The Enlightened Person Lives Without Intention

I’m re-reading Steve Hagen’s wonderful book Buddhism Plain and Simple. This is what I recommend to anyone who’s new to Buddhism and wants the essence.

One of the things I admire about Steve is that he had the guts to present an astonishing Buddhist teaching — that the enlightened person lives without intention.

Throwing our paradigms in question

To say that this teaching goes against the grain of Western thought is a gross understatement.

If the Buddha was accurate on this point, then some of our most basic assumptions are thrown into question.

The whole field of time management — based on goal-setting and achievement as a means to happiness — is shattered.

So are countless popular books in the New Age/self-help category, such as The Power of Intention and The Secret.

Understanding the Buddha’s teaching about intention is not for the faint of heart. This is a subtle and sophisticated insight that transcends our ordinary perception of the world.

Ultimately, you can only “get” what the Buddha meant by meditating — not by trying to figure it out intellectually. But I’ll do my best to explain it anyway.

Meditation erases distinctions

Let’s get back to what Buddhist meditation cultivates: Relaxing the activity of the mind. Letting thoughts come to a rest. Perceiving the world without the filters imposed by thinking.

One of the key functions of the human mind is to make distinctions. The mind separates people, things, and events into opposing categories — for example, inside versus outside. Past versus present versus future. Self versus other.

These distinctions exist only in our mind, however. They are present only in language, not in Nature.

When thoughts come to rest during meditation, all these distinctions fade away. Suddenly there is no self and no other. No inside, no outside. No past, no present, no future.

Instead, we gradually come to perceive the world as a unified, seamless Whole. Though this is hard to describe, you can experience it for yourself. That’s what meditation is all about.

No distinction, no intention

Here’s the rub: We set goals and take intentional action to achieve them only because we believe that there are things “outside” ourselves that we don’t “have” and need to “get.”

Uh-oh. That previous paragraph is full of distinctions: outside versus inside. Having versus not having. Getting versus not getting. If those distinctions disappear, then the attempt to “attract” and “manifest” what you want is pointless.

As Hagen points out in Buddhism Plain and Simple:

There isn’t anything “out there” that ultimately satisfies. There isn’t anything “out there” that we must acquire or repel. In fact, there isn’t any “out there” at all.

Does this mean that we become passive victims who don’t do anything?

Not at all.

The Buddha talked about ethical behavior and right livelihood. He urged us to manage our household, take care of business, and do what needs to be done.

The key is to live without our primary delusion — the belief that anything we gain by thinking and acting will make us permanently happy, satisfied, and complete.

P.S. I don’t expect you to agree with this, by the way. All I want to do is point out one thing:

When a spiritual teacher or self-help guru starts talking to you about the power of setting goals and intentions, remember that there is another way of seeing the world.