Once, there was a poor lady who went to visit a Buddhist temple and wished to make a donation. However, she was so poor, she had only 2 cents, and she gave these to a monk. To her surprise, the temple’s abbot himself came forth to help her repent for past offenses and dedicate her merits in front of the Buddha. Later on, the same lady was chosen to enter the imperial palace and became a concubine to the emperor. Clad in her riches, the lady once again went to the temple to donate, this time bringing thousands of silver pieces to give. To her dismay, the abbot only sent his disciple to help her dedicate her merits.
The lady did not understand and so questioned the abbot: “in the past, I only gave 2 cents in donation, and the abbot personally helped me repent. Today, I come with great wealth to give, and the abbot will not help me with my dedications. Why is this so?”
The abbot answered her, saying, “Though the money you gave in the past was scant, it came from a true and sincere heart. And it was necessary for me to repay your sincerity by personally performing your dedications. Today, although your donation is many folds more, the heart of giving is not quite as true and sincere as before. Therefore, it’s fitting and enough that my disciple perform your dedications for you.
Source: Liao Fan’s Four Lessons
The moral of the story is that your intentions matter greatly when performing good deeds, and the more sincere your intentions are, the better. Additionally, people can read your intentions