Friends and I have been puzzling a lot lately over the descriptions of Buddhist enlightenment as being, among other things, devoid of intention. Because one’s mind is not attempting are intending to make any aspect of experience opening a particular rules are expectations, a truer, more enlightened consciousness results. Yet, the paradox, the meditative techniques for producing such states all seem to involve intention, including the instruction to “drop the intention.” What does it all mean? How can you intend to have now intentions?
I share some thoughts from a grappling with this.
I haven’t been able to conceptually understand this in the Buddhist terms I have some feeling for so far. Sometimes I suspect that it’s partly because the Buddhist teachings have been so verbally polished and perfected for centuries, even though they’re often (and probably ultimately) about something which is beyond verbal expression, that I then automatically believe I should be able to understand all Buddhist concepts with my ordinary, reasoning mind — and get frustrated when I can’t! Then there’s my own dullness and blocking ideas, of course. But if I back out of strictly Buddhist terminology, and think about the question in terms of my years of research on a variety of altered states of consciousness (ASCs), I can make some conceptual sense of it, even though it’s not based on actual experience of transcending intention on my part.
Imagine that you lived in a temperate world, call it WarmWorld, in which the only fires you could build did not get much hotter than 150°F, well below what we would call its boiling point. You could roughly take the temperature of water with your finger, and, if you were a scientific type, then experiment with what happened to that temperature sensation as you put the water in a pot and built fires under it. You would have a range of sensations when you didn’t build any fire, more when you did. Since I specify that WarmWorld is a temperate world where you never get freezing weather, it would always be liquid water (I could say “ice,” but the inhabitants of WarmWorld have no concept of “ice”). You could then find that the larger the fire you built under the pot, the faster the water got warm and the hotter it was to your finger and there was a maximum hotness no matter how big you built the fire. Quite interesting.
Now imagine a person coming along who claims that she can build a fire such that you don’t want to stick your finger in the water anymore and, the most unbelievable claim, that eventually the water all disappears from the pot! We are all experts on fires, having built many of them for a little more warmth at night or to warm our food, and this woman is obviously insane.
But suppose she comes from our world, where we’ve learned a lot about how to make fires burn hotter, doing things like selecting just the right, very dry, fuels, and blowing on them almost continually and at just the right intensity to give the the optimal amount of oxygen. She tells us that if we selected only certain fuels, stack them up in just the right kinds of positions, and breathe on them just right (pranayama?) we could make water disappear from a pot too.
Most of us think she’s crazy and ignore her, a few would try a few breaths, nothing special happens, and you forget about it. Everything we know today about fire says that water never boils (we don’t know that word) goes away. We have what you might think of as linear knowledge about fire and water, and it only goes so far.
In studying various ASCs over the years, I found one of the things that was the most puzzling was that we implicitly assume that we already understood ordinary conscious quite well, and then there were these mysterious ASCs, but we could extrapolate from our knowledge of ordinary consciousness to understand them. That often doesn’t work very well. Over the years I gradually developed a working understanding of ordinary consciousness and ASCs, based on an engineering systems theory approach. This is basically realizing that it’s not enough to just understand the parts of something, it’s the particular style in which they work together that produces the outcome you’re interested in. It’s a process approach, a basic Western recognition of interdependence. From that systems approach, I came to see ordinary consciousness, which, I presume, we are all experiencing right now, as not a static sort of “thing,” but as a dynamic, ongoing process. Lots of sensory input, lots of thinking and emoting about it, all of these things interacting to produce a gestalt, whole emergent that we call “me,” or “my consciousness.”
I then looked at various ASCs like hypnosis, dreaming, drug induced states, etc. in terms of how were they brought about? From a systems perspective, two processes had to go on. You had to (a) interfere with and destabilize the process that produced and maintained the original “shape,” the baseline state of consciousness going on as a gestalt whole, and (b) you had to introduce perceptions or ideas or intentions that “pushed” the destabilizing state of mind toward the new pattern, the ASC, that you wanted to bring about. Note that the same particular action (shamatha with or without a support, e.g.) can perform both of these functions, destabilizing the baseline state and pushing toward the altered state.
So getting more specific about using intention to go beyond intention, right now, as I understand my ordinary state of mind, it’s not only content, perception, thought, perception, emotion, perception, reaction, etc., moment after moment after moment, but almost every one of those things is accompanied by some kind of intention. I’m implicitly or explicitly intending all day long to have my consciousness organized in ways I’ve found useful for getting by. The intentions associated with one moment of consciousness stimulate intentions in the second moment, etc., and are so habitual we usually don’t even notice that we are intending. I think one of the functions of certain kinds of meditations is to sensitize us to see these intentions, then we might be able to do something about them.
So ordinary consciousness is extremely intention rich, the gestalt arising out of the karma of one intention creating another, etc., etc.. So what happens if you start to relax intentionality?
If you think of a skilled juggler juggling several balls in the air, it looks easy and it is easy for them, but suppose they start to juggle more and more slowly? There comes a point where stability is lost, and they drop the balls, you can’t go slower for a certain number of balls.
The continuous chain of intentions isn’t the only thing stabilizing our ordinary state of consciousness, but it’s a major thing, so it makes sense to me that if you observe and relax those intentions (not fight them with counter-intentions, just ease up and let go) our ordinary state of consciousness may fall apart.
And what results?
That’s a tough question and the outcome depends on your expectations, hopes and fears, previous experiences, skills you’ve learned, and who knows what else. It might result in a few moments of consciousness where our baseline, ordinary state has broken down, and no new gestalt organization, no ASC has formed yet, so maybe whatever experience you have in those moments is very primal and non-samsaric, non-conditioned? In Buddhist terms, is this “rigpa” or “nature of mind?” I won’t speculate about this, as I don’t know at a conceptual level if this really makes good sense and, far more importantly, I’m not at all sure I have much understanding of rigpa as direct experience, which is the only knowledge that really counts. But it’s interesting to think about…
So jumping back to our WarmWorld analogy, a few of us keep following directions, keep gathering the right full fuel (good karma? merit?), stacking fuel according to the prescribed directions (proper meditation posture and intentions?), and breathing on it the right way with a continuous sort of breath that gradually becomes more automatic and less intentional. This practice may have a variety of “ordinary” effects, but we still stay pretty much in our ordinary mind. We may often reason about it in a linear way, and see that this really is not going to do anything. Do we have “faith” to keep it up anyway? Do we (hopefully) occasionally have an unusual experience that encourages us that we are moving in a direction, even if we’re not there yet?
And a few people eventually do this “fire practice” with very, very little conscious effort, having gradually learned to relax it, and one day the structure of ordinary mind breaks down and ???
Anyway, this is a way I can “make some sense” of this. I am fascinated by the idea of using intention to reduce/relax intention and reach a state that is characterized as having no intention (taking others’ words that it can happen for the last part), even though it’s a paradoxical idea in terms of ordinary thinking. It’s useful to me to think about it this way, I don’t know if it’s useful for anyone else, but I offer it and hope so.