Category Archives: Right 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.

Resolve

 

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.

JUST TWO INTENTIONS

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.

Are you asking the right question?

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[This is the transcript of a speech I gave this week.]

When I was about eight years old we were living in Evanston, Illinois, and I remember one day after playing with my girlfriends, I burst into the kitchen where my mother was cooking dinner, and said, ‘Mommy, mommy, where do babies come from?’

She stopped and turned off the burners, grabbed a piece of paper and a pencil and started drawing little diagrams with stick figures, explaining really fast in that way she had that could make my brain freeze up.

Finally she looked up at me with earnest hopefulness and said, “Understand?” I nodded yes, even though I had no clue what she had just told me. She looked relieved and said, ‘Oh good, sweetheart, I’m glad we had this talk. Now go wash up for dinner.” As I sped out of the kitchen I felt befuddled, but mainly frustrated because I still didn’t have the answer I needed to weigh in on my friends’ argument about whether you can just go a few blocks over to the Northwestern University Hospital to get a baby or if you have to take the El and go all the way into Chicago to get one.

Mothers! Oh well.

We humans are naturally inquisitive creatures. Asking questions is the way we come to understand the world around us, each other and ourselves. The survival of our species and the creation of our cultures, civilizations and technological advances — all of this began with someone somewhere asking how or why or what.

But as you can see from my childhood example, it’s really important to formulate your question in a way that gets the answer you’re looking for. Nowadays we are learning how to formulate better questions for fact-finding missions on the internet because otherwise we end up with pretty wild answers. So we are perfecting our abilities to ‘refine our search’.

When it comes to the more personal questions we use in our lives on a daily basis, we need to be sure they too are effective, not just autopilot things we say, which is often the case. Some questions can be downright destructive, yet we use them all the time.

For example, when something’s gone wrong at work or at home, instead of collaborating and asking ‘How can we resolve this?’ and ‘How can we assure that this doesn’t happen again?’ we are often more likely to reach for our handy pointer finger and take aim at everyone but ourselves, asking ‘Who can I blame for this?’ Unless this is a criminal investigation, that is generally an useless question that can destroy relationships, and is better left in its holster.

Another destructive question is ‘Why me?’ We ask this question when we are feeling vulnerable and victimized. The world is against us, it seems. But asking ‘Why me?’ just digs us deeper in the hole we’re in. It makes us feel even more isolated. It seems as if everyone else is frolicking happily in the meadow of life while we are stuck in a bog. Sure, logically we know that everyone has their burden to bear, but we can’t see that from this ‘Why me?’ perspective. And when we ask ‘Why me?’ we feel kind of mean-spirited for wishing that someone else was experiencing our miserable situation instead of us.

Noticing when we’re using these kinds of destructive questions, and letting go of them as much as possible, makes rooms for questions that really can make a difference in our lives.

I’ve been working with just such a question lately. When I notice that I’m stressed, worried, fearful or angry, I pause and ask myself, ‘What am I cultivating here?’

Just last night I woke up and found myself thinking about giving this speech today. I felt tense and stressed, so I said, ‘What am I cultivating here?’ And I could see that I was feeding and fueling nervousness and worry with stories about how long it’s been since I’ve given a formal speech. Sure, I’m speaking to groups informally on a regular basis, but a prepared timed speech seems so very different. Look how I’m stumbling as I practice. Oh, I’ll never get this right. Oh, I’ll make a fool of myself.

What am I cultivating here? See how that question shifts perspective? It’s not an ‘oh, woe is me’ kind of stance but an acknowledgment that even though perhaps this emotional turmoil may have been sparked by external circumstance, I am the one who is creating it now. This is not to blame myself for my feelings or to make them wrong. It’s just a way of seeing more clearly what’s actually happening.

What am I cultivating here? is a question that reminds me that I have the power to cultivate other qualities as well. I can cultivate compassion for myself, lost as I am in these feelings. I can cultivate ease in my body to release any pent up tension. I can cultivate spaciousness to hold all the emotional content, the stories, that gives me perspective. I recognize my power. I am not pushing anything away, I am making room for it all in a way that frees me to see it more clearly.

What am I cultivating here? is an important question, too, because these emotions impact others, not just ourselves. You know if you’re around an angry person or a nervous person that you feel that energy and are made uncomfortable by it, or maybe you catch it, like a virus. So our ability to see the power we have to impact not just our own lives but the lives of those around us is huge.

