This is the time of year when a lot of people make resolutions. As the year ends, we look back over what’s happened in the last 12 months, what we liked, how we’d like to change in the New Year. That’s important stuff, and it’s in line with Buddhist practice – we’re using awareness, contemplation, and discernment.
But often people struggle to stick with their resolutions. A few days in, and old habits are calling us back to a comfortable way of doing things. Why is that and what can we do about it?
We can look at the intention that guides our action.
In Buddhism, intention is crucial. Karma is connected with intention, not just the action. If you kill a bug unintentionally, by stepping on it in the grass without knowing, there’s no karma. If you deliberately choose to kill that same bug, it may have consequences down the road. (One of those may be that you develop the idea that it’s OK to kill things.)
But you don’t have to believe in karma and rebirth to see the value of intention. If you set an intention, that leaves open many possible actions rather than limiting you to one right or wrong way of doing things.
Say that you have resolved to lose weight. You start a restrictive diet, an exercise plan. Soon you feel beleaguered, and it’s difficult to keep up.
If you look at the intention rather than the action, there’s space. Why do you resolve to lose weight? To look better? To be healthier? And why do you want to look better or be healthier – to attract a mate, get a new job, be able to do more things with your children or grandchildren, live with less pain or stress so you can enjoy life and be more pleasant? Knowing your intention helps you see your true goal. If it’s health, then it’s not just a matter of depriving yourself of fattening foods, it opens up the positive possibilities of eating good food, finding an enjoyable form of exercise, entering into any meal or exercise session with the thought that it is of benefit, rather than a chore.
It turns your mind toward the positive and away from punishment.
In Buddhist study, I learned the idea of framing things according to the ground, path, and fruition.
The ground is the view, the intention. Let’s say, I am a kind person and my intention is to be kind.
The path is the action, how you put that view into practice. Instead of yelling at people or speaking sarcastically, I speak gently and with kindness. I still make my point, but without attacking.
And the fruition is the result. When you act with kindness, others respond more kindly. Not always and not immediately. But I have found that they do.
This framework applies to any action you carry out – what is the ground, the intention? How do I manifest that? And is the result what I anticipated, or should I modify?
The Buddha included Wise Intention as the second step on the Eight-fold Path. Classically, he explains wise intention as the intention of renunciation, the intention of goodwill, and the intention of harmlessness.
Our intention, in the moment-to-momentness of daily life, isn’t always to be of benefit. It may be greed – to get the last doughnut before someone else snags it – or anger, to show up that driver who cut us off, or ego-clinging, to make ourselves appear to be benevolent in order to win the approval of others.
To know your intention requires awareness of your mind. For example, the intention of renunciation involves seeing that you are about to do something unskillful and rejecting that action, choosing instead to do the skillful thing.
Perhaps you’ve heard the Buddha’s advice to ask yourself before you speak: Is what I am about to say true, is it kind, is it necessary? That’s the teaching on intention in action. Is it true/renounce lies. Is it kind/have an attitude of goodwill. Is it necessary – is this the appropriate time and am I the appropriate person to say it/will someone be harmed by this.
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.
Examining our intentions begins a natural process of building a foundation of ethics, and mindfulness is the tool that helps us see what we need to work on, what we need to let go of, and to act responsibly instead of reacting harshly or foolishly.