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Intentionality is non-separation Barry Magid July 15th 2023

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Sometime back we discussed a book by Joan Stambaugh called Impermanence is Buddha-nature, and while some of that text was heavy going, if we just remember the title of it, the title itself was a great teaching that tended to dispel a lot of confusion that surrounds the idea of Buddha nature. For many people it’s very easy to think that Buddha nature is some internal or ideal essence that they’re trying to uncover or cultivate in themselves. But if you say impermanence is Buddha nature, you’re reminded that impermanence is something you don’t have to cultivate or achieve. Impermanence is what you already are. It’s what everything already is. And when we talk about Buddha nature, we’re talking about a realization of the way things already are.

Today I’d like to propose another phrase for you to put alongside that one, and that is intentionality is non-separation. Again, non-separation is something that I think we often get befuddled about particularly when we start to equate it with oneness, usually spelled with a capital O, and turn it into some kind of special, mystical experience that we’re trying to achieve. But like Buddha nature, non-separation is the way things already are.

What does it mean to say intentionality is non-separation? Intentionality is actually a technical term in philosophy. It doesn’t mean what I plan to do or want to do or anything like that. It’s a term that was introduced at the end of the nineteenth century by a German philosopher, Franz Brentano, who’s not much read anymore, but was very influential on a next generation of phenomenologists beginning with Husserl and then Heidegger, and all the people who flowed from those traditions.

The simplest way of describing what Bretano meant by intentionality is it meant aboutness, and he was trying to use part of the nineteenth century effort of studying psychology of the mind in a scientific way, and he was trying to offer a criteria for what is consciousness, what is the mental. And he said that the distinguishing characteristic is that the mental always includes aboutness. Our consciousness, our perception, is always about or of something, and, he said, only consciousness can do that. A tree can’t be about a rock. Things aren’t about other things, in the way we mean this. Their relations can only be kinds of causal connections. And so he was suggesting that the mental had this unique quality, and we can begin to think about that in terms of perception. We can’t describe a sense without including the sensation, without what it’s a sensation of, but when we describe sight, it’s about What am I seeing? Smell involves the thing I’m smelling, and taste, and touch, hearing. You can’t describe hearing without talking about a sound. And if we want to talk about thinking, again, to say I’m thinking is to say I’m thinking about something.

Now the reason I think this is relevant to us as Buddhist practitioners, is that there is a long tradition in a lot of spiritual circles to try, in some sense, to deny intentionality as a necessary or defining feature of consciousness, and the way that works, is that we’ll hear that I’m aware of a sound, but the sound is not the awareness, or I’m aware of a sight, but the awareness is not the sight itself. Those two things, in some sense, we’re told, can be separate.

What does that mean? It means that I have something like awareness or consciousness, which is a kind of separate and open receptacle into which experiences or sensations can be put, or entered. That we can start, when we sit, being aware of sounds, we can be aware of what we’re seeing in front of us, we can be aware of our body and our breath, but gradually we can train ourselves to bring our attention just back somehow to awareness itself, separate from the contents of awareness. And that means essentially cultivating inner silence.

And so a whole program or practice is implicitly set up where the contents of perception, of thought, or awareness, are all somehow seen as separate from awareness or consciousness itself, and what we want to do is get down to the real pure thing without any contents. So I’m suggesting that that whole program is fundamentally, if not misguided, not at all what it claims to be.

I think you can say that you can practice disciplines that quiet the mind, so that thoughts become fewer and fewer and you develop an inner peace and quiet. That may be very pleasant. It may even be useful. But what it is, is you’re just trying to reduce stimulation so what you’re aware of is just this minimal sense of bodily presence. But when I say intentionally is non-separation, what I’m trying to suggest is that basically, from the very beginning, there’s no distinctive boundary between inside and outside. We don’t have an inner mind that is filled with the contents of experience. To have a mind at all, is to be in contact with the world; the world coming in makes what’s inside of us. There’s nothing inside that wasn’t once outside.

Descartes said, I think therefore I am, as if thinking was a private, inner experience. That was the one thing he could be certain of, because he couldn’t tell if anything coming from the outside was real or not. But if we take a different perspective on that phrase, I think therefore I am, we might go down the route of saying, I think, therefore I know language. I know language, therefore other people exist. I think in language, therefore there’s a whole world in which people and language are interacting and relating, and because of all that, I am able to have thoughts. Without taking in all of that interaction and relationship and experience, there would be no thinking inside.

