An Intentional Meditation
Why sharing attention matters.
No matter what our aims may be, no matter how spiritual... who can swear that his intentions are pure, even down to the subconscious depths of his will, where ancient selfish motives move comfortably like forgotten sea monsters in waters where they are never seen?
Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island
This sentiment has tortured me over the past couple of weeks. As I share my thinking out loud here, I must deal with knowing that my public words will not only be incomplete, they will contain things visible to you but not to me, intentions hidden in my subconscious that undermine my clarity, charity, and love. I hope to continue learning, growing, and responding in faithfulness to the truth.
So before we go any further in this space, I want to bring our attention to our intention; I suspect the two are already accomplices.
Many psychedelicists practice “setting an intention” before embarking on a journey as part of the preparation process. If you Google around, you can find several different opinions on what this might look like. But today I do not want to get into the specifics of what makes for good psychedelic intentions.
Instead, I want to zoom out and think about intentions a little more broadly, including for those who never wish to have a psychedelic experience. I want to make the fuzzy idea of “intention” clearer, but first I want to make it bigger and blurrier.
Today’s intentions are to discuss the following:
Attention—I want to get us thinking about intentions more broadly, but especially as a function of attention, using the example of a guitar.
Intentional Dilemmas—I want to explore some hard problems of our intentions, including idolatry as a crisis of intentionality.
The Log in My Eye—I want to experiment with taking ownership of my subconscious intentions out loud and introduce the idea of choosing roadkill.
Intentional Harm Reduction—I want to learn from Christian mystics about how we might make bad intentions better—including through being unintentional.
The Setting of our Intentions—I want to talk about the containers in which we share intentions and offer why I think liturgy is awesome.
What actually are intentions?
I don’t mean this in a mundane “plans and goals” way, or from a legal perspective. However, it is clear that intentions matter in the case of, say, murder versus manslaughter, and so we intrinsically know there is something vital about them.
As I’ve indicated, what really fascinates me is thinking about it in terms of attention. Because while intention seems future-oriented by nature, it seems that a conscious intention is only as actionable as the attention we bring to our past and our present.
For instance, I intend to go to Star Market tonight (future), but I can only have that intention because my mind has consciously thought about grocery stores and this particular one in Davis Square (past), and I can only act on that intention during a pivotal moment of conscious action in some Now (present).
It may seem obvious enough that attention is currency we spend to form and articulate a conscious intention. But that leaves unconscious intentions unaccounted for, which by definition is something that we have not spent attention on. If we do not have some kind of methodology for bringing conscious attention to our subconscious—whether through dreams, sacred texts, psychotherapy, or yes, psychedelics—these subconscious intentions will rule over us.
We will return to this subconscious problem later. But first I want us to think about intentions a little bigger: not only as a function of personal attention, but as a function of shared attention. In fact, what we might think of as purely individual attention is still “shared” attention between my brain cells (and that’s just if we’re materialists) to create something more than the sum of its parts. Focusing on my individual attention is just choosing my brain as the edit point, but attention is bigger than that. And intention is bigger than that, too.
When we expand our idea of intention as a function of shared attention, suddenly we see intentionality in everything social. Just a few:
A mission statement
A basketball play
An ant colony
Think of your own and find the intentionality.
Perhaps my favorite example to think about is a guitar. As conceived, all instruments were created out of natural materials in order to birth something supremely natural, yet somehow novel: music. Truly supernatural. And by bringing attention to principles of sound, principles of wood-working, and principles of animal intestines, humans created the rudimentary guitar. In doing so, this invention locked in accumulated attentional gains so that people like me could try to learn how to play a barre chord without opening up sheep guts. As more instruments were created, these accumulated attentional gains multiplied and allowed new intentions to arise, including playing music together. And then our attentions move on to expand our intentionality more until, I don’t know, we’re playing “Auld Lang Syne” in a flying hotdog.