Asking ourselves what we are cultivating at any given moment helps us to clarify our intention in life, helps us to contribute in ways that are meaningful and helps us to find how to hold all that arises in our experience.

This is just one of many beneficial questions you might ask yourself.

We humans are naturally inquisitive, and our questions are the way we can either create a path of destruction or illuminate our life and the lives of those around us. So next time you find yourself asking a question, see if it’s the kind that will bring you the answer you seek.

Eightfold Path: Spacious Intention

In our last exploration of the Eightfold Path two years ago, I said that Right or Wise Intention is the way we keep our spacious view from becoming spacey. But can there be such a thing as spacious intention?

Intention clarifies, takes us out of the fog or miasma of our amorphous thoughts and emotions and adds a sense of precision and presence. But does something need to be solid to be clear? No! Think of air, think of a clear pool of water. Spaciousness allows us to have clarity without rigidity. So Spacious Intention is possible because intention is the clarity of purpose that arises out of spaciousness.

To review, our intentions, wise, right or spacious, are three-fold:
• to develop a regular practice of meditation
• to stay in the present moment
• to be compassionate to ourselves and others.

If this is new information for you, I recommend rereading the post from January 2009 about Right Intention. When we talk about spacious intention, we are looking to see how spaciousness might enhance each of these intentions.

The intention to set a regular practice
The first thing we need in order to establish a practice is to claim some space in our often busy day. For some people this seems impossible. Where would they find the time? A sense of spaciousness allows us to see the day differently. We can see space between activities perhaps. With Spacious View we can look at our day and see the times when we are sensing our interconnection, expanding that sense of presence and compassion. We can see the times we are not spacious but spacey, either in repetitive circular thinking patterns that become mindless and exhausting or in succumbing to mind-numbing activities that we think of as restful, like surfing the internet, watching television, playing video games, going shopping without needing anything, etc. When we get into Spacious Action, we’ll look at these kinds of activities more closely, but for now, let’s accept that most of us have some form or another of escapist activity that doesn’t serve us very well.

Many of the things we do to ‘give ourselves a break’ are misguided attempts to connect with Spacious View. When we can see this is true, we can replace at least some of the activities with a regular practice of meditation for twenty, thirty or forty minutes a day. Even ten minutes to start will make room for the possibility of developing Spacious View. (Read more about setting up a meditation practice.)

The intention to be present
Setting the intention to be present is setting the intention to anchor our awareness in our senses, the ground of the present moment out of which the infinite field of awareness is able to keep expanding to hold whatever arises in our experience. Notice that we talk about the senses, not about the body, because the image that we hold about the body is usually finite, bounded in our skin. In truth, the body’s edges are much less defined than we imagine, as the skin is a permeable collection of cells and pores, and the breath that enters our bodies and is then released blurs the boundaries as well. But, for the purposes of navigating around in the world, we have developed a strong awareness of edges and have made them more ‘real’ than is useful for purposes of our intention to be present. For this purpose, we are better off sensing, noticing what arises in the vast field of our awareness that is free of boundaries. This field is full of energy waves that our senses perceive as sound, light, felt sensation, taste and odor. We set the intention to notice without naming, without forcing the edges onto the sound that we recognize as the chirp of a bird, for example. By letting go of the naming, we can also let go of judging. If judgment arises, we notice it, but it too is simply an amorphous arising wave of thought that is simply passing through our awareness.

Being present and noticing in this way is a practice. Part of what we might notice are feelings of frustration caused by our expectation that a lifetime of not being present will suddenly evaporate simply because we want it to. Our expectations, our wanting, and our frustration are all part of the experience, all to be noticed and given spaciousness. And because we are prone to experience such frustration and harsh judgment of ourselves, our third intention is to be compassionate.

The intention to be compassionate
Lack of compassion arises out of fear and a sense of separation. All the harsh judgments that live inside us – judgments of ourselves, family, friends, public figures, and the way of the world – come from a tight state of anxiety and defensiveness, what has been called a vestigial fear ingrained in us since the days when we had many predators and few skillful defenses. I read somewhere that after we had discovered fire, invented spears and developed a strong sense of community to defend against and ultimately decimate species that preyed upon us, that vestigial fear still remained. Once we were safe from predators, we needed to pin that fear on something, so we began seeing differences among ourselves, naming ‘other,’ defining boundaries and creating war.

