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2020-08-20

Keep a Single Intention

Practice of the Week
Keep a Single Intention

Category: Slogans to Live By: Carry these reminders at all times. These practices don't require setting aside a separate substantial chunk of time -- but they will slow you down a bit (and that's a good thing.) Resolve to get stronger at living by these slogans, day by day. Sometimes make one of them the focus of your daily journaling.


The "single intention" to keep is to be kind, to benefit others. That’s the intention with which we begin: don’t be stuck on yourself; consider others. Others includes yourself; yourself includes others. When you eat breakfast, keep that spirit. When you go to the toilet, keep that spirit. When you walk upstairs, walk downstairs, cross the street, leave the house, come back into the house – keep that spirit. “May I have breakfast this morning to nourish all beings.” “May I go to the toilet this morning to purify all beings and free them from what’s inside that is extra and should be eliminated.” “May I walk up the stairs to rise up in goodness with everyone,” and so on. Walk down the stairs to deepen commitment to truth for the benefit of others, leave the house to go forth to do some good for someone else, and return home in the hope that all beings will one day return to their true home.

Whatever we do, we do unselfishly, with the spirit of dedication of our activity to others. This can be a creative practice. You can compose little sayings for yourself like the ones I’ve just suggested, and you can say them before eating (what’s grace before meals, if not a version of this practice?), when going to the toilet, and so on. Or more simply, and without words, pay close attention when you do these things – be really present for them, and conceive of your presence not just as yours and private but as inclusive of others. Which, in fact, it is.

Can you actually sustain a practice like this? Of course not! You should have no expectation of becoming a saint with your mind constantly focused on concern for others. But to conclude from this that you might as well not practice “keep a single intention,” since it’s impossible, is also incorrect. You can practice it as often as you remember, and the more you practice it, the more you will remember. If you can practice grace before meals, you can practice “grace” at other repetitive occasions during the day.

When you notice, inevitably, that you are not being so generous or so kind or so openhearted – that your activity has not been dedicated, in your heart, altruistically – that instead you’ve completely lost track of all of your good intentions and have become, as if half-asleep, narrow, grim, and desperate, take a breath right there at the moment of noticing this. With that breath, forgive yourself (“Oops, there I go again, sorry”) and go on.

We reset the dial with one intention: our purpose is to be of some benefit to others, to dedicate ourselves to others. This one intention is something that we can always trust and always rely on to set us straight, no matter how mixed-up we may be. Even when our motivations seem entirely false – when it seems that our wanting to meditate, our wanting to be good or wise, is completely self-serving and foolish or that we have stopped wanting to do anything spiritual whatsoever and we are completely lazy and sour – there is never any doubt about this single simple thing: yes, we do want to be of some benefit to others. Even when nothing else makes sense, this makes sense. Whatever is going on, always come back to this best and most basic motivation – the wish to care about others and to be of some service to them.


It seems that every day we fall willy-nilly into a never-ending string of activities. They seem to come at us from outside, without our necessarily having anything to do about it. We keep busy with one thing after another from morning until night.

At times we may be really organized and lay out plans day-by-day and week by-week. We have goals and deadlines. At other times, it may be more as if we are responding to requests that come up, without any clear pattern or direction. E-mails, meetings, obligations keep flooding in, and we find all the little squares in our calendars filling up.

What holds all this activity together? Is there any thread that runs through all this business? Or are we just trying to make it through another day? What do you know about your underlying intention?

The idea is to replace intentions based on fear and the need to prop up the ego with an intention of benevolence. Rather than making a few heroic or virtuous gestures or taking on some righteous cause, the idea is to have a quality of awareness, gentleness, and benefit to others color everything you do.

Such an intention should color even the way in which you do the simplest things, like picking up your teacup. Your gestures, speech, thoughts, and emotions should all be expressions of one intention: the powerful intention of benefiting sentient beings.

On the spiritual path we encounter both external and internal obstacles to practice and to awakening. Sometimes circumstances in your world prevent you from practicing. Sometimes you are utterly uninspired to practice, even if the time is available. External and internal obstacles can leave you feeling stuck and disheartened.

When you encounter obstacles and obstructions to practice, how do you get back on track? How do you correct your course? The approach of just trying to push your way through does not work very well; it is hard to fight with your own state of mind. Instead of struggling in that way, simply instill in your mind the aspiration to practice compassion. However often you forget, keep reminding yourself over and over, everyday, that this is your bottom line position. Having that single underlying focus has a lot of power. It is as if you have created a kind of gyroscope to guide your course and bring you back to stability when you lose your balance.

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