The Shiatsu teacher drew a big circle in the middle of the eraser board and filled it with the words, “Energy follows intention.” I was beginning my training as a massage therapist. In the next ten months, I would study and practice many modalities of massage. Each modality, I learned, had different intentions, and so would produce different results. One type of massage might be especially beneficial for rehabilitating a specific injury, while another would aim at balancing a client’s chi, or vital energy. Deep Tissue massage might be best for releasing toxins from the body, and Swedish massage is often a good choice for general relaxation. To prepare an athlete for an event, however, it’s best to use techniques that aim to stimulate and invigorate her. When the intention changes, the result follows.
The importance of recognizing that energy follows intention has been demonstrated to me in many areas of life, not only in the context of massage. It seems an especially important principle in the context of spiritual work.
Many great teachers have stressed the importance of intention. For example, Gurdjieff frequently discussed intentionality; the second step on the Buddha’s eightfold path is “Right purpose,” or intention; and the importance of a person’s motive is one of the most commonly overlooked teachings of Jesus. Jesus often used the Pharisees (spiritual elitists) as examples of people whose intentions prevented them from entering The Kingdom of Heaven. I take that to mean that their aspirations were leading them away from, rather than toward the realization of wisdom and compassion. For the Pharisees, the truth was obscured by the glare of their self-righteousness, and they used spiritual practices such as fasting and tithing to solidify their egos and to reinforce the illusion of separateness and superiority (see Luke 18: 10-14).
Intentions affect a person’s spiritual journey whether he/she is a beginner or has been a practitioner for years. In the early stages of the work, it can be crucial to be as honest as possible about one’s motives and expectations. That’s because fears tend to create self-fulfilling prophesies, and people usually find whatever they’re looking for or expecting to find.
One example might be a seeker who will settle for nothing less than the perfect teacher with nearly perfect disciples. He will be sure to find faults with everyone, some real, some imagined, but his strong intention to criticize might stop him from having experiences and impressions that could really help him. Another seeker might fall in love with the idea of associating with someone who has special powers, who she imagines will teach her the same impressive magic tricks. The seeker’s aspiration for power might be setting her up to be taken in by the special-effects artistry of a charismatic con artist. The same person might also be unable to appreciate the less flashy appearance of a real teacher, and the truly useful “miracles” that he or she could teach, such as the ability to distinguish between essence needs and egocentric desires.
Most of us have heard or read the stories of seekers who’ve been disappointed and exploited by false prophets and fallen gurus. Some apparently had very strong intentions to get the help they needed, so they survived their disappointments, learned from their mistakes, and learned to make better choices. Many eventually found an appropriate path and guide who could show them how to discern and follow their inner guidance. Others became cynical and either gave up or convinced themselves that they had already attained, and need not bother to strive further. I don’t blame such people for being afraid of being hurt again. I don’t know which fork in the road I would have taken if I had had such a painful experience, because I was lucky enough to hit the nail on the head the first time…or was it just luck?
I’ll just say that I was lucky enough to have gotten some wise counsel from my reading about how to find and approach a school. Probably the most valuable suggestions I got were from books on the Fourth Way. One of the authors recommended that one sit in a familiar room observing all the sights, sounds, and sensations available in that environment. One should take great interest in the things observed, while simultaneously releasing the mental habit of judging, labeling, categorizing, or thinking about phenomena. Another writer suggested that it might be especially useful to pay attention in this way while listening to a talk by a spiritual teacher, or when visiting a school. Another recommendation stressed that a useful technique to avoid being completely swept away by thoughts and reactions was to be present in the body. To notice one’s breathing or the sensations in one’s hands and feet as often as possible could ground a person enough to give them greater clarity of perception.
When I first attended a talk given by Robert Ennis, I went with the intention to use the suggestions I’d read about. I suspect that it helped me to make the right decision. While I wasn’t practiced at observing phenomena in the ways I’d read about, and I often forgot to place attention in my body, my intention to be present was enough, I believe in retrospect, to make a crucial difference. I have a hunch that it saved me both time and grief.
As some Sufi teaching stories illustrate, things that at first appear to be identical can be seen, upon closer examination, to be very different. Differing intentions can enable distinctions to be made between superficially similar people. An example of this can be seen in the free Co-Meditation practice that I and others have conducted over the last few years with passersby at the Sonoma County Health and Harmony Fair. From conversations with participants who had never practiced Co-Meditation before, I gathered that for some participants, Co-Meditation resembled other practices that involved maintaining eye contact, e.g., flirting or staring-not-blinking contests. Others confused Co-Meditation with attempts to discern particular information about others, e.g., the aura, energy vibrations, or the nature of their dysfunctional habits. Co-Meditation has also been confused with other words that begin with the prefix “co” as in co-therapy or co-dependency. What makes Co-Meditation different from these other practices is the intention behind it. While these other practices superficially resemble Co-Meditation, the directions they take people differ profoundly from the ultimate direction that Co-Meditation leads toward. Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with these other practices just because they differ from Co-Meditation. But these distinctions illustrate that, just as in massage therapy, energy follows intention.
Right intention or aspiration continues to direct spiritual energy throughout the journey. Tayu Self-Observation practice has been an invaluable tool for discovering my motives and expectations, so that I could become less driven by hidden agendas. I am also less prone to mechanically recreate fear-based self-fulfilling prophesies in the context of spiritual work. Revealing and purifying my intentions has, little by little, enabled me to change my habits.
It is important to stress the “slow but sure” aspect of the practice of purifying motives. The Buddhist nun Pema Chodron has pointed out that, if you wait to have absolutely pure intentions before acting, you’ll never do anything or go anywhere. A particularly rich opportunity that I’ve had to confirm her assertion arose through my facilitation of a weekly Tayu meditation/study group. Within the course of a few minutes while conducting the meeting, it has not been uncommon to observe my intentions shift dramatically, from honest and compassionate ones to more much more selfish motives and agendas. Then, as if turning a kaleidoscope, I could see the patterns of my intentions fluctuate again and again, finally returning to honesty and compassion. Often I was confused because I saw mixed motives associated with an action – a generous intention coupled with a selfish one. If I were to wait to conduct group meetings until I could guarantee that my motives would be flawless, I’d never have the opportunity that such practice offers. I saw that I needed to take Robert’s advice to be gentle with myself, to observe, to take risks, to make mistakes, and thus to learn.
In conclusion, I’ll finish with one last mention of massage. At our Health and Harmony Fair booth we’ve displayed two signs, one reading ”Free Eye Contact” followed by “Ego massage – $10.” So far, no one has been willing to admit that the desire for an ego massage was their real reason for stopping, so we couldn’t collect the ten dollars or give them a massage. Too bad – I’m certified as a massage therapist!