Twenty years ago I asked my Indian Dharma teacher, Krishna, "How can tell if my spiritual practice is working?" She answered with a question: "Are you becoming more loving?" I had expected a reply that mentioned stages of insight, nirvana, psychic powers, or of transcending the sufferings of human life.
To become loving like a Buddha we must clarify our intentions. We must ask ourselves what this human birth is about, what our particular mission is here on the Earth. Without this clarity we are at the mercy of whatever conditionings we received in our family of origin, from the culture, and from our own natural tendencies toward sense desire, hatred and denial. Intention is the facet of Dharma practice that guides our capacity to aspire, to set our sights, to imagine what and who we might become. It guides our actions, and inspires our practice.
Whether we are conscious of our intentions or not, our behavior is guided by them. It behooves us to attend to them, to exert some choice, to set our karmic course toward a life of happiness and loving. If we don't, we can wind up with lots of possessions, sensory experiences, power or self-importance only to discover that we have been chasing disappointing illusions.
Three central intentions or aspirations that can guide us are: learning to accept life on its own terms, developing generosity, and cultivating lovingkindness in thought and action.
The intention of accepting life on its own terms is an antidote to delusion. Through acceptance we gradually weaken the natural desire to have a life without pain and suffering. With acceptance we become able to open unflinchingly to our own psychological and physical sufferings as well as those of others. We notice the causes of these sufferings as well as their ceasing. Ceasing to deny and then accepting the reality of death, the passing away of all that we hold near and dear, transforms the fear in our hearts into love.
Aspiring to generosity includes the practice of renunciation. We can free ourselves from the unconscious greediness of a self that is isolated and self-preoccupied. We rein in our habitual tendencies, fast from acting out, and discover the freedom that lies in letting go, in not always seeking happiness through the satisfaction of desire. By finding ways to practice giving we take pleasure in our connection with life.
A life holding lovingkindness as an intention is one in which we are able to take delight in our own goodness of spirit and action. Lovingkindness toward oneself grows to include family, friends, enemies and all beings, as the heart opens to our interbeing. Kindness of thought and action begin with the imagination of acting kindly and turn into a major theme in a way of life.
Cultivating high ideals is admirable, but practicing them in life is where the rubber meets the road. It helps to be very clear, to articulate and frequently refresh our own intentions and aspirations. To grow in the way of the Dharma requires that we bring our highest intentions into our marriages, relationships with children, friends, colleagues, and enemies. They must inform our livelihood and leisure activities. Our intentions shape our actions. Unexamined, they will lead us to our fate. Chosen and cherished, they will guide us to a destiny of becoming loving, a Buddha.
From Northwest Dharma News, July 8, 1997