Discovering the Intention of the Heart

by Paul Baranowski

“A brave person is a person who is genuine

vis-à-vis their emergence from the cocoon of complacency

into the prevailing calamity of carnal reality.”

– Ngakpa Chogyam


One day a number of years ago I was reading a Buddhist magazine and it mentioned a practice that simply stated “take responsibility for everything you experience.”  I thought this was one of the best things I ever heard and so I started trying to do it. As I learned and integrated this practice into my life, I saw how doing this practice prevented me from ever blaming anyone else, or myself, for anything that happened to me. It deeply changed how I related to the world.

Many years later I started to have my own students and when I gave this instruction to them(“take responsibility for everything you experience”) they asked for more detailed instructions.  Eventually, with their feedback, I figured out a way to describe it in a step-by-step guide.

The Practice

During this process you really want to try to avoid thinking that you are a “good person” because it will just make everything harder.

It is basically an inquiry practice:

  1. You notice a situation arising that you want to look into.
  2. Ask “Why do I care about that?”.
  3. Whatever answer you get, ask yourself again “Why do I care about that?”, until you express your concern as “I don’t want XYZ to happen.”  One of the clues that you got to the bottom of it is that it will always be related to your survival or reproduction. The expression “I don’t want XYZ to happen” is a clear representation of the fear you are experiencing. There should be an emotional quality to it, something related to an emotional need instead of physical objects and the external world. You may notice that when you shine light on the fear, it almost instantly becomes easier to handle.
  4. Ask “What do I want?”. It’s fairly easy to know what you don’t want, finding out what you want can be a bit harder. We are always trying to take care of ourselves and others in some way. Our love is trying to get out. On this step we state our true intention. A clue that you have gotten it is that the answer is based on loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and/or equanimity. In this step you are trying to figure out your emotional need. If you have answered that you want something physical, like “I want a Ferrari”, then you need to look a little deeper. You might have to go back to step 3 and focus more on the emotional side of things instead of the external world. One question that might be helpful to recognize that you have stated your need in terms of the external world is to ask “Do I need it?”.
  5. Ask “What ways can I manifest the result that I am looking for?”. Often we get stuck in one way of doing things. This is your chance to brainstorm other ways to manifest it. Is there a practice you are doing to manifest it in your life? Are there other strategies you could use to meet the emotional need?
  6. Ask “What is a way I can manifest that result in this moment?”. Often we think we need to work hard and sometime in the future we can get the thing we want.  Try looking at your current experience and see if it is already there.
  7. If there are other aspects of the situation that need to be addressed, go back to step 2 with those aspects.

Example from Daily Life

Here’s an example. After I decided to start practising this, I happened to be in the subway waiting for the train, and the train was late. I started to get frustrated and upset. I noticed I was getting upset and started to try this out:

  • “Why do I care that the train is late?”; “Because I am going to be late to meet with my friend.”
  • “Why do I care if I am late to see my friend?”; “Because my friend might be upset with me.”
  • “Why do I care if my friend is upset with me?”; “Because I care about my friend and I don’t want to feel disconnected from them.”
  • “What do I want?”;  “I want to be connected and have a good relationship with my friend.”
  • “What ways could I make that happen?”; “If I arrive angry and upset, that won’t help me at all with staying connected to them. If my friend is angry when I get there, I can apologize.  Maybe my friend is not bothered that I am late. Maybe they are happy I am late because they are late as well. Maybe I can leave earlier next time.”
  • “What can I do right now?”; “I can relax, enjoy the moment, and wait to see what happens.”

When I did that practice, my anger disappeared.  I was no longer blaming anything. Everything was fine and my experience turned into joy. I knew what to do because I was clear about what direction I wanted to go in.

Example with Life Goals

You can also do this with the dreams for your life. Sometimes we think of our dreams as results, as in, “Someday I want a big house.” But what is the emotional need behind this dream?

Here’s an example:

  • “Someday I want a big house.” (Ask yourself: “Why do I care about a big house?” In this case we will focus on the bigness, but it also could have been about just owning a house.)
  • “I want enough space to have a family.” (“Why do I care about having enough space?” but it also could have been, “Why do I care about having a family?”)
  • “If there isn’t enough space, I may feel we will get on each others nerves too much.” (Why do I care if we get on each others nerves?)
  • I’m afraid things might get out of control, people would get upset, and I would feel separated from those I love. (This is the fear. What do I want?)
  • I want to live in harmony with my future family. (This is the love. Is there another strategy I could use to achieve this?)
  • I could give those that I love the emotional space they need when they need it, and give myself emotional space when I need it. In fact, I could start doing that right now.

Notice that at any point in time you can focus on different aspects depending on what is important to you.  You can repeat the exercise for every aspect of the experience that you want to investigate.

Ways of Working with the Technique

You can use this as a meditation.  Start with 20 minutes of mindfulness.  Then take the rest of the time to work with this method.  Whenever a thought of the past or the future takes your attention away from your breathing, take that scenario and start the technique: “Why do I care about that?”. It’s an inquiry practice, so it will probably feel like more work than just mindfulness of breathing. Once you get to the end, go back to your breathing and wait for the next thought to arise.

You can also do this practice in pairs of two. One person acts as an interviewer and one as the interviewee. The interviewee states something they want to work with – it could be a difficult situation or a dream they have for their life.  The interviewer then start questioning the interviewee: “Why do you care about that?”. The interviewer must listen carefully and develop the ability to know when to move on to the next step. This is a skill and the more you do it the better you will get at it. The interviewer should not really say anything other than ask the questions. Once you get to the end you can switch roles. Both people must be practising for this to work.

You can do this practice in your relationship with someone. In our relationships (of any kind), we sometimes have expectations or dreams for it. What do you hope for this relationship?  Why do you hope that (using the same method as before)? What practices are you doing to make those dreams come true? Are there other strategies to meet that emotional need?

Final Comments

With this practice it becomes easier to separate our emotional needs from the strategies we use to fulfil them. Once we have some distance from the strategies, we can be more flexible (and not take it personally) when one method turns out not to work so well.

The first step is the hardest: noticing.  This is developed through the basic practices of mindfulness of body, feelings, and thoughts. There is no way around the hard work of putting in the time to familiarize yourself with your experience.

Try this method in your daily life, whenever a difficult situation arises. From my experience, it can be surprising and liberating to know what you want in every moment, and never blame anyone – including yourself – for anything ever again.