Chapter 31 of Meditator’s Field Guide copyright 2017, Doug Kraft.
What’s the mood of the mind-heart right now?
The Buddha departed from the Jains, Brahmans, and other contemporaries. He placed less emphasis on action and more on the leanings in the mind urging those actions. From the perspective of future suffering, what we do is less important than the intentions behind what we do.
To understand what the Buddha was talking about, it helps to distinguish between two different species of intentions: intentions directed toward the future and intentions that arise spontaneously in the present.
Conventional intentions focus on the future: “I intend to go to the post office and stop at the grocery store for cat food on the way home.” They are a plan or strategy to be executed in the future. They have a goal. And they imply an agent — a self — to remember and implement the plan later. “Next time I see that guy I’m going to let him know what I think.” Sometimes they require will or determination. “Every morning I’m going to meditate for an hour.” “During the next sitting I will not let my mind wander.” They don’t have to be doable or wise. (Good luck controlling the mind.)
The Buddha was a be-here-now kind of guy, less interested in future plans and more interested in what arises spontaneously in the present.
In Pali, the language of the suttas, sankappa is one of the words for intention. Sanna is the word for perception. In Buddhism, perception refers to mentally labeling phenomena. For example, we see a blotch of green. The mind goes through its catalog of green objects and comes up with “leaf.” That’s perception.
The Buddha said that sanna and sankappa are conjoined. Perception and intention arise together.
When I first heard this, it didn’t make sense to me. When I see a leaf, I don’t necessarily plot what I intend to do with it. Maybe the intentions the Buddha talked about were not plans or strategies.
So I investigated. You can do this by closing your eyes, opening your sensitivities, and having someone slowly read you the list of words below. They are labels for things you could perceive. See how each affects the mind-heart. Or you can slowly scan the list, pausing to feel the effect of each:
Flock of geese high in the sky
Can you feel images, moods, emotions, and memories shift as the mind realigns around each label? They lean in one direction or another in response to each word.
The Buddha called these forces and tugs “intentions.”
The mind is a vast space that includes thoughts, images, words, feelings, emotions, ideas, memories, beliefs, plans, strategies, dreams, wishes, and choices. It can contain anger, kindness, fear, delusion, compassion, peace, agitation, wisdom, and more. Flowing through all these are intentions. They are subtle forces that organize factors in the mind and point them in one direction or another or, possibly, collide with each other and create confusion.
Sankappa has also been translated as “directionality of mind.” Intentions don’t necessarily have a goal. But they have a direction or orientation. They are difficult to see until they are activated. They are inclinations that get energized.
Did you notice that no one creates the intentions? They just arose on their own with each perception. Slowly scan the following list and notice how the mind responds to each item:
Intentions can be as subtle as the urge to breathe. They precede everything we do, say, or think. They permeate our system. They are the juice that keeps our system going. They are everywhere. When we pick up a cup, turn on a light, or scratch our nose, the action is preceded by an intention. Its effect may be obvious but the intention itself can be softer than a whisper.
Here’s another example that distinguishes future intentions from present intentions:
We can plan to open the door. This is a conventional intention about the future. It’s easy to recognize this intention.
On the other hand, we can plan to go outside. As we approach the door we will probably open it using the same motions as if we were thinking about opening the door. The intention to turn the doorknob may be below the threshold of awareness — the mind was fixed on the about the backyard, not the door. Nevertheless, something in the mind causes the hand to grasp and turn the knob. That force is a present intention.
The first aspect of the Eightfold Path, samma ditthi, is usually translates as “Wise View.” The second aspect, samma sankappa, is usually translated as “Right Intention.” Sayadaw U Tejaniya translates it as “Wise Attitude.” He says we cannot conjure up Wise Attitude, but if we perceive reality correctly, this perception gives rise to a Wise Attitude. In other words, Wise View triggers wholesome attitudes, inclinations, or intentions. Nobody creates the intentions — they arise spontaneously from how we see.