Now our ability to make boundaries and see differences has become such a highly developed skill that we feel totally separate, even from our closest kin. We encourage individualism and celebrate our uniqueness, but at the same time we have, out of fear, created absolute isolation! We have dysfunctional community relations because what we think we want from each other – admiration, recognition of specialness, etc. – is not what we need from each other: a sense of connection. That feeling of isolation can cause all manner of fear-based acts of aggression. Then the fear seems reasonable, as we feel we must protect ourselves from those who, out of fear, perpetrate these acts.

Wouldn’t it be great if we all could notice the fear as it arises and have skillful means to deal with it? Then perhaps together we could release the fear. Groups that form to foster peace and understanding are trying to do just this. And so are we who meditate on a regular basis. Some Buddhists take the bodhisattva vow to be reborn again and again in this world until all beings are able to awaken together.

Developing an awareness of our vestigial fear enables us to hold it up to the light to see if it is necessary. We are developing the ability to be conscious in our thoughts, emotions and actions. But consciousness can only show us the truth. Compassion enables us to hold what we discover in a way that is beneficial to ourselves and all beings.

So we set the intention to cultivate compassion. How does spaciousness come into play with compassion? A sense of spaciousness creates room for compassion to arise within us. Compassion is a spacious generosity of being, beyond the tightness of unfounded fears and a false sense of separation.

Compassion helps us to release what is held so tight within us. A number of years ago I had an insight on a retreat and I still have it pinned to my bulletin board. It says: ‘I have nothing to fear, nothing to lose, nothing to defend and nothing to prove.’ What a breakthrough that was for me! It was like discovering the big tight knot in the core of my being – that vestigial fear, that fortress of isolation – and being able to loosen the knot a bit, to liberate myself, if only momentarily. These insights come and awaken something within us, something that once seen may begin to dissolve in the light of awareness.

Now if this statement that I have nothing to fear, nothing to lose, nothing to defend and nothing to prove sounds misguided, it’s because in a finite sense, in a world of separation and isolation, of course I could lose loved ones, material wealth, health and life; and therefore I have plenty to lose, fear and defend!

But as we discussed last week Spacious View sees the oneness of all that is. This is the great inner shift of awareness, an expansive perspective from which we see the energy waves rising and falling and the rhythm of life pulsing, and all the experiences that arise out of causes and conditions — all the pleasure and pain possible in this life — as vibrant threads in the fabric of being. And when we experience pain, if we have access to this Spacious View and this sense of compassionate awareness, then we feel sustained in a way that would not have seemed possible.

This is not to discount the emotions we experience. Grief at the loss of a loved one is still grief. But when grief is freed to be itself, alive in the moment, experienced as it is, without being blindly compounded by a sense of isolation, vestigial fear, physical tension that hangs on to all the dregs of past associative pain and all the images of a future filled with this same intensity of grief; when we are able to sense in to the spacious energy of life itself, without needing to make sense of it, without needing to justify it, without needing to make up stories around it in order to gain some sense of control, then we can rest in compassionate spaciousness and hold ourselves with tenderness.

Out of this restful spaciousness, we can bring kindness and joy into the world, providing ourselves and others with a sense of connection and well being. Spaciousness allows us to see that our way is not the only way, or that someone else’s way does not have to be our way, and that these seeming differences are just a place to hang our fears left over from the Stone Age. There’s a part of us that doesn’t want to let them go! We are nostalgic for the saber tooth tiger! But spaciousness allows us to live from our deep sense of connection, a sense that cultivates compassion for ourselves and all beings.

As with most aspects of our practice, one feeds the other. So we can arrive at Spacious View through the practice of compassion. Setting our intention to be compassionate and to send metta to ourselves and to others as part of our practice, develops a way of experiencing the world that fosters our ability to sense the oneness.

So that is Spacious Intention!

Eightfold Path: Right Intention, Part Two

I mentioned in the previous post that as meditators and Buddhist practitioners we have three main intentions: First to develop a regular practice, second to return again and again to the present moment, and third to practice kindness to ourselves and others. In this post we will explore these three intentions in a little more and find useful means to help keep our intentions.

