The new year is coming and many people are thinking about what they will do differently the coming year. This often results in intentions to refrain from certain things or to reduce them, for example losing weight, drinking less, not getting angry so often, etc.
In good spirits they get going, quickly find out that the intention alone is not enough to change things, and relapse. Why is that? Apparently things work in such a way that despite these good intentions, we always end up in the same boat. How does Buddhism look at this mechanism?
Buddhism primarily looks at the mental side and does in-depth research into how it works behind the scenes. In that light, Buddhism makes a razor-sharp distinction between wholesome and unwholesome mental states. Wholesom mental states increase the mental space and make you feel content and happy. Examples are loving-kindness, being happy for someone else, compassion, equanimity and faith. All unwholesom mental states are restlessness, remorse, conceit, recklessness, cruelty, anger, desire, doubt, sloth, torpor, stinginess, envy, wrong view and ignorance. All mental misery can be traced back to this. Unwholesome mental states reduce your mental space. If the mental states mentioned in the last row can often be found in your mind, one thing is certain: you do not feel happy. What is also certain is that your will alone is not enough to reduce the presence of it in your mind. If that were so, we would all be radiantly happy all the time. Apparently its source is deeply hidden. So what can you do?
What you always have at your disposal to set something in motionis your intention. You can direct that intention, over and over again. If you repeated this often enough, it will become a habit and stick. Intentions are incredibly important. Intentions direct your thoughts to things that are in line with them. They are ultimately responsible for how you stand in life and determine your beliefs. They cause actions and actions cause results. However, there are many candidates for your ‘intention energy’. That is why it is so important to try to direct them consciously.
The very obvious question then is: which intentions are worth cherishing and from which should you stay away? You can fill in the last category yourself. The answer to the first category has been explained extensively by the Buddha. Developing wholesome mental qualities is what life is ultimately about. I had already touched on a few of them. A good example is loving-kindness. In Pali it this is called mettā. You can consciously focus on mettā in order to develop it. Every time you consciously think about giving mettā, actively engaging in it, the intention to do it again the next time strenghtens. The strength with which you express it increases with the passage of time. When that power is developed to great heights, it even becomes a healing force.
Now there is an even more beautiful object than loving-kindness, and that is focusing your intention and attention on the qualities of the Buddha. There are 9. Look them up. I’m going to highlight one here, and that’s the quality that affects your way of speaking. The Buddha developed the ability to speak only when he decided beforehand that what he intended to say would resonate with his listeners. The moment is also important. If it wasn’t the right moment he remained silent. And when he spoke it was always pleasant to listen to.
These and all other qualities come to fruition when you focus your intention on the qualities of the Buddha, when you connect with them and thus develop them within yourself. How do you practice that? All you have to do is listen to the sound that contains all these qualities: buddho. Listening to this sound also works with intention. The intention to want to connect with the qualities of the Buddha that you essentially already carry deep within you. This intention translates into sitting down and actually practicing meditation. Over and over again, every day of the week. In this way this also becomes a habit and you slowly develop concentration. Because the qualities are so diverse and so profound, it is necessarily a slow grinding process.
With the gradually developed concentration you improve your ability to look at how your own mind works. Where the attention goes, and then adjust where necessary. This adjustment becomes easier because there are more and more moments in which it is quiet in your head and you can see from there where your mind is going. You then determine whether the object of your attention is wholesome or not and then know whether you need to adjust something. That is one of the results of this concentration. No longer that monkey-mind that jumps from here to there, but a mind that is able to stay with an object for a longer period of time. It means nothing less than being able to stay fully in the here and now.
If you are looking for a good intention for the coming year: there is no better object to find than to connect with the qualities of the Buddha. You don’t have to take it from me, but explore it for yourself.