Maybe you could imagine being in some preverbal state of awareness like a tiny infant, but even there we’re told by infant researchers that the whole boundary between infant and mother is completely fluid, and as I like to quote the infant researcher, Dan Stern, subjectivity cannot be shown to be prior to intersubjectivity.

Non-separation means that who we are at our most basic level is already permeated by the world and the world of experience. What I get concerned about is how people go down a kind of rabbit hole trying to cultivate something like pure awareness and here again we start getting capital letters put on things, and this is a kind of awareness that’s going to be stripped of or separate from what we’re aware of. But Brentano’s principle of intentionality states, these things are intrinsically, almost by definition, inseparable. Awareness is awareness of, consciousness is consciousness of. Right? Being is already being in the world and not separate from the world. We don’t find awareness or consciousness or being separate as any kind of pure separate entity.

Naturally, when we think in terms of pure awareness or pure being or anything like that, then pretty soon the contents of our consciousness, or the content of our life, start to look like contaminants. They’re the clouds in the sky, or they are all the things that are muddying up the water. You know, there’s this nice bright clear water of awareness, and we imagine our goal is to completely clear everything out, and so this gets built into the way we practice at the most basic level, like when we think about what is a good sitting.

People almost always do that, almost automatically. You ask them, was it a good or a bad sitting, and the good sitting is when my mind is pretty quiet, and the bad sitting is when my mind is full of thoughts. Now, like I say, we may have perfectly good reasons for wanting our mind to quiet, but basically our mind is never going to be free of thought and never going to be free of sensation. It’s good sometimes when we say practice is as though we’re just listening to the sounds of the world. We’re not trying to blank anything out. We’re just trying to stay aware of anything in particular. And that kind of focus and concentration is a good thing to cultivate. It’s better than sitting and spending the whole morning just daydreaming with the to-do list, the bills you have to pay, what you have to pick up at the store, the argument you just had with somebody. I’m not suggesting that that is just as good as concentration, but there’s something fundamentally misguided about the idea that what we’re trying to do is empty our mind.

Intentionality is non-separation. The mind’s aboutness is our hook into the world, it’s how we are, literally, what is happening. That’s something that’s already the case, not something we have to achieve. Rather, in a way, it’s something that we have to learn not to fight against. Because there’s a way in which what comes in or what we’re thinking about can feel intrusive or overwhelming or unpleasant, and we develop this project in which we think suffering elimination is going to be a process of subtraction, even ideally subtraction down to zero.

So again, what we call spirituality becomes a kind of resistance to our life as it is, a resistance to openness, and often I tell people that the sittings that they think are the bad sittings turn out to be the most valuable ones because that’s where we’re confronted with our mind or our emotion or our body in its most uncontrolled version: The thoughts we can’t stop, the pain in our knee that won’t go away, the sounds that we think are annoying. In a certain sense, what we’re coming up against is the uncontrollability, unfixability, unavoidability of life. And what we’re trying to do in some way is to learn to make our peace with mind and life as it is, which because it’s always changing, because it’s always interdependent, it’s not going to be under our control. Yes, there are ways in which we learn mastery and discipline and certain kinds of self-control in practice. A sesshin in a way is an exercise in discipline, but in another it’s also an exercise in the limits of discipline. We always end up one way or another bumping up against the things in ourselves and others that are outside of our control, and that too is our practice.

In a way, all this keeps coming back to the idea that practice is not just about what’s happening between our ears, it’s not just about cultivating inner states. It’s about openness and permeability to what’s happening, and that’s going to include other people. It’s the part of the practice that comes off the cushion into the sangha, how your practice is not just a matter of what’s happening inside you, but how are you relating to one another? What are the judgments or reactions or disappointments or expectations that come into play in the sangha? Who do we think of as model students? How do we treat one another? All that becomes part of our non-separation from what’s happening. Practice is not about cultivating this inner purity.

I don’t know if it will catch on as a phrase that you will remind yourself of, but intentionality is non-separation, awareness of mind is already its contents. Practice is not an exercise simply in subtraction.

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