Category Archives: intention

Inquiry Series: Valuable Question #1

WiseIntention.jpgThis is the second part in a series on inquiry. The first was a look at toxic questions we habitually ask ourselves. I have added to the previous post a few more that my students noticed coming up for themselves during the week — or in some cases noticed not coming up anymore, because, one might assume, her meditation practice is working!

Now we will begin our exploration of valuable questions we can use to cultivate awareness, compassion, joy and meaning in our lives. In the insight meditation tradition, once we are ‘primed’ by our practice and the spacious compassion it creates within us, the Buddha’s teachings encourage us to do skillful inquiry. We can also do this inquiry any time during the day, especially when we are feeling overwhelmed or experiencing inner turmoil.

(NOTE: The only questions asked during meditation are meant to bring us gently bring our attention back to the moment, not to spark a deep investigation. For example, a teacher might ask ‘Where are you now?’. The question we are exploring in this part can be used both ways.)

The question is What is my intention here? If you are feeling stressed, take a mindful pause, center in, notice the breath, and then ask yourself ‘What is my intention here?’ Why am I saying/doing this or about to say or do something that is clearly unkind and unskillful. This question might save you from saying something you’ll regret!

An honest answer to this question might be ‘My intention here is to punish (insert name) for what he/she said/did.” We want only honest answers, of course, as unpleasant as they may be. An honest answer will probably not be rooted in wisdom because if it were, we wouldn’t be in such turmoil. But instead of giving ourselves a hard time about it, we can, if we have time, use it as an opportunity to investigate. If there is no time, it’s an opportunity to send metta (infinite loving-kindness) to ourselves and the other person(s) before proceeding.

When to pose the question ‘What is my intention here?’

  • When you feel exhausted from doing so much for others, you might ask this question and discover that you have been hoping to get praise, affection, gratitude, admiration, or something else from someone else.
  • When you find you can’t help but say or do something mean, you can ask this question and recognize that you have been caught up in defending your fortress of ‘self’.
  • When you feel threatened by the idea that you might not be right –and being seen as right is more important than actually finding the truth — questioning your intention helps you discover how afraid you are of not being seen, appreciated, respected or loved. Seeing that intention liberates the fear, activates your inner compassion, and allows you to live more joyfully with uncertainty.

When we question our intention in any given moment, we can save ourselves and others a lot of suffering. By cultivating a wise intention or two that supports us in all we do, we feel more at ease in the world. My two intentions for many years have been: first, to be present in this moment and second, to be compassionate with myself and others. I started these years ago as an experiment to see if just those were enough, and so far so good. They seem to cover all the bases. Feel free to try these out if you like, or find something similarly helpful.

Wise Intention is one aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path. By setting wise intentions, we can see more clearly when we are venturing into unskillfulness. Wise intentions are rooted in Wise View. Read more about Wise Intention and the Noble Eightfold Path.

The problem with ‘should’

One of the words that comes up a lot when we explore intention is ‘should’ (or ought to, must, etc.). Watch for this word in your thoughts and speech. It indicates that your intention is coming from an external source. How we are in relationship to other people is only authentic and heartfelt when we are attuned to our own inner wisdom. If we are stuck in a storm of disparate inner messages originally encoded by external sources (family and the culture we live in) about how we should be, then we can’t really relax and connect with others in a deep way.

By listening in we discover a number of inner aspects (behavioral psychologists call these ‘modules’, among other things, and we all have them, so not to worry!) that seem to have conflicting agendas, yet all intent on saving us, however unskillfully. By cultivating spaciousness through meditation, we see them more clearly and we allow each of these aspects to feel heard and respected. It’s important to remember that, although misguided, every aspect of self is working hard to protect us. So we can feel gratitude for their intention, but hold their demands up to closer scrutiny before acting upon them.

