intention

Why it’s important to meditate every day

Buddha meditating

I used to envy people who were able to meditate every day, because it was something I struggled with. Certain people just didn’t have a problem with meditating daily, but I found it hard.

I’d have successful runs of a few weeks, and then I’d end up not meditating one day. And that perceived failure led to me missing more days, on the dubious assumption that if I couldn’t do something perfectly there was no point even trying.

Eventually I did manage to become one of the people I used to envy, able to meditate every day. I’ve shared how I achieved that here in this blog and also in a course I created, called “Get Your Sit Together.”

Also see:

But you may wonder, why even try to meditate every day? You may experience benefits from sporadic meditation and not see the importance of becoming what I call a “rock-solid daily meditator.”

So I’d like to share some of the reasons I think it’s important.

Putting First Things First

Meditation is one of the most important things I do in my life. It changes everything. The mindfulness that I develop, the kindness that I develop in my meditation practice, the insights that I have from my practice, all change my life in many, many ways that make me happier and also make me a better person to be around.

And that for me is a very important motivation. I want to be a better person to be around and have a more positive influence on people around about me and not to be an asshole because that can happen.

The things that squeezed meditation out of my schedule were always less important in the great scheme of things. Spending time on social media, or watching TV, or working are just not important enough that we should allow them to stop us meditating regularly. No one on their death bed is going to think, “I’m glad I spent so much time at the office,” or “Looking back, I’m most proud of binge-watching Supernatural.”

Even things like family and intimate relationships shouldn’t get in the way. I’m not saying those things are unimportant. They’re very important. But the quality of those human relationships is going to be better if we have a regular meditation practice. Meditation gives us an opportunity to be better human beings: better parents, better partners, better friends and mentors. So it’s worth taking time out for practice.

Going Deeper In Our Practice

If we practice anything regularly, with the conscious intent to get better at it, then we’re more likely to see progress. It doesn’t matter whether that’s tennis, or cooking, or meditation. If we’re prepared to learn from what doesn’t work so well and what works better, then we’ll see progress. And seeing progress is encouraging.

My meditation practice doesn’t get steadily deeper and deeper. It’s more like a long, winding path with highs and lows. But on the whole it’s more inclined to be creative and enjoyable and transformative if I’m doing it regularly.

Experiencing the Benefits of Practice.

Meditation has lots of benefits.  It has social benefits, emotional benefits, and health benefits. Consistency allows us to experience those benefits more consistently. We’ll be healthier and happier if we keep our practice regular.

It’s just like if you only went to the gym or a yoga class once in a while rather than having a regular schedule; you’ll see some benefits, but not as much as you could.

Not Letting Fear Rule Your Life.

In the days when I found myself unable to motivate myself to meditate and got caught up in other things, it was often about avoidance of feelings. There was often some kind of restlessness or dissatisfaction within myself and I did not want to sit down and face that.

So there was fear involved in avoiding meditation.

Now, I don’t want my life to be dominated by fear. I don’t want my life to be manipulated by my fears. I feel good when I overcome my fears, when I face them squarely and overcome them. I feel more in control of my life. I feel more fearless.

Feeling Better About Yourself

When you see yourself as the kind of person who can’t meditate every day, you don’t feel good about yourself. It seems that other people have will-power, and you don’t. You’re lacking.

It turns out that will-power isn’t what we need in order to meditate every day. It’s about intelligently using strategies to make it easier to sit than to do something else. It literally can get to the point where it feels unthinkable to miss a day. You probably feel that way about brushing your teeth. if it can feel that way for that activity, it can be that way for meditation as well.

And once you do manage to sit every day, you feel good about yourself. You shed that view of being “lacking” and defective. You feel strong and confident.

Instead of believing you’re the kind of person who can’t meditate every day, you know that you do meditate every day. It’s just what you do. It’s part of who you are.

I feel good when I’m meditating every day. I feel good being faithful to my practice. I feel good being faithful to myself, being faithful to my intention to keep practicing.

