July 21, 2010

Ken McLeod on Intention

In a recent talk at Unfettered Mind, Ken McLeod discusses different strategies for being able to implement intention. Intention is only half the battle; you have to be able to see it through. You intend to do something and then you do it. By strengthening intention, McLeod says, you can make things manifest in the world, you can change the direction you’re going in and break free of negative habitual patterns.

An example of one of his strategies:

Another way, and this is very useful for working with difficult situations, either internally or externally. Follow the gesture. This is a way of knowing what is happening. When you follow the gesture, and you know what is happening, then go another way. Do something different. It doesn’t really matter what you do as long as it is different. When you do that you will experience everything that tries to constrain you to the original way the system operates. So you have to cut. Cut. Cut. So follow the gesture, go another way, cut.

He goes on to elaborate on what he means by “follow the gesture.” McLeod has a talent for using precise wording and creating formulas while retaining the power of suggestion. His teachings are direct but open enough to be tailored by the mind of the student. For those looking for online dharma resources (in the Tibetan tradition), Unfettered Mind is definitely worth looking into.

Listen to the rest of McLeod's talk here.

Check out the first week of his Tricycle Online Retreat here.

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Tricycle » Nine Types of Teachers's picture

[...] I mentioned in a blog post last week, Ken McLeod has a talent for using precise language and creating formulas in his writing. [...]

Eishin's picture

While Matt definitely has a point, I appreciate Sam's comment that acting with intention is a way to develop upaya, skillful means, which then helps free yourself from intention. When I observe myself acting unskillfully -- say I'm about to gossip, or act in anger -- then "acting with intention" means that I observe 2 courses of action and choose the most skillful course that aligns with my intention to live in accordance with the teachings.
One cannot graduate high school after kindergarten. Neither can one naturally act without intention according to Absolute truth if we haven't trained our minds to see it.
By acting with intention -- choosing to see and respond in the most skillful manner -- we begin to reprogram our default patterns and create a "new groove". As we begin to mature in this process, we'll be better able to see the world as it really is and act spontaneously as a Buddha.
But first things first.
My 2 cents. Gassho to all.

steve har's picture

So, all you blokes live in a split mind/body universe?
All enlightended Cartesians - disembodied method actors who think themselves into the Buddha's world?

No Heiddeggerians embodied, at one with their hammers, hammering and at one with the world without intention? None of Dogen's fallen love flowers or hated weeds in sight?

All Know->Do->Be?
No Do->Be->Know?
No Be->Do->Realize?

How about referencing some real human experience or anyway a koan or two for those less impressed with such abstractions - intended or not?

The point: Is Intention the only point of leverage? Is intention a) mind, b) body, c) neither, d)both

Kenneth Elder's picture

When one does concentration meditation intention is essential. You continually use intention to pull the mind away from distractions back to the object of meditation. But with vipassana insight meditation though you also have a primary meditation object you are mindful of all distractions being aware of all that arises and fades away in body and mind. The wise Burmese vipassana teacher Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw always emphasized in changing body movements noting the intention to change the movement. When making mental intentions such as intending to increase concentration you note that intention. Much of our illusion of ego, of some unchanging Self comes from the view that our intention is central to some self. That is very evident in the emphasis on will and control in war like societies. It is important to have strong powers of intention but then to learn to detach from that whole process of intention. Unless we detach from intention there is real danger of spiritual pride which is like a spider falling into its own web.

Matt Mullen's picture


I couldn't agree more.

My point is that acting out of intention is to ignore the world of emptiness.


Gregg Winston's picture


I mean nothing of the kind. I just mean that we should reject neither the world of appearances or the world of emptiness. To do either one is to set up a false duality.


Matt Mullen's picture

Gregg Winston,

Do you mean to suggest that we shouldn't talk or think about intention?

Gregg Winston's picture

The Elder Baizhang (Pai Chang), according to the story, went through 500 incarnations as a fox, for asserting that an enlightened being was free from the law of karma.

"To assert that things (intention) are real, misses their true reality,
To assert that things are void, also misses reality.
The more you think and talk on this,
The farther from the truth, you'll be" ~ Seng Ts'an


Matt Mullen's picture

Hi Sam,

Yes, I'm referencing the two truths. In a relative sense there does appear to be space and time and separately existing things. But with careful examination we can see that this is not the way reality actually is. Ultimately space and time are illusory, and there are no separately existing things that persist as themselves.

These are the two truths (relative and Absolute), and we must take both into account at the same time, we can't ignore either one.

So to encourage people to act out of intention is to reify a delusional understanding of reality. It is to reify a view of the world that ignores the Absolute aspect.

My teacher, Steve Hagen, often talks about the critical distinction between a Buddha (one who is awake in this moment) and an ordinary person. The difference is that an ordinary person acts out of intention, whereas a Buddha does not.

Spontaneity is the opposite of acting with intention, so it doesn't make much sense to try to cultivate spontaneity by acting out of intention. It's a step in the wrong direction. It doesn't close the gap; it widens it.

True spontaneity comes along with seeing the world as it actually is, rather than as we think or believe it is. When we realize that all of the things that we want are ultimately empty, there is no desire (or will) to go chasing after them. Only when there is no will (or intention), do we truly act spontaneously.

I don't know if that helps or not.


Sam Mowe's picture


It sounds like you're talking about the idea of "Two Truths"—ultimate and relative reality. The way that I experience time is definitely in the "relative reality" realm, where actions at this moment effect and lead to results in another future moment. I can understand the idea of an ultimate reality where there is Great Time and, consequently, intention is unnecessary and unnatural, but I haven't experienced it. Perhaps you can concede that, for people like me, intention can be used as a tool to cultivate the ability to act spontaneously. In other words, perhaps implementing intention can help to close the gap between what you intend to do and what you do presently—the gap between ultimate and relative truths.

What do you think?


Matt Mullen's picture

When we act out of intention, we are seeing the world as divided up into separate things, places and events. We are seeing our self as being here in this confined time and place, and the object of our intention as being out there in some other confined time and place.

In other words, when we are acting out of intention, we are acting out of the relative aspect of reality––the aspect in which the mind is leaning toward this or away from that. And leaning mind is, itself, suffering.

So to encourage people to act out of intention is to encourage ignorance, confusion, and suffering.

A person with a truly unfettered mind does not act out of intention, or will. Acting out of intention is a sure sign of a fettered mind.