Accessing Inner Wisdom
With spacious awareness, we are able to access our own inner wisdom that has a distinctly different quality about it than these other voices. Our wise inner voice is deeply aligned with our wisest intention rooted in wise view. Unlike all other aspects, it is not rooted in fear. You can tell the difference because wisdom has no urgency, is not strident nor bossy, and is consistently peaceful and kind. It never makes demands, only offers wise counsel and only when asked. You could go through your whole life without ever hearing it if you never take the time to pause, quiet the mind and listen in! Clearly periods of mindful inquiry are valuable when seeking the counsel of an aspect of self that has all the time in the world. (If you are religious, you might prefer to name that wise inner voice God or the voice of a spiritual figure you honor. This is totally up to you. But please remember the voice is not God’s if its demanding, strident, impulsive or violent.)

If you have set wise intentions, check to see if you are aligned with them. If you haven’t yet set your wise intentions, asking yourself ‘What is my intention here?’ is still a useful way to explore how you got yourself into this pickle! What inner aspect’s agenda were you following? And what is that aspect’s intention?

Taking time for skillful inquiry can lead to a whole wondrous series of self-discoveries. In the next part of this series we will explore more valuable questions. Meanwhile, please give this a try, and if you feel like it, please share your experiences, questions or comments by clicking on ‘Reply’ in this post.


Find Your True Intention

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.]

Peace empowers intention, but what is peace?

I’d like to start off this continued exploration of the Paramita of Resolve with a guided exploration. It’s just two minutes, but it’s easier to talk it through rather than have you try to do it while reading.

EXERCISE (two minute audio recording)

(If for some reason you are not able to play the recording: Think about an intention that you have or a resolution that you have made either now or in the past. It doesn’t have to be your highest or most meaningful intention, just whatever comes up when I say that.
Now sense into your body and see how that intention sits. Where do you feel it? Does it stir up anxiety? Does it feel tight anywhere? Or does it make you feel more open and spacious, more clear and focused?)

Having done that little exercise, if you noticed tension come up in your body after stating your intention or resolution, then that intention is rooted in fear and confusion rather than compassion and clarity.

Let’s look at a common intention: ‘I want to lose weight.’ Why is it so difficult to follow through on that intention or sustain it? I don’t know about you, but when I say that intention, I tense up at the thought of people judging me for being overweight; of my jeans not zipping up, of having to buy a bigger size, and feeling some shame in my lack of control around certain foods.

How does that intention feel in my body? Heavy! Weighted down with shame, remorse, self-loathing, and a sense of hopelessness that has me giving up before I even get started. Well, how is that intention going to work for me?

Not very well, I can assure you. But then I had a little confab with a cardiologist who said to me, ‘As a kindness to your heart you could lose a little weight.’ Suddenly my intention was restated in a way that really spoke to me. Kindness was something I could get behind! So I reset my intention to be rooted not in fear or shame but in loving-kindness. In my body, instead of feeling tension and heaviness, I felt an upwelling of love and gratitude for my dear reliable heart that just pumps away all day and night for all these years. I have been able more often to come up with some kindness at the refrigerator door when my inner sweet tooth or just plain boredom has me lingering there. It’s also helped when I’m preparing a meal, when I’m sitting at the table, and when I’m shopping. I can put more love into the whole experience of eating, and more awareness into noticing when I am full or when I am eating mindlessly.

If you found tension or some other challenging sensation as you stated your intention in the exercise, how might you reword it to be rooted in love, gratitude and joyful celebration of life?

This experiential exercise might help you to rewrite your intention or it might erase an intention that doesn’t resonate with qualities we are cultivating here. There are fear-based intentions that activate desire, striving, and other qualities that drag us out of this moment. They are like glaring roadside billboards trying to make us believe some other moment is better than this one. This is a root cause of suffering: pushing away this experience in favor of some imagined past or future experience; and clinging to this fleeting experience hoping it will last forever.

A wise intention is not a distant goal that clogs up this present experience. It is a companion, a guide, deepening our resolve to be present and compassionate. It helps us to be more skillful in our interactions.

We can see from this experiential exercise that our bodies are the best indicators we have to discern whether our intention is wise. If it’s not wise, our body will tell us loud and clear: by tensing up or being painful in some way. When we pay attention to our thoughts — all those judgments and opinions — we can tell if we are going to be able to stay with our intention. If there’s a cacophony of voices fighting it out in there, it’s unlikely. But if our body and mind remains peaceful, and even gets a little tingle of expansive connectedness going on, then we know that we have named our intention in a way that we can follow through. Because there is inner peace.