So those are some of the reasons why I find it helpful to meditate every day. And I enjoy sharing with others how to bring that about.

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Made a New Year’s resolution to meditate daily? Here’s how to make it happen

Illustration of a New Year's resolution list, with one item on it: "Quit making New Year's resolutions."

It’s early January, and many people who made New Year’s resolutions are already going “Oops!” as they realize they’ve already missed a morning at the gym, binged on something unhealthy, or forgotten to meditate.

It’s very hard to change habits.

The habit I’m most interested in is daily meditation, which is something I nailed a long time ago. Mostly my interest is in helping other people to establish that habit. It’s something I struggled with for many years, until finally I had a breakthrough. I’ve shared that breakthrough with many people, and it’s helped them too.

The breakthrough doesn’t consist of just one thing. In fact the breakthrough involves recognizing that there is no one thing that will get you to the point where you’re what I call a Rock-Solid Daily Meditator. What we need is to build up an interlocking suite of tools and strategies that support daily meditation.

Also see:

None of those tools and strategies relies on willpower. In fact, willpower is fairly useless. One study showed that a six-week training course in self-control failed to help participants to change any habits whatsoever in their lives. Even worse, participants noted that the main side-effect of the training was that they felt emotionally drained. Researchers have also found that people who are good at resisting temptations are those who don’t feel tempted in the first place, meaning that they don’t even need self-control. For example, those who apparently have good self-control tend to avoid putting themselves into positions where they need to resist temptation. Rather than walk past the donut shop and end up battling themselves, they simply walk down a different street. They put the alarm clock on the other side of the room so that they aren’t tempted to stay in bed.

The theory behind willpower is that you can change a habit based on wanting it to change. If you can just wish it hard enough, then it will be so.

The Buddha offered a hilarious illustration of the absurdity of this proposition:

Suppose a man were to throw a large boulder into a deep lake of water, and a great crowd of people, gathering and congregating, would pray, praise, and circumambulate with their hands palm-to-palm over the heart [saying,] ‘Rise up, O boulder! Come floating up, O boulder! Come float to the shore, O boulder!’ What do you think: would that boulder — because of the prayers, praise, and circumambulation of that great crowd of people — rise up, come floating up, or come float to the shore?

Well, I think it’s hilarious!

What the Buddha points out is that if you want something to happen, it’s not enough just to want it. You have to do the things that support that thing happening.

So here are some of the key points that I teach people who want to meditate daily.

Set easily attainable goals

You go to a meditation class and do 30- or 40-minute meditations. And the teacher tells you that you should practice every day. So you try to fit a 30- or 40-minute meditation into your already busy lifestyle and find — surprise, surprise — that it’s hard to do this.

Yes, some people are able to carve out that amount of time each day for a new habit, but most people can’t. And it’s not because of a lack of willpower, any more than not being able to get your size 8 feet into a pair of size 6 shoes is because of a lack of willpower. You’re simply trying something that’s almost impossible.

So instead, aim to sit for just five minutes every day.

Yes, it’s not a lot of time. But that’s the point. Everyone has five minutes to spare every day. If you’re pressed, you can head to the bathroom at work and meditate in a stall. You can meditate for five minutes after you’ve finished reading your child to sleep. You can meditate in the car when you arrive at work, or meditate on the bus or train.

I’m not saying that five minutes is enough. Sure, it can be enough to bring about a little more calm, but it probably isn’t going to change your entire day.

But what it does do is to help you create and sustain a powerful habit. Because once you’re meditating for five minutes a day, you find that it’s not that hard to increase it to eight minutes, ten minutes, fifteen, twenty … and now you’re doing something that really can change your whole day, and even your whole life.

Hack the meaning of the word “day”

A day, for the purposes of meditating daily, is not the 24 hours between one midnight and the next (a “clock day”), but is the time between waking and going back to sleep again (an “organic day”).

