The following discussion of practice is excerpted from Question–Answer sessions with Jack Kornfield at the 1985 Yucca Valley Course in California.
Question: Why do you suggest that we make mental notes of intentions?
Answer: There are many reasons. The first is that it refines the awareness. Otherwise you do an action and note it halfway through. You are noticing reaching when you already have your hand on the door knob. If you note “intending to reach,” then you’re present for the whole movement; you’re really there for each thing you do. So noting intentions sets the stage for being mindful for each activity.
A second reason is that noting intentions begins to tune you into the relationship between mind and body. A certain mental command happens—a volition—and then following that there is a physical action. This may not be so apparent to you. You may just have a sense you’re about to do something, but once in a while, when your mind is quiet, you’ll be able to see clearly that moment of intention. Some people hardly ever see it; it doesn’t matter. What is important is that noting intentions begins to clue you in that body and mind, mind and body, are the two main elements of our experience, and they interact, cause and effect, back and forth. You begin to see the play back and forth of the physical and mental elements and the impersonal. nature of the process. Noting intentions may start to reveal that aspect of the dharma.
There’s a third reason: noting intentions can be crucial in allowing you to change your actions in your life. Suppose you have a habit you’d like to change. You can’t change anything until you are aware enough to notice the intention to do it. Suppose you decide to stop smoking, and you are only aware when you are halfway through the cigarette. If you’re only aware when you’re halfway through the cigarette, you’ll never stop. You have to notice the intention to reach for the cigarette, or the first gesture in any habitual behavior, to stop it. To become aware enough that you can notice the intention begins to give you a choice, whether you act on it or not.
Question: Why aren’t there more teachings about love and opening in the Theravada Buddhist tradition?
Answer: I think it’s true that the Theravada Buddhist tradition tends to focus initially more on mind and less on heart than, for example, the Tibetan system where the bodhicitta, or universal compassion, is a really big foundation in practice. Zen, too, tends to focus much more on mind and less on heart, even though it is purportedly Mahayana.
I don’t know why it is that different traditions develop the way they do, but one can see that Theravada Buddhism has been preserved in Asian cultures which do not put primary emphasis on emotional life. In addition, it has been preserved in male-dominated monasteries, as sutra and as a practice in which the feminine, the receptive, is not stressed as much as the masculine teachings of mind.
What is more important to me than the historical and cultural reasons for this emphasis is the way it is expressed in practice. Through observing people over many years I have noticed a difference between the ways that Westerners and Asians practice. Although Asian meditators have their own dukkha and problems, as many as we have, the qualities of self-hatred and of judgment—of condemnation of oneself—that are so frequent here don’t seem to be so common there.
And so it has seemed to me as I’ve been teaching over the years, and in my own practice as well, that even though the power of vipassana is to begin to see and take apart the boundaries and the sense of solidity—to go to a place where a much more fundamental experience of reality is possible for consciousness—to do so for most of us requires bringing a kindness or softness, an opening of heart, a loving quality to practice.
My sense is that it’s possible to be aware in a way which is dry and judgmental, and also possible to be aware in a way that has more of a quality of gentleness or tenderness to it. One of the teachers I studied with used to talk about practicing with what he called Jai Pongsai, which means a “heart of lightness—a kind of delighting, rather than a determination that is grim or grasping. In interviews and talks it is this heart quality that I am encouraging. In fact the word in Pali for heart and mind is the same word, and when practice deepens the two come together.