Peace is the fourth way we are asked to look at the Paramita of Resolve, after discernment, truthfulness and relinquishment. But what if there’s not inner peace? Then we need to create more inner spaciousness, so the various thoughts can have their say but aren’t in constant conflict with each other. As we get to know the various patterns of our thoughts, we can respectfully discover what drives them.

We can create some inner peace if we are willing to pay attention. These various urges, drives, etc. all have well-meaning intentions: to help us survive. It’s just that those intentions are rooted in fear, and so the results are often ineffective and sometimes harmful. As we listen to them, we can use metta, lovingkindness, to allow them to exist as part of our experience without giving them everything they demand. We can create peace by creating spaciousness within ourselves so that it isn’t an tense tangle, but a vast field where all manner of thoughts and emotions can arise and fall away without creating conflict.

Maybe you would think it would be peaceful if everyone was in agreement, whether our internal voices or everyone in the world community. But we are not a mono-mind species either individually or collectively. We have different opinions, and two different opinions can seem equally valid, true, well-thought out, loving, etc. This is how it is to be human, isn’t it? So how can there be peace, ever?

Here’s how I see it: Peace is not the same note played by every instrument in the orchestra. Peace is the harmony that comes from each instrument playing its part so the resulting concert is beautiful. So then do we need a conductor? Not in my experience. With our young toy instrumentsgranddaughters we have a tradition of making music with the various toy instruments we have at hand. We march in a parade around the house with great exuberance banging and drumming and blowing on wooden flutes. From the outside it probably sounds horrendous, but for us it is a joyful celebration.

Every moment that I attend with awareness and compassion reveals its beauty. The challenge is always whether I can pay attention. With my dedicated daily meditation practice, I find that often I can. When I don’t pay attention to this moment, it can sound like a cacophony. But when I listen with spacious awareness and compassion, the beauty is revealed.

With that definition of peace, there is peace possible in every moment. It is not the peace of the dead or the dreamless sleep. It is the peace of life being lived in concert.



resolveResolve. I like that word. The wordsmith in me likes the sound of it better than ‘intention’ where the ‘tin’ rings a little hollow at times. ‘Resolve’ sounds deeper. It resounds in the body. It feels like a powerful river carving stone. Resolve.

If resolve feels more powerful for you than intention, practice using it when you set a course and see if it empowers you to follow it. If you prefer intention, stick with that. We all find what works best for our own practice. But for now, I will use ‘Resolve’ and we’ll see where it takes us.

Resolve is affiliated with the word ‘resolution’. Is that a powerful word? Or is it one we don’t take that seriously after so many failed New Year’s resolutions? One student in class said she thought of resolution as a problem that has been resolved, another way to use the word. That way of using it helps us to understand a key point about Resolve: Until all our inner voices come to some kind of resolution — have negotiated a sustainable agreement — we can’t effectively move forward on our course. Instead we get stuck in a quagmire of conflicting thoughts.

Sound familiar? We all have a bit of an internal cacophony. It’s not multiple personalities; just a lot of unexamined thought patterns that hold competing and conflicting opinions. Until we become fully aware of them, they hold the invisible reins to our behaviors, often sabotaging our best intentions without us knowing why. We end up frustrated that we don’t seem to get anywhere and feel so ‘weak-willed’. But will is not the problem. Our not taking the time to investigate who’s in charge here is the real challenge we all face.

One way to ‘out’ these conflicting rein-holders is to purposely set the trap of a little resolution or intention: something simple but for some reason difficult to carry out, like ‘clean out the closet’. Then wholeheartedly endeavor to do it. Maybe the closet gets cleaned out. (Yay! Now choose another more challenging resolution.) Or maybe the closet is still full of stuff that falls on you when you open the door. Or you got started but got tired or distracted and all the stuff just ends up in a pile elsewhere. Maybe half the closet gets done. Maybe you never get to the closet because life gets in the way. But during the process of having set this resolution, you come to the real purpose of this exercise: To activate and pay attention to the conflicting thoughts and emotions you have about whatever intention you have set.