Intention: To develop a regular meditation practice
Setting the intention to develop a regular practice involves first recognizing that the practice is valuable. To the degree that we have already practiced, in a class or retreat, we may have begun to notice a subtle or perhaps significant change in our lives. This recognition of the gift of meditation sparks the desire and fosters the discipline to maintain a regular practice.

Setting up a regular practice requires a few practical decisions. Where, when and for how long will we practice?

Choosing a place to practice in your home, you will want to find somewhere you can sit comfortably erect where you will not be disturbed. Many people find creating a specific space is useful in reminding them to practice – everything set up just so. But this is a very portable practice, and place is ultimately not that important. Sitting in the airport waiting for a flight is as good a place as any. But in this tender time of developing a regular practice, designating a specific spot in your home and setting out reminders – a zafu cushion, an altar, a bell, for example, can be visual aids to remind you to practice. But place alone is not enough.

Setting a specific time that works best in your daily schedule and keeping that date with yourself no matter what is very important. Let meditation be the non-negotiable focal point of your day, and work everything else around it. For many, first thing in the morning is the best time. It’s usually quiet, easy to be alone while others sleep or have already left for the day, and is less likely to be interrupted by phone calls or doorbells. Usually the mind is not yet full of the day’s story, making the sitting easier. If mornings are a busy time for you, you can either get up earlier so you can have the time, or choose another time of day that works best, not just on some days but every day. Right before bed is another time of day that is usually available, but it is more challenging as most of us are inclined to fall asleep.

Setting a length of time for your practice is also important. Ideally you want to meditate for 30 – 40 minutes, or twice a day for 20 minutes each. There are no hard and fast rules on this, but its important that when you set a time you keep it. If you are new to meditation, starting with ten minutes, then working up to a longer meditation is a good way to go. You can set a timer to help you stay with the meditation.

Taking your personal practice seriously can be challenging at first. You are not used to sitting in silence with your eyes closed, and when your thoughts wander you might actually physically begin to wander, acting upon a thought of something you have to do. Be kind to yourself during this adjustment period, but don’t give up! When you find yourself reaching for the phone or standing at the refrigerator door, with great compassion but firmness bring yourself back to your practice.

Intention: To be fully in the present moment
In our practice we find ourselves lost in thought and we bring ourselves gently back to an awareness of the breath and sensations in the body. In our daily lives we can also use this embodiment practice, just sensing in to our general sense of aliveness, as well as to any specific sensations. We can run our hand against a texture – a rough fabric, a smooth stone, the bark of a tree. We can listen to sounds without attaching story to them that leads us into memories. We can look around us with fresh eyes, noticing light and shadow, pattern, color, varying levels of detail, etc. – using our artist eyes even if we never intend to paint what we see. We can really taste our food as we eat, savoring the melding flavors.

To help you stay in the moment notice when you are multi-tasking and decide which thing you will stop doing and which you will continue to do right now. Giving full attention to whatever we are doing is necessary in order to stay in the moment.

Notice when you are doing something out of habit, i.e. mindlessly. We want to bring mindfulness to all our doings. For some people it helps to turn habits into rituals. Think Japanese tea ceremony and the possibility of bringing a beauty and artfulness into making the bed, brushing your teeth, washing up, and cooking. On retreat we each have yogi jobs in which we learn to be mindful while doing simple useful tasks. It changes everything to have these daily duties change from things to be gotten through before ‘real life’ begins to being the essence of life well and fully lived.

Pay attention to the moments in between ‘real life’: waiting in line, waiting on hold on the phone, waiting at a stop light. See these as opportunities to pause, calm down, sense into the body, to be fully present with all that we see and experience. Don’t waste your time ‘killing time,’ filling these periods with mindless distractions. Each moment is a precious gift if only we can bring our full awareness to it, no matter what is going on.

For more about staying in the moment go to the Archive and read the posts in July 2008.

Intention: To be kind to ourselves and others
Developing kindness begins with noticing how we are treating ourselves and others now. When we are nice to people, is it an act or our true feelings being expressed? When it’s an act, then it’s not kindness, not a true caring. Instead it’s using kindness as a tool to keep ourselves safe from potential harm, or using it to obtain a desired result. That’s not really kindness at all.

