Intention (Mangala Sutta 6)

Residing in a suitable location,
Good deeds performed in the past,
Setting oneself in the right direction;
This is the greatest blessing

What does it mean to set oneself in the right direction? The short answer is that it means being aware of our intentions and making them as wholesome as possible, as often as possible.

In the noble 8-fold path, this is one of the steps (to be revisited again and again). It is usually described as making mental effort to set conditions in four ways:
1. To make unarisen wholesome states of mind arise,
2. So that wholesome mindstates already arisen are sustained,
3. So that unarisen unwholesome mindstates do not arise, and
4. So that unwholesome mindstates that have already arisen are reduced and eliminated.

It may sound simple or obvious, but bringing awareness to our intentions takes energy and determination; and seeing what we can do to cultivate wholesome states of mind and starve unwholesome states of mind takes energy, determination and creativity.

This principle of intention is key to living the Buddhist path, and also to clarifying any life. If we don’t monitor our intentions, then we leave our unfiltered impulses in the driver’s seat. But the type of effort it takes to become aware of our intentions – while we are acting, while we are speaking, as we prepare for any action or interaction – well, it takes a determined effort. Fortunately, the more this act of bringing our intention clearly into awareness is practiced, the easier and more natural it beomes.

Let’s say you’re in a conversation, and one person starts saying things you strongly disagree with. You notice discomfort: anger or emabarrassment or any awkward feeling. Rather than acting on that feeling, we can turn our attention to the feeling itself. We can see clearly the impulse to cut off the other person or to run away or some other response. We might be aware of a physical sensation of revulsion or a raised heart rate; the muscles of the face may tighten. In this way we can become aware of our intention, BEFORE acting. It might give us the space to not take whatever’s being said personally, to give the person the benefit of the doubt, or let them finish speaking. Many a time I have saved myself from embarrassment by letting someone finish their thought before jumping in.

There’s no forumula for how to proceed from this point, every situation is different. But if we can include the awareness of our intentions before we speak or act, then we can choose our words and actions more skillfully.

About lynnjkelly

Australian/American. Practicing Buddhist.
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