Dear Still Water Friends,
Lately I’ve been thinking about aspiration and intentionality. I was rereading parts of The Art of Saving the Planet by Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) when this sentence made me sit up straight and take notice: “If you don’t yet have an aspiration, you need to find it.”
Thay invites us to consider,
What do we want to do with our life? We have to sit down and look deeply to find out. Is your deepest desire to run after fame, power, success, wealth, and sensual stimulation, or is it something else?
My answer doesn’t come quickly to mind. I can remember the aspirations I had when I was young. When I was twelve years old, I aspired to be a ballerina. When I was eighteen, I aspired to be a poet. Now that I’m in my seventies, what do I aspire to?
Our deepest desire can bring happiness or suffering. I think that’s why Thay states unequivocally that we need to find it – so we can look deeply into it and determine what it is likely to bring us.
We all have desire, and our desire can be healthy or unhealthy. It can make us suffer or it can make us happy. Is our deepest desire healthy or not? If our deepest desire is to suffer less and be happier; if our deepest desire is to come back to ourselves, to create joy and happiness, and nourish ourselves, and help others do the same; if our deepest desire is to learn how to embrace and transform our suffering, so we can suffer less and help others do the same – then that is good. That is a good aspiration, that is bodhicitta, the best kind of volition.
Thay goes on to say that we can easily become overwhelmed by the suffering in ourselves and in the world. If we have an aspiration to transform and relieve suffering, it will help us avoid falling into overwhelm and despair. And when we join with others who have a similar aspiration, when we build a sangha, we can do much more.
Our planet is in danger. There is so much violence, so much suffering going on in the world, you go crazy. You want to do something, first of all just to survive and then to help reduce the suffering. You aspire to do something. You desire something. And you need that kind of desire in order to have enough energy to sustain yourself. Your deepest desire is not just to have money, social recognition, influence, or success. What you really want is something more.
I’ve also been thinking about aspiration and intentionality because of my cousin Lee, who is the most intentional person I’ve ever known. Lee was diagnosed with cancer last fall and passed away a few weeks ago.
A close friend of Lee’s spoke at the memorial service. He shared that at the age of ten, Lee decided – or maybe a better word is “vowed” – to become the kindest person he could be. Isn’t it remarkable that a ten-year-old boy would choose kindness as the aim of his life?
Lee became a teacher and taught little kids, middle-schoolers, and high-schoolers for forty-two years, first in Brazil and California, then in international schools in Nepal, Zimbabwe, Guatemala, and Argentina. During the ten years he and his wife Lynn and daughters lived in Kathmandu, they became Buddhist practitioners. Many people who knew Lee and Lynn through the years recall their efforts to create and nourish community in every place they lived. This did not happen by accident; it was their intention, and the inclination of their hearts, to bring people together in community.
Lee’s doctors proposed a very aggressive program of chemotherapy, one that might or might not prolong his life but was bound to make him feel miserable. He decided it was more important to be awake and lucid for as long as possible, able to be present with his family and friends. He left the hospital, and his wife and hospice nurses cared for him at home. There was no atmosphere of crisis in the house. He was at peace with his intention. Family members, neighbors, old and new friends came to say their farewells. Despite his pain and weakness, he reached out to connect with each one of us. He was loving and truly beloved. He aspired to be fully awake, present, and kind throughout his entire life; why would his dying have been any different?
This Thursday evening, after our meditation period, we’ll have an opportunity to explore our aspirations, our deepest desires. Here are some questions we might consider:
- What aspirations have guided you in your life?
- How have your aspirations changed over time?
- What are your aspirations for the remainder of your time on earth?
Two short readings by Thay about aspiration appear below.
With gratitude for our practice,
From The Art of Saving the Planet by Thich Nhat Hanh
Any bodhisattva, any great being, always has a tremendous source of energy in them. If you don’t yet have an aspiration, you need to find it. We should sit down with our partner, with our friends, and inquire about each other’s deepest dreams. And if you share the same kind of aspiration, your relationship will get stronger. We are here, alive, and we all want to do something with our life. We want our life to be useful, meaningful.
From No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering by Thich Nhat Hanh
Everyone has volition, a strong motivation that fuels us and, when it’s a healthy one, brings us joy. When I was twelve, I knew I wanted to be a monk. At the age of sixteen, I left my mother and my family to become ordained as a novice monk. I loved my mother so much; I wanted to be near her. On the other hand, I knew my greatest happiness would be to live as a monk. I had to sacrifice the good times I would have spent with my mother and I was sad about it; but I didn’t let any fear of loss hold me back, because I knew I was on the path of fulfilling my true aspiration.
If we haven’t taken the time to stop, come home to ourselves, and look deeply, we may not know what brings us our deepest happiness. Perhaps we are working hard at success in one area, but our deepest aspiration is to work in another field or to help people in another way. We need to stop and ask, “Can I realize my deepest aspiration if I pursue this path?” “What is really preventing me from taking the path I most deeply desire?”