I’ve been very aware recently of what a difference setting an intention can make to the quality of my meditation practice. This was even before I recorded the most recent series of Sitting With Bodhi, which is on the theme of intention. In fact it was because I was rediscovering the power of intention that I decided to create that course.
The act of setting an intention brings a heightened sense of clarity to our practice. Setting an intention for a period of practice helps us to catch our distractions earlier and even to avoid distraction altogether at times.
An intention is something we have to keep coming back to over and over again during a period of practice. It’s not just a question of setting one and then you’re done! That’s part of the strength of intentions, though. They give us something specific to focus on. They give us an opportunity to check in repeatedly to see if we’re still on track. Having an intention is like having a compass to help you navigate. The point is to periodically check your bearings to make sure you’re going in the right direction.
Conscious and Unconscious Intentions
What happens is that our conscious intention meets unconscious intentions.
The mind, after all, is rarely purposeless. We bring our emotional preoccupations to the cushion in the forms of anxieties, things we’re irritated about, things we’re longing for, and so on. So when the mind is turning over a potentially worrisome situation it’s in the grip of an intention. But it’s not one we’ve consciously chosen. It’s the direction that our mind wants to head in by default. Our distractions are unconscious intentions.
Some of our unconscious intentions involve the body as well as the mind. You’ve probably had the experience of suddenly finding that you’re scratching an itch. The intention to scratch has arisen and caused your body to move before you’re even aware or it. You’ll probably have had the experience of your posture having slumped. You didn’t consciously decide to slump. You just notice at some point that it’s already happened.
How Do We Set Intentions?
In theory we always have some kind of intention in meditation. We have the intention to always return to the breathing or to cultivate kindness, for example. But often that’s just not enough, and we need an intention that’s a bit more precise and specifically tailored for us.
For a relevant and effective intention to arise we usually need to bring together two things: knowing where we are and knowing where we’d like to go.
Knowing where we are means paying attention as we’re setting up for meditation, settling into our posture, and so on. We develop an awareness of what’s arising for us. Are we tired, irritable, fidgety, lacking confidence, trying to hard? Are we happy, relaxed, inspired, or focused? We need to know what’s going on. If we’re not sure how we are then that in itself is an important thing for us to know.
Knowing where we’d like to go doesn’t mean grasping after some experience, or having an expectation that certain things are going to happen in our meditation practice (“In this meditation I’ll experience joy, or I’ll die trying!”) It’s not about having an expectation, but is about having an aspiration. It’s not about getting to a certain place, but is about knowing what direction we’d like to head in.
Usually those two things are organically related to each other. And your intention arises from an intuitive sense of how to move forward, often in a very simple way.
An Intuitive Leap
If you’re fidgety, for example, then you might want to head in the direction of stillness. So it might become clear that your intention is to sit still.
If you’re feeling critical or irritable, then you might want to head in the direction of appreciation. And so you realize that an appropriate intention is to meet every experience, whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant, with appreciation.
If you’re feeling kind, then you might want to deepen your attitude of kindness. And so a specific intention might be to meet every distraction that arises with kindness.
You might notice that the form of words I’ve chosen allows you to know whether or not you’re following through with the intention. If in a given moment you’re fidgeting, then you’ve forgotten your intention to sit still. But if you’re sitting still then you’re following through with it. If you get annoyed or disappointed about getting distracted, then you’re not meeting your distractions with kindness. But if you have an attitude of acceptance, patience, and benevolence when you notice you’ve been distracted, then you know you’re following through with your intention. A vague intention such as “be kinder” or “be more mindful” isn’t very helpful. In any given moment that you check in with yourself, are you “being kinder” or “being more mindful”? It’ll be hard to tell! So choose a specific intention.
It’s All About Karma
The Buddha said that karma is intention. Why? Well, first of all, karma isn’t some kind of mysterious cosmic force, dealing our punishments or rewards depending if you’re on the naughty or nice lists. Karma literally means “action.” The original sense was “building,” “constructing,” or “fabricating.” Karma is the action that shapes our life: that shapes who we are. And actions start, internally, as intentions.
So, remember when I said that our conscious intention meets unconscious intentions? Our lives are always shaping themselves because we’re constantly exercising behavioral habits. And I’m taking the word behavior here to refer not just to physical actions we make in the world, but to the way we speak and the way we think. These things are very, very habitual. And the more we exercise a habit, the more we reinforce it.
When we have a conscious, skillful intention (“sit still,” “meet every distraction with kindness”) we’re introducing something new into the mix. We meet our unconscious, usually unhelpful habits with more conscious, more helpful ones. If we keep making that kind of gentle effort then those conscious habits start to weaken the unconscious and unhelpful ones.
Our new intentions can, in time, become quite automatic. They’re just how we act.
In other words, by choosing intentions, we shape our life. We shape who we are.
And if our positive intentions have been chosen wisely, then we’ll become happier. We’ll be more at ease. We’ll become more at peace with ourselves. This is the power of intention.