Mindfulness & Ethical Intention

Photo by Tee Cee

Mindfulness is a way of life and a practice that can enhance wellbeing. But, practicing mindfulness without ethics runs the risk of further entrenching us in the very qualities that cause suffering. If we don’t have a set of wise principles that guide our practice, we risk it becoming all about me, or “seizing the day”, or chasing after more of what we think we want. The eightfold path in Buddhism provides a helpful guide for ideals or standards we can aspire to in order to ensure our practice truly benefits us and others with whom we are irrevocably interconnected.

The second rung of the eightfold path, an aspect of insight or wisdom, is Ethical (Right) Intention. Intention is the driver behind action – one’s motivation or heartfelt wish. It is important because our intentions orient us and point us in a certain direction. Cultivating wholesome intentions involves three aspects of practice:

  1. renunciation – taming the wanting mind by seeing ordinary desire as the source of dissatisfaction and suffering
  2. good will – generating spontaneous, selfless love for all beings
  3. harmlessness – learning to confront aggression (our own and others) with compassion rather than violence

We cannot will ourselves to achieve any of these things – rather, it requires patient observation and practice. First we must make it a habit to turn inward and notice our own internal experiences, which requires training in attentional control. Then we can observe the subtle interplay and consequences of our thoughts, emotions, physical sensations and actions. Through this process we naturally begin to favor more wholesome intentions because we see the benefit they bring.

The opposites of these three wholesome intentions are desire, ill-will and harmfulness. Intentions can be distorted by our delusions – they may appear beneficial at first glance, but actually be misguided or inappropriate. Detecting the subtler “near enemies” of our best intentions requires mindfulness, self-awareness and honesty. This allows us to be more attentive to unskillful impulses as they arise, practice self-compassion so we can have the courage to examine them, and cultivate the self-regulation skills to refrain from acting upon them. We must be willing to learn from our mistakes.

Associating with wise, virtuous and generous people from whom we can learn and be influenced can help us in this journey. It can be quite beneficial to have a trusted teacher to guide us along the way. We can also make it a habit to practice with a community of likeminded friends who motivate us on our path and keep us accountable to our highest intentions. In this way, we begin to step out of the cycle of suffering and live with more virtuous purpose.

…one who denies the moral efficacy of action and measures achievement in terms of gain and status will aspire to nothing but gain and status, using whatever means he can to acquire them. When such pursuits become widespread, the result is suffering, the tremendous suffering of individuals, social groups, and nations out to gain wealth, position, and power without regard for consequences. The cause for the endless competition, conflict, injustice, and oppression does not lie outside the mind. These are all just manifestations of intentions, outcroppings of thoughts driven by greed, by hatred, by delusion. – Bikkhu Bodhi

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