Why do you sit? Why are you drawn to the spiritual path? It can be interesting sometimes to ask this question when you sit–not pushing for an answer but making space for it, the way you would listen closely to a very shy or quiet person. Asking this question can be very useful as we set out on the path of meditation.  It takes patience but it can uncover a kind of inner compass that can guide us on the path.

At first, sitting can feel as if you are entering a party in full swing–there can be self-consciousness, awkwardness, flurries of inner talk or planning or projecting little mind movies to entertain ourselves. Finally we grow tired of this, allowing ourselves to let go and sink into the deeper feeling and knowing of the present moment.  As we sink and open, we realize that the present moment offers a kind of truth that cannot be thought.  This is the truth of life itself, the life inside and outside.  It is a truth that must be perceived, received, attuned to.

This is kind of patient listening, opening, and attuning that is needed  reveals our deeper intentions. As someone said to me the other night, it’s as if the ego is an ice cube bumping up against other ice cubes—there are sharp edges, crowding, a frustrated jockeying for position. Yet all this disappears when we melt into the oneness of water. As you sit, as the din and dazzle and ego striving of the party dies down, you may discover a secret aspiration to melt, to lose your sharp edges, to be soft and fluid and with life instead of frozen against it.

The English word “intention” comes from a Latin root that means stretching or purpose. In Pali, the language of the earliest Buddhist teachings, the expression samma san kappa means wise intention– sometimes also translated as wise thought. This is not the usual brain-spun cognitive thought but purposeful thought.  It is a thought that carries a deeper impulse or yearning, stretching towards something–a thought that carries the heart and the body with it.

Ancient Buddhist teaching understood the power of conscious intention to influence views and behavior, and modern science concurs.   Both agree that we are conditioned but not completely determined. According to a recent article in Scientific American, for example, “a body of psychological research shows that conscious, purposeful processing of our thoughts really does make a difference to what we do.”   Wise intention uses the open awareness or open monitoring that is mindfulness to stretch towards something outside the loop of the known. Wise intention is itself the act of renouncing or opening, of kind awareness without judgment or grasping, of wishing to be part of life instead of seeking to harm or control it.

In Mahayana Buddhism, a bodhisattva is one who has awakened in heart and mind yet consciously intends to stay here in the thick of it all, offering all the kindness and understanding and patience and goodness that flows from the fully melted state of awakening to all the rest of us. Yet in a very real sense we are all bodhisattva’s in training, all capable of stretching and softening and opening towards what we deeply love.

So I ask you again, why do you sit?

“Sometimes you hear a voice through the door
calling you, as fish out of water
hear the waves, or a hunting falcon hears the drums. Come back. Come back.
This turning toward what you deeply love saves you.”


The Bodhisattva Suryabaskara, Eastern Tibet; 18th century, The Rubin Museum of Art
The Bodhisattva Suryabaskara, Eastern Tibet; 18th century, The Rubin Museum of Art

Photography Credit:

The Bodhisattva Suryabaskara
Eastern Tibet; 18th century
Ground Mineral Pigment on Cotton
Rubin Museum of Art Gift of Shelley and Donald Rubin C2006.66.136 (HAR 95)

The ideal of a Bodhisattva fits well with intention since as a bodhisattva one has a very specific intention for becoming enlightened: specifically to help all other beings become enlightened. Also this particular Bodhisattva is associated with the sun (Surya means sun in Sanskrit) so that fits well with setting a daily intention when the sun rises.

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