How to Practice Wise Intention

Regularly remind yourself of your intentions, advises Sylvia Boorstein. It’s the key to keeping your life on target.

Sylvia Boorstein
1 January 2022
Illustrations by Carole Hénaff.

Wise intention is one of the steps of the Buddha’s eightfold path, and it might be the most important one. Wise intention is what keeps our lives heading in the right direction. If I want to drive north, I need to keep checking that the sun is setting on my left to be sure I’m heading in the right direction. The practice of wise intention is like checking the sun. It’s a way to make sure our actions and our lives are going in the direction we want.

Wise intention is the cornerstone of wise effort, that is, effort that is wholesome and positive. The instructions for wise effort call for us to continually evaluate our actions and choose those that lead to less suffering and eschew those that lead to more suffering. This is easily determined by checking if the action is being fueled by wholesome or unwholesome intentions. So clarity about our intentions needs to be present to inform wise effort. There are ways to practice wise intention for ourselves, our loved ones, and all beings.

A cartoon drawing of a group of people of various ages and ethnicities.

1. Wise Intention for All Beings

I taught at Spirit Rock Insight Meditation Center on September 12, 2001, the day after the destruction of the World Trade Center. People talked about their connections to people who had been in the buildings. Others spoke about when they’d heard the news and how they’d felt at that moment. The atmosphere was calm and sober, and I suggested that we recite these Buddhist precepts, which express our intentions as practitioners:

I undertake the precept to abstain from harming living beings.
I undertake the precept to abstain from taking that which is not freely given.
I undertake the precept to speak without being abusive or exploitive.
I undertake the precept to abstain from sexuality that is exploitive or abusive.
I undertake the precept to refrain from intoxicating my mind into heedless behavior.

The experience of affirming together our dedication to wise and kind behavior was like a soothing balm to our frightened minds. It seemed to restore some faith and confidence in the future to be surrounded by people who trust the Buddha’s teaching that “Hatred is never ended by hatred. By non-hatred is hatred ended. This is the eternal law.”

Cartoon of a couple getting married. They are holding hands and saying their vows.

2. Wise Intention for Loved Ones

My friends Dwayne and Sara expressed their wedding vows this way—their own version of the Buddhist precepts:

Because I love you, I promise never to harm you.
Because I love you, I promise to never take anything you don’t want to give me.
Because I love you, I’ll speak only truthfully and kindly to you.
Because I love you, I’ll treat your body with love.
Because I love you, I will keep my mind free from confusion so that I act only out of wisdom.

Dwayne and Sara are now into the second decade of their marriage, and they continue to say these vows to each other every morning. Reaffirming their intentions for how they will be together primes their minds to catch a thoughtless word or action in advance of it manifesting. They are very happy.

Cartoon of woman looking into a mirror.

3. Wise Intention for Self

In a sermon the Buddha preached for his son, Rahula, he called for considering before, during, and after every action whether it was potentially abusive or exploitive or genuinely rooted in kind intent. Sufficient clarity of mind—through wise mindfulness and concentration—is required to discern negative intent, and sufficient wise effort is required to exercise self-restraint. Through wise understanding we deeply intuit the legacy of losses that we share with other livings beings, and through wise intention we find an ever-growing resolve to respond to all life with compassion.

Here is a set of personal intentions based on traditional Buddhist precepts. Some people I know have them taped to their bathroom mirror and say them aloud each morning:

On behalf of myself and all beings,
I intend to refrain from consciously hurting anyone.
I intend to refrain from overtly or covertly taking what is not mine.
I intend to be sure that my speech is kind as well as true.
I intend to refrain from addictive behaviors that confuse my mind and lead to heedlessness.

My own experience is that saying specific vows evokes an awareness of ways in which I may have broken them. I leave time between each vow for my mind to do a moral inventory. I find that in the context of a relaxed mind, these discoveries feel like gentle reprimands, and I make a list of amends I want to make.

Recite your intentions every morning and they will guide your day. You and everyone you encounter will benefit.

photo of Sylvia Boorstein

Sylvia Boorstein

Sylvia Boorstein is a psychologist and leading teacher of Insight Meditation. Her many best-selling books include Pay Attention, for Goodness’ Sake and Happiness Is An Inside Job.