This gets even more fun when we think about education as accumulating attention to fulfill intentions. In other words, when we are improving ourselves, we do not “pay” attention as much as we invest attention to actualize intention. For instance, we know someone who intends to be a carpenter cannot simply begin churning out chairs. No matter how good their idea or focus, they must first bring their attention to all the intermediate steps; once they have apprenticed enough to “be a carpenter,” they have invested so much attention in building skills that they can intend to make a chair and actually sit in it. And as their skills grow through more and more focus, their ideas/intentions become more and more complex.
So if I were to play with a new working definition of intention, I would say that conscious intention is a function of shared, accumulated attention.
(2) Intentional Dilemmas
This might mean that, the more we pay attention to our intentions, our intentions get inherently better, and as a result, human experience inherently gets better, yes?
Oh….no, dear reader.
The Best Can Be The Worst
As a Christian, I know too well that Christianity is nothing if not the embodiment of “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Some of the worst atrocities have been committed by Christians who brought practically unceasing attention to the highest possible intention they could conceive: to serve God by following Jesus Christ.
I imagine most people will be picturing conservative Christianity when they think of its horrors—fascism, war, persecutions, your garden variety atrocities of preserving tradition. Undoubtedly this is true, but progressive Christianity has plenty of blood on its hands, such as the fallout from the Social Gospel of the early 20th century. This was a movement largely led by political progressives who believed they could bring about the kingdom of God with the help of science (which sounds a little too spookily close to psychedelics). One of the beliefs bundled with this idea was a fervent belief in eugenics as part of implementing God’s will. I do not need to elaborate further on the terrible road that sent humanity on.
It seems that simply having heightened attention with heightened theoretical intentions does not inherently make for better outcomes, and therefore, all religious intentions must be questioned. It also seems that attention can be a force-multiplier of poor intentions.
So—intending to do the best possible thing and thinking a lot about it is not enough, and in fact, may make things worse.
Keeping in religious thought, it is fascinating to me to think about the concept of idolatry as an intentionality crisis.
Here I will define idolatry as “treating God as an object and treating an object as God.” Another definition of idolatry I like: worshipping the good at the expense of the Whole.
Have you ever wondered about the bronze serpent on a staff that you see everywhere in the medical world, including the flag of the World Health Organization?
Many know its origin from Greek mythology as the Rod of Asclepius. More curiously, the Book of Numbers also tells about the Nehushtan, a similar bronze serpent-on-a-stick erected by Moses, at God’s order, for the healing of the Israelites.
But that’s not what’s interesting to me—what’s fascinating is that hundreds to thousands of years later in the tradition, the reforming King Hezekiah tore down the Nehushtan as part of his anti-idolatry campaign. That’s right, according to the Bible, a righteous king tore down something that freakin’ Moses put up at God’s command—and according to the Bible, that was good.
He did what was right in the sight of the Lord just as his ancestor David had done. He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan.
I’m sure someone at the time asked, “Tearing down Nehushtan? Is nothing sacred?”
The point of this story is not that healing is a bad intention. It might be that healing is an incomplete intention, and that even the best of intentions with the most sacred of origin stories can still lead to disrepair.
Before we move on, it feels vaguely important to remember that idolatry is so common because practically everybody thinks they have good intentions. We would never set any intention if we did not, on some twisted logic level, think it was perfectly good. And as the saying goes, “We judge others by their actions and ourselves by our intentions.”
Okay, then: if our good intentions aren’t good enough (duh), what happens if we start judging our intentions with more scrutiny?
(3) The Log in My Eye
Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.
As I said at the start, one of the most challenging things I have been wrestling with is not only taking ownership of my faulty conscious intentions, but also taking radical ownership of my subconscious intentions.
So far I’ve avoided making this post personal, admirably so given my proclivity to talk about myself. But I feel a need to examine my own intentional processing out loud if this post is to be in earnest.
First—it is arguable that starting a Substack is inherently an act of grandiosity, saying, “My words are worth investing attention in.” Already, the writer’s motives are suspect, especially one that appears outwardly sane (not that I do).