This gets us around the problem of going to bed after midnight and realizing that you haven’t sat yet. If you’re counting by clock days, you’re screwed. If you’re on organic days, you can pull off a quick five minute sit and you’re still on track.

Plan

All the above is vital, but even more vital is that you actually do need to have the intention to meditate daily. I don’t mean simply having a vague thought, “Oh, wouldn’t it be nice if I meditated every day, instead of just every now and then.” I mean “It would be good to meditate every day; how can I make that happen?”

So we’re back to doing the things that support the habit of daily meditation, rather than trying to “wish” it into existence.

To meditate daily requires planning. Planning makes manifest your intention. It takes the idea or desire, and brings it into the world as an actual thing.

So you need to plan. When are you going to meditate? For how long? How are you going to time it? Are you going to use a guided meditation? Are you going to do it with someone, even if they’re not physically present with you, but instead you’re on a Zoom call or phone call with them?

If you don’t plan, but hope that you’ll somehow fit your five minutes in sometime, you’ll fail. You’ll forget. You’ve don’t have even a wish at that point, never mind an intention.

Beware of the inner voice that says, “I don’t like planning. I want to be spontaneous!” That’s the part of you that doesn’t want to meditate speaking. It wants you to spontaneously do something other than meditate.

So be clear in your planning.

Plan again

Planning is great. But there’s a saying along the lines of “You make plans, and the universe laughs.”

Events are going to crop up that get in the way of your meditation. You’ve decided to sit before you leave for work, and one of your kids gets sick, or there’s a work emergency that means you have to leave early, or your alarm doesn’t go off, or someone knocks on the door asking you to support some cause or other. The permutations are endless.

Research shows that people who have a Plan B are vastly more likely to stick at their habits. They anticipate what they will do if Plan A is frustrated. They have a backup plan that’s just as specific as Plan A was.

One implication of this is that if your Plan A is to meditate just before going to sleep, then you can’t have a plan B. So that tells you that planning to meditate last thing at night is okay as a standby in emergencies, but it’s not good for a regular practice.

Hack your sense of self

Once you have a few consecutive days of meditation under your belt, you can bring on the most powerful strategy I know of for supporting a daily meditation practice. It’s a simple mantra, to be repeated frequently:

“I meditate every day. It’s just what I do. It’s part of who I am.”

What this does is change your sense of who you are.

If you’ve tried and failed to set up a daily meditation practice before, you build into your sense of self the idea, “I am the kind of person who can’t keep up a daily meditation practice. I lack the willpower.”

This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe you can’t meditate daily, you won’t. You’ll hit one of those times when you don’t really feel like meditating, and because you think of yourself as someone who can’t meditate every day and doesn’t meditate every day, you’ll cave and end up missing a sit.

When you repeatedly say “I meditate every day. It’s just what I do. It’s part of who I am,” this too becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You hit the same crisis point where you really don’t feel like meditating, but you say to yourself, “Snap out of it! I meditate every day. It’s just what I do.” And you sit.

It’s this tool more than any other that’s kept me meditating daily. And I know that some of my students have found themselves meditating for several thousand straight days as a result.

But prepare for slip-ups

I felt terrible the first time that I missed a day after many months of meditating consistently. I felt like I’d failed. Like I should give up.

With me it was the result of being very busy with work and having two young kids to take care of. I was so frazzled that I forgot to create a Plan B, went to bed without even realizing I hadn’t sat, and work up the next morning feeling the way I would if I’d accidentally driven over a beloved pet.

Fortunately I pulled myself together and kept going, although I know others haven’t.

I think of missing a day as a slip-up, not a failure.

I think of missing a day as an opportunity to learn. Have I been forgetting my mantra? Have I forgotten to plan? To have a Plan B? If a day were to come up again that was as crazy as that one, how would I do things differently?

Other strategies

I have a ton more strategies, but I can’t cram them into one already very long blog post.