We do have some control over how we respond to intentions. And how we respond influences the likelihood that that those intentions will arise in the future. However, in the moment, they just happen. We can only embrace them or restrain from acting on them.
Neuroscience supports the Buddha’s understanding of intentions. Before I raise my arm, a neural signal goes from one part of the brain to the motor cortex. The motor cortex relays the signal to the arm muscles. As that signal is being passed along, I become aware of the intention, “I think I’ll raise my arm.”
Very sensitive scientific instruments consistently demonstrate that I become aware of that intention to raise my arm after the first signal is sent but before it reaches the motor cortex. In other words, the sequence is: an intention arises, a split second later I become aware of it, a split second later the arm rises. Notice that the intention is in the pipeline before I’m conscious of it.
However, I can sense the intention before the action actually takes place. I can’t prevent the intention but I can prevent the action.
One of my teachers, Tony Bernard, says, “We don’t have free will. But we do have free won’t.”
This is why precepts are framed as restraints. (See Appendix D: Precepts.) We may undertake a precept to refrain from speaking or acting with ill will. But we don’t undertake a precept to refrain from feeling ill will. It is not possible to prevent ill will from arising, but it is possible to not act on it.
There is no Buddhist precept to tell the truth. But there is a precept to refrain from lying. A guy says, “Doug, we’d love to have you over for dinner on Saturday. Are you free?” I’d rather not spend an evening with him. My mind starts creating alibis. I take seriously the precept to refrain from lying. It makes me more sensitive to noticing the urge to lie. So I catch it early, Six-R the tension that triggered the alibis, and keep my mouth closed while I consider my options.
If I feel threatened, my arms and fists may tighten. That tightening is biological fight-or-flight reflex. But if I’ve vowed to not harm, I’m more likely to notice the intention to strike before I act. I can Six-R and back off.
Both future and present intentions can be strong or weak. The strength of an intention is the likelihood that it will prevail when pitted against a conflicting intention. It’s rare that we do anything with a single motive. When we have multiple intentions that conflict, the strongest wins.
I walk into the kitchen thinking, “I’m going to get an apple,” and walk out eating a cookie. It’s not until I finish the last bite that I remember, “Oh, I was going to get something healthy.”
The intention for the apple was loud and clear. But seeing the cookie jar triggered my sweet tooth. A powerful yet subtle intention can be like a guerrilla fighter who blows up a building and leaves before we see his face.
I wake up in the morning and think, “Ah good. It’s time to meditate.” Instead I lie gazing out the window for a while.
One night I crawled into bed thinking, “I’ll play one game of solitaire on my iPad before going to sleep.” My overt intention was firm: one game.
I played six.
This happened often enough that I became fascinated by the phenomena. Like a field anthropologist observing strange animal behavior, I was more interested in understanding what was happening than controlling it.
At first, I couldn’t see the intention to play another game. I could have exerted more will power, but that would have overridden the intention without actually seeing it. I wanted to observe it directly.
So I relaxed and tried to get out of the way.
I began to notice that as I finished a game, a little whisper arose: “One more.” It was nearly inaudible yet firm. In the middle of the next game if I thought, “I could stop now,” an urge arose: “We’ll finish this one first.”
These intentions had nothing to do with the future or a goal for the future. They were entirely in the moment: “start another,” “keep going.”
There had to be some intention to keep me playing, otherwise I would have stopped. Once I could see the urges arise, I knew what to look for.
And sure enough, I began to feel a soft tug, as if from a steel hand in a velvet glove. There were flickering images in the background. One was of me winning a computer solitaire tournament. Another was of me as an aspiring holy man who found solitaire tournaments embarrassingly silly and wanted to blot them all out.
As the Olympic solitaire player and the holy man struggled against each other, awareness receded into a haze.