Second—part of the reason intentions are on my mind is because I was wracking myself over my subconscious intentions in writing my last post about spiritual abuse. It was inspired by a genuine and intensely emotional epiphany about my failure; in particular, how I failed to notice something awful about spiritual abuse. I then labored over translating my grief into something digestible. I adjusted my words and tried to remove from it anything in my conscious attention that was impure.
But then a conversation with a friend sparked another crisis - what was my subconscious intention about exposing my subconscious intentions? Did I become performatively outraged to get attention? Was I trying to look down my nose and scold the psychedelic community? Was I just having the experience of feeling genuine but being disingenuous? Am I part of the problem? (For what it’s worth, he also had some nice things to say, and we wondered together about the subconscious intention of his reaction. This is far too meta.)
This is why Merton’s question at the start of this piece haunts me: with all my subconscious stuff, “who can swear that his intentions are pure?" To even realize that one has subconscious intentions can be arresting, terrifying, and paralyzing.
Despite my intense anxiety over my “true” intentions, I decided to post it because:
(a) My previous bias was towards saying nothing and staying out of all psychedelic hot-button issues.
(b) I suspected this previous bias was a subconscious intention to “go along to get along” and “blend into the crowd” for my own career advancement or to “not make psychedelics look bad,” and I wanted to thwart those subconscious intentions.
(c) I believed this would in some way be more useful towards advocacy for victims and survivors, more useful in being disturbing, more useful in entertaining hopelessness and naming disillusionment than my pretending it’s all fine and I’m all fine with it.
(d) Before I posted, I checked with friends who are stakeholders in abuse issues, and they had kind things to say and affirmed that nothing I said offended them (other opinions may differ).
(e) I could sleep easier with people thinking I care too much than thinking I do not care about these issues.
Nevertheless, it is a thick problem—how do we say anything about anything important without getting our shadow mixed up in it? And how do we take responsibility for subconscious intentions without leaving ourselves vulnerable to being gaslit by others projecting their subconscious intentions back onto us?
Whew. Lord. Okay.
My neurosis having been exhausted, all I am left with this: is there any way to guarantee our intentions are pure?
I don’t think so.
In lieu of purity, what can we do?
Choosing Our Roadkill
Both of my parents are Auburn graduates, so it gives me no pleasure to invoke the wisdom of Alabama college football coaching legend Nick Saban: “Sometimes there's a little roadkill from any decision you make.”
If we cannot purify our intentions, but we must make decisions, the question becomes, “What roadkill are you willing to live with?”
Far too often, institutions decide that abuse is “roadkill we can live with” for the sake of protecting the institutions. “It would only confuse people and cause concern for the sanctity of the work,” the thought process likely goes.
What might be better roadkill to live with?
I’m going to be as honest here as I’ve been with a few of my activist friends—being in an activist academic bubble, the past few years have been challenging for someone who leans more contemplative. And I will confess I have uttered the phrases “virtue signaling” and “performative outrage” before.
But what I’m discovering is that all writing, all speaking, all doing has roadkill. We can’t say everything, we have to land somewhere, and our intentions aren’t gonna be pure, and if there must be egoic error made, is it not better to make the error towards caring? And so while I would not call myself “woke,” I owe activists an apology, because I have a deeper, felt admiration for anyone who decides that hurting feelings of comfortable people is roadkill they can live with.
What feels alive for me today is this: the roadkill I can live with is that some might find me performative. The roadkill I can live with is ruffling feathers. The roadkill I don’t want to live with is saying nothing, staying quiet, feeding my subconscious intention to “go along to get along.”
Nevertheless, all these things considered, my intent still, and always, has the capacity for great harm—as covered earlier and universally observed.
So my intentions need some kind of harm reduction approach.
(4) Intentional Harm Reduction
When I think about how to mitigate my bad ideas, I find myself turning to Christian mystics. They feel more trustworthy. While Christianity has been the aesthetic of empire, violence, and war, at least these wars have never been waged by its monastics (correct me if I’m wrong, scholars, if there were ever berzerker monks).
There are two things I have learned from them that I think can help us: the idea of right and simple intentions, with a little intentional unintentionality.
