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Brightening the Heart Through Right Intention
Philip Moffitt’s response to a question getting to the heart of of right intention.
A practitioner query: “I must be confused about the Buddha’s teaching on right intention. I’m very good about setting intentions and then reminding myself of them. But things don’t ever seem to turn out according to those intentions, and I fall into disappointment.”
Response: At first, I could only smile in response. What a good question! When I asked her to explain these intentions, she proceeded to describe a number of goals for her future – to become less tense at work, to spend more time with her family, to stabilize her finances, and more. She was suffering from a kind of confusion that seems to afflict many bright, hardworking people: mixing up two different life functions that are easily mistaken for each other. All of her goals were laudable, but none would fit within the Buddha’s teachings on right intention.
Goals vs. Intentions
Goal making is a valuable skill; it involves envisioning a future outcome in the world or in your behavior, then planning, applying discipline, and working hard to achieve it. You organize your time and energy based on your goals; they help provide direction for your life. Committing to and visualizing those goals may assist you in your efforts, but neither of these activities is what I call setting intention. They both involve living in an imagined future and are not concerned with what is happening to you in the present moment. With goals, the future is always the focus: Are you going to reach the goal? Will you be happy when you do? What’s next?
Setting intention, at least according to Buddhist teachings, is quite different than goal making. It is not oriented toward a future outcome. Instead, it is a path or practice that is focused on how you are “being” in the present moment. Your attention is on the everpresent “now” in the constantly changing flow of life. You set your intentions based on understanding what matters most to you and make a commitment to align your worldly actions with your inner values.
As you gain insight through meditation, wise reflection, and moral living, your ability to act from your intentions blossoms. It is called a practice because it is an ever-renewing process. You don’t just set your intentions and then forget about them; you live them every day.
Although the student thought she was focusing on her inner experience of the present moment, she was actually focusing on a future outcome; even though she had healthy goals that pointed in a wholesome direction, she was not being her values. Thus, when her efforts did not go well, she got lost in disappointment and confusion. When this happened, she had no “ground of intention” to help her regain her mental footing – no way to establish herself in a context that was larger and more meaningful than her goal-oriented activity.
Goals help you make your place in the world and be an effective person. But being grounded in intention is what provides integrity and unity in your life. Through the skillful cultivation of intention, you learn to make wise goals and then to work hard toward achieving them without getting caught in attachment to outcome. As I suggested to the yogi, only by remembering your intentions can you reconnect with yourself during those emotional storms that cause you to lose touch with yourself. This remembering is a blessing, because it provides a sense of meaning in your life that is independent of whether you achieve certain goals or not. Ironically, by being in touch with and acting from your true intentions, you become more effective in reaching your goals than when you act from wants and insecurities. Once the yogi understood this, she started to work with goals and intentions as separate functions. She later reported that continually coming back to her intentions in the course of her day was actually helping her with her goals.
Doing the Groundwork
What would it be like if you didn’t measure the success of your life just by what you get and don’t get, but gave equal or greater priority to how aligned you are with your deepest values? Goals are rooted in maya (illusion) – the illusionary world where what you want seems fixed and unchanging but in truth is forever changing. It is in this world that mara, the inner voice of temptation and discouragement, flourishes. Goals never fulfill you in an ongoing way; they either beget another goal or else collapse. They provide excitement – the ups and downs of life – but intention is what provides you with self-respect and peace of mind.
Cultivating right intention does not mean you abandon goals. You continue to use them, but they exist within a larger context of meaning that offers the possibility of peace beyond the fluctuations caused by pain and pleasure, gain and loss.
The Buddha’s Fourth Noble Truth teaches right intention as the second step in the eightfold path: Cause no harm, and treat yourself and others with Loving-kindness and compassion while seeking true happiness, that which comes from being free from grasping and clinging. Such a statement may sound naive or idealistic – a way for nuns and monks to live but not suitable for those of us who must make our way in this tough, competitive world. But to think this is to make the same error as the woman in my group interview.
In choosing to live with right intention, you are not giving up your desire for achievement or a better life, or binding yourself to being morally perfect. But you are committing to living each moment with the intention of not causing harm with your actions and words, and not violating others through your livelihood or sexuality. You are connecting to your own sense of kindness and innate dignity. Standing on this ground of intention, you are then able to participate as you choose in life’s contests, until you outgrow them.
Naturally, sometimes things go well for you and other times not, but you do not live and die by these endless fluctuations. Your happiness comes from the strength of your internal experience of intention. You become one of those fortunate human beings who know who they are and are independent of our culture’s obsession with winning. You still feel sadness, loss, lust, and fear, but you have a means for directly relating to all of these difficult emotions. Therefore, you are not a victim, nor are your happiness and peace of mind dependent on how things are right now.
Misusing Good Intentions
When I offer teachings on right intention, students often ask two things: “Isn’t this like signing up for the Ten Commandments in another form?” and “What about the old saying “The road to hell is paved with good intentions’?” First, the Ten Commandments are excellent moral guidelines for us all, but right intention is not moral law; it is an attitude or state of mind, which you develop gradually. As such, the longer you work with right intention, the subtler and more interesting it becomes as a practice.
In Buddhist psychology, intention manifests itself as “volition,” which is the mental factor that most determines your consciousness in each moment. Literally, it is your intention that affects how you interpret what comes into your mind.
Take, for example, someone who is being rude and domineering during a meeting at work. He is unpleasant, or at least your experience of him is unpleasant. What do you notice? Do you see his insecurity and how desperately hungry he is for control and attention? Or do you notice only your own needs and dislike, and take his behavior personally, even though it really has little to do with you? If you are grounded in your intention, then your response will be to notice his discomfort and your own suffering and feel compassion toward both of you. This doesn’t mean that you don’t feel irritation or that you allow him to push you around, but you avoid getting lost in judgment or personal reaction. Can you feel the extra emotional space such an orientation to life provides? Do you see the greater range of options for interpreting the difficulties in your life?
As for those good intentions that lead to hell in the old adage, they almost always involve having an agenda for someone else. They are goals disguised as intentions, and you abandon your inner intentions in pursuit of them. Moreover, those goals are often only your view of how things are supposed to be, and you become caught in your own reactive mind.
It Takes Practice
Right intention is like muscle – you develop it over time by exercising it. When you lose it, you just start over again. There’s no need to judge yourself or quit when you fail to live by your intentions. You are developing the habit of right intention so that it becomes an unconscious way of living – an automatic response to all situations. Right intention is organic; it thrives when cultivated and wilts when neglected.
There are only two things you are responsible for in this practice: Throughout each day, ask yourself if you are being true to your deepest intentions. If you’re not, start doing so immediately, as best as you’re able. The outcome of your inquiry and effort may seem modest at first. But be assured, each time you start over by reconnecting to your intention, you are taking one more step toward finding your own authenticity and freedom. In that moment, you are remembering yourself and grounding your life in your heart’s intention.