Urges, impulses & intentions – oh my!

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Have you ever regretted something you said or did? Of course. We all have. But what made us say or do it? Maybe it’s just the way we are. We’re just impulsive. Hmm, is that true?
Through the regular practice of meditation, mindfulness grows and we become less subject to urges and more likely to check in with the nature of our intentions. We can still have fun — lots of it! — but we don’t have to wreak havoc, leaving hurt feelings and regrets in our wake. And if we do absentmindedly say or do something unskillful, we are ready and able to do what we need to do to make things better instead of sitting around moaning, “Oh, I’m such a bad person.”

(To those of you who find sweet treats hard to resist, my apologies for this photo I took at my local market. Generally I try not to look at it, though it’s right by the main entrance. I’m sharing it here not to torment you but to illustrate a little mind trick I developed when I was caught up in a pattern of heavy-duty craving: I’d imagine a banquet of desserts of all kinds. I would name them all, and by the time I got to the seventh or eight dessert, I’d feel as bloated and disinterested as if I’d actually eaten them. If you’re craving sweets, just look at this photo and imagine eating each and every one of these pastries. That ought to do it!)

With regular meditation practice, we notice the way these urges and impulses arise, seemingly out of nowhere. If we act on them, we see how they cause disruption, chaos and misery. And we see an opportunity that we may never have noticed before: The ability to pause to consider our choice of words and actions. 

This isn’t just developing will power to override the impulses. It’s a spacious compassionate pause where suddenly we are not on autopilot or caught up in the thrall of them. In clock time this pause may be just a second, but internally it feels beyond the confines of time, the clarity slows everything down and brings in all past and future thought patterns that come into play. All the senses come alive so that if, for example, we are craving something, we can simply stay present with the physical sensations of that urge to fulfill the craving. In that moment we have time to consider our options and make a choice that is beneficial and wholesome, for ourselves and all life.

This pause, one of the many gifts of meditation, is so different from the mental patterns we may have been using in the past: judging, accusing, finagling our way into someone’s heart or out of a tough spot. We all have done the best we can with what we were given to deal with, but now we have been given a more skillful means. We can stop compiling evidence of wrongdoing, either our own or others, and begin fresh in each moment.

Many years ago, when my daughter was in her late teens, we were in the kitchen arguing about something. Our words became heated and hurtful. It was not an unusual pattern for us, or for many mothers and daughters. But that day, suddenly my perspective shifted. I saw myself standing there ranting, and I paused, astonished at the absurd gesticulating caricature I saw. I started laughing. It was so senseless that argument, whatever it was about. I love my daughter and, though we’ve had our differences as all people do, we would do anything for each other out of that deep bond. Reader, that was nearly 25 years ago, and we have never fought in that overheated way again. We discuss our different opinions with respect and caring.

(This brings up a question: If I changed, then was I the one that was causing these arguments? Maybe, Or maybe it shows that one person in a relationship can bring about a big difference just by shifting the energy. If you are in a relationship and want change but think the other person won’t budge, just send them loving-kindness every time you think of them and see what effect it has on your relationship. And be kind to yourself as well. How we treat ourselves determines how we treat others.)

In this series of posts, we have been looking at what constitutes wise or skillful View, the first of the eight aspects of the Eightfold Path, the Buddha’s prescription to cure suffering. This view is informed by seeing impermanence as the natural way of all life, and by coming home to the realization that we are intrinsically woven into all being. 

Since in our culture we most likely have been taught to see divisions and individualism, we have a particularly difficult time seeing ourselves as interwoven in the fabric of life. So we are spending some time looking at the Five Aggregates that the Buddha identified as the ways we hold ourselves separate and thus cause suffering. Feel free to look back to see the first three: Body, Preferences, Thoughts and emotions.

In this post, we are looking at the urges, impulses, intentions that occur right before we speak or act. As one of the Five Aggregates they are grouped together and called ‘volition’. And now, just as we did with the first three aggregates, we ask whether volition is who we are. Let’s investigate.

Someone says something and you take it the ‘wrong way’ and you snap back. What’s going on there? You feel under attack. But what is being attacked? A sense of self created out of a lot of fear-based reactivity? Or maybe you don’t snap back because you agree with the low opinion and use it to further demean yourself. Or you don’t speak up but then spend hours, days, months, years, thinking up various perfect snappy comebacks.

Wow, that’s a lot of misery, isn’t it? There’s all that ill-will toward the other person, who has either forgotten about it because they thought it was benign, or feels terrible about it and is eaten up with regret, or any of a number of other variations that happen when people act on urges, impulses and poorly thought out intentions.

Thinking back, most of us can identify occasions when 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 and notice 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 that pause we are not censoring ourselves. Nor are we imagining some external authority dictating our behavior. It’s not the calculating “If I do that I’ll get in trouble” or the fretful “I will be seen as bad”. It is the wholesome clear-seeing recognition of causes and consequences: “If I do that there will be ongoing suffering.”
As we practice meditation and cultivate mindfulness, we deepen our understanding of the interconnection of all life. We cease feeling we have to shore up our separate identity in some convoluted attempt to get people to care about us. Instead, we relax into the feeling of being an intrinsic part of the web of life, and enjoy the sense of kindness and compassion such an understanding naturally brings.

What are these urges and impulses?
Consider how much they have to do with chemical activity in the brain. Testosterone, dopamine and adrenaline activate all kinds of impulsive behavior. Are we those chemicals? And hormonal levels change all the time. Are we defining ourselves as ‘stable’ and then losing all sense of ourselves when the chemicals change? Think of all the ways we define ourselves and others: Oh, he’s an angry guy. Is he? Or is he currently experiencing a lot of testosterone in combination with certain causes and conditions and lack of training in how to cope with them? What a difference it makes to see people without labeling them in that limiting way. Of course, you don’t have to hang out with anyone who’s being destructive, but it’s certainly skillful to silently send loving-kindness, seeing fellow beings as intrinsically connected.

How freeing to let go of labels — for others and for ourselves! With a label attached we may feel helpless to deal with impulsive habituated behavior. But let the label go and develop a regular practice of meditation, and things shift.

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.

In investigating the nature of Volition, all we have to do is be present in this moment, and see what comes up. We can notice an impulse, urge or decision to do something; and skillfully pause to see the ‘strings attached’ to this volition. We might ask ourselves:
– What thoughts or emotions preceded the urge?
– What cause or condition sparked it?
We might find some memory of a similar situation that may or may not be helpful.
We might recognize that we are reacting to some long ago distress that we haven’t faced and just use as a mindless basis to keep making poor choices.

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’ and ‘mine’. This examination is non-judgmental, patient and kind but clear-seeing, so that the pattern of excuses are seen as well. We create a safe space to be honest. Knowing that none of this is who we are and that we don’t have to shore up and protect our identity, we can acknowledge when we are speaking or behaving unskillfully 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 kindness, compassion and joy in being alive in this moment just as it is.

One comment

  1. This is so important for me to digest and think about. Speaking out without thinking about its effect on others is something I constantly struggle with and want to at least put in a pause that will help me decide whether I want to go forward with what I feel I want to say. I believe this could make a major difference in my relationships with others in my life. As well as help me with judging myself afterwords for what I blurted out. Thank you for your insightful words on volition.


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