fear from simply being fully alive in the world. And, once we understand that, we discover we have something to give. We can engage in life with a loving generous spirit.
Once that regular habit of meditating is in place, we find our understanding deepening and widening, and our truest intention becomes broader as well.
You might pause for a moment now, or for a few minutes after your meditation practice when your mind is quieter, to see what comes up for you when you ask ‘What is my truest intention in this life?’ And then simply allow whatever response arises to come up. Notice if what comes up is loving, calm, wise and undemanding. That’s your Buddha nature, your wise inner voice, offering guidance. If what comes up is full of shoulds or shouldn’ts or this is a bunch of bs, well that’s just an inner aspect that is rooted in fear, trying it’s best to protect you from the dangers it perceives everywhere. While we offer these kinds of voices respect, we can also respectfully decline to be motivated by them. Make room for that inner wisdom to be heard. It may be challenging amidst the cacophony of more frantic thoughts, full of judgment and skepticism. But if you sit quietly enough for long enough, you will create enough space for it to be heard. Because it isn’t going anywhere. It is always within you. You may not have heard it because we tend to pay attention to what is loudest, fastest and most demanding. Inner wisdom is none of those things. But it is there offering lovingkindness and the wisdom to give you exactly what you need right now. Let it tell you your wisest intention. Then write it down, bring it to mind often, and see how living with that intention shifts the way you relate to life. Maybe you begin to see the gifts rather than only the problems. Then you know you’ve set a wise intention.
For a number of years now I have been living with two intentions: To be present in this moment, anchored in physical sensation; and to be compassionate with myself and others. These two intentions have stood me in good stead. Feel free to try them for yourself and see if they are your truest intentions too. I begin my daily meditation practice, and I use them throughout the day as I make choices at every turn. When I’ve forgotten my intentions, I see pretty quickly how valuable they are, and I return to them with renewed appreciation.
One way in which I was not connecting with my two truest intentions was in relationship to my weight. I had a lifetime of thought streams running through me that were pretty compelling. They went something like this: You’re fat. Well, you’re not THAT fat. What’s wrong with being fat? Why do you want to lose weight? Who are you trying to impress? I don’t want to have to buy a larger set of clothes, so I need to diet. It would be fun to look great in that outfit on that model in a magazine. But what kind of attention would I be trying to attract? etc. etc. You know the drill. A lot of inner conversation and very little positive action. Mostly self-deflating sabotage.
Then one summer day I ate my neighbor’s delicious home-grown cherry tomatoes as if they were candy and, because I hadn’t had any oil or bread (I found out later) I developed a horrendous case of heartburn. I’d never had heartburn, didn’t know what was happening, so called the doctor. The advice nurse said get to the hospital pronto. So I did, and ended up spending the night in the cardiac unit under observation. The next day the cardiologist put me on the treadmill and assured me that my heart was in excellent shape. ‘But,’ she said, ‘as a kindness to your heart, you could lose a little weight.’
As a kindness to my heart? Those words sang out to me, so aligned were they with my truest intention. Suddenly all the inner conversation fell away. All my wimpy resolutions to lose weight fell by the wayside. All I had to do was live my truest intention and be kind, compassionate to my dear little heart. I had never ever thought of my heart that way. It was always just a pump. I was grateful that it was reliable, but it was just so much plumbing. Now, with the doctors words, I had something I could work with by simply widening my intention to include my heart.
Just this week I saw a study on PBS News Hour about how important emotion is in motivation. When we look at the experience I had, we can see how suddenly the doctor offered me an emotional connection to my heart, a request to be kind to it. So as we set our intentions, we might consider their emotional content. Fear is a short sprint motivator but backfires and fails in the long run. An intention based in love is a lifelong relationship.
If you set a lifelong intention, you can set short term goals that are aligned with your true intention, and they will be much easier to meet. If they are not easy, investigate!
If you don’t have a meditation practice, establishing one as a kindness to yourself, your family, friends, coworkers, and the world, is a great place to start. (If you don’t know where to begin, start here.)
If you have an established practice, congratulations. You might in meditation find some inspirational insight that guides you to your truest intention that speaks to any challenges you face right now.
I have taught the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path several times, so here’s a link to other posts on the subject: [READ MORE ON FINDING YOUR TRUEST INTENTION.]