If you want to learn more, I have a Get Your Sit Together online course running at present, which you’re free to join. I also have a four-week live Get Your Sit Together course through the New York Insight Meditation Center coming up (it’s on Zoom), and you can register for that through their website. Both of these include community support, and if I’d had time to write about one more strategy above, it would have been the power of friendship and community.

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Self-compassion and self-care

The two-headed Roman god, Janus

It’s funny — I’ve known since I was 13 that January is named for the god Janus, who has two faces: one looking forward and one backward. But right now it strikes me how appropriate that is.

The period around New Year is a natural time to look back at and see what was good or wasn’t so good. We can also look forward into the coming year and think about what we might do, and what we might change.

Anyway, I want to tell myself that I’m not interested in New Year’s Resolutions. This is mainly because of youthfully naive attempts with them that I forgot within days. But I can’t help but look, Janus-like, at the year that’s just past and the year that’s just beginning.

A Good Year and a Bad Year

Last year was tough in some ways. Three people I had strong connections with, including my sister, died within nine days of each other. I re-injured my back quite badly by straining my left sacroiliac joint. I could barely walk for several days, and was still in pain months later. My elderly parents both got Covid, which was worrying, although they both pulled through. And a big concern was that a lot of Wildmind’s sponsors were forced to cancel their subscriptions for financial reasons. (Most of those were in the UK, where the post-Brexit economy is truly dire.)

It was also a good year in some ways. I had a book (“A Year of Buddha’s Wisdom”) published on my birthday last year. I remained in that ever-shrinking group of people who have managed to avoid Covid. Toward the end of the year I rekindled a habit of walking daily. My meditation practice kept going, through thick and thin. Although the pandemic has reduced my social life almost to zero, I’ve adjusted to that being the case.

I spent the entire year writing on one topic, which I’ve never done before: on January 14th I sent out the first email in a course called “Politics as a Spiritual Practice,” and the last email of the course went out on December 29th. I’ve never before had an opportunity to explore one topic in such depth. In essence I wrote a book, and in fact I hope to find a publisher for it this year.

Sometimes the good and the bad are connected. Yes, I did a lot of writing. But that meant sitting for long periods at a computer, and that wasn’t good for my body, which led to me injuring my back.

Self-Care and Self-Compassion

Which brings me (finally) to the point of this article: I’m pretty good at self-compassion but not very good at self-care.

Self-compassion is where we respond in a kind, supportive way to our own suffering. We give ourselves the comfort and reassurance we need in order to get through hard times, whether those hard times last for a few moments or for months on end. It’s a powerful practice. I’m pretty good at it. I even wrote a book about it.

Self-care is where we take care of our own needs so that we don’t create as much suffering for ourselves in the first place. Keeping our long-term happiness and well-being in mind, we do what we need to do in order to be healthy and happy. That includes things like eating healthily, getting enough sleep, taking breaks from work, and getting regular exercise and stretching. The first two on that list I’m very good at. The third (taking breaks) I’m not bad at. The fourth (exercising and stretching) I’ve been very bad at.

Some people are good at self-care but not self-compassion. They might live very healthily but not be emotionally self-supportive. They might even be very self-critical. I’m good at self-compassion, but not at self-care. Ideally, we should be good at both.

My back injury was a good reminder of the importance of self-care. I really don’t want to go through that ordeal again, so I’ve been to a physical therapist and learned some stretches and exercises that will give my core more strength and give my body more flexibility. Together, those things should keep my back in reasonable health. And once this chest infection is out of the way I intend to get back to walking daily.

Lessons Learned

Based on the lessons I’ve learned from booking backward and looking forward, it feels appropriate to have an overall aim for the year, expressed in general terms. I’d describe that aim as “Thriving Though Self-Care.” I want to thrive — healthily, happily. I have an image of myself later this year, full of energy and joy. And I want to get there through practicing self-care.

It also seems that having general aims isn’t enough, so I’m setting myself the specifically goals of walking for a average of 30 minutes a day (at a minimum), and stretching at least once a day for five minutes.

