Do You Intend to Do Good?


“Do You Intend to Do Good? Skillful Intention” is part 8 of our series on the traditional Eightfold Path for the cessation of suffering offered by the Buddha 2500 years ago. Missed the other posts in the series? Read them all here.

Our next step on the path to happiness is Skillful Thinking, also sometimes translated as Skillful Intention.

Tara Brach tells this story: A bus driver gratefully accepted the gift of a handful of peanuts from a little girl on his bus who offered them saying, “We thought you might like to have some peanuts.”

When the little girl returned a second time, with more peanuts, he again thanked her and enjoyed the peanuts.

When she returned a third time, he began to feel bad for eating all the kids’ peanuts, so he said, “You are so nice to share your peanuts with me. But I feel bad eating too many. You kids keep these.”

The little girl beamed at him and said, “Oh it’s OK; we are happy to share these. We’ve already sucked the chocolate off of them.”

If you are the bus driver, how do you feel if the kids are young and naive, and truly believed they were giving you a lovely gift of super clean peanuts?

How do you feel if the kids were playing a mean trick on you?

Intentions matter, don’t they?

The Buddha agreed and even said,

Everything rests on the point of intention.”

Because our intentions are so important, Skillful Intention in included on the path to the end of suffering. The Buddha said that elements of Skillful Intention include:

  1. Intending to develop good will towards others.
  2. Intending to act in ways that do not cause harm.

One obvious point here is that happiness does not flow from actions that are intended to be cruel or harmful.

Remember though, that all of the steps on the eightfold path are offered as areas of your life to pay attention to, not as a list of commandments to be followed.

In this context, it doesn’t make you a bad person if you make a joke at your friend’s expense. Rather, can the experience prompt you to explore how it makes you feel when you are a little bit mean? Does it bother you even a little that you hurt your friend’s feelings? If so, you could develop the intention to refrain from snarky comments as best you can and see how that works for you.

Skillful Intention is the engine that drives your progress down the path to happiness. No matter how hard you try, you are not going to perfectly follow the path. But no matter what happens, you can continue to cultivate your intention to work on it.

This is one of my favorite steps because it invites me to think about my choices in the context of my values.
This is one of my favorite steps on the eightfold path, because it invites me to think about my choices in the context of my values. It allows me to stay pointed in the direction of happiness just by holding the intention to behave in ways that support my values.

For my part, I think those kids on the bus were acting with generosity. I think they had the best intentions.

Let’s take a poll! Do you think they were acting with generosity?

Photo by Tachina Lee on Unsplash

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  • I choose to believe that their intentions were good. That way I can give them the benefit of the doubt and give me and them more time to know their true intentions.

    • Hi Maria, I like your comment as it points out that we can choose to assume the best in others, and respond to them with positive expectations. That alone can improve our relationships.

The Mindful Twenty Something by Holly Rogers
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— MIRABAI BUSH, co-founder and Senior Fellow of The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society

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