If this false kindness is our modus operandi, once we know people, we may feel we can let down our guard. And because we see kindness as a shield or a tool, we might feel we can set down our shield and let our true feelings out. Perhaps we misinterpret a sense of connection as entitlement to impose our opinions, or we think we are creating intimacy by being (maybe teasingly) abusive. We may treat the ones we love with less respect, because for us respect is based in fear, and we no longer fear them. We may feel we have a certain shorthand together so we can skip the niceties of please and thank you. Or perhaps we feel that those close to us should understand us and we shouldn’t have to be kind.

These kinds of interactions with others are usually about power, and the need for power is rooted in fear. So when we stop to listen to how we talk to ourselves in our minds, it’s not surprising to find we are calling ourselves names and beating ourselves up at every turn. Rooted in fear, seeing the world as a dangerous place and ourselves as bumbling idiots making mistake after mistake, it is almost impossible to be truly kind.

True kindness stems from the Right View, from that shift of vantage point from seeing ourselves as separate in need of creating a protective fortress and operating our of fear, to seeing ourselves as an integral part of the universe, as interconnected with all life. We see that we are yet another expression of the loving creative mystery.

Once we make this shift – even a brief glimpse of this wise understanding can transform a whole life, the way one drop of something can flavor a whole glass of water – then we can become the natural conduits of the loving energy (metta/loving kindness) that flows through and around us, previously unnoticed.

This is vital understanding. We have all experienced the ‘kindness’ of people whose body language spoke otherwise, and we have felt the discomfort of that dishonesty. From our deeper more spacious vantage point, we can have compassion for them. Because we can imagine how they treat themselves, how cruel their inner conversation must be. We know because we have experienced it ourselves.

In order to develop true kindness, we must start with ourselves. We will explore this more fully in an upcoming post on Right Speech as we notice the language we use when we talk to ourselves. But there is much more about loving kindness/metta in the August 2008 posts. Check the archive.

Setting these three simple intentions will radically enhance your life. Start with one of them, the one that resonates most deeply right now, and begin. Then begin again. No matter how many times you lose the intention, it is there for you. Keep it alive. Write it down and put it some place you will come across it often. Explore it with as much spaciousness and compassion as you can. The rewards are infinite, and absolutely free!

Eightfold Path: Right Intention

Once we have an understanding of Right View, we can explore Right Intention, the second aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path. Right View, as I said before, can be experienced as a subtle yet life-changing shift within ourselves to a deeper more spacious vantage point where we sense (or are at least open to the possibility of) connection, wholeness, integrity.

These first two aspects of the Eightfold Path go hand in hand, each dependent on the other. Without Right View, there is no possibility of Right Intention, for our intentions are rooted in our view of the world. If our view of the world is rooted in fear, we go into lockdown mode. We create protective barriers and see ourselves as totally separate. Separate from other people, separate from nature, separate from the world. From this view, our intention is automatically set on defending the fortress we have created to keep ourselves ‘safely’ separate from life.

Conversely, Right View without Right Intention could create a practice and a life that is more spacey than spacious. Right Intention adds a level of precision, attention, mindfulness and active engagement. Right Intention makes it possible to stay in touch with Right View. It keeps us anchored to a sense of wise understanding.

Right View and Right Intention together set the stage for the rest of the Eightfold Path. It may be useful to think of Right View as the foundation and Right Intention as the hook that anchors us to the foundation. Once they are in place, the other aspects of the Eightfold Path arise in natural alignment.

Another way to think of it is with a musical analogy: Your life is the instrument you have been given. Right View lets you see that your instrument is part of a great orchestra, and you have the opportunity to co-create the symphony of life. Right Intention tunes your instrument. Then all the others – Right Speech, Right Action, etc. — are attuned and resonant, melodic life expressions rising from a deep wisdom. Without the understanding of Right View, there is no symphony. Without tuning of Right Intention, the resulting music is discordant.

Right Intention
Right Intention for our purposes as meditators and Buddhist practitioners is three-fold: First, to develop a regular practice of meditation. First things first, we need to get ourselves to the cushion! Second, to bring our awareness to the present moment, both in our meditation and in our lives. And third, to practice kindness to ourselves and others.

