For most of my life I simply nodded in passive agreement when people talked about the power of living with intention.
I accepted the premise of many self-help authors who preach the gospel of goal-setting — that happiness is all about getting what you want.
- Setting clear targets for what you want to accomplish in your career, your finances, your relationships, and other keys areas of life
- Creating detailed action plans for meeting those targets
I also read books such as The Secret by Rhonda Byrne, which maintain that simply holding an intention is enough to “attract” what you want into your life.
On this topic Byrne quotes one of her mentors, Bob Proctor:
You will attract everything that you require. If it’s money you need you will attract it. If it’s people you need you’ll attract it. You’ve got to pay attention to what you’re attracted to, because as you hold images of what you want, you’re going to be attracted to things and they’re going to be attracted to you. But it literally moves into physical reality with and through you. And it does that by law.
Setting goals, planning actions, focusing attention on what you desire — they’re all just different kinds of intention.
Then in 2002 I took a class from Steve Hagen, founder and head of Dharma Field, a Zen center near my home in Minneapolis. (Steve wrote Buddhism Plain and Simple, the first book that I recommend to anyone who asks what the Buddha taught.)
Buddhas act without intention, Steve said.
“I never consult my wants,” he added.
In fact, he said, organizing our lives based on getting what we want is pure delusion. Far from being the key to our happiness, this kind of intention is the very root of our suffering.
That got my attention.
This statement contradicted nearly everything I’d read or heard about the nature of human happiness.
Steve then delivered a brilliant lecture about the five aggregates — a core Buddhist teaching.
For people who preach the power of intention, this teaching is an inconvenient truth. It’s easy to ignore while we’re busy setting goals and “manifesting” what we desire.
In this post I’ll share what I learned from Steve.
Yes, it’s geeky Buddhist stuff. But it changed my life, and I hope you’ll benefit as well.
The five aggregates
The Buddha often referred to himself as tathagata. This translates into English as not “I” or one who goes and comes. He also referred to other people as stream.
This terminology is counter-intuitive — and no accident. It points to the teaching of anatta, or no-self.
Anatta means that we have no permanent self or fixed identity. Instead, each of us is a stream of constantly changing experience. This stream has five elements (aggregates):
- Matter. This is our physical form — the body. When asked about the nature of the body, the Buddha described it as “that which gets cold, wet and stung by bugs.” Again, he did not refer to an enduring self.
- Perception — pure awareness of the world as a seamless unity and unbroken Whole — before thinking divides it into self and other. (See conception below.)
- Sensation — the realm of feelings, which are pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Our reflex response is to prolong pleasant feelings and avoid or suppress unpleasant feelings.
- Conception — the realm of thinking, which leads to beliefs, definitions, abstract ideas, and mental objects. The primary function of thinking is to discriminate — to make distinctions. For example, conception separates I from you; past from present and future; and good from bad.
- Inclination — the point where our desire to prolong pleasure and avoid pain hardens into deep-seated patterns of longing and loathing, craving and aversion. Intention is a form of inclination.
We meditate in order to soften the habits of conception and inclination. Our stream of thought slows down and eventually stops. We see beyond our concepts and perceive the Whole, which is known by other names — Tao, Dharma, God, and many more.
In Buddhism Plain and Simple, Steve notes that if we simply notice our moment experience without inclination:
…we would see that nothing actually arises, persists, or dies as a separate entity. This moment is complete unto itself. There’s nothing lacking in this moment….
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. Nothing enters or leaves Mind [the Whole].
Testing the teaching for yourself
When I try to explain the five aggregates, some people tell me that it’s all just too abstract, too “woo-woo,” too flaky.
That’s a fair point.
In response, I simply suggest that people learn yoga, meditation, or a related practice. Then — instead of processing more concepts — they can get a direct experience of prior Wholeness.
Yoga teacher Christopher Kilham describes this experience:
All the contortions of yoga — all the breathing, the concentration, the exercises, the diligent practice — bring us eventually to the point where there is nothing at all to be done, nothing to grasp at, nothing to pursue, no goal to attain, just the sheer immensity of being right here, right now, the only time there is.
When you really get this at a gut level, the whole idea of setting goals in order to become complete and “attract abundance” seems like a cosmic joke.
When we create intentions with this attitude, we identify ourselves as incomplete, isolated from the Whole, and fundamentally wounded. We find ourselves grasping at things “outside” ourselves — things that ultimately frustrate us because they keep changing in ways that we can’t control.
No goal that we could ever attain would erase the suffering that begins with this delusion.
Living the teaching in daily life
One of my favorite questions about a teaching is: So what?
Does that sound sarcastic? I don’t mean it to be.
What I’m really asking is: What are the implications of this teaching? Will it make a difference in my life? How do I put it into practice?
When it comes to the five aggregates, I remember three things.
First, it’s probably more accurate to say that the enlightened person lives with one intention — to wake up. To let go of suffering. To awaken. Nirvana. Enlightenment. Nonsymbolic consciousness. Whatever you want to call it.
As we move toward this state, our inclinations converge, reduce, and unify.
Second, there are wholesome intentions and unwholesome intentions. For example, the intention to become more even-minded and kind is wholesome. It’s part of awakening.
Unwholesome intentions are those based on longing and loathing, craving and aversion. If we set goals to grasp at pleasure or resist discomfort, we move away from awakening.
Third, we can continue to plan and set goals. (Actually, I’m a big fan of the Getting Things Done method.) But we don’t do these things in order to become happy by getting what we want.
Rather, we use goals and plans simply as ways to organize our daily affairs and carry out our existence in the material world. These are “skillful means” that we employ without attachment to outcomes.
I’ll close with this beautiful passage from Buddhism Plain and Simple — a reminder to relax into the Whole:
The deep, hollow ache of the heart arises from a life in search of meaning. But it’s by our very desire to find meaning that we create meaninglessness. The very idea of looking for meaning and purpose arises from our deluded thought. When we actually see Reality for what it is, all questions of meaning are transcended, and we’re free to engage the world as it really is.