On Clearing Our Intentions by Larry Smith
Though I’ve been teaching and writing for over 40 years now, only during the last two have I come to see that the chief thing we give in our writing—our teaching (work)—our living—is our intention. It is the ‘gift’ we have and make, what we must share for it to become real. As in any giving, the motive should be clear and authentic, for it is integral with who we are as persons as well as writers and artists. Others read it in us, or sense it behind our acts, and, as in body language, we are always transmitting. Our task and our goal then must be to get clear with our intention, and we do this by centering, listening deeply, and becoming one with it. It sounds so simple, yet it can take a lifetime to realize.
As a seasoned teacher and lifelong learner, I’ve watched the process in the classroom. I’ve taken notes on information, followed concepts spread before me by speakers, and even outlined their thoughts. But to learn from them, I’ve had to accept their intention. If they have been mixed or uncertain about this, so have I, and I find myself blocked from any real learning. We can sense this as well from reading a book or listening to an audio book. There are just some teachers/writers we cannot learn from because their ego gets in the way, their focus is splintered, or their purpose is too deliberate and strong. Un-centered, they have corrupted the concept of intention and become ‘intent’ on transforming us. All parents face this dilemma and know well the difficult art of persuasion. Writers and teachers do as well. Where I used to lecture and drill, I now confess to my students, ‘How can I teach you if I will not learn from you?’ but it has been a hard lesson to learn. A favorite Zen story is of the Zen master who hands his grinning student a cup then pours tea into and over its edge. When the student looks up in puzzlement, the teacher says, “How can I teach you when your cup is already full?” It strikes me that the student might ask me, “How can I learn when you are overfilling my cup?”
Now, I know that this response to others is an individual thing, our sensors are unique and varied in development, but the validity of our personal response to learning is no less real. As a teacher I’ve felt myself at times go sour as I’ve attempted to ‘cover’ material in a rush to ‘get over’ the lessons, or perhaps I’ve repeated it for the third time that day and felt the words and their meaning separate. Quite simply, I’m not ‘there’ in them. The same can be true for our cooking, our parenting, our conversing, our love making, our writing. Are we being present in these acts? How do I help myself to become so?
In the world of literature and writing we can witness intention in action. Emily Dickinson describes her intentions for the readers by declaring
This is my letter to the world,
That never wrote to me,--
The simple news that Nature told,
With tender majesty.
Walt Whitman declares himself again and again in “Song of Myself”:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you
. . . I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.
Both give us a place within their world and their intention. Perhaps the most thoughtful and direct statement of intention comes in Henry David Thoreau’s opening to Walden, where he clarifies his stance, “I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew so well,” and adds his vision, “Moreover, I, on my side, require of every writer, first and last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men’s lives…” It remains refreshing to read his famed declaration of intent for his life and work: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms . . . to know it by experience, and be able to make a true account of it in my next excursion” Certainly each of these writers put a much time into understanding their own intentions, Emily in her garden and homestead, Whitman on the streets of Manhattan or the beaches of Long Island, Thoreau at home in his woods and town, and they provide us with models of knowing oneself and one’s purpose in the world.
In his “Ars Poetica” poem, Archibald MacLeish advises us that “A poem should not mean/ but be,” reminding him and us of the importance of our silent intention. In the study of literature, so often our ‘translations’ of a poem into words for others misses its magic, as all translators know intimately. Taoists and Buddhists recognize this immediately—the value of silence—in their directive that the truth lies beyond words or scripture. Truth must be felt or read in the smallest of life gestures, and to sense it we must be present. We find this presence in a nod, a touch with the eyes, a mindful gesture as in the Japanese tea ceremony where tea is served slowly and directly into the hands and sweetened with quiet intention. “Form is exactly emptiness. Emptiness is exactly form.” This is the essence of it, as seen in the brief three lined haiku poem that means what it is. “Leaves falling/ Lie one on another./ The rain beats on the rain.” Any attempt to explain a haiku seems futile, and abstractions only deflate its essence. Gochiku captures it in: “The long night./ The sound of the water/ Says what I think.” What the writing gives is its sense of being present and empathetic to the world, its core intention. Alan Watts suggests of the haiku, and of all human communication, that “haiku poetry excels in one of the rarest of the artistic virtues, the virtue of knowing when to stop; of knowing when enough has been said” (“Haiku” in The World of Zen 121). If we can get out of the way, our presence and our intent will come across quiet and clear. To do this we must be able to slow down and listen.
