“One does not practice meditation to become a great meditator. We meditate to wake up and live, to become skilled at the art of living” Elisabeth Lesser
Meditation is in service of my life rather than an end in itself. Sometimes we lose sight of that because meditation can be sought as a refuge or escape from life. Actually it’s a training to support living with presence, awareness and compassion. It can also be understood as a training in intention. Living intentionally is what mindfulness is all about, which is what I’d like to share some thoughts on here.
Mindfulness is a training of the mind-heart, it’s a cultivation, a growing of a capacity we all have to live consciously heartfully present. It’s not an end in itself as in ‘I’ll be a good meditator, good at sitting in silence’ and so job done. Too often we get caught up in whether our meditation is good or bad or our practice enough – if our intention is simply to clock up the hours it becomes just like everything else another mindless habit – yikes, is that we really want? How about a space to really attend to yourself in a way that will enable you to engage and flourish in the moments that really matter to you – the very next moment in fact, given that’s the only moment we have right? And in the quietitude of any period of stopping, while getting really curious and suspending judging, we might perceive that this is so. We might also discover that how we relate to what’s happening adds to or reduces our discomfort, and in the same way our intention in any given moment flavours the outcome.
“Without intentions, all these postures, these breathing practices, meditations, and the like can become little more than ineffectual gestures. When animated by intention, however, the simplest movement, the briefest meditation, and the contents of one breath cycle are made potent” Donna Farhi
Reflecting on my own aspirations I’ve been asking myself again what or where is my North Star? Turning the question over has been helpful, even if and because in fact mostly it raises more questions than answers. And yet it brings me closer to my heart, to what really matters to me. Tara Brach says “Your deepest aspiration is who you are” and I know it when my body feels the truth of it, it’s an embodied knowing.
2 weeks ago with Alex Irving as part of his Mindfulness Beyond project we delivered a day of reflection and meditation for practitioners using mindfulness in their work (Mindfulness Practitioners Group ) around nurturing and deepening practice. As part of our preparation we discussed the question of what are we really committing to when we practice? Where do we think we’re going? Are there any maps to follow for this path (beyond the traditional Buddhist ones) and how might we use them? And most importantly what is the heart’s desire in all of this – the heart of intention?
The importance of intention is as central in the secular mindfulness approach as it is in the teachings of the Buddha that it has largely grown from. In mindfulness manuals this has been articulated by Williams and Penman as ‘the spirit with which we do something…’ – the attitude that underlies our action creates the outcome. The way we are approaching our experience in practice changes the whole flavour of what’s happening and the whole dynamic around future experience. This means we need to pay attention to the mental posture that we’re coming from when we meditate as well as our body posture – which in turn affects our mental posture of course. We use words like sitting with dignity, openness, receptivity – describing a whole body-mind- heart posture that we can aspire to and cultivate, not just in meditation but in all our moments. It’s where we are aiming, the direction we point towards, what we align with.
“intention is more than wishful thinking – it’s wilful direction’ Jennifer Williamson
Living intentionally is what mindfulness is all about. This is the ethical foundation that mindfulness comes from, it cannot be isolated from it – which doesn’t mean you have to become a Buddhist. But it does mean that if you think mindfulness is separate from the way that you live and the values you live by you will get either quite confused or only reap a tiny benefit from your meditation practice. Tara Brach describes intention as the calling of our most enlightened being – see for yourself how it feels to let your values guide your actions and responses rather than the compulsive reactions to what another has done or said.
In deepening our understanding it’s essential to recognise our habitual default intentions. You can investigate ‘where am I coming from’ in any given moment. Is it from a ‘limbic’ threat activated intention or an awakened heart intention? In the main our habitual intentions are to move away from pain and towards pleasure. This makes sense on one level, and yet we all discover sooner or later that it doesn’t always work – and that the effort to do so often makes things worse, or at least more stressful, given the little control we often have over the conditions we meet. In meditation this approach leads to frustration. What’s invited instead is what one teacher Oren Jay Sofer describes as a radical and transformational shift of intention – from trying to manipulate to attempting to understand. If our intention is to understand we develop qualities of curiosity, patience, peacefulness and care. These are the attitudes that so many of us long to embody more of the time in our lives. It’s a basic orientation of kindness, to self and others. How do you think it would it be for you to bring this intention of curiosity and understanding to yourself, your practice, your relationships, your work, your body, your life?
Often what keeps us from an intention of care and understanding is an unmet need, and this is something mindful self-compassion in particular supports us recognising and meeting with great gentleness and kindness. This is the only way to change our intention – recognising that what our tender hearts really care about, long for and desire is often buried under a lot of ‘shoulds’ and busyness and contraction. It takes time for our most loving intention to emerge. And when you connect with what you really love your entire body will feel it, you’ll know it’s true.
Too much discussion of meditation can be focussed on what and how much/how often. In many respects this is shining the light in the wrong direction. It is our aspiration or intention that lights the way. The Buddha purportedly said ‘Our life is lived on the tip of intention’. So we had better attend to our intention and make it a good one right?! This is what will sustain us, and also determine the outcome. If we want to cultivate more peace in our lives, our intention might be to understand and nurture the qualities of peace in our ‘practice’ –Instead of the spirit of the marketplace which we tend towards so much in this culture – the ‘what can I get out of this’ mentality – what mindful living embodies is a spirit of care.
If you approach a period of meditation with the attitude of cultivation (the original meaning of meditation, from the Pali ‘bhavana’) growing a capacity to meet yourself, your life and others with warm heartdeness and interest, whether your mind stays focussed on the breath or wanders to your shopping list or emails (as it inevitably will) becomes much less the issue – the point is HOW you relate to the mind that naturally wanders, and the body that invariably aches, and the heart that trembles with emotion. Each of us will have different heart longings that bring us to mindfulness in the first place – and it behoves each of us to keep reconnecting with these aspirations, not to check our progress but to spur us on guided by what really matters to us. In this way practice is an opportunity to keep the fires burning,
One way to investigate what really matters is to ask yourself if you only had one year to live how would you want to live it, then a month, then a week, then a day then a breath. It’s pretty powerful to consider, and, if we are open to it, can reveal our hearts longing.
May your practice be inspired by what you love, what your heart desires, the people, places, activities, nature, that you treasure. Maybe you’ve lost touch with what really matters to you? We do when we’re overwhelmed, caught up in busy-ness or adversity, anxious or despairing. May you keep listening, with patience, to what the heart longs for, what Rilke calls ‘the winds of homecoming’, whispering from your depths as your heart slowly, quietly and then boldly finds it’s voice. For only you to hear, and let it guide you on…
Practice as if your life depended on it,
as in many ways, it surely does.
For then you will be able to live the life you have,
and live it as if it truly mattered