THE BLOG
11/07/2011 07:50 am ET | Updated Jan 05, 2012

Buddhist Intention: Being Kind in Unkind Times

I was looking at today's newspaper and was feeling the contraction from the barrage of intense, difficult and often extremely painful experiences that we have in our world today -- economic recession for whole countries; extreme financial hardships for many; ongoing revelations of atrocities in Libya, Afghanistan and other wars; escalating mean-spirited rhetoric of current politics; unabated suffering caused by natural and human-made disasters.

If the human heart is inherently gentle and kind -- how do we cope with a world that seems so harsh and mean?

And even if we are not so open to the current conditions of the world, and we start our morning on the "right side of the bed" with a refreshed attitude supported by a loving family or partner -- our life is so easily disturbed by one short freeway length through a few minutes of rush hour traffic -- getting cut off by someone's raised finger. How do we move through the difficulty and hardness of our world, without ourselves becoming difficult and hard human beings? Because if we allow ourselves to become the difficulty and hardness, then instead of making the world and our lives a better place, we make it worse.

Within the 2600 year old tradition of the Buddha's teachings, the answer to these 21st century questions lies in what is called our "Intention." We are called to and invited to begin with intending to be kind, to be open-hearted, to be gentle in our lives. And unquestionably, given the extremes of world these days, we may and will fail, but if we don't have an initial Intention for kindness in our life we will never ever have it. If we don't begin with the initial thought towards kindness, we can never have that experience of kindness.

Venerable Maha Ghosananda, who was considered to be the "Gandhi of Cambodia" taught the power of the intention of kindness all his life, even though his life and his culture were fraught with suffering, trauma, violence and war of the Khmer Rouge and the "Killing Fields." He taught it this way:

The thought manifests as the word;
The word manifests as the deed;
The deed develops into the habit;
Habit hardens into the character;
Character gives birth to the destiny
So, watch your thoughts with care,
And let it spring from love
Born out of respect for all beings...

Sometimes it seems impossible not to match the harshness of the world with the same or greater level of the same harshness. Often, we default to an ancient unconscious conditioning that predates the Hammurabi Code of Laws (one of the bases of our sense of justice) -- an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth. It's a social conditioning that is at least four thousand years old. It has been conditioned in so many explicit and implicit ways -- if I hurt, then you must hurt too.

So, the spiritual practice of Intention invites us into the radically different perspective of asking the question: Am I able to create harmlessness, even when my life is painful? As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke: "Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction..." There is only one way out of this destructive cycle of harm causing harm, and that is with the intention to create harmlessness, the intention to be kind.

This kind of transformation happens both on a personal and social level. The practice of Intention changes our own hearts and also the heart of our world. Of course, intention is not the end-goal or outcome itself. We are called to follow our highest intentions with our highest actions. Intention is not a passive practice. If we simply stopped at our intentions of kindness, without aligning our behaviors with those intentions, then the road to hell would truly be paved wide. However, the road to peace cannot be paved without those explicit and conscious intentions of harmlessness and kindness. One of my teachers, Sayadaw U Pandita, a senior Burmese meditation master, has written: "Without peace in our little worlds, crying out for peace in the big world with clenched fists and raised arms is something to think about."

The word "intention" or "intend" comes from the same Sanskrit root as for the word "tennis." Embedded in their meaning is "to stretch forth." Therefore, intention refers to the stretching or extending of the heart and mind beyond what we think we are limited to do, into the potential of our highest aspirations as human beings. And it doesn't have to affect the entire globe or culture. Speaking to the earlier example of the getting cut off on the freeway, I was sitting with a friend driving in that situation, and their response was "Please, cut me off some more...please, give me more traffic!" Sounds ridiculous, and maybe it was -- but it was also funny and non-harming -- no energy was matched. It changed the atmosphere of the experience... and it certainly allowed me to stay on the "right side of the bed" for the rest of the day.

But intention can affect the entire globe and culture as indicated by these words:

In spite of everything, I still believe
That people are really good at heart.
I simply can't build up my hopes on a foundation
Consisting of confusion, misery and death.
I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness,
I hear the ever-approaching thunder, which will destroy us, too,
I can feel the suffering of millions, and yet,
If I look up into the heavens
I think that it will all come right,
That this cruelty will end,
And that peace and tranquility will return again.
In the meantime, I must uphold my ideals,
For perhaps, the time will come
When I shall be able to carry them out.
-- Anne Frank

May the goodness of our Intentions serve to further actions of freedom and kindness with ourselves, with our loved ones, with beings known and unknown, in all worlds, and all directions.