I’d like to go back to how I came to realize some of this in recent years. At the beginning of 2003 I made a choice to start a new life by retiring from my fulltime job as a college English teacher. I stepped out of what others saw as my ‘intended’ role and into the emptiness of what I might yet become. It wasn’t easy. It literally took me months to clear out my college office—sweating from hauling boxes of books and exhausted from going through files deciding what I might still need. I was breaking my identity with my career, and it proved both painful and freeing, standing naked as who I am without really knowing. Others kept asking, “So what are you going to do now?” And I kept replying, “I’m waiting to see what emerges.” For 12 weeks I took a “Life Course” in doing hospice work, followed by months of doing respite care for those facing death. It deepened my perspective on what life really is, much as my facing my own cancer had done some years before. In truth I would wrestle with myself each time I would drive out to the dementia ward, and each time I would find myself in the act of lifting a fork to feed another, of listening to their life repeated as I too repeated each time who I was and why I was there. As they say in hospice care, “You get much more than you give.”
Related to this, I took training in both Therapeutic Touch and Reiki therapy. In both of these gentle healing modes the ‘treatment’ occurs in silence and begins with the therapist centering him or herself. Never before had I been trained in intention—not in my writing nor my teaching career. Lesson plans just don’t get at that really. It seems this was ignored or to be picked up—learned the hard way. In Therapeutic Touch, the guiding of human energy as healing, founder Dolores Krieger begins with motives, in asking, “Why do I want to be a healer?” and moves immediately into the need for centering. To be present for this act and this other person one must be truly mindful and bring attention and intention together. “It is as if you are using both hemispheres of the brain simultaneously, finely integrating the information in real time. So that you may be fully present in the compassionate intent of healing or helping” (Therapeutic Touch: Inner Workbook 19).
I had experienced this first hand while watching my wife Ann and her colleagues work with the energies of others at a retreat at Pumpkin Hollow in the Berkshire Mountains of New York. Working in pairs they would come together in silence with the patient, touch hands, then performed together their slow and beautiful dance of helping others heal themselves. Compassion begins with empathy, and empathy with listening, that quiet attention to another. When I returned home, Ann trained me in this and in Reiki practice, and I began giving it to family and friends, including those dying in my hospice care. The greatest lesson was in centering—in quieting the self into an attentive listening with the body and mind. Beyond the Zen meditation I had practiced for years—where the mindful listening was to the self—here the listening was to and through others—a wordless and compassionate giving over to communication. Intuition had to be trusted, and I came to see how it only worked when the intention was open and clear. I know it has affected my teaching and my writing as well as my living. If you’re teaching, it comes down to this: Take a quiet moment before, during, or after a class to be still and to listen to: your breathing, your feelings, these others, your joined intent.
I found myself listening as I never had before—sitting with four dementia patients in a dining room, I no longer felt the need to fill the air with talk. I fed. I waited. I smiled. I touched. I went on to volunteer work with children in the courts and learned to listen to circumstances and wounded families. I still teach a course each semester as a part of who I am—but I move through not over the material and into students’ lives as part of the total course. My wife, who once struggled with my retirement, told me this week, “I like you retired.” I do too.
As to my writing—I am writing less and more, perhaps better. Poems that threatened to go longer, now go shorter—more concise and concrete. My motives for writing have changed—less ego, less exterior, more presence—more being there with others. And one hopes clearer in intention.
Causes Larry Smith Supports
peace and justice, meditation