In light of yesterday’s post, I’d like to dive a little deeper into this idea of living a life of intention. First, what exactly is the difference between an intentional life and an unintentional one? In Buddhist lingo, an unintentional existence can be considered living karmically. This means that you are subject to your habits, your past conditioning, the circumstances in which you exist. There may be a vague sense of seeking happiness or pleasure, but you’ve not deeply examined this ‘sense’.
Intentional living can take on various meanings too. There can be an intention to become as rich and powerful as possible, or there can be an intention to free all beings from suffering (the heart of the Bodhisattva Vows introduced yesterday). Each direction can be add clarity to one’s life, yet I’ll argue that deeply questioning or witnessing one’s experience in this world makes it very difficult to pursue the former.
Buddhism has taken many forms throughout history – today its often considered a philosophy, a religion, a soteriological method, or even a trendy fashion. Some consider it all or none of these. The precepts referred to yesterday stem from a long tradition of providing a framework of living intentionally. For many of us accustomed to the “Ten commandments” from our upbringing, the Buddhist precepts can feel like a list of Do’s and Don’ts. This is not really their intention, instead they are supposed to shed light on our actions. What is the state of mind that exists when a precept is broken?
A Buddhist does not ask what is right or wrong, but "What am I to do at this moment?" Therefore, even killing cannot be considered right or wrong, removed from the context of the moment. There is a legend of the Buddha in a previous lifetime killing someone who was about to commit a mass-murder. If he was stuck in the idea of “Thou shalt not kill”, or any other idea, he is not free to act appropriately in a given situation. The precepts are more a guideline for figuring out how to live, rather than telling us exactly how to live.
Personally, I decided that before I would consider receiving the precepts formally with my teacher, I would hold them in my daily life, to see how they resonated with and for me. Over time, while I found the list and framework helpful, they still felt rather removed from me and abstract. After several conversations with my teachers, and continued examination of my own practice, what I found most effective in living an intentional life was through developing my own vows in the context of the greater Bodhisattva vows. These vows, which I recite daily, are constantly evolving: sometimes I add a new one or remove one, sometimes I change the wording to evoke a stronger resonance within my day. When living at the monastery I would silently recite these vows during our morning prostrations, which seemed to have the effect of shifting these vows from abstract ideas to an embodiment that I could carry with me in my day. This will continue to be a dynamic process as my life evolves and my practice deepens.
I’d like to take a step back – I again went down the Buddhist path, yet I really want to focus more generally on intentional living, no matter what your faith or background is. There is a thin line between intentional living and controlled living. I feel that a controlled life falls more in line with the example I previously gave, that of seeking power and money. Any idea of control is always perceived control, because the world is wholly unpredictable and constantly changing. We know this, yet we continue to seek controls – over our emotions, our bodies, our relationships, our financial situation, etc., etc. Yet this is also one of our greatest sources of misery – when our perfectly laid plans don’t work out, when we are surprised by our partner leaving us or losing our job.
An intentional life doesn’t hold onto ideas like “ I need to be a millionaire” or “I need to look a certain way” or “I will own a big house and have 3 kids with my beautiful partner”. It is much more fundamental: vowing to live compassionately, to live connected with all other beings, to keep your attention in your breath, body and phenomena. Intentionality can infuse all of our actions, it can allow us to remain centered and directed despite the ever changing circumstances. Or more elegantly stated:
The light of intention always shines through the weeds of karma
Do you live an intentional life? What are your intentions? Can you articulate them and share them with others? Do you have hidden intentions that may not actually benefit yourself and others? Ask yourself these things.