July 2010

















Painted into a Corner

No one intentionally paints himself into a corner, but awakening requires just this kind of effort.

When we verify that wordless presence is a state that is both possible and desirable, we also verify that it is not our usual, let alone our permanent, state. And as we begin to understand that the attainment of that state is more important to us than any other attainment, we can dedicate ourselves to trying to evoke presence as often as we can, in whatever way we can.

“Unless your aim is to be present, it does not matter what your aim is.”
Robert Earl Burton

A necessary part of this endeavor involves closing off our escape hatches: the many ways we flee the moment, trample the moment, rush past the moment, overstuff the moment, choose other things over the moment, or (most often) simply forget that the moment is there to be experienced at all. To find the path, then, we must develop an appetite for painting ourselves into a corner.

“When all is said, the greatest action is to limit and isolate one’s self.”
Robert Earl Burton

Observing ourselves in light of this goal, we discover that we have been sailing through life without a rudder. Our actions have been guided by a host of “inner bosses” who have no interest in being present. In fact, most of our day passes without awareness—we truly don’t know what we are doing. What we need, then, is a single inner boss who is dedicated to promoting our highest aim. Different traditions have different terms for this new boss, such as “steward” and “ruling faculty.” This steward understands that inner work involves effort, restraint, and what sometimes feels like sacrifice—although being present doesn’t require sacrificing anything of enduring value.

One practical tool that this steward can use to paint us into the corner of the moment is that of intentionality.


Consider what musicians do. Each moment they face the challenge of a new note to be played with as much precision, nuance, and feeling as they can muster. The more intentionality they can bring to bear, the finer the music.

Our lives resemble a vast score of music in which each moment presents a new note to be played. Spiritually speaking, there is only one note to be played, and it is always the same note—the note of being present. Because of our lack of unity, however (all those inner bosses!), we experience a succession of seemingly different moments, in which we find ourselves doing a wide range of often banal and repetitive things. We need to find a way to bring the intentionality of great musicianship to this succession of ordinary moments.

Maurice Nicoll, who taught in the orbit of Peter Ouspensky, made the curious observation that we spend an extraordinarily large part of our lives simply moving objects from one place to another. How can we leverage this fact of life for our benefit?

One way is through intentionality in movement. For example, when putting away newly bought cans of cat food, we can line them up so the smiling tabbies are all facing outward. Or we can just stick them on the shelf any old way. The first way requires attention and intention; the second way requires neither. The second way also gives nothing back when we feed the cat, while with the first way, when we open the cupboard it looks like we’ve hit the jackpot on a kitty slot machine.

Each day is filled with ordinary movements in which we can either hit the jackpot or miss an opportunity. Our dinner plate can be a haphazard slopping of foodstuffs, or an artful array of volumes, shapes, and colors. We can take books off the bookshelf and put them back randomly, or arrange them in ascending size, or category, or color. When we stop yard work for lunch, we can put down our tools in an intentional arrangement, or just let them fall from our hands. As with the cat food, none of these alternatives takes much more time. Each of them does, however, require our intention and effort, which returns us to awareness in a great many moments we might otherwise miss.

We may also suffer from the opposite tendency of robotic efficiency, in which we do many things crisply and correctly in well-worn paths that exclude our being present. In such cases, regaining true intentionality (as opposed to mere efficiency) involves applying the brakes and setting up roadblocks. For example, one can place the stapler just out of reach to break up one’s well-practiced momentum. One can do something similar with the shampoo in the shower, the salt shaker beside the stove, the detergent in the laundry room, or wherever one confirms that one’s admirable sureness and speed are in fact obscuring one’s experience of the moment. One could even (gasp!) aim to do something more slowly rather than more quickly. All such efforts introduce “reminding factors” into one’s environment, sending the much-needed message: “Slow down. Take a breath. Be here – in this moment, not in the next moment.”

We can also apply intentionality on the fly. At Starbucks, we might decide to pour the cream into the very center of the cup. At the grocery checkout, we can arrange our purchases on the conveyor belt in an orderly fashion. At the gas station, we can hang the pump up carefully, rather than clanging it somehow back into its niche.

These frequent and unassuming moments in which we think nothing is required of us are exactly the point at which the devil enters. Who is this devil? It is the part of ourselves that has no aim to be present, and that does not understand why anyone would even make the effort. Without aim and effort, we inevitably drift into imagination—repetitive, unfocussed mind activity. As anyone who has practiced meditation or self-observation knows, we spend much of our lives in imagination, in random thoughts and recurring daydreams that trap us within a sticky web of fears, worries, consolations, replays of past events, and anticipations of future ones. Intentionality is a tool that helps us stem the flow of imagination by deliberately claiming the present moment for ourselves.

“Wipe out imagination. Stop the pulling of the strings. Confine thyself to the present.”
Marcus Aurelius

Another way to be intentional is to introduce refinement into our lives. Instead of keeping a cup of cheap pens with lost tops on our desk, we can buy one fine pen that we really like, and put that on duty instead. (A higher level of pen tends to elicit a higher level of care and attention, especially when we’re signing a check at the supermarket.) There are many inexpensive ways that we can upgrade common items to promote uncommon moments of presence. A finer brush can inspire us to brush our hair with presence; a more beautiful placemat might bring us into being at the dinner table. And if you’ve already tried the nice pen (or nice umbrella) but you keep losing them, that’s okay. It’s fine to keep losing them and buying new ones—a small price to pay for the moments of reality that are gained.

The impressions that we create have the capacity to either feed or starve our emotional state, and they affect those around us, too. Think of the kitty faces all in a row, or any which way; the dinner plate that is composed aesthetically, or any which way; the garden tools that are placed intentionally, or any which way. If we think of the scores of ordinary impressions that we are continually creating in our environment—either intentionally or mindlessly—we see a panorama of challenge and opportunity that is concrete and practical, and that has much broader spiritual implications than we might think.

“One is confused because one is not definite enough to be present.”
Robert Earl Burton

The more clear notes, definite notes, and intentional notes we play, the more we elevate our energy level, as moments of presence fan out into every dimension of our lives.


When we have seen the possibilities for intentionality in simple physical tasks, we can experiment in other areas. How many opportunities are there to be more intentional in our speech, our gestures, our interactions with other people!

Yet where does all this intentionality lead? In the highest sense, it leads nowhere. After all, what could possibly be the goal of pouring a bull’s-eye into your coffee at Starbucks? Obviously, it can be nothing more than to be truly there, present as your remarkable hand pours the cream into the coffee. For every ordinary action to which we bring a new level of intentionality, the aim is not primarily to achieve anything other than presence. Indeed, the more we can set ourselves aside in order to be in the moment, the more we understand that there is no person to be improved or aggrandized through our effort. Our true identity is not some person who is going to become something better. Our true identity is presence itself. And so, our simple aim is to simply BE.

“When you are present, the vessel you are in is irrelevant.”
Robert Earl Burton

We can find our way to this goal-less goal by making as many small, distinct efforts as possible to be intentional. Over time, the texture of our lives becomes saturated with these modest, invisible, and presence-promoting moments. And the wonderful result of this is that the very medium of our lives then resonates with a strong new chord of spiritual focus and intent.

“Eternity itself has no other handle than the present moment.”
Blaise Pascal


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