I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years contemplating (pun intended), thinking, reading, researching, and teaching about the potential connection between contemplation and morality, or more specifically the cultivation of the virtues and practical wisdom. While there is still (much) more for us to explore on this frontier, what is coming into greater clarity and relief is that intention seems to form an important thread that tethers these two components of human existence together.
A few recent experiences have converged that lead me to this initial conclusion. First, much of my teaching and research is focused on the virtues, especially in the tradition of Christian ethics and morality, with direct links back to classical philosophy (especially Aristotle) and theology (especially Thomas Aquinas). In this tradition, the foundation for all good acts is intention, which can be understood as the specification of one’s desires and thoughts toward some good object or act, the attainment of which is believed to contribute to my individual well-being and that of others (or of the common good). In more layperson’s terms, without intention we would have neither the motivation (desire) nor the practical reason (intellect or thought) to pursue any activity that we find worthwhile.
One finds a similar emphasis upon intention in many spiritual practices and traditions. For example, the core of the practice of Centering Prayer is that a person’s “sacred word” functions as “the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within” (Guideline #1). A simpler way of stating this may be that the intention to consent is our willingness to say yes to God’s presence and action, and to whatever may arise in each moment (even to unpleasant or difficult situations). Many people are likely also familiar with the practice of “setting an intention” or “dedication” at the beginning of a yoga class. And on a more philosophical level, the final goal of the eight limbs of ashtanga in the yoga tradition is samadhi, the total union of the person’s being with the divine essence of Reality itself. And in Buddhism, the bodhisattva (saint, or enlightened being) is identified by his or her dedication to bodhichitta, the vow or intention to cultivate universal love and compassion and to remain in this world of suffering until all beings are released from suffering and are free.
These are ideas that I’ve “known” about for years, but I didn’t fully put the connection together between intention as the link between contemplation and practical wisdom or virtue until I was analyzing the (not yet published) results of a recent study on the effects of mindfulness through the Project for Mindfulness & Contemplation at the University of St. Thomas. I had been invited to join this study in order to contribute a set of metrics to attempt to measure the effect of mindfulness meditation upon the various components of practical wisdom. Unfortunately, the results did not show any statistically significant effect of mindfulness meditation on the measurements of practical wisdom that I had identified. In fact, there seemed to be more of a shift (though still not statistically significant) in the control group than in the group that practiced mindfulness. Despite the initial disappointment, this got me thinking and asking questions – what was missing from this study? Why was my hunch about the connection between mindfulness and practical wisdom not confirmed by the data?
My initial and tentative conclusion is that what these results did not indicate provides an important clue to the role of intention. The group of students selected to practice mindfulness were taught in the style of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program. This program uses several different styles of meditation, but on the whole seems to focus on what is sometimes referred to as “open awareness.” That is, one practices simply becoming aware of one’s internal states and external surroundings without judgment, and without any specific intention other than being aware. (There are some exceptions in this program, especially with some kinds of loving-kindness meditation.) The control group was asked to sit in a room and told that they could read or study. Almost all of the students studied. Studying is an intentional focused activity in which a person is either reading for the purposes of comprehension or working on a specific question or problem. This may account for the slightly greater shift seen in the control group as compared to the mindfulness group. The studying students were engaging their wills and cultivating intention because they were engaged in a pursuit with a particular end or goal in mind. (Bear in mind that these results were not statistically significant – don’t expect a published paper yet.)
It seems, therefore, that mindfulness meditation or contemplative practices in general are quite effective at relieving stress, but that they only increase one’s moral capacities for making choices in line with one’s values, ideals, or goals if they are combined with the intentional cultivation of of care for the good of oneself or others. As mindfulness practices are being integrated into education curricula at multiple levels (from grade schools up through universities), we would do well to pay attention to the role of cultivating good intentions and what Vicki Zakrzewski refers to as “emotional intelligence with a moral rudder.”
The next time you sit down on your cushion, it might be worth taking that extra moment to set your intention on the higher goals of your practice, for the benefit of yourself, for the good of others, for the benefit of creation, for your desire to know and to love God. If you do, and you notice a difference, I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments section below.