If I miss a day’s walking (sometimes I’m sick, sometimes the weather makes it impossible) I’ll do more walking on other days to keep my average up.

I know from previous experience that accountability helps, so I’m going to check in about this daily in Wildmind’s community website, letting people know how I’m doing.

So I hope that will help me with my practice of self-care.

Two More Things

Two more things in regard to self-care:

First, toward the end of last year I started working a four-day week. I did this because of reading about an international study showing that when businesses switched to a four-day week they actually became more productive. I’ve been doing this for a month now, and I think it’s helping. I’ve noticed that I’m more creative than I’ve been for a while. I’m ending my workweek in a state of joy rather than exhaustion. I feel more relaxed at weekends, too.

Second, I was so focused on finishing the year-long course I was teaching on politics that I did almost nothing in response to losing about a third of my income as supporters withdrew their sponsorships. This caused a fair bit of anxiety, so as part of my practice of self-care I will be working on building up my base of subscribers again. It’s hard to create when you’re worried about whether you can afford to pay rent. In fact, in the long-term I’d like to have someone working with me on Wildmind who is responsible for community growth and community engagement. I’d like to have someone to work with, and I’d rather devote 100 percent of my energy to teaching and not have to think about money.

So that’s what I’m learning, looking back at next year, and that’s how I intend to live 2023 differently, based on those lessons. (One last goal: I want to write in this blog three times a month for the rest of the year, even if the reports are brief. Some of those posts will be follow-ons from this one.)

Anyway, I wish you a very Happy New Year. If you have any thoughts about self-care, or about New Year’s aspirations, resolutions, aims, or goals, why not add them in the comments below?

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The power of intention

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.

Be Specific

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.

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The power of setting an intention

Jeena Cho, Above the Law: As we come to the end of 2016, it’s a wonderful time to pause, reflect, and set an intention for 2017. An intention, unlike a goal, isn’t about achieving the next big thing, or moving up the ladder. It’s about how you’re being, in this moment.

My co-author, Karen Gifford, described setting an intention in our book, The Anxious Lawyer:

Setting an intention is a little like setting your compass: it is always there in the background guiding you in a certain direction, even though you …

Read the original article »

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Karma: it’s not just intention

Woman walking down a city street

The other day I wrote about how karma isn’t the mystical and external “cosmic force” that many people think it to be — a force that impersonally metes out rewards and punishments. In a crude form this amounts to thinking things like this: if you do good things the sun will shine on your picnic, and if you do bad things it’ll rain.

Instead, karma (according to the Buddha) is to do with the ethical status of our intentions and how those naturally lead to our becoming more mired in suffering or freed from it.

Karma is psychology: do this, and you’ll feel that. Karma is about how your mind changes and becomes happier when you’re less selfish and more generous, less angry and more loving.

The word karma is basically another term for Buddhist ethics.

See also:

But the idea that karma is intention can be misused. I’ve seen lots of people, bull-in-a-china-shop-style, hurt others and then say that they didn’t do anything unskillful because they didn’t have any intention to cause harm. Heck, I’ve done it myself. But that attitude represents a narrow take on karma (and ethics), and it doesn’t take into account the subtlety of the Buddha’s teaching. Bulls should either not visit china shops, or be very careful if they do.

Let’s look at a an example of how we might play the “I can’t have done anything unskillful because I didn’t have bad intentions” game. This one probably doesn’t apply to you directly, but it’s an illustration of the principle at work.

In this video Shoshana Roberts was filmed walking silently down the street by a friend with a hidden camera. Roberts was catcalled over 100 times in ten hours. That’s just the verbal interactions, not the whistles or stares. She was followed by one man who stalked her for five minutes, often staring intensely at her from the side and demanding to know what she thought of him. Some turned critical or aggressive when they didn’t get a flirtatious response in return: “Someone’s acknowledging you for being beautiful — you should say thank you more.”

Now, I’m pretty sure most, if not all, of the men who catcalled Roberts thought they had good intentions. They probably felt they were complimenting her. But the experience of having your appearance — to be crude, your ass — commented on (“I just saw a thousand dollars!”) over and over again can be distressing. Needless to say, being followed by a stranger can be very threatening.

I’d imagine (or hope) that there aren’t many people reading this blog who do anything as crude as cat-call strangers, but I’m sure  in your own life you do things that cause distress to others. We become aware of these most often in regard to the people we live with. We might forget to tidy up after ourselves or not express appreciation. We don’t mean to do these things of course — but that’s the very point: if we’re interested in living ethically then we need to become more conscious of our deeper motivations. Becoming aware of how our actions affect others is how we discover unskillful motivations that we haven’t yet brought into consciousness

We need to be aware of not just what we think are our intentions, but to dig deeper. This is something the Buddha himself stressed:

Having done a verbal action, you should reflect on it: ‘This verbal action I have done — did it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Was it an unskillful verbal action, with painful consequences, painful results?’ If, on reflection, you know that it led to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; it was an unskillful verbal action with painful consequences, painful results, then you should confess it, reveal it, lay it open to the Teacher or to a knowledgeable companion in the holy life. Having confessed it… you should exercise restraint in the future.

Because the thing is, it’s not always easy to know our own intentions. It’s easy for us to fool ourselves. But if you know that many women don’t like being given random “compliments” on the street, then when you continue to do so it’s no longer about them, it’s about you. Your intention is revealed as not being about complimenting another person in order to do them a favor, but about expressing your (unwanted) attraction. It becomes about control: I want your smile, so I catcall; if you don’t give me what I want I’ll get nasty. It becomes about you imposing your will on another person — which is why the women involved in that video have received death and rape threats for having made it.

We can’t avoid causing harm or hurting people. The Buddha pointed out that sometimes we have say things that will cause distress. But he set a high bar for this: we have to consider, before we say such a thing: are our words true, are they expressed kindly, are they intended to help the other person, are they crafted in such a way that they’ll lead to harmony, and are they expressed at the right time (a requirement that implies a good knowledge of the other person’s state of receptivity)?

People were upset with the Buddha all the time! But it’s a noble effort to work on reducing the amount of pain we cause.

There’s a kind of brutal honesty required in looking for our real intentions. We really need to acknowledge the harm we’re doing, and if it doesn’t seem at first that we have any intention to harm, we need to look deeper. When we’re habitually causing distress or harm to others, then there’s some attitude there that needs to be brought to light.

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“Our deeds determine us, as much as we determine our deeds.” George Eliot

George Eliot

Karma is one of the most misunderstood Buddhist teachings. Often people think of karma as some kind of external, impersonal force that “rewards” us for our good deeds and punishes us for our bad. Consequently, even some people with an otherwise good understanding of Buddhism reject karma (usually along with rebirth) as being non-rational.

But karma is not external, nor is it about rewards and punishments. Karma simply means “action.” As an ethical term, it refers to the intentions underlying our actions, understood very broadly as anything we might think, say, or do. As the Buddha said, “I declare, intention is karma” (Cetanāhaṁ kammaṁ vadāmi).

What this means is three-fold:

  1. First, ethically speaking, we can see our intentions as being either skillful or unskillful. Skillful intentions embody qualities of mindfulness, contentment, clarity, and care for the well-being of oneself and others. Unskillful intentions embody the opposites: they are motivated by impulsive selfishness, craving, confusion, and ill will.
  2. Second, the importance of this distinction is that skillful actions (i.e. those arising from skillful volitions) lead on the whole to a decrease in unhappiness and an increase in ease. Unskillful actions, as you might expect, do the opposite. So in choosing our actions, we also choose (whether we know it or not) the consequences of those actions. We create much of our own suffering and happiness through our actions.
  3. Third, habits are like muscles in the brain. By exercising a habit, it becomes stronger. As the Buddha said (and with apologies for the gender-specific language), “Whatever a monk keeps pursuing with his thinking and pondering, that becomes the inclination of his awareness,” and “What a man wills, what he plans, what he dwells on forms the basis for the continuation of consciousness.”

We create our consciousness through the actions we take — even our thoughts and words.  And so, as Eliot observed, not only do we create our actions, but our actions create us.

Mindfulness (sammā sati), right view (sammā ditthi), and right effort (sammā vāyāma) can free us from this feedback loop. Together they act to break open a circular track and turn it into a path that leads to awakening.

We need mindfulness because without it, we become submerged in our thoughts and feelings. Unable to stand back, we act unreflectively, strengthening our unskillful habits and creating suffering for ourselves.

Right view is important because it allows us to evaluate our potential actions. We can realize, “If I act in this way (e.g. angrily) then there will be painful consequences. On the other hand, if I act that way (e.g. with patience and kindness) then the consequences will be more beneficial for me and others.

See also:

We need right effort because it’s not enough just to know what we should do. We also have to be willing to act. On the one hand, right effort is our commitment to bring into being and sustain the skillful. On the other it’s to eradicate and prevent the further arising of the unskillful.

Karma is essentially a feedback mechanism, showing us the extent to which we’re in tune with reality.

Something the Buddha was quite clear about is that not everything we experience is a result of karma. Some Buddhist traditions seem to have overlooked that fact, however. So it might rain on your wedding day, or you might hit a red light when you’re already late. But that’s not the result of your karma. (Neither is it ironic, as many people have no doubt pointed out to Alanis Morissette.) But how you respond emotionally to such events, and how much you suffer as a result, does depend on your karma. If you’ve developed the emotional “muscles” of acceptance, patience, and flexibility, then you’ll be able to meet these events with elegance and with a minimum of suffering, or perhaps none. If, by a lifetime of exercise, you bulk up your emotional muscles of impatience and anger, then once again you’ll experience these events as acutely frustrating, painful, and stressful.

The extent to which we’re able to meet life’s difficulties with grace is the measure of our wisdom.

One thing we have to be aware of is the tendency to say “My intentions were pure, therefore I’m not responsible for the fact that you got hurt by my actions.” Our own intentions are never entirely clear to us. That’s why the Buddha pointed out that we have to look at the consequences of our actions to help us divine intentions that might be hidden to us. If we’ve caused pain to ourselves or others, then we likely had some kind of unskillful motivation mixed in with the skillful.

Karma, then, isn’t anything mystical. It’s simply a description of the psychology of happiness. It’s not an external force, but a feedback mechanism. And it’s not a judgement, but the natural result of how we act.

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Is the intention a goal or already realized?

golden hourDo you express the intention as a goal or as something already realized?

This gets at a recurring question, even a debate, in Buddhism (and also in psychology and in some religions): Is it about progressing toward an enlightened state, or is it about uncovering the enlightened condition that has always been present? I can’t do justice here to the nuances of that consideration, but I can say what many wise people think is at the marrow of the matter: both are true. (Darn that middle way.)

In other words, it is powerful to focus on intention both as an aim toward a target, and as something that is already the case. The phrasing, “May ____________ “ is a nice way to accomplish this, since “May I be happy” or “May the world be at peace” both embody an aim and an actuality.

And of these two, aim and actuality, it’s usually best to emphasize the latter, the sense of the intention as already realized. For example, one thing that makes the affirmation form of verbalized intentions powerful (whether written, spoken, or thought), is that they are expressed in the present.

We are such a goal-directed culture, and there are so many associations of striving, frustration, and disappointment related to pursuing goals in the minds of so many of us, that there is often greater openness inside to intentions expressed as already true. We are already that way. Our circumstances are already that way.

This also points us to a greater recognition of, and gratitude and appreciation for, what is already good and working and wholesome and wonderful inside ourselves and outside, in our world. This feels good in its own right, which is very good for your brain! And you! And others!

And it directs us toward resources we may have missed, both inside and outside. There really is a profound wisdom and peacefulness already within us – in Buddhism, sometimes called Buddha mind, or bodhichitta. And a beautiful, wonderful harmony latent in the world.

For example, the “resting state” of the brain has a neurological coherence, a quiet hum of relaxed readiness, and a saturation with mildly positive emotion. That is what you return to when something is resolved, and that is what you return to if you start with a positive state and then jiggle it, such as with EMDR or other psychological techniques.

All this means that the universe and mother nature and spirit are all on your side. So, in a sense, a lot of what anyone of us is really trying to do is to re-access a sense of the innate nature of the brain – of our own nature as beings – and settle ever more deeply into that always already true and present condition. Kind of like settling into a cozy comforter in our bed that is home base.

Perhaps take a moment to see if you can sense into your preexisting Buddha nature, inner goodness, spark of the Divine within – in whatever way you experience or name that.

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Expressing your intentions

Canadian Geese Flying in V FormationOnce your intentions are clear, the next question is: How to express them?

There are many ways, including:

  • As thoughts in your mind
  • As an image
  • In writing
  • As a collage with words and images
  • Through physical expression, posture, movement, dance
  • As a sense of being

When you think intentions, you know them to yourself. Putting them in explicit words is usually helps create real clarity in your mind. Some intentions co-exist as equally vital, but many times it’s important to establish what your top priorities are. It’s kind of like filling a bucket: you want to get the big rocks in first, then the pebbles, and last the sand. Your most important aims are the big rocks, and if you take care of them, everything else usually works out just fine.

The nonverbal expression of intentions is through imagery. For all the emphasis in education and in our culture on language – certainly an important tool – it’s good to keep in mind that most of the brain, and most of our mental processes (especially unconscious ones) have nothing to do with language at all. A picture is indeed worth a thousand words, and pictures in your mind of your intentions – including both the path toward them and their fulfillment – are very, very valuable.

You can also write out your intentions, perhaps informally – as in a to-do list – or formally, as affirmations. These are complete sentences, positively stated, with the result already existing in the present. Like this: “I am healthy, happy, and whole.” “My family is full of love and harmony.” “I am completing my college education.” “My wife loves me.”

Collages are another powerful way to express your intentions. I have collages on the wall of my office at home that were made several years ago yet they still speak to me; I look at them, and know what I’m supposed to do.

Or you could move your body as an expression of your intention, letting it move through you as you walk or dance or whatever.

Last and definitely not least, you could get the feeling of the intention in your body, and rest in that sense of being. For example, if your intention is to be loving, rest in the sense of being loving. If it is to be highly focused and productive, get a sense of being that way, and then abide there. Be the goal you are aiming for.

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Intention of renunciation

Dandelion seeds blown in the skyRenunciation is founded on a disenchantment with the world and with experience, based on right view. You see through all the possibilities of experience: you see their ephemeral, insubstantial, empty qualities, no matter how alluring or seemingly gratifying. You see the suffering embedded in the experience, the “trap,” as the Buddha put it. And you see the happiness, peace, and love available in not chasing after pleasure or resisting pain.

Based on this clear seeing, you align yourself with the wisdom perspective and with the innate, prior, always already existing wakeful, pure, peaceful, and radiant awareness within yourself. In so doing, you renounce worldly things and worldly pleasures. If they pass through your awareness – a sunset, a child’s smile, chocolate pudding, Beethoven’s 9th – fine; just don’t cling to them as they disappear as all experiences do.

Renunciation is NOT asceticism, or privation for privation’s sake. It is a joyous union with the path of happiness that happens to include a relinquishing, casting off, abandoning, walking away from any seeking at all of worldly gratifications.

At its heart, renunciation is simple: we just let go. Ajahn Chah: “If you let go a little, you will have a little happiness. If you let go a lot, you will have a lot of happiness. If you let go completely, you will be completely happy.”

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