Right IntentionKevin Griffin
Once we see the truth with clarity, Right View, we are motivated to change, Right Intention. This motivation is the key to our ongoing recovery process and spiritual development. While we may continue to make mistakes or even relapse, a strong intention will keep us on track, eventually bringing us back to the path.
When I first learned to meditate, my goal was peace and some kind of magical spiritual fix. For two years I did a Hindu practice mechanically, just sitting and repeating a mantra for twenty minutes twice a day. Not much happened, and I believe that the problem was my intention. I wasn’t committed to a real spiritual awakening; I just wanted meditation to make my problems go away.
When I then discovered Buddhism, I think my intention started getting closer to something skillful. I began to see the process as broader than just taking a “meditation pill.” But I still couldn’t acknowledge the depth of change needed, and I lacked the willingness to address those fundamental issues.
From the time I started that first meditation practice until I got sober was seven years. That’s how long it took for my intention to become clear and strong enough for real change to happen.
The 12 Steps and the Eightfold Path aren’t mechanical processes. We don’t just go through a series of actions to get a desired result. We aren’t just acting differently; we are becoming different people. Intention is at the heart of this change.
Initially, most people who work the 12 Steps go through them as a linear process, admitting they are powerless, working with the Higher Power idea, inventorying and then trying to let go of failings, making amends, and doing service. For many people this is an important exercise and one that helps to solidly establish them in their recovery. But simply going through the process isn’t enough. If it were, more people would be successful in their recovery. What the process is trying to accomplish is what Step Twelve calls a “spiritual awakening.”
I used to think the Buddhist parallel to this was enlightenment, but that term has so many meanings in different traditions and contexts, that I don’t find it specific enough. What seems like a clearer comparison is what’s called a “transformational insight,” an insight that changes who you are, how you respond, and how you behave in the world. While many insights may occur as the result of spiritual practice, only transformational insight actually changes you for good. And the underlying quality that transformational insight changes is your intention, that which motivates and gives purpose to your thoughts, words, and deeds.
(Of course, enlightenment is supposed to be transformational, but given the number of supposedly enlightened Buddhist masters who drank alcoholically or acted inappropriately in their sex lives, it calls into question the use of the term.)
It’s important to understand why the Buddha said that “karma is intention.” While the typical understanding of karma is that actions bring results, what the Buddha is saying is that what motivates the action is what determines the quality of the results. This means that following a simple mechanical process—like the Steps, like the Eightfold Path—isn’t enough for transformation. The spark of motivation must be there or the process will be hollow and ineffective. This is, of course, a good protection against hypocrisy.
This idea, though, seems to come up against the 12 Step idea that we need to “act our way into right thinking, not think our way into right action.” This suggests that we should “fake it till we make it,” another popular 12 Step idea. This goes back to people trying to think their way out of their addiction instead of just stopping using. The 12 Step program, then, is thought of as more behavioral than psychological. Nonetheless, if we look closely, we see that intention, or as the Steps talk about it, “willingness,” is essential for change to happen. We see this in Step Three, which says we turned our will over to “God.” We see it in Step Six, which says that before we can change we must “be entirely ready.” And we see it in Step Eight, which says once we’d made a list of those to whom we needed to make amends we “became willing to make amends to them all.” Obviously the Steps are asking us to do more than simply take action; they require us to change the heart of those actions, our motivations. No matter how many times we go through the mechanics of the Steps, until we become people who want to be sober; until we become people who want to live with integrity; until we become people who want to be loving, compassionate, and wise, we will never establish solid recovery.
12 Step/Buddhist principle: Change only happens with willingness.
Kevin Griffin is the author of One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps and A Burning Desire: Dharma God and the Path of Recovery. A longtime Buddhist practitioner and 12 Step participant, he is a leader in the mindful recovery movement and one of the founders of the Buddhist Recovery Network. Kevin teaches internationally in Buddhist centers, treatment centers, professional conferences, and academic settings. His website is www.kevingriffin.net