Just adopting these three intentions in our lives can make a remarkable difference. You can see how in the practice of meditation, bringing in Right Intention to bring us back again and again to the breath, to bring our awareness back to sensation and anchoring us in the present moment is a wonderful gift. And when we bring Right Intention into our daily life, we find ourselves being kinder in our interactions and more present for the rich experience of living.

But to fully embrace the idea of Right Intention, it may be helpful to explore our understanding of the word ‘intention’. In English this word has an inherent weakness about it. Think of the expression, “I’m sure he had the best of intentions, but…” And then there is the excuse, “I intended to do it, but other things got in the way.” And of course we all know that “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

So is there no better word than ‘intention’ we could use? Resolve has more power but resolutions are better known for being ‘broken’ than ‘kept.’ So we are inclined to think of the word ‘goal’ as the more powerful serious option. Goal setting is a skill that go-getters have and that’s why they achieve things that others don’t. This is our cultural truth. So why are we playing around with this wishy washy word ‘intention’?

Here’s why: As goal-setters we achieve our goal only to have to set another. Our lives are all about the goal, as we’re playing a game of football or hockey. ‘Keep your eye on the prize.” we are told. But with our eyes locked on the goal, we miss the present moment. We see this moment only to the degree that it serves or hampers us in our pursuit of some future moment that will be perfect in every way. Thus we are not present for the rich experience of life fully lived. We are not present for our loved ones when they talk to us. We are not present to notice the multi-layered complexity and beauty of each moment as it reveals itself. No, we are holding out for that goal of a perfect moment when we will have what we so desperately want. But when we get to that perfect moment we have only developed the habit of looking forward and we have no skills at being present, so we miss it! That perfect moment we longed for! Poof! Gone! As unappreciated as all the other moments that preceded it. So what’s the point?

Setting an intention is very different. Here’s an example from my own life:
Will and I study Spanish every day together. We have set the intention of sitting down after breakfast together to study verbs and read to each other from Spanish children’s books. The intention is fulfilled each morning in each moment of our time together, as we laugh and stumble through the challenge of learning a foreign language, and in the process enjoying each other’s company.

But sometimes we can forget to just stay with the intention, and get caught up in a goal of becoming fluent in Spanish. When we do that we have a very different experience. We waste our time beating ourselves up, being frustrated that our brains can’t remember vocabulary, and feeling like we should just give up. How is this in any way useful? This eye on the goal is really sabotaging the likelihood of achieving it! When we stay with our intention, lo and behold, we are increasingly more fluent with each passing month.

So should we not set goals at all? What a radical notion! It might be interesting to take a holiday from our goals just to see how that change affects our lives. We might find that we are more available for opportunties and life experiences that we could not have even imagined from the limited view of our goal setting.

If throwing out a goal is too radical then, at the very least, it’s important to question it to be sure it is aligned with our deepest values, that it’s not just an expression of our grasping or comparing mind, not a way to prove to the world how great we are. This only builds our fortress walls higher. Goals rooted in fear can only create further suffering.

But upon close examination, even fear-based goals might have a seed of love in them. Sometimes with kind attention we can reframe a goal so it is more authentic. The goal of “I want to be a famous movie star” (i.e. I want people to admire me, I want to project an image, I want to have power and control to protect myself from harm, I want to prove to so and so who dissed me that I’m great, etc.) might on closer inspection contain within it a more loving and authentic desire. Perhaps it is “I want to explore life through a variety of roles and share my expression of my explorations with others.”

You can see how that switches from a distant goal that has no depth or substance into a meaningful moment to moment way to be in the world that arises organically from our own natural skills and unique gifts. This reframed goal has more of the quality of an intention. An intention leans toward connection and is acted upon in every moment. A goal leans toward separation, individuation, and is distant, pulling us out of the moment.

Now we can’t talk about Right Intention without acknowledging that we already have all sorts of unspoken and unexamined intentions in our lives, whether we are aware of them or not. We can get a clue as to our intentions by looking at our behavior – the things we say and do, how we interact with others, how we lead our lives. An unskillful intention can be destructive, causing suffering all around. An unskillful intention is based in fear and is an attempt to protect ourselves from a perceived threat.

Seeing these intentions as bad and setting the intention to get rid of them is simply more fear-based activity that will not produce the desired result. The more skillful way is to bring compassionate attention to them and to provide a safe spacious mind for them to reveal themselves. It’s important for us to remember that inside every unskillful intention is a hurt but loving heart, trying its best to protect us from perceived threats.