Johannes Tauler and Pure Intentions
While reading Merton’s No Man Is An Island, I came across the meditations of Johannes Tauler, a Dominican mystic and a student of Meister Eckhart. Here are some excerpts from his sermons:
Become a fertile ground for the divine birth. Cherish this deep silence within, nourish it frequently frequently.
In the process of cherishing our inner silence, we notice and empty the things that are merely us, including emptying ourselves of our intentions:
There must be nothing left in us
but a pure intention towards God;
no will to be or become or obtain anything for ourselves.
We must exist only to make a place for God,
the highest innermost place,
where He may do His work;
there, when we are no longer putting ourselves in His way,
He can he born in us.
Tauler does not say that one must live a silent monastic life, most plainly in the fact that, well, he literally said these words out loud.
To illuminate, Tauler delineated between two types of pure intentions: right intentions and simple intentions. Merton helps explain the difference as the dialectic of action and contemplation:
[With right intention,] our intention is directed chiefly upon the work to be done. When the work is done, we rest in its accomplishment, and hope for a reward from God. But when we have a simple intention, we are less occupied with the thing to be done. We do all that we do not only for God but so to speak in Him.1
Elsewhere, Merton describes contemplation and simple intention as the “spring” that connects us to the Source, while action and right intention is the “stream” that flows from the spring, directed towards particular ends. Explaining further:
The man of right intentions makes a juridical offering of his work to God and then plunges himself into the work, hoping for the best. For all his right intention he may well become completely dizzy in a maze of practical details…when this happens, we have to pull ourselves out, leave the work aside, and try to recover our balance and our right intention in an interval of prayer.
The man of simple intention, because he is essentially a contemplative, works always in an atmosphere of prayer…He is detached from his work and from its results. Only a man who works purely for God can at the same time do a very good job and leave the results of the job to God alone.2
We might think of it even more basically: a simple intention is to dwell in God and do God’s will. A right intention is how we want to do God’s will. It might be the difference between a director of a homeless shelter and the person who simply walks down Mass and Cass in Boston to be with unhoused people and see what arises.
Most of us in the spiritual life are more comfortable in one or the other, and part of our growth is learning to modulate between these two intentions. The order of operations, it seems to be, is to continuously reinvigorate our right intentional acts with our simple intentional acts of communion with God.
I would also say that right intentions, as “right” as they may be, are also quite dynamic and thus more prone to becoming wrong when uninformed by simple intentions. Our earlier discussion of the Nehushtan is one example of such a right intention that got away from the simple. Perhaps this is why so many Christians can be so convicted that they are doing God’s will and be so haplessly mistaken.
Simple Intention as Unintention
The other way we might use mysticism to reduce the harm of our intentions is by thinking of simple intention as a kind of kenotic intention—that is, intention that empties itself of intention. This is plain enough when we think about mindfulness meditation, contemplative prayer, or even the act of confession as purging old intentions that were clearly not God’s.
But this is not bound to contemplative practices and confession. I find in worship settings of all kinds, including in Ayahuasca ceremonies, there is a sweet spot within the structure that intentionally protects the sanctity of God working beyond our intentions. We might call this “making space for the unintended,” or “leaving room for the Holy Spirit.”
The necessity of this becomes more obvious when reflecting on the hyper-efficient technological society we live in. To rebel against this, we can experiment with being inefficient as a form of sacred practice; arguably, this is what the whole practice of the Sabbath is, inconveniencing our intentions. And perhaps this is what Simone Weil meant by describing the sanctity of attention as waiting.
While we can begin with our own individual practice, I believe these intentional harm reduction approaches are very difficult to accomplish by ourselves. Bringing back in the idea of intention as shared, accumulated attention, I believe if we want our intentions to be purer, if never entirely pure, we must find others not only with shared intentions, but shared intention frameworks.
(5) The Setting of Our Intentions
By “shared intention frameworks,” I mean when we are making, or “setting” right intentions, it matters a great deal that we find the right setting of our intention. As in, the setting. The context. The home in which our intentions live, grow, make mistakes, and learn. The place where we gather our shared attention together so that we can accumulate it, but also adopt a praxis for intention-adjustment.
