By Devon Battaglia
One of the most great and terrible things about human life is its variety.
It’s great because we can make of it just about anything we can imagine. It’s terrible because nobody can tell us just how to do it; we’ve got to figure it out for ourselves. What we want to do is totally up to us, but there is an infinite spectrum of ways to screw something up, and plenty of ways to do something that’s just okay. There are typically only a few ways of doing something right, and the one element that is always included in doing something the right way, and that is intention.
To be fully human requires intention, and being intentional requires values and mindfulness.
Values are so incredibly important and yet so rarely understood. If you’ve ever decided that you liked or disliked something but couldn’t say why, then at that moment you were expressing a value of which you weren’t even aware. Each of us has more values than we’re aware of, and some aren’t even ours, but were handed down to us. This often results in feelings or decisions we can’t understand, and this lack of understanding prevents us from acting with clear intentions. Feeling adrift in a sea of impulsiveness, tossed about by every whim, is more akin to being an animal than being a fully embodied and intentional human.
In order to learn more about your own values, I offer this thought experiment. Consider a moral subject, the more complex the better: homosexuality, assisted suicide, prostitution, illegal immigration, abortion, gun control. Think of something in which you have strong opinions and feelings? Some people are for or against each of these issues, so try to figure out where you fall on the spectrum of pro versus con. Think about how this subject makes you feel. Now here’s the real question: why do you feel that way?
If we say, “I’m against it because it’s wrong!” then we are not being clear about our values. Why is it wrong or why is it right? If we are moved to action when we hear of a great injustice, then it must be because we have justice as a value. If we make donations to charitable causes, it’s because a cause effects something that we value. Everything we do—for or against anything else—is an expression of our values if, and only if, we are living intentionally and mindfully.
So, what happens when our actions do not reflect our values?
This can happen when a little impulse comes along, usually some sort of indulgent vice. Perhaps it involves food, sex, or drugs, or perhaps something as simple as laziness or over-spending. I’m sure you can think of some point in your life where you may have struggled with at least one of these (if you’re like me, you’ve struggled with all of them). There was one point in my life where those things would have sounded like a checklist for a fun weekend (ah, to be young). If I were to list my values at that time, would I have said that I valued good health or being alive? Would I have said that I valued trust or that I valued my family? I may have.
Just because my actions said otherwise does not mean that I lacked a sense of values, I just didn’t appreciate the importance of values, the value of values, and the consequences of ignoring them.
We have to be aware of our actions and their potential outcomes with respect to our values. For example, let’s say I have some impulse, something simple like spending money. I can weigh the value of this impulsive purchase with it’s outcomes, like how I would feel if my partner thought I couldn’t be trusted with a credit card. I value trust very highly. I value love and respect and the sanctity of our relationship. Suddenly I can see how that action—making an impulsive purchase—is actually not in-line with my higher values, and now I can make the right decision for me.
Unfortunately, we do not carry that kind of awareness with us all the time, and often it’s only too late when we realize that we’ve just hurt ourselves or someone (or something) we value.
Shantideva, in The Bodhicaryāvatāra, says that awareness is like a treasure in the mind, and mindfulness is the guard at the door. Meditation and mindfulness are like endurance training for our sense of awareness. The idea is that when we sit and meditate, we are training our minds to slip into mindfulness more easily and stay there longer, so that we are more likely to be able to recall that mindful awareness when we need it.
A simple and highly effective mindfulness training described in the Anapasati Sutra is called “awareness of the breath.”
For this exercise, find a comfortable seat with good posture and simply spend a few minutes observing your breath. That’s all there is to it, but it’s harder than it seems. Be aware of the breath as it comes and as it goes. Don’t try to hold it or force it. If the breath is long, know it is long. If it is short, know it is short. If words or thoughts arise, them go right along with the exhale and bring your focus back to just breathing. You’ll be building up your ability to cultivate and nourish the things that serve you while also increasing your ability to get rid of what doesn’t.
Finally, if you have your values to guide you, and have developed mindfulness to sustain your guide, then whatever you do will be the right thing for you. I offer this method, the thought experiment and the meditation, with the prayer that no matter what it is that we intend to do with this life, we do it well. Not only well, but with a clear, authentic sense of your own true values and a way to embody them.
From there, we can live, not as creatures of perpetual accident, but as the calm and confident examples of being intentionally human.
Devon Battaglia, MS, NC, RYT is a Nourishment Guide + Earth Medicine Intuitive + Mystic empowering people to transmute pain into purpose and find sustainable transformations in the areas of health, life, relationships, and spirituality. Her breadth of knowledge, passion, and experience yields a unique approach that draws from both Western science and ancient metaphysical wisdom and a variety of spiritual philosophies. She can be found at www.innerspark.life or Instagram @innersparklife.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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