The Impulses that Move Us

As mindfulness becomes steadier, we can begin to see the impulses that move and motivate us: mental urges to take action. Every action of body, speech, or mind is preceded by a such an impulse, which is subtle, yet can be noticed. We can know we’re going to move before we move. We can know we’re going to speak before we speak. We can even know we’re going to think before we think. 

We sometimes call this impulse an intention; yet this intention is not necessarily a conscious choice. It may be connected to a conscious choice in the moment but it also might simply be conditioned with no connection to a conscious thought. For example, we might sit for a while and thirst arises, conditioning the desire to relieve thirst, conditioning the intention get up and get some water. In this process a conscious choice to get up might have happened, or it might not!  Sometimes we can see that intentions simply arise; it’s just a process unfolding. As mindfulness becomes more steady and more simple, we can see this conditioned process. 

In meditation, intention may be easiest to see in relation to body movements like lifting a hand or straightening the spine. Before the movement happens, it’s possible to recognize a subtle impulse: you know you’re going to move before you move. Sometimes we can also see an intention connected to not moving: an intention to keep our eyes closed or hold our bodies still.  The impulse is a subtle aspect of mind that can be noticed, yet often it is not something to try to see: in fact, trying to see it might get in the way of the seeing!  

Intentions don’t arise randomly. They are conditioned, and they arise with a motivation: a reason we want to act. Sometimes a motivation can be based in greed, aversion, or delusion. How many times do we move with complete unawareness, delusion perhaps participating in the motivation? How many times do we move out of aversion, wanting to get away from an unpleasant experience? How many times do we move out of greed, wanting to have a pleasant experience? Wholesome mind states can also motivate action: wisdom motivates, love motivates, compassion motivates. 

When we become aware of an intention to act before we act, sometimes we also become aware of the motivation accompanying the intention.  If the motivation is based in greed, aversion or delusion, the awareness of it might allow us to simply witness the reactive motivation: open to it, relax, observe, allow, and learn about that motivation, without actually following through on it, simply watching it arise and pass. The mind observes this arising and passing and learns from it, which in turn strengthens intentions for mindfulness and wisdom.

Intention and motivation are intertwined with the cause and effect cycle of our experience, shaping our experience in each moment. We often strongly identify with intention. It feels like, “I am the one choosing, I am the one deciding, I am the one acting.” As we become aware of the arising of an intention and the arising of the motivation accompanying the intention, we can begin to understand these choices are not-self, because we can see that no one decided for an intention to arise, it simply arose based on causes and conditions. 

As awareness becomes steadier, it can become possible to notice intention and motivation, but it’s not necessarily something to try to notice. Just continue practicing with a relaxed, allowing awareness, which can naturally begin to notice subtler experience such as intention.