If it is not obvious by now, for me there is no better shared intention framework than religious practice. In my case, Christianity, specifically my Presbyterian frame, and hyper-specifically, my home congregation.
Because when we worship and pray, we leave behind our intentions by handing our attention over to God. And when we also pray with and for each other, lifting up joys, concerns, and all other celebrations and mournings, displacing our attention away from ourselves, we find our intentions shift, becoming shaped by something beyond ourselves. “Be Thou My Vision,” says the famous hymn—take my attention, O God, let Your attention be my attention, and let that be my path to open up into Your intention; Your will.
The “setting of our intentions” is even more influential when it is cast in a larger theological mold. The stories of the Bible do not give me normative modern moral positions as much as they guide me to a closer examination of my intentions. I see how Jesus takes the intention of James and John to have power and alchemizes it into service. I see how the intention in building the Tower of Babel to achieve divinity is pure hubris. I see how intentions become “sinful” not by the letter of the Law in and of itself, but by keeping us trapped in a subject/object paradigm with ourselves as the ultimate subject.
Liturgy—how we order worship services, or ceremonial structure—used to be such a dry subject to me, but it comes alive when I think about it as the fullest expression of our intentions. For liturgy is where spiritual potentiality meets our intentionality to become actuality, an embodied shared experience, the movement from mind to material. We lose some freedom, but we gain a new freedom. We lose some authenticity, but we gain a new authenticity. And because perfectionism can become a liturgical disease, where our subconscious intentions turn into attachments and become terrible obsessions, we always leave some room for the Holy Spirit. That is where all the true magic of worship dwells.
To Sum It All Up
Psalm 139, a Psalm of David:
Amen. To recap my musings:
Our intentions are a product of our attention.
But there are many problems with intention that are not solved by adding attention.
We cannot avoid our subconscious intentions, but we can try to choose our decisional roadkill.
Christian mystics teach balancing actionable intentions with simple intention and being a little intentionally unintentional.
If I want my intentions to be closer to God’s, I must find others to share attention with.
Finally, I am finding there is so much ego attached to my writing, even more than my preaching, that no matter how I try to purify my intentions, there is always a little bit too much of my false selves getting in here. I don't know how anyone stays sane who writes publicly. I deeply suspect the outwardly sane and stable writer.
Every day, God lets me rent this body, these privileges, this attention, this intention. And the joy is, truly, when I can hand them back over and watch how God wants to work through them. Because God’s intentions are always better than mine.
Coda: My Intentions for Indwelling
In case you are interested, here are my intentions for this newsletter:
My intention is to serve God for the greatest good in Creation, sharing the love of Christ, guided by Jesus, with angels in the details.
My intention is to surrender into union with the will of God, and thus, to be on vigilant guard for my will sneaking its way back into my actions.
My intention is to recognize and confess where I have fallen short of this.
My intention is to be fascinated to learn new things, to share what I’m learning, and to be humble about what I don’t know.
My intention is to make this a conversation and be curious about your opinion - what resonated? What didn’t? What don’t I know that you know? Did I step out of line?
My intention is to explore and discern issues with head and heart, but my intention is to let the tie go to my heart.
My intention is to articulate why I think religious freedom matters, not only for asserting our freedoms, but for flourishing in a shared life of faith together.
My intention is to get my falsehoods to act in concert under the direction of the Spirit, to help them see less dimly, to learn to trust what is beyond their control.
My intention will never be to harm, but my intentions are not an excuse for harm.
My intention is to share what I'm feeling in a way that gives respect for the communities I have been a part of in all their plurality and nuance.
My intention is to be suspicious of convenience.
My intention is not to judge anyone other than my old and current false selves. If my false selves make yours feel implicated, I am sorry, but this is roadkill I can live with.
My intention is to discover which is my part of the Body of Christ and to be that thing.
Finally, my intention is to serve God with my words or shut up.
What resonated? What didn’t? What don’t I know that you know? Did I step out of line?
What are your intentions? What is your “intentional setting”?
Merton, No Man Is An Island, p.71