The Power of Intention
May 03, 2024

An essential part of concentration practice is setting a firm intention. In fact, that’s the Thai translation for the Pali word samadhi: tâng jai mân, which means your intent is firm.

In this case, you make up your mind you’re going to stay with the breath—each breath coming in, each breath pouring out—and you do your best to stick with the breath no matter what else comes up. You aid that intention by making the breath comfortable, making it a more pleasant place to stay.

And you can make it your game, shooting down any other thoughts that would get in the way. When you become really sensitive to the breath energy in the body, you’ll notice how a thought forms. The quieter your mind, the more alert you are, then the quicker you’ll be to see these things. There’ll be a stirring in the breath energy, and at first it’s hard to say whether it’s physical or mental—it could be either. But at some point you make up your mind that it’s a thought—it’s mental—and it’s a thought about x: a thought about tomorrow, a thought about yesterday, a thought about this person, that person. Something in the thought captures your imagination, captures your attention, and you build a whole world around it. Then you go into that world, and at that point you’re separated from the world of the body.

But if you can see the initial stirring as simply a stirring and then breathe right through it, that can be your game: zapping the thoughts before they form. It’s kind of like whack-a-mole: This mole appears and you whack it; another one appears over there, you whack it over there. This stirring in the body appears and you breathe right through it; another one, in another part of the body, and you breathe right through it. But if that gets too distracting, just stay with the sensation of the breathing as best you can and you’ll learn a very important lesson: *the power of intention. *

This is something that’s going to be important all the way through the practice. It’s one of the reasons why the Buddha, when he would describe the steps of understanding leading up to the understanding of the four noble truths, started with generosity—the intention to give. In this case, he tries to protect it as a free intention: freely chosen, a voluntary intention to give.

For many of us, that’s our first real sense that we have freedom of choice. We have something we like, we could use it or consume it, but something inside us says, “No, give it to somebody else,” and we choose to go with that something inside. We realize we’re not slave to our appetites. So the act of voluntary giving makes you more sensitive to the fact of intention.

The same with observing the precepts: You can’t break a precept unintentionally. You take the precept to kill, but if you happen to step on some ants without meaning to, that doesn’t break the precept. So as you’re protecting your precepts, you have to be very careful about your intentions. You begin to realize how muddy, how obscure, many of your intentions can be.

This is one of the reasons why we practice concentration: so that we can be clear about our intentions, detecting them in the beginning stages to see exactly how they form and why they form. You begin to realize that sometimes the mind will have one intention but then it’s kind of embarrassed about it, so it tries to cover it up with another intention, which is why our intentions are muddy. So we’re trying to clean them out.

But you’re also beginning to realize that if you don’t intentionally harm other beings, it has a good impact on your mind. As the Buddha says, the natural response to looking at your own actions and seeing that they’re harmless is a sense of joy, a sense of well-being. It’s not just a pleasant sight, sound, smell, taste, or tactile sensation, it’s a really pleasant idea that you can live in this world and be harmless. You develop good intentions to all.

It’s one of the reasons why the forest ajaans often talk about how much your precepts depend on developing goodwill. If you have ill-will for anyone, it’s going to be very easy to find an excuse to break a precept around that person, to harm that person—and to harm yourself in the process. So you remind yourself that if you have goodwill toward yourself and toward others, it’s a lot easier to observe the precepts.

This way, you begin to see the power of your intentions to shape your life.

This becomes even clearer as you develop concentration: You maintain that original intention, and it’s going to have an effect on your body and an effect on your mind. Simply the fact of staying focused on the body can be done in a skillful way or in an unskillful way. You stick with one intention and if you don’t handle it right—if you put too much pressure on different parts of the body or engage in unskillful mental images of what happens as you breathe in, which parts of the body have to get tense, which parts of the body are not involved—you can really make yourself very uncomfortable here in the present moment.

But you can change things. You don’t have to do it that way. You can stick with your intention to be with the breath and figure out, “How can I do this so that it’s actually good for the body—feels good breathing in, feels good breathing out, feels good where I’m focused?” You begin to see why the Buddha said that our intentions have such a huge impact in shaping our lives. That’s the lesson you want to learn from the concentration—the power of your intentions to shape things.

You may find yourself frustrated with your inability to make the world outside bend to your intentions, but there’s a lot you can do inside as you work on your moods, work on your thoughts, work on the way you relate to the energies in your body. If you adjust your intentions and stick with the good ones, you can make a big difference.

Which is why the idea that the Buddha teaches us simply to accept things as they are, or to be a equanimous about everything, is a real misrepresentation of his teachings. He’s more concerned about the power of the mind. Mano-pubbaṅgamā dhammā: All experiences have the mind as their forerunner, they’re shaped by the mind, the mind is in charge. This is precisely where it’s in charge: in your intentions.

So we’re learning how to use that power for good.

As for equanimity, that’s only one aspect of the practice. As the Buddha said, when you practice meditation, you’re like a goldsmith. A goldsmith sometimes has to put the gold in the fire, sometimes has to take it out and blow on it, sometimes simply look at it to see what needs to be done. In the same way, as you meditate, sometimes you have to put in a lot of effort: That’s like putting the gold in the fire. Other times you have to blow on the gold, i.e., cool the mind down with the sense of well-being that comes from concentration. And other times you simply look at it, i.e., develop equanimity. Equanimity has its time and place, but it’s not all times or all places. You have to learn when to put the effort in, when to be more reflective, when to be more resting. That’s all part of getting this right balance here in the present moment.

So when you stick with this intention to stay with the breath, you realize you’ve got to do some adjustments so that your understanding of the breath holds you through the whole session. Your understanding of what it is to stay focused will also hold you through the whole session. That means that you don’t put a lot of pressure on one point. In fact, the main focus of your awareness should be an area where you disperse any tension. This may be very different from the way most of us focus, but it’s an important skill to learn. Otherwise, you’re going to screw up the energies in your body, and it becomes an unpleasant place to be.

So adjust your ideas about the breath, adjust your ideas about the focus: adjust your ideas of what it means to establish a focus, and what it means to stay with a focus. Those are two different skills. You learn this by committing yourself to stay here and then reflecting on what you’re doing. It’s through commitment and reflection that the Dhamma grows, that the Dhamma inside you is nourished.

So you intentionally make the effort to stay and then you reflect on how to do that skillfully. That’s how the practice of concentration leads to discernment—the discernment that the mind gets freed.