Once you notice a thought that conflicts with your intention, this is an opportunity to have a dialog. I suggest journaling or maybe even recording the dialog. Most important in this process is to keep the dialog friendly, curious, respectful and compassionate. It needs to be a dialog between the sabotaging aspect of self and your deepest wisdom. If it’s a dialog between two aspects of self, it will escalate into a shooting match, a tantrum or a shut down. If your deepest wisdom interviews the aspect that’s being troublesome, the exchange will be valuable and potentially transformative. Inner wisdom is not trying to destroy or get rid of any part of ourselves or our experience. Nor is it trying to protect, defend, justify or coddle that aspect. It simply wants to investigate in a loving way what that aspects deepest fear is, what motivates it to sabotage us, and what could make it feel better without sabotaging well being.

Some skillful negotiation can be useful here. I once got my inner aspect I’d nicknamed Slug to go to a yoga class because I found a teacher who during the last period of savasana pose came around to each student and covered her with a blanket and tucked her in. In my interview with Slug I had discovered that he loved to hang out in bed because it reminded him of a big mommy hug and he missed his mommy. My mother had died the year before. So I found a motherly woman who made yoga possible for Slug. And it worked. After a while Slug no longer needed to be tucked in and I joined an aerobic exercise class as well.

So it really does work! But we need to identify the aspect, give it an affectionate but identifiable nickname, and find out what it’s afraid of, what it thinks it’s protecting us from, what it wants and how we could perhaps make use of its energy rather than be ruled by it.

In attempting to live up to a resolution, we may expose the mixed messages we are getting from our inner aspects. I found one the other day. I noticed that I give myself a hard time if I spend money (‘OMG, this month’s credit card bill is huge!’) and I give myself a hard time if I don’t! (‘Why didn’t I give more to that charity?’ ‘Why didn’t I splurge more on my child, grandchild or friend?’) I can’t seem to win in regard to money. So what is the answer for me? Perhaps I could spend more time exploring the First Paramita of ‘Generosity’. And part of that exploration could be an investigation of these two warring factions within me. Hmm, what shall I name them? Stingy and Benny (for beneficent)? After a meditation session, I’ll interview them and see how it goes. That’s my current challenge. Pause for a moment to see if you can notice yours.

Resolve is cultivated through our meditation practice. It arises out of our deepening understanding of the nature of things. As we begin to see more clearly, we can resolve to, for example, practice meditation every day, in a way that acknowledges its true value in our lives and in the way we interact with the world.


For the past five years or so I have been conducting an experiment by setting just two intentions: To be present and to be compassionate with myself and others. I wanted to see how just those two might work out. I’ve found that they do seem to be sufficient. If I find myself in a muddle, I reset the intention to be present, which creates inner spaciousness, calm and clarity. If things don’t clear up, then some compassion helps to remind me to take some needed rest.

If I find myself judging either myself or someone else, my intention of compassion softens the harsh edges and reminds me how we are all in this together, how each of us, including myself is doing the best we can. Compassion also helps me to maintain my health. ‘As a kindness to my heart’ a cardiologist once told me I could lose some weight. That spoke to me in a way none of my inner dictates and rude name-calling had done, because it was attune to my intention to be compassionate. And my intention to be present helps me to really taste what I am eating and enjoy it rather than wolf it down, and to notice when I am satisfied and when I am just eating mindlessly. This has always been a challenging area for me, but I am more present more of the time.

You might try using those two intentions yourself. Resolve to be present. Resolve to be compassionate with yourself and others, especially when you realize you haven’t been present at all, or you see that the other person is just not present but lost in their thoughts. See how setting these two intentions affects your daily life. I would love to hear about your experience.

