These remarks are exerpted from a Bhavana Program on Intention offered at BCBS in June of 2001.
When we first look at the issue of intention, we might have the sense that it is all just a simple matter of choice. But when I reflect upon this phrase, I find myself putting a question mark at the end of it. A simple matter of choice? Maybe yes, maybe no. Let’s have a look and see what is happening when we make choices.
First of all, we should recognize that in Buddhist teachings the idea of intention carries a somewhat different meaning than in our everyday language. Usually we think of intention as the decision-making process, but that is a relatively coarse level of understanding. In dhamma practice, in the texture of our actual experience, it is pointing to a very subtle urge felt at the beginning of a movement or of an action. And you may find that it is very hard to see.
It is not a thought, though we often think of it as a thought. According to Buddhist teachings it is present in every single moment of our experience: “having willed, one acts through body, speech and mind.” [A 6:63]. So nothing happens without this volitional activity. In terms of practice, intention is where all the action is! It is happening right now, in this very moment, whether we are aware of it or not. Moreover, it is always changing, just like everything else.
In any given moment there is a whole range of possible things one could be experiencing—sights, sounds, this bodily sensation, that bodily sensation, etc.—and yet only one of them is selected. Attention lands on only one object at a time, and this due to intention. Intention determines where our attention is going to light. Every moment the attention wants to go somewhere, it wants to attend to something. Can you get a feeling of it?
The Buddha tells us that there are six kinds of intention, six flavors, so to speak. Three of these are wholesome, and three of them unwholesome. The urge to attend to something can manifest with an attached, averse or deluded flavor, or it can manifest with non-attachment, non-aversion or non-delusion. This is the difference between the experience of suffering in any given moment, or of non-suffering. We might even say, metaphorically, that the quality of intention determines the difference between a moment in heaven realms or a moment in hell realms.
Not only do we experience these states in the present, but intention has much to do with how our future unfolds as well. The choices we make right now have a momentum; they establish a pattern; they create a habit, an inclination or a tendency to respond in similar ways in the future. This is what the Buddhists refer to as karma. Choices lead to actions which establish dispositions, from which future choices are made. It is a cycle of karma that we are bound up in and contributing to moment after moment.
When I first heard of this cycle I started to look for it in the details of my own life. For instance, one day I just noticed I had a bag of potato chips in my hand. I went to get the scissors and cut the top of the potato chip bag off so I could start eating them. And right in that moment I had this thought, “Oh…now you’ve gone and done it!” It was like a little Laurel and Hardy voice saying, “I know this one. I know where this leads. You love potato chips. And as you dip your hand into this bag, and take that first bite, the momentum of that is going to just sweep you away.” We all have our own versions of this, and we can begin to see them when we look at our cycles of intention.
At every moment we are standing at a crossroads. We have the option to choose a future that is happy and carefree, or one that perpetuates habits and patterns that we know lead to more suffering. It is a remarkable and profound teaching that we have the ability to choose the ending of suffering, to choose the path that leads to awakening. But how do we go about turning our intention in the direction of goodness and freedom, in the face of a momentum that keeps us headed for more difficult states? If it is a simple matter of choice, why don’t we do it? This is the issue we are going to be looking at all week, as we explore the nature of intention in our own experience.
The first thing we have to understand is that intention is not under the control of self. We don’t have the control we think that we have. This is a hard one to get, because we all have this feeling that there is somebody in here running the show. I put on my shoes, go and get a drink, lift up my cup and bring it to my mouth. It is somewhat simplistic, but I think we all have a sense that there is somebody sitting inside our heads at some sort of control panel. But a closer examination of our experience will reveal that intention is not self.
It may be helpful to work up to this insight through the teaching of the five aggregates. Perhaps it is easiest to recognize that the body is not self. Once you’ve practiced for awhile, you begin to get some semblance of detachment from the physical experience, don’t you? Some sense that this body is operating according to its own laws and not under your control? Look in the mirror, and see the gray hairs and feel the sagging skin. It tends to get our attention as we get a little older. You start to think, “Maybe this really isn’t who I am!” Body is not self.
One can begin to get a sense that feeling, too, is not who we are. Even the possibility of being with things we don’t like, of letting go of things that we do like—that grows with practice, doesn’t it? You begin to get a sense that your happiness does not depend on them. It is okay if pleasant feelings end, and I can bear with unpleasant feelings. These are not who I am. Feeling is not self.
And you can notice the same about perception. We begin to get less attached to certain memories and the associations that the mind makes. For example, we can get a sense of the difference between pain as a concept and the actual experience of it. I know there was a time, especially when I was a child, when the idea of pain was enough to make me crazy—let alone the experience of it. With practice, I have come to see the difference between the concept and the experience. These perceptions are not who you are. Perception is not self.
Now consciousness gets a little tricky; the possibility of seeing consciousness isolated out from the rest of our experience usually takes a lot of intensive practice to accomplish. But one actually can discern the spark of awareness as something other than the content and texture in which it is embedded. Take, for example, when you’re looking at something and you’re aware of the “I” that’s looking at it. You can be aware of this little thing that happens that makes the seeing possible. There is an experience which is seeing, pure and simple. And in the moment where we can experience that, everything else drops away. There is no “me” who is looking at it. There is no “it” being looked at. The experience is just “seeing.” Even consciousness is not self.
But then you come to this experience of the saṅkhāras, the mental formations, the volitions. Even these, with practice, you can begin to see. What are your highly conditioned tendencies? What patterns dominate the way you organize your experience? Are you aversive, pushing things away all the time and defining your world by what you don’t like about it? Are you piggy, wanting this, that and the other thing to make you feel good about everything? Do you tend to be deluded and out to lunch most of the time, not really knowing or wanting to know what is going on deep within? Whatever they are, you can begin to see these tendencies—and in doing so, you can get some distance from them. You can begin to get a sense of “Well, that’s not who I am, either. If it was who I am, it would be more solid, more permanent.” The mental formation also change—moment to moment, in response to changing conditions—and after a while, that insight starts to sink in. Formations are not self.
The illusion of control is the last stronghold of self view. We just don’t want to let go of the idea that all this experience is not in the control of self, that there is not somebody running it all. But when we begin to see it for ourselves, we start to get a sense of how compulsive the whole experience of being alive really is. I remember one of my teachers saying to me how, after years of practice, it just suddenly struck him full in the face: “My gosh,” he said, “it’s all compulsion! It’s all just happening, isn’t it?” When you begin to get this sense that intentions just sort of come up on their own, and that the movements of our lives are just happening, without the control of self—it is a very illuminating insight.
For myself, I felt a tremendous relief. Suddenly it felt as though I could stop beating up on myself for doing unskillful things out of habit. “It’s my karma, after all, and it’s a given that I will do that. That’s the way it is when we are not awake.” And with this insight I began to put a lot more emphasis on mindfulness. Suddenly I knew in a much deeper way why I needed to be mindful. Self is not getting me free. Mindfulness is. I found I could relax more and just pay attention.
These are not truths that can be known by thinking about them. If you’re nodding your head, you know what I mean; you’ve seen it. Even this experience of insight into the nature of intention is arising out of conditions. It is arising, in any particular moment, based on whatever patterns or habits of mind each of us is accustomed to. And the process is rarely conscious; it’s almost entirely invisible. Reflect a moment on the profundity of this teaching.