By Sean O’Donnell
“If you maintain the constant wish to benefit others, the power to actually do so will come by itself, as naturally as water runs downhill.” –Dilgo Khyentse
The power of intention is an often overlooked force in the Universe. But, we find that the same words and actions can carry entirely different effects and result in different outcomes based solely on the intention behind them.
Our intentions may not always be communicated on a tangible, surface level. But, often, we can immediately perceive if someone has crude intentions. There are many subtle layers to this, and the process of purifying intentions is something we refine as we navigate the ever-unfolding mystery of life.
The Purest Intention
In Hridaya Yoga Retreat: Module 2, we discuss Pure Intention as one of the 14 Hridaya Yoga Attitudes. There are many actions, words, and thoughts that can come from a pure intention, but this attitude culminates in an intention that can be succinctly communicated by an ancient Sanskrit prayer: Lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu, meaning “May all beings everywhere be happy and free, and may the thoughts, words, and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and to that freedom for all.”
To some, this may seem like an impossibly lofty aspiration. Trying to measure every action against this highest intention would be crippling. Is brushing our teeth in the morning with a plastic toothbrush that will end up in a landfill benefitting ALL beings? Is going to yoga class in a car powered by fossil fuels and killing bugs with the windshield for the benefit of all beings? These might sound like absurd examples, but hopefully, they illustrate how we can become paralyzed by the mind if we take an all-or-nothing approach when first starting to explore our aspiration for this purity.
What’s important to keep in mind is that it is just that―an aspiration. Just because we are not there yet (and we may never be in this lifetime) does not mean we should stop ourselves from consciously aiming in that direction.
Another key component is the idea that we are aspiring to contribute in some way towards this happiness and freedom for all. Meaning, we do not have to come up with a way to achieve this for all sentient beings before we leave the house in the morning.
Where to Begin?
We can cut the grandiose nature of this ultimate intention a little by looking at it from different angles. It is quite daunting to try to benefit all beings with each action. There are many fascinating ways that the eight limbs of yoga and the Hridaya Attitudes can overlap, support each other, and become one with each other. But, one helpful way to begin the journey of benefitting all beings is to practice ahimsa (“to do no harm”)—the first of the yamas.
Instead of asking “Does this action, word, or thought benefit all beings?,” we may find less resistance in simplifying our analysis to “To the best of our knowledge, will this action directly harm any being?” This question is a lot easier to work with when we have a decision to make or are contemplating an action and are not sure if it will fit with our desire to practice pure intention. Obviously, if we can think of someone who will have their happiness or freedom stifled by the ripples of our behavior, regardless of how we perceive it may benefit us, it may be worthwhile to find a different approach.
If this sounds overly simplistic, remember that that is by design. It is often easier to solve complex problems by working with many small, stable, and strong solutions than trying to work with mechanisms for change that involve convoluted and esoteric tools that can become fragile if we try to operate them under pressure, as beginners.
Get out of Yourself, but Not at the Expense of Your Self
Selflessness is the natural attribute of people who embody the mindset of living to benefit all beings. However, in order to properly serve our highest purpose, we are wise to find a balance—honoring both our aspiration for purity and our current level of consciousness. When we dedicate ourselves in roles such as teachers, healers, mentors, karma yogis, etc. we may take on these identities with such a passion that it is possible to get in our own way, adopting masks instead of acting from the Heart. It is often not particularly easy to see this imbalance and we may not recognize when we are acting from the ego. Resting in awareness, being honest with ourselves about our underlying motivations, and taking care of our own well-being will allow us the space to open deeper to true selflessness.
Anyone who has traveled via airplane may fondly remember in-flight announcements about oxygen masks in the overhead compartments. In an emergency situation, we are reminded to secure our own devices before assisting those around us. It is clear that we will not be of much help to others if we neglect our own well-being.
This little analogy is a beautiful reminder. A reminder that, when embracing selfless service and following the yearning to benefit all beings, if we give to others without first connecting with the pure intention stemming from our hearts, we will never reach our full potential to serve. Going deeper, we can acknowledge that when we are centered in the Heart, the concept of “self” and “other” dissolves completely and we simply understand that anything that benefits anyone benefits everyone.
Thus, we can best stay true to the pure intention of benefitting all beings by keeping a balance point that encourages a mutual flow of freedom and happiness between our perceived selves and our perceived surroundings.
Sean is a Hridaya Yoga student and a frequent contributor to our blog. You can read all his posts here.