What Is Your Intention?

When I meditate, I’m asked to notice sensation (“what is your body telling you right now?”), emotion (“what feelings are you experiencing right now?”), and intention (“why are you doing this?”)

The “intention” question strikes at the heart of my Catholic-upbringing, seminary-reinforced idea of meditation.  Within that context, meditation is solely a spiritual exercise, a practice one develops to recognize the larger world oozing and overflowing with God’s joy, love and happiness.

Since then I’ve re-imagined meditation in more exclusively “secular” or “humanistic” ways.  Spiritual meditation is a whole lot like secular “meditation,” although the latter is probably better cast under the term “reflection.”

Reflection, I believe, is a common arena shared by this world and the more-than-this world, where the immanent and the transcendent picnic together, get to know one another.  My move from seminary to philosophy shifted my attention from what it must be like for the other-world picnickers to what it’s like for the picnickers here and now.

But the reflection involved in critical analysis aims to be a purely cognitive activity; noncognitive elements such as joy, pain, suffering, passion, and love are impurities that contaminate thinking.  You could recognize them as variables, but only as other phenomena or experience to bracket, to set aside, so that the horse of reason has full throttle of your investigations.

Daily meditations have allowed me to accept these other aspects of my experience, to value them as much as thinking.  One of meditation’s key assumptions is that the mind tends to be so agitated, so intent on ignoring the emotional AND the physical, that we lose contact with these other core parts of being human.

The person leading the meditations said, “Keep in mind the others in your life; your intention will help you that much more when you want to do this not only for yourself but also for them.”  But not in another “self” way, as if you’re there for a bunch of selves.  What you’re there for is to become more aware of the connections between those selves, between you and your friend, between that friend and her husband, between that husband and his job, between … again and again and again.

The aim to be more mindful of these connections (rather than who or what they connect) for me proved to be a huge help in coping with, dealing with, managing my existence just a little better.

The other caveat I picked up from meditation is that, in becoming more mindful of these connections, it helps to not see yourself at the center of this vast network of connections.  Think of the solar system in relation to the Milky Way galaxy – it’s not at the center of things:  it’s a tiny dot among billions of tiny dots of a starfish swirling around a center defined by the collection of the dots.

That’s what I visualize when I’m asked, “what is your intention?”  My intention, I tell myself, is to become more mindful of the connections that make up this huge galaxy of awareness, human and more than human, me a dot among billions and billions of dots that make the swirling starfish possible in the first place.

Is An Examined Life Worth Living?

Those of us who love philosophy cannot help but wonder, at least once in a while, whether philosophy is relevant, even necessary, to live today. But we may be blinded by our love of the discipline—to the contemporary world’s eyes, philosophy is at best a plain, dull, and uninviting subject.

It seems there isn’t anything our contemporary world cannot do better or with greater satisfaction in spheres of human activity than philosophical reflection. When the goal of human action is “results,” like those we expect of science, or art, or commerce, philosophy pales by comparison.

We might want to argue for the claim that philosophy’s only value, the only reason why anyone should spend extended amounts of time and energy with it, are the practical benefits its students can bring to a shop-weary world.

While most folks may not have any formal, “professional” acquaintance with the discipline, they do have a natural preponderance for reflecting upon the ordinary, everyday world. That is, upon their ordinary, everyday worlds. When academics try to remind us how much better our lives would be if only we would set just aside a few tasks that are not nearly as important as the life of the mind, we shrug and tell them they don’t have a clue what the “real world” is about.

Humans have a natural inclination to ask why. If we can do that at our leisure, in the small, quiet moments that give us a chance to put together the stories of our lives, we are (for lack of a better word) happy. Academics annoy the rest of us when they refuse to recognize that: 1) in the great curriculum of life, philosophy is an elective, not a required course; and 2) we already examine and critique our lives, we don’t want or need your “help,” thank you very much.