The practice of mindfulness meditation is so simple: coming back to the sensation of being in the present moment, coming back to the breath, letting go of what carries us away. Why yoke the Noble Eight-fold Path to this wordless and elegant vehicle?
Well, you don’t have to. And yet…but still…it turns out that the steps of the path actually aren’t consecutive steps (although we talk about them step by step for simplicity’s sake). They are like the braided strands in a guide rope that can help lead us down into our life. It turns out that the present moment is a portal, not the final stop. It turns out you can find a different way to be in this world.
Last Sunday, we spoke about the strand in the guide rope that is called “Wise Intention.” There are experimental studies that show that many of our reactions occur before we are conscious of them, studies that indicate that free will does not exist. And yet there are new studies that indicate that conscious intentions in realms like mindful eating do make a difference. We can anticipate various possible reactions to a stimulus (say food at a party), and prepare the brain to react in a new way rather than the old automatic way.
This is where conscious intention becomes truly wise intention. Over time, we observe that we can’t instantly set out conscious intentions and voila, we are slimmer, fitter, more pleasant human beings. Change occurs (even in the realm of diet and exercise) as we learn to observe ourselves without judgment. We can observe the constant interplay between conscious intention and our actual reactions to external phenomena. With the support of the guide rope, we see ourselves as we really are—with an opening to how it would feel to be freer.
When we sit down and start meditating, we discover that most of the time we are lost in the past or thinking and dreaming about the possible future. When we remember to come back to the present moment, we come back to a more vibrant, receptive, embodied state of awareness. At moments, we can become so still and so open, that we can really sense and really hear, sensing the vibrations of sounds, of the energy in the people around us.
One night driving while I was driving home from our Tarrytown meditation group, I received a powerful teaching on this power of this vibrancy and the power of the guide rope. It was pouring rain. Almost home, my car hit a flooded patch of road and was overwhelmed by water. Water washed over the windshield and under the wheels. No visibility, no traction. I sat gripping the wheel, sensing my body, imagining what would come next. Visibility cleared, and I began to tell myself a story about the immediate past: Boy, that was close! What a night! This is what we do, make our experience manageable by making it into a self-story. And then the story was cut short because another great wave of water splashed up over the windshield, and then another wave, and then the tires lost traction. When visibility and traction returned, all was still inside. I sensed my body and sensed my breathing, waiting for what came next, clear that it was unknown.
Even as I type this, I can remember the clarity and stillness of that moment. The Buddha spoke of Wise Intention as three-fold: renunciation (or letting go), harmlessness, and good will. We don’t create or set such intentions so much as uncover them at times. That night on the road was one of those times. I discovered that I wanted to live—and not in a selfish way, although I am as automatically selfish as the next person. I wanted to be part of a greater whole.
Last Sunday, we discovered together that the intention to be harmless, to let go, to have good will, is actually a braver, more awake, and vibrant way to live. Wise Intention helps us break away from the same old self-story, literally opening us up to a new vibration. It gives us the courage to risk failure and be creative, to speak the truth when it matters, to let go of stuff and live in a simpler, more responsible way.
“In the gap between two thoughts, thought-free wakefulness manifests unceasingly.” –Milarepa