This takes us right back to the post that kicked off the project, which was all about how in order to start acting with effort in a way that is conducive to our own happiness, we have to first learn about what we should do, and then cultivate a conviction and determination to pursue these happy states of mind.
As I hinted at in that first post, underlying this chain is the idea of intention. In Buddhist ethics, our intentions are really the only things that matter. Now, I realise I’ve referenced The Good Place too many times during this project already, but I couldn’t let the project finish without one final mention…
There’s a scene where one of the characters, Tahani, is trying desperately to help her friends, Janet and Jason, solve their relationship problems. But everything she tries has an adverse effect and only worsens the situation. This brings more and more stress for Tahani as she gets trapped in a cycle of continually trying to rectify things, which only ends up causing more and more trouble for her friends.
A utilitarian would say Tahani is being a pretty bad person here, due to the consequences her actions have on Janet and Jason. However, a Buddhist would say she’s being a great person.
But how? She only stirred up more problems for her friends?
Well, for a Buddhist what matters aren’t a person’s actions, but their intentions. Whether or not you agree with the moral philosophy of this, there’s no doubt that adopting this mindset can help you to cultivate happier mental states.
This is because it takes the pressure off. In an increasingly complicated world, you can innocently send your mother flowers out of kindness, but not realise that the flower company is run by a misogynistic, racist CEO, and therefore you’re in effect supporting that CEO by buying the flowers (ok, ok, now that really is the last Good Place reference, I promise…).
Life is unpredictable. I mean, how many of us thought this time last year that there would be a global pandemic bringing the world to a standstill? (Aside from Lawrence Wright, who published an eerily accurate dystopian novel earlier this year). There are always going to be unforeseeable consequences, and it’s not helpful to agonise over every possible eventuality and and get lost in thinking about the future.
Because at the end of the day, we have no control over this. What we do have control over is our intentions, so it makes sense to focus our energy on cultivating positive intentions, which will in turn sow the seeds for positive actions and results.
This ties in with Song 23, which was all about having a sincere motivation. If we concentrate on our intentions, then when we try to help or do something nice for someone, this shifts our attention onto creating a genuine wish to be kind and caring. This is opposed to merely making it look like we’re being kind and caring in order to impress someone.
“Love you now, a little more tomorrow”
I chose Justin Bieber’s ‘Intentions’ for this teaching, and aside from the obvious relevance of the title, I really like this song because it’s such an uplifting and heartwarming ode to his wife.
“Shower you with all my attention
Yeah, these are my only intentions”
In it, Justin expresses how he intends to treat his wife until the day he dies. He keeps it fairly simple, in mainly talking about showering her with attention. But for me this highlights how everything does just feel a lot clearer and uncomplicated when we focus on our intentions, rather than fretting over a tangled web of potential outcomes.
If we can approach a situation with the intention of simply ‘being as loving as possible’ or ‘being as helpful as possible’, for example, then we don’t clutter our mind with worries when deciding what the best course of action might be. There’s also no need to panic and think that we’re putting too much emphasis on our intentions, and that as a result our actions won’t be conducive to what we truly want. Our intentions inevitably manifest themselves in our actions anyway.
“It's fifty-fifty percentage, attention, we need commitment”
While Quavo is talking about committing to a relationship here, I feel like the idea of commitment is also important to today’s teaching. Of course, while intentions are what Buddhism suggests we focus our energy on, this doesn’t mean our actions are unimportant. If we just say that we intend to do something, but never actually ‘commit’ to them and follow through, then this is something of an empty intention, and it’s questionable whether the intention was ever genuinely there.
“Make sure that you don't need no mentions
Yeah, these are my only intentions”
Finally, it is helpful to look back at Song 16, which was geared towards not being too hard on ourselves. If all we care about is results, then we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment, because the consequences are always - unfortunately - out of our hands.
If we pay more attention to our intentions (how is that not a song lyric?), for example the intention to do as well as we can, then it doesn’t matter as much what the actual results are. What does matter is that our intentions were good and we tried our best, because this is the only thing we have any control over.
It's crazy to think we’re nearly at the end of the project - there’s only one post left!
Check back here tomorrow to find out what the final teaching and song will be…!