Happiness begins with questioning in

questionmarkIn our ongoing exploration of the Ten Perfections of the Heart, we have been looking at Truthfulness, especially how truthful we are with ourselves. It is not that we are outright lying, just that we are not often questioning the statements, beliefs, judgments, etc. that are the running inner commentary of our mental lives. How much does this inner commentary shape the way we relate to this present moment and all that we are dealing with? Do our assumptions persuade us and dissuade us in ways we are not even aware of? Of course! So after quieting the mind down a bit in meditation, it is extremely valuable to start questioning these previously unquestioned long-standing thoughts that have been getting a free ride all this time. If we are basing our intentions, attitudes, words and actions on something we haven’t even looked at lately, then there’s no time like the present to start questioning.

As we take the time to unplug, focus on our breath and develop awareness and compassion, we have the opportunity to begin to see the nature of the thoughts that pass through (again and again). Especially right after meditating, we can allow ourselves just a few more minutes to really notice and question.

Of course, the process is particularly noticeable when on a silent retreat. (But don’t put it off until then!) On retreat there is so much time in silence, and without the opportunity to be expressed, thoughts stand out in our minds. They have more space to move around because the normal thoughts that typically run our daily activities have become unnecessary: We don’t have to pick anything up from the store, make anything for dinner, accomplish anything on our to do list or think of what to say or review what we should have said instead of what we did say, etc. On retreat all we do is respond to the bells by getting up, going to the meditation hall, sitting, walking, dining, listening to dharma talks, maybe going on a little hike or resting in the sun, and doing our one simple daily yogi job — a housekeeping or cooking chore that we have chosen. The remaining thought patterns have a lot of room in our heads to rattle around, so that we actually see them passing through, again and again.

How we come into relationship with these repeating patterns is really the focus of our practice as we go about our day.

Do we combat them? “Oh, shut up!’

Abuse them? “You are so stupid!”

Placate them? “I promise I’ll do better.’

Reinforce them by adding in some emotional component? ‘ Grrr, that really made me angry, and not only that, remember the time…?’

Or, as the Buddha suggested, do we question their veracity? ‘Is that true?’ ‘What proof do I have to back up that belief, assumption, judgment or statement?’

This is a valuable investigation, and one that is lifelong. We develop the powerful habit of self-exploration. This is quite different from self-doubt, which is the habit of undermining our best intentions. Inner investigation is simply making sure that we are being truthful in what we tell ourselves. So many of our thought patterns simply repeat something we heard as children. We have tuned ourselves in to a certain set of beliefs, and we accept anything we hear that resonates with those original assumptions. But where did the assumptions come from? They are often negative judgments about ourselves or the world, and when we simply accept them as true without questioning, we do a disservice to ourselves and those around us. With our child’s limited view we made sense of a confusing world at the time, but now, from our adult perspective, if we take a moment to really look, these assumptions reveal themselves to be erroneous, painful and unnecessary now. Whatever we thought we were protecting doesn’t need this protection any longer. The truth does set us free!

As with all the Paramitas, these perfections of the heart, we can spend a lifetime in this practice and find great value in it. We have insights into the nature of mind and how we are causing ourselves and others to suffer by being oblivious to the patterns of thought and emotion that activate anger, jealousy and ill will of all kinds.

In our meditation practice, we are training ourselves to be present with whatever arises in our experience. This is a worthy endeavor in itself, but when we get into inner investigation, the real fruits of our efforts reveal themselves. When we see that thoughts are not ‘who we are’ but instead just wisps of mental formations passing through our vast compassionate field of experience, or synaptic activity, it makes it a lot easier to look at them without freaking out or freezing up or turning away.

You can see how the matter of identity comes into play with this investigation. We may cling to certain beliefs, opinions and judgments as components of our personality or character. Those of you who have studied the work of Byron Katie will recognize these valuable questions: ‘Is this true? How do I know this is true? Who would I be without this thought?’

As we begin to explore the next Paramita of ‘Resolve’, we are asked to continue with this practice of looking closely at the nature of our thoughts. The Buddha taught that there are four aspects to ‘Resolve’, and the first one is Discernment. And what is involved in discernment? It is really looking at the intention or course we have set for ourselves and noticing all the underpinnings of thoughts and judgments that rise up in our field of experience that may be sabotaging our intentions. Discernment makes us look at the goals themselves to see if they are worthy and sustainable.

