Larry Yang and the Practice of Intention by Beth Berila, Ph.D.

Larry Yang is well known for his work in Buddhism and social change, particularly with LGBT/ Queer communities and communities of color. In his article, “Buddhist Intention: Being Kind in Unkind Times,” from The Huffington Post, he responds to the continuous flow of violence against marginalized groups that pervades the news. He poses the question, "If the human heart is inherently gentle and kind -- how do we cope with a world that seems so harsh and mean?"

I wonder this often. In my Women's Studies courses, my students often swim in anger, frustration, and pain as we study the layers of oppression embedded in society. Together, we wonder how to feel these inevitable emotions without drowning.  Yang notes that “Sometimes it seems impossible not to match the harshness of the world with the same or greater level of the same harshness. Often, we default to an ancient unconscious conditioning.”  This conditioning, which results from deeply held ideologies, often shows up in our classrooms. 

But Yang offers us another alternative. He invites us, instead, to cultivate the practice of intention. Intention, he suggests, “refers to the stretching or extending of the heart and mind beyond what we think we are limited to do, into the potential of our highest aspirations as human beings.” 

Read Larry Yang’s insightful discussion of this tension here.

In their work The Transformative Power of Practice, Ng’ethe Maina & Staci Haines distinguish between default practices and intentional ones.  Default practices are automatic behaviors that we have learned and inherited. We often perform them without even thinking about them. These are the behaviors and institutional practices that produce oppression. 

Intentional practices are behaviors that we choose to adopt in order to transform both ourselves and the world. The more we do them, the more natural and habitual they become. When these intentional practices are determined by our higher values of what we want our world to become, they will help create that liberatory world. The point here is that we are not focused merely on the end result of ending oppression but are ALSO paving the way toward that goal by learning new ways of being in the world and relating to one another. 

The practice:

In many of our social justice courses, we address systematic and institutional violence that can overwhelm students and immobilize them. One way to counter this is to help students get clear about their intentions and practice aligning their actions with those intentions. This practice of intention helps them learn to create change that does not reproduce oppression but instead opens new, more liberatory possibilities. As feminism tells us, how we get there matters.  

1. Meditate to get clarity on our highest values. This practice of intention can start small: ask students to first meditate into their heart and get clear about what is important to them.

2. Journal to list and describe those values. After they have distilled some of their most important values, have them journal about the principles that they want to see in the world. They might comes up with values such as: 

  • Justice
  • Kindness
  • Recognizing each other’s Humanity
  • Compassion
  • Equality

Once they have a few values that they feel are integral to them, ask them to pick one value and describe what it would actually look like: what is it’s texture? It’s feeling? What would their community feel like/look like if that value were fully achieved? What happens when that value is not present? 

3. Name specific ways they can live those values in their daily lives. Have students come up with one or two ways in their everyday lives that they can practice the intention of this value. How can they move from this value, so that it is the wellspring that feeds their actions and their words?  Where are some places in their lives where they can strengthen this value?

4. Frame their day with a diffusion of those values (like a diffuser sends scents into the very air we breathe.) You might invite them to meditate on this value in the morning for a few minutes, so that it informs their outlook for the day. Then, at night before they go to bed, they can reflect/journal on whether they felt like they lived from that intention, particularly in the places in their lives that they had already highlighted.  If they did, what changes did they notice, in themselves, in the people with whom they interacted, in the situation?  If they didn’t why not?  How did they feel about acting out of alignment with their intentions?

5. Reflect and Discuss. After students have tried to put their intention into practice in their own lives for a week, reflect on their experiences as the class.  Discuss when they found it difficult to do so and what changed in their environment when they did.

6. Channel these intentions into activism. Then take it to the next level.  How can they practice with intention on a community level? How do they work toward social change while practicing with intention? Here is a good place to bring in the work of social change agents who have explicitly discussed that how we get there matters, such as Audre Lorde or Grace Lee Boggs.  This connection can help students explore the links between their everyday actions of living out their values with the intentional work of liberatory social change.