However, I was able to see enough to Six-R the images and intentions. Six-R’ing is not about getting rid of anything. Six-R’ing is not about aversion. I just Recognized the images on their own terms. I Released them and let them be as they were without going into the storylines. Then it was possible to Relax the tension in the intentions, Smile a bit, and Return to sending out well-being.
This allowed for the card player and the holy man to recede and for wisdom to come forward and take over. As awareness grew stronger, I could at last see the subtle intentions in the present.
The first quality of an intention is whether it orients toward the future or resides in the present. The second quality is its strength. A third quality is identification. We tend to identify with loud, future-oriented intentions. We think, “This is me wanting that.” If a present intention is stronger, we may see it as a hindrance or distraction.
I thought that I was the one wanting the apple and that the hindrance wanted the cookie. At first, I identified with the intention to play one game and saw the other intention as a problem to be fixed. But they were both just intentions — inclinations in the mind.
We sit down wanting to meditate peacefully, but the mind is more interested in a recent argument with a coworker. It devises splendid rejoinders. We identify with the overt intentions to meditate and view the quarrelsome thoughts as illegal immigrants.
But they all arise in the same mind-space. They are all mind-stuff. The split into me and not me, self and hindrance, is artificial. It’s an illusion.
Biology and life experience wire inclinations into us. They may be dormant until some energy lights them up and makes them knowable as present intentions. They only exist in the present.
We experience them as attitudes in the mind. We all have luminous, clear awareness. This pure awareness looks through the attitudes in the mind to see sights, sounds, thoughts, and other objects. The attitudes color and potentially distort what we see. If we are depressed, that inclines the mind in one direction. If our attitude is elated, it inclines the mind another way.
As we’ve seen, these attitudes are what the Buddha called intentions. They organize the factors in the mind in one way or another.
You won’t find these present intentions in thoughts. Conventional future-oriented intentions — plans and strategies — can be found in thoughts. But present intentions are preverbal and preconceptual. They are even pre-awareness — they arise and send out neural signals before we know they are there.
However, you can notice them in the moods, tones, textures, feelings, and attitudes in the mind.
If that attitude has tightness, judgment, discouragement, or other unwholesome qualities, here’s the good news: We can’t change the present moment. It arose before we knew it. Trying to change the present is like trying to change the past. So we are off the hook. We didn’t create it. It just arose out of causes and conditions. It arose mechanically from the internal and external environment. So be kind to yourself.
Here’s more good news: We can influence how we respond. And how we respond affects future moments. If the mind is tight, angry, and upset and we respond out of tension and self-criticism, those reactions create the environment for future unwholesome states. However, if we respond with qualities like clarity (“Oh, look at this lovely mess. Far out.”), acceptance (“It is what it is”), ease (soften any tension), uplift (good humor and smiles), kindness (radiate friendliness or peacefulness), and patience, then these uplifting qualities are more likely in the future.
The Six Rs are a very wholesome way to respond to whatever arises. They won’t change the present one bit. It has already arrived. In fact, by the time we know what’s present, it is already a split second in the past.
But the Six Rs are a response that inclines the mind-heart in a wholesome direction in the future. They are a wise way to be with what is.
Simple perception can have a powerful effect on present and even future-oriented intentions:
Joseph Goldstein tells of a couple moving into a new house. The first morning in this house, they woke up to the sounds of birds chirping in their basement. They heard them on and off through the day. They must have had a family of birds nesting down there.
They were delighted. It felt like a blessing to have these woodland creatures take up residence with them. They decided to stay out of the basement lest they scare them off before the babies were grown.
However, a few days later, they had to go down to the basement to tend to something. The husband tiptoed down as unobtrusively as he could. He quietly looked around for the birds or their nest.
He saw nothing.
Then he heard a loud chirp. He turned around. He wasn’t looking at a bird at all. He was looking at a smoke detector. It chirped again.
Everything changed. The squawking of the defective smoke detector was so annoying that they called an electrician to come out as soon as possible and fix the darn thing.