So here we are again, paying attention to the nature of thoughts that arise, and questioning them. We just can’t get away from it! And that’s okay, because there is incredible richness in this process. This is where the wondrous insights grow from the fertile field of ongoing dedication to awareness and compassion.

Ours is not a caravan of despair

Come, come, whoever you are,
Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving,
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Even if you have broken your vow a hundred times,
Come, come again.
— Jalal ad-din Muhammad Rumi, 13th century poet and Sufi mystic

Ours is not a caravan of despair! Why? Because we carry within us an oasis that, if only we take the time to sit and savor, fills us with joy, a sense of connection, a lightness of being. Yet so often we fill our meditation period with harsh inner commentary about our sorry state, how ill-fitted we are to the task of meditation. We do this at the very moment of realization that our mind has been wandering. If only we could realize that in that moment we are quite fully present in our experience, and this is cause for celebration. Instead of gratitude for this moment of presence, we so often choose instead to sit in judgment of the minutes before. Instead of sensing the pleasure of awareness, we fall back into an oh-so-familiar but uncomfortable pattern of making disparaging remarks. Off our mind goes again, into the brutal desert, into despair. We do this in other parts of our life as well, don’t we? We think of someone we care about, and instead of feeling joy, we suffer guilt, shame, dread or some other discomfort, because somehow we believe we have not done enough for them, have not done right by them or have not stayed in touch. Is this based in truth? Or is the very discomfort that arises what keeps us from fully engaging? Who put the discomfort there? Most often we create it ourselves. Sometimes we have in mind something we want to do with our lives, yet we spin our wheels in this very same cycle of despair, torturing ourselves with schoolyard bully taunts, and we are stopped in our tracks. Sometimes these taunts set us up for non-action. Sometimes they set us up for destructive action. Listening in, recognizing the fear-based quality of these inner conversations is very important in order to recognize the the murky, sometimes downright nasty, motivations, so that we can apply the wisdom of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path to help us. After a period of meditation is an especially good time to explore and question, one by one, as they arise in our field of awareness, these murky motivations. Resetting Intention — Wise Action includes resetting our intentions, our vows, again and again. In this we understand and accept that we are human, by our very nature prone to error. This resetting of intentions is not casually undertaken, the way my granddaughter gaily calls out ‘Sorry!’ as she repeats whatever annoying thing she has done. (We’re hoping it’s just a phase.) Most of us know someone who is equally casual with their apologies and doesn’t have the excuse of being only three years old. We don’t want to be that person who thinks an oft-repeated ‘Sorry!’ is sufficient to repair damage done, who justifies unskillful actions as if they are the hapless victim of some incorrigible personality trait, a trait that they seem in fact to find particularly endearing. Through meditation and working with the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, we learn to see the patterns of our own behavior. We see how our mind creates justifications and excuses, how it takes shortcuts and dodges around any reasonable challenges to what we believe to be true. We have skillful questions we can ask of these thoughts that prompted this unskillful action: What was our motivation in that action? If it wasn’t grounded in our intention to be present and compassionate with ourselves and all life, then we were operating out of the murky mire of mindless motivations! We believed we had something to fear, something to hide, or something to prove. Whenever we get bogged down in these motivations, we can pause to recognize the nature of our current quagmire, and reset our intentions to be present in this moment, however uncomfortable, and to be compassionate with ourselves and others. What was the nature of our effort in that action? We were striving, focused on our goal, becoming mindless? Or half-hearted in our effort? Wise Effort is anchored in the present moment, attune to what is needed now. Did we stay on the couch channel surfing when the body wanted to move? Did we keep working on a project when the body wanted to rest? Did we push our agenda through without regard to others? What was the nature of our world view in that action? Did we believe that:
  • The world is a hostile place filled with threats?
  • We are this body, separate from the flow of being?
  • We are these thoughts, unique and in need of defending?
  • If we just held on tight enough things would stay the same?
  • If we grab onto something new, it will make things all better?
  • We are the appointed referee of others’ behavior?