Through regular meditative practice and bringing our awareness into the present moment we begin to see these unskillful intentions more clearly. Eventually, with kind attention, we can see we don’t need to protect our identity or transform ourselves into some superhuman to secure respect or love. We can let go of these unskillful intentions as the veils of illusion fall away.

If we have had trauma in our lives that makes self-exploration difficult, it may be useful to seek help with a therapist in examining the fear and the unskillful intentions and behavior. But otherwise, a regular sitting practice, a willingness to notice our thoughts and question their validity, and a great deal of patience to let this lifetime process unfold as it will, is all we need to enjoy the ongoing fruits of practice.

As we practice Right Intention – developing a regular practice of meditation, bringing our awareness back to the present moment, and practicing kindness to ourselves and others — we begin to see its quiet power, and as our understanding increases, the meaning of the word ‘intention’ becomes not just powerful but meaningful, and richly satisfying.

An Introduction to the Noble Eightfold Path

Now we begin on the Fourth Noble Truth. To review the first three:The First Noble Truth is that there is suffering, the Second that it is our tendency to grasp and cling that causes this suffering, and the Third is that the end of suffering is possible. (For more in depth discussion, refer to prior posts in the archive at right.)

The Fourth Noble Truth is that The Noble Eightfold Path is the means to end suffering by developing Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.

On our first encounter with the idea of there being ‘right’ views, speech, etc., we may bristle. We don’t want to be forced into a particular way of speaking or thinking. We want to speak authentically and think for ourselves.

For me the single most powerful sentence the Buddha spoke, the one that drew me to Buddhist study in the first place, was “Be a lamp unto yourself.” (Before I ever undertook to study Buddhism, I had that quote on the back of my book, Tapping the Wisdom Within, A Guide to Joyous Living.) For me, this list of do’s and don’ts just didn’t jive with that statement.

Since becoming a Buddhist practitioner it has been easy to just ignore the subject. There are so many rich veins of Buddhism to explore that even over the course of many years The Eightfold Path rarely came up in any dharma talks in weekly classes or retreats I attended.

But then when the upper retreat hall and residences were built at Spirit Rock, they installed a beautiful hand-painted prayer wheel in the pedestrian entry gate. It is adorned with illustrations of the Eightfold Path. As you walk through, you take a handle — perhaps the one named ‘Right Effort’ — and spin the wheel. Then that focus of Right Effort (or whichever handle you took) stays with you as an intention.

In my comings and goings, I always enjoy spinning the prayer wheel. I remember one day I was walking through, and I had a bit of an aha moment about the Eightfold Path. I recognized that I had resistance to being told what to do, but that in fact, these were not dictates that I must subscribe to or rules of behavior I have to live by, lest I fail to be a good Buddhist. Instead I could see them as useful guideposts, so that when I am suffering I can see them in the fog of my misery shining a helpful light to help me see the cause of my suffering.

For example, say I am feeling oddly discomforted and don’t know why. I can mentally review the Eightfold Path to see if there is anything there to guide me. Say that on this occasion when I come upon Right Speech, and then I remember that the night before I had been talking about someone, telling a story that wasn’t mine to tell, and now I have this residual sense of ickiness, as if I truly have wandered into a sticky and stinky bog in my mind. But now I can see that by not adhering to Right Speech, I had wandered off the Eightfold Path.

That guidepost sheds the light of awareness on my behavior and brings me back on the path. Each time I find my way back, I have learned something valuable. And though I will probably wander off the path many times in many ways, these guideposts help me return more quickly, so that my suffering is shortened as I develop the habit of looking to the guideposts for cues to my current discomfort.

If a path sounds constricting, like a ‘straight and narrow’ path, the truth is that this path is incredibly spacious. For by staying on the path, we free ourselves to be fully present in every moment in an unencumbered way. And that is deep authentic connection indeed.

Over the coming weeks we will explore the aspects of the Eightfold Path. Each is a facet of the same jewel of wisdom, and they are so deeply inter-related that insight in one aspect brings understanding in another. Together they have the capacity to enrich our lives, sweeten our relationships and deepen our practice.

Yes, the Buddha told us to be lamps unto ourselves. But he also offered these guideposts to shed light on our path in order that we may brighten and strengthen our own inner light.