The Bodhisattva Suryabaskara, Eastern Tibet; 18th century, The Rubin Museum of Art

The Bodhisattva Suryabaskara, Eastern Tibet; 18th century, The Rubin Museum of Art

Why do you sit? Why are you drawn to the spiritual path? It can be interesting sometimes to ask this question when you sit–not pushing for an answer but making space for it, the way you would listen closely to a very shy or quiet person. Listening this way takes patience. At first, sitting can feel as if you are entering a party in full swing–there can be self-consciousness, awkwardness, flurries of inner talk or planning or projecting little mind movies to entertain ourselves. Finally we grow tired of this and allow ourselves to let go and sink into the deeper feeling and knowing of the present moment—this is the kind of listening or attunement that can reveal our deeper intentions. As someone said last night, it’s as if the ego is an ice cube bumping up against other ice cubes—there are sharp edges, crowding, a frustrated jockeying for position. Yet all this disappears when we melt into the oneness of water. As you sit, as the din and dazzle and ego striving of the party dies down, you may discover a secret aspiration just to melt, to lose your sharp edges, to be soft and fluid and with life instead of frozen against it.

The English word “intention” comes from a Latin root that means stretching or purpose. In Pali, the language of the earliest Buddhist teachings, the expression samma san kappa means wise intention– sometimes also translated as wise thought. This is not the usual brain-spun cognitive thought but purposive or conative thought. Conative thought carries a deeper impulse or yearning, stretches towards something. Ancient Buddhist teaching understood the power of conscious intention to influence views and behavior, and modern science concurs.   Both agree that we are conditioned but not completely determined. According to a recent article in Scientific American, “a body of psychological research shows that conscious, purposeful processing of our thoughts really does make a difference to what we do.”   Wise intention is that conscious wish to stretch towards something outside the loop of the known.

In Mahayana Buddhism, a bodhisattva is one who has awakened in heart and mind yet consciously intends to stay here in the thick of it all, offering all the kindness and understanding and patience and goodness that flows from the fully melted state of awakening to all the rest of us. Yet in a very real sense we are all bodhisattva’s in training, all capable of stretching and softening and opening towards what we deeply love.

“Sometimes you hear a voice through the door
calling you, as fish out of water
hear the waves, or a hunting falcon hears the drums. Come back. Come back.
This turning toward what you deeply love saves you.”


The Rubin Museum of Art led by Sharon Salzberg and others from the New York Insight Meditation Center are offering a new weekly lunchtime meditation series throughout August and September.

Tracy Cochran, the editorial director of Parabola Magazine will lead a session in mindfulness meditation at The Rubin Museum on August 19th and on September 23rd between 1:00 – 1:45 p.m. For details, please visit The Rubin Museum.