These kinds of beliefs constrict us and force misery upon us and potentially on those around us as well. It’s worthwhile to question all beliefs that fly in the face of Wise View which sees clearly the nature of impermanence (anicca), no separate self (anatta) and the ways we create suffering through clinging to and pushing away our current experience (dukkha). Were we being mindful in that action? Very unlikely. Wise Mindfulness tends to keep us out of trouble. It offers more spaciousness within any moment to make wise choices. Mindfulness is an ongoing practice, stirred by Wise Concentration. The more we develop this muscle of mindfulness, the less often we will cause harm through our actions. The Eightfold Path sheds light on where we strayed and what to do about it now. We attend this moment, and the next as it comes. In this way we deepen our experience of being, and we learn the wisdom and beauty that is present in every moment. If we have wronged someone else, once we recognize it and have reset our intentions, we can do whatever is mindful and compassionate to right the wrong, and if there is nothing that can make it right, a whole-hearted recognition of the wrong may be appreciated. With the help of the Eightfold Path we can see where we went wrong and how we can assure that we will be wiser in the future. Our intention is not to remake ourselves into paragons of virtue. That is just grasping at some identity, and any identity we try to create just sets us up for misery, and Miz Perfect is particularly fraught. We will err, time and again. But with the handy dandy Eightfold Path to show us how we we came to make that mistake, we will spend less time steeped in misery and more time actively engaged in life, with deep appreciation for this fleeting gift. When Others Mess Up
We might notice that our thoughts and emotions are not just entangled in how we may have erred, but in the errors of other people. We might be caught up in blame. We might be stuck in defending the state of victim-hood. The Eightfold Path can also help here. We can look at the action of this other person and see where they strayed off the path. And in so doing, we can begin to see that the action came from mindlessness, from murky motivations, from over- or under-efforting. Seeing this, we can perhaps activate a little more compassion within ourselves. Certainly we have seen how easy it is to go mindless, to follow misguided motivations instead of Wise Intention. If we are struggling with the effects of what someone did to us, the Eightfold Path offers us the means to understand both the other person and what we can do in this moment ourselves. We can look at our intentions toward them. We can see how we may be held in the past by what is unresolved in our heart. We can see how our sense of defending this separate self that has been wronged keeps us from accessing the infinite nature of being. But it is not just people who did us wrong whom we have difficulty with. Perhaps we are in the habit of playing the referee in this game of life, and getting upset over other people’s behavior, even when it does not affect us and we have no say in the matter.In this process, we begin to recognize that those who do wrong are also in a state of mindlessness and lack of understanding of the way of things. How does this alter our feelings towards them? Can we send them metta, loving-kindness, in the form of well-wishes like: May you be well, May you be happy. May you be at ease. May you be at peace. Perhaps metta practice is most challenging when it comes to people convicted of horrendous crimes, people who are serving life sentences or who are sitting on death row. We in Marin County are given the often uncomfortable gift of thinking about these very people every time we take the ferry to and from San Francisco, as we pass close by San Quentin State Penitentiary. That old dilapidated structure holds within its walls men who have committed the most heinously unskillful actions possible. Metta is not selective. It is like the sun, shining on everything in its path. This can be a really big challenge, but it is a challenge worthy of the effort. It is a challenge that requires us to be mindful, to notice our own resistance and be compassionate with that within ourselves that struggles, that reacts, that wants to strike out in anger against perpetrators who struck out in anger. We can see how anger for anger hyper-reactivity creates a dense field of fear-based misery. As we practice compassion and mindfulness, we create spaciousness to hold everything with equanimity, even the existence of the most troubled and unskillful actions. Over the past decade there has been a great revolution inside prison walls all around the world. Prisoners are learning to meditate, to spend time noticing the patterns of their thoughts, to contemplate the actions they have done and to look more clearly at what pain they have caused and to feel compassion for the victims of their actions. This simple practice has transformed many hearts and minds. And in the process it has begun a potential transformation of prisons from violence compression chambers that exacerbate the problem into places of potential healing for both the perpetrators and the victims of crime. May this trend continue! Whoever we are, a regular practice of meditation helps assure that ours is not a caravan of despair, but a caravan of clarity, compassion and joy!

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.