Søren Kierkegaard: “Purity of heart is to will one thing.”

kierkegaardHow do we find inner peace? How do we learn to overcome inner conflict? What is the guiding principle of our lives? Bodhipaksa takes a saying by the 19th century Danish theologian and philosopher, Kierkegaard, and looks at the Buddhist perspective on “willing one thing.”

“Purity of heart is to will one thing.”
– Søren Kierkegaard

This saying by Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish theologian and philosopher, suggests that a mind divided is a mind unable to be at peace with itself. When we desire contradictory ends there is no chance for the mind to find harmony; always there is inner strife, conflict, and confusion. When the mind pulls in two directions at once we inevitably suffer; we are forever restless, dissatisfied, and second-guessing ourselves.

To will one thing means to have a mind that is unified around an organizing principle that gives our lives meaning and purpose. I believe that we all attempt to find such an organizing principle. We choose one thing that is, for us, the most important thing in our lives. This focus determines our priorities so that we can make choices, aim at “willing one thing,” and thereby escape from inner conflict.

We may, for example, decide quite unconsciously that work is the most important thing in our lives. We tell ourselves that spending so much time in the office is actually a way of serving our family (we do it to give them a higher standard of living) but really we’re workaholics. And our families resent us and our work.

Or we may decide that the family is the focus of our lives and we end up railing against a teacher who has disciplined our child for having been disruptive or for harming others. We say we’re protecting the family while actually we’re harming them by failing to value ethical boundaries.

 To will one thing means to have a mind that is unified around an organizing principle  

And a more internal example would be when I know I’d be happier if I meditated, but I have the idea of living in ease and comfort as the focus of my life and I end up avoiding meditating because it will inevitably lead to me having to exercise discipline over myself, confronting my inner restlessness.

Kierkegaard offers a whole list of examples such as pleasure, honor, riches, and power, that appear to offer a focus for our lives so that we can “will one thing,” and yet cannot fulfill that role. These are false focuses, promising inner unity but unable to deliver.

So we need to have an appropriate focus, a true focus. For Kierkegaard the person who wills one thing is the person who is focused on the Good.

Any other focus but the Good is self-defeating. In all three of the examples I’ve given the focus chosen ends up being self-defeating. They are self-defeating because the focus is not something into which we can throw the whole of our will without creating further conflict. When, seeking a point of unity in our lives we choose our work or career as our focus we have to try to negate or trivialize other aspects of our lives — not just family, but health, friendship, and leisure: anything that may get in the way of our work ambitions. This leads to our having unfulfilled needs, and these lead to further conflict. In seeking harmony we have found strife. Similarly, when we choose family as the focus of our lives we have to forget that the members of our family have to coexist with others, and when we choose comfort we end up trying to ignore painful issues and real conflicts that have to be addressed.

But what is the Good? It must be something ultimately real and enduring. It cannot be something impermanent or transient. it has to be something all-embracing so that it’s not in opposition to other aspects of our life.

Kierkegaard tells us that the Good can’t be something external to us or we will inevitably come to resent it. “The path and the place are within each of us. And just as the place is the blessed state of the striving soul, so the path is the striving soul’s continual transformation.”

It’s by looking inside ourselves that we will find the Good — the focus that allows us to orient our lives so that we can find wholeness and escape the inevitable pain of “double-mindedness.”

 Rather than bringing the Good into being we are revealing the Good which already exists and which always has existed  

There are two ways, in Buddhist theory and practice, of seeing what the Good is. On the one hand we can see it as being our “skillful” (kusala) impulses: those thoughts and emotions that are based on love, compassion, and self-awareness. The task then is, in every decision we make, to look for the most skillful response we can muster and to act upon in as best we can. In doing so we strengthen our positive habits and weaken the negative. Thus the “striving soul” is engaged in “continual transformation” in pursuit of wholeness — the wholeness of a mind free from greed, hatred, and delusion. In this vision we are bringing the Good into being.

On the other hand we have a vision in Buddhist theory that the mind is essentially pure already: “Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is defiled by incoming defilements.” While in the first model “we” are a mixture of skillful and unskillful tendencies and our job is to get rid of the unskilful and bring skillful habits, emotions, and thoughts into being, in the second model “we” are inherently pure and luminous. The mind is like a jewel. But the jewel of the mind is covered over with “defilements” (unskillful habits, emotions, and thoughts). Our task is still to rid the mind of the unskilful, but rather than bringing the Good into being we are revealing the Good which already exists and which always has existed.

This pursuit of the Good involves a constant self-examination in the moment of choice. We examine our responses. Are we cultivating the positive or strengthening unskillful tendencies? Are we revealing the Good or obscuring it?

This pursuit of the Good gives us a way to put family, career, wealth, comfort, into a wider context. Family and work may still be of great importance, but more important still is that they are arenas in which we can cultivate or reveal the Good in ourselves and to encourage the cultivation or revealing of the Good in others. And in this way we do not set up family and work, or comfort and self-examination, or any other aspect of our lives, in opposition to each other and in opposition to what is most real in us. We learn to will one thing and in doing so develop true purity of heart.

BodhipaksaBodhipaksa is a Buddhist practitioner, writer, and teacher, and is also the founder of Wildmind. He muses, rants, and shares random aspects of his life on his blog at bodhipaksa.com

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3 Comments. Leave new

Dear Bodhipaksa,

I was so happy to see you inspired by Kierkegaard – one of my first life teachers, who I met when I was just 17, newly at university. It is amazing to find teachings that clearly ‘talk to each other’ from people living hundreds of years and thousands of kilometres away from each other. Can you imagine Kierkegaard – a stooped, physically awkward, solitary Danish man, living his life in small 19th century Denmark – sharing his thoughts with a Buddhist teacher from, say, Cambodia, and us twentyfirst century people listening in (you from the States, me from Australia).
There are good sides to globalisation – apart from the dead scary ones. There has never been such wide access to spiritual teachers from so many places, and so many time periods, as there is now (and we never needed it more….).
This profusion of wisdom is also confusing… to find a unifying centre for your mind is definitely no easier now than it was then. I think that Kierkegaard challenges us to make our personal choice of what our priorities are in our lifespan (brief as it is) while he is exquisistely aware of how difficult it is to make ANY choice… if I remember right, he once wrote ‘marry, or marry not, in both cases you will regret it!”. (He famously did NOT marry the woman he loved).
What little I know of his life makes me think of him as a man with a failing body and a huge mind, living in a stiflingly christian context, struggling to see clearly and live as good a life as he could, defining ‘good’ according to what his OWN mind told him – not according to the mores of that time.
A hero – a very fallible hero.
Thanks for bringing him into my day!


And the miracle is,


Dear Bodhipaksa

many thanks again for your teaching. Always inspirational. I would like to comment a bit from progressive christian theory. I agree that the good is to be skillful, and to unveil the pure heart, but I as a Chrisitian I would also add a further dimension. I also believe that this pure heart is a manifestitation of Gods love in this world. It was this love that Jesus embraced. Our task is to embrace this cosmic love and become a Christ. In Buddhist theory I think this is referred to as Buddha nature though correct me if I am wrong. Meditation helps us on this journey.


I like Kierkegaard. Read him at about age 12.
I have found though that even my “will” is jaded, and I have to pray a very deliberate prayer, “Make me willing to be willing to will your will and your purity of heart, O God.”
We Christians believe that it is the work of God’s spirit to impart these right motives, thoughts, in us, and that apart from the energizing Power of the Lord, we can’t do it. A hymn aptly points out what our state of being is in trying to will the Good:

“Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked come to Thee for dress,
Helpless look to Thee for grace;
Foul I to the fountain fly,
Wash me Savior or I die. “


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