In Part 1 of the Eightfold path, I wrote about Seeing into Experience: Right View. In this article, Part 2, we’ll explore the next factor of the path, Directing Wholesome Intentions: Right Intention. Like Right View, Right Intentions isn’t something to explore and learn in isolation, but it touches on all other aspects of the path and everyday life.
The largest pool of untapped resources in the world today is humans’ good intentions that don’t translate into action. ~ Lloyd Nimetz
Before we do or say anything, we have an intention, whether we are mindful of our intentions or not. Directing wholesome intentions then is developing mindfulness not only concerning our intentions, but using our intentions as a base upon which we can build ethics and morals, to lessen the suffering we inflict on ourselves and others.
Buddha explains right intention as the intention of renunciation, the intention of good will, and the intention of harmlessness. All of these apply to actions and speech. As we develop mindfulness towards our intentions, it becomes apparent that thoughts often precede and then form intention. Perhaps this is why in many Buddhist books you’ll see Right Intention and Right Thought used interchangeably.
In order to be mindful of intentions, you must stop and pause before speaking or acting, be mindful of emotions and thoughts. Often underlying intentions is attachment or desire, perhaps to one’s own opinions. Sometimes the intentions is to coerce or manipulate. Or the intention may simply be to interact.
Intentions may be benign, they may be rooted in a strong feelings of self, or they may have malevolence behind them. As Buddhist practitioners, we can develop mindfulness so we can see clearly into our intentions of a moment, and then decide if we can direct the intention toward wholesomeness, towards good will, and at the least harmlessness.
While we can’t control what thoughts arise, we can control which we will follow into intention and then a course of action. But to do this you first have to develop the intention of wanting wholesome intentions that will lead to whole actions and speech. When we simply react, we do so mindlessly, without being aware of intentions, and then may act in ways we later regret.
Renunciation comes in when we are mindful to unwholesome intentions, and we let it go instead of acting on it. You may realize suddenly that the reason you were going to respond with certain words was because you felt the need to inflate your own ego by putting down someone else. If we let go of that need, and don’t act on it, give up, some of our inclinations that can cause suffering to ourselves or others.
Being mindful of our intentions, and acting upon those which lead to harmlessness and wholesomeness help train the mind to gradually drop those intentions that are driven by anger, greed, desire, and attachment. Exploring our intentions can lead to deeper insights concerning insecurities, a need for attention, jealousy, or attachment to views.
Learning to be mindful of intentions and directing them toward harmlessness will go a long way in developing other parts of the path such as Right Action and Right Speech. All parts of the path overlap, intertwine, and nourish through cross pollination. It’s really difficult to work with only one part of the path without engaging other parts of it. But that is also the beauty of the Eightfold path. As you refine certain areas, other factors improve as well.
Developing wholesome intentions begins a natural process of building a foundation of ethics, and mindfulness is the tool that helps you see what you need to work on, what you need to let go of, and to act responsibly instead of reacting harshly or foolishly.