Intention and the beauty of letting go

It’s resolution-making season, for some of us known more yogically as intention-setting. My generation seems to love setting intentions, coaching ourselves toward success, and positive thinking in general. I think the meme of positive thinking (that started in the 70s as “affirmations” and flowered in the 00s as Cafe Gratitude and the Law of Attraction) saturates my Facebook feed more than any other cultural trend. Maybe this reveals something about my friends — you relentless inspirers, you — but I think it also reflects something of who we are as a progressive/liberal spiritual culture, both for good and ill. So in these first few days of yet another New Age for humankind, I want to think about intentions a bit, and what/how we might intend as yogis around the turning of an era.

Resolution and intention hinge on the power of our thoughts to both guide our actions and affect our perception of what comes of those actions. Because they guide our actions, thoughts impel the future, along with all the other conditions in play, within and (as George put it) without us. Because they affect our perception, they are the lens through which we interpret everything that happens to us. So it behooves us to think positively, no? Sure. Positive thinking itself isn’t new, of course, no more than the recognition that what we think has an effect on our “reality” — of course it does. A Buddhist version goes like this:

We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
Speak or act with an impure mind
And trouble will follow you
As the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart.

We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
Speak or act with a pure mind
And happiness will follow you
As your shadow, unshakable.

The Dhammapada, tr. Byrom

These verses, which open a collection of the Buddha’s verses, are both clear and opaque, depending on the translation to reveal their subtlety. Do they say what the “Law of Attraction” tells us, that our thoughts create our reality, even “making” the [external] “world”, such that was can “Ask. Believe. [and] Receive” wealth, love, and other things we want? It seems to say so, at least in Byrom’s translation. Here’s a very different translation, however, of the first three lines:

Mind precedes all mental states.
Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought.

The Dhammapada, tr. Buddharakkhita

This one’s dry but perhaps clearer. What’s this “world” being made by our thoughts or mind? Mental states. That’s all — though it’s also everything, in a way. Though I far prefer the poetry of Byrom’s, I respect this translation because it speaks directly to what thoughts really give rise to, which often is… more thoughts. Thoughts give rise specifically to mental states — moods, emotions, states like confusion or clarity. They may indeed affect what we receive from the world, but indirectly, through our concepts, words, and actions. This is not to diminish their importance in determining our experience, but to recognize their place in spiritual life. In a sense, much yoga and Buddhist practice is oriented around thought and mental-emotional states — diminishing the prevalence and power of harmful states, increasing the prevalence and power of wholesome ones, especially the very wholesome mental states that are characterized by a decrease or cessation (nirodha) of discursive mental activity (otherwise known as talking to ourselves).

All of this leads to New Years resolutions, and the setting of intentions in our practice. The Buddha held intention (sankappa/sankalpa in Pali/Sanskrit) in such importance that he gave it an entire limb of the 8-fold path, and it gets translated as Wise Intention (with some older translations calling it Right Thought). Sammā-sankappa is composed of three primary intentions: toward renunciation, freedom from ill-will, and non-harming. In other words, it’s not about what we want to do or gain, but what we want to let go of. Renunciation sounds austere, but just refers to letting go — of painful habits, ideas, judgments of ourselves and each other — of all that inhibits clear seeing and happiness, including things that comfort and distract us but don’t actually lead to peace of mind or ease in our hearts. If we recognize that mental states are preceded by thoughts, then we can begin to observe thoughts as thoughts, disrupting their habitual inflation, and making less likely the painful states that take root when our stories about ourselves and others run wild. These stories are seductive because they seem amazingly real but are never completely true. So believing them is like indulging in a great fantasy novel — really a blast while it’s happening, but telling me little about my actual life.

Setting intentions, then, is a beautiful and subtle practice that weaves being present with skillful relating to desire and future. Intention practice can be thought of in three parts. The first part is cultivation, like preparing a field for new planting. Before the mind can be clear and malleable enough to work with, it needs to have some ground and spaciousness. This is the level of practice that we most often engage in, working with mindfulness and concentration in ways that center and calm the mind. Having done that to some extent, like doing yoga or sitting in meditation, or walking in the woods — anything calming and centering — the mind/heart is prepared for intention-setting. The middle step is the intending itself, where we dream into possibility and plant some seeds. We allow the mind to settle, and then drop into the open space a thought like a seed into moist earth. “May deep freedom from arise for me this year.” Intentions of course can be anything, from prosaic but useful: “Come on, new job!”, or big vows going all the way: “May all beings be fully liberated.” And the quieter the mind when they’re made, the deeper the seed seems to be planted.

The third, and of course liberation-oriented, step is to let it go. Rather than beginning (as I have a dozen times over the years, and I bet many of you have as well) a program of newly disciplined practice on New Years day — “From now on I’m going to do an hour of yoga, an hour of meditation, and an hour of chanting every morning from 5-8am!” — Wise Intention plants seeds like “May daily practice take deep root in my life”, but doesn’t then turn it into an expectation or stick to beat myself up with. (Remember the other two intentions toward freedom from ill-will, and toward non-harming!) We plant the seed in good soil, give it some water, and walk away. It takes sun and consistent but low-intensity tending to grow a healthy plant. Likewise our intentions. We could renew a lifestyle intention every week (a great support for daily practice, by the way), or daily, but we don’t need to renew it every hour. And most importantly, we don’t need to assess it like a business decision, looking out for profit or loss with every tick of the market. This is of course the same challenging teaching offered in the Bhagavad Gītā:

You have a right to your actions,
but never to your actions fruits…
…act without any thought of results,
open to success or failure.
This equanimity is yoga.

Bhagavad Gītā, 2.47-48, tr. Mitchell

When we let go of success or failure in an action, we let go of the very compelling fantasy we call “the future”. When ideas of future are absent, we’re left only with kind, considered action in the present, to whatever depth the conditions and our skills allow us. And so the maturing of intention is not as wishes for the future, but the brightness of action in each moment. How can my actions right now be a momentum toward the brightest future I can imagine, even as I let go of achieving that future and fall more and more deeply into the vibrating, couldn’t-be-otherwise immediacy of this moment? Because this moment also is the product of infinite, unknowable conditions, and there’s no way it could be any different than it is.

Intention is what moves us from mindfulness (bare knowing of what’s happening) to action, but it also opens into questioning who is acting in the first place. On meditation retreat, practitioners may be given the instruction to sense the moment of intention that precedes every action, no matter how tiny. This very zoomed-in lens becomes a motor not for getting more of what we want, but its exact opposite. We see more and more clearly how wanting arises, and how intentions arise moment to moment out of conditions, lead to action, and dissolve. And how everything, actually — desires, actions, results, and the self that experiences all of them — dissolves.

What then of the rest of the verse, that when you “speak or act with a pure mind, happiness will follow you as your shadow, unshakable”? Isn’t this a promise for the future, for the results of intention and action? It is, in a  way. But the hinge here is “happiness” (sukha). We’re not promised that speaking and acting with a pure mind will lead to wealth, success, or any kind of material or relationship gain. Those gains depend on such complex conditions that our intentions alone cannot guarantee their enactment. This is where the Law of Attraction, as well as a popular (mis)understanding of kamma/karma, falters. If we think that everything that befalls an individual is the result of his or her personal intentions or actions, we not only grossly oversimplify the workings of a very complex universe, but we lay the foundation for thinking that the successful person got there entirely through their own effort and perseverance. This very popular delusion (especially on the political Right) both demeans the hard work that many people do to survive, and is simply wrong. It is the exact twin of the tendency to blame the victim, still rampant in our culture.
I do think that the more mature practitioners of the recent memes I was softly critiquing in the beginning, like “manifestation”, understand this. The Law of Attraction is a practice of Wise Intention when we recognize that it is saying the same thing the Buddha was saying, that our thoughts create the mind states that determine whether we suffer or not in any given situation. But if we think it means we can attract wealth or love by thinking the right way, we’re taking the correspondence too far. The conditions at play are bigger than any of us as individuals, and to believe otherwise is hubris.

Where does that leave us in the setting of New Year’s intentions? Dropped into the existential mystery of existence and emptiness? All I wanted was to get myself to yoga class more often! To spend less time on Facebook! To eat less sugar! I have all the same desires. Let’s do them. Come to class! Eat well! Log off! And every once in a while, right in the middle of working hard on something — like getting out that bit of promo a week late — look up. Way up. To sense the infinite sky, which is just a signpost for the infinite mind, awareness itself, your own vast wise heart. And let it all go.

Then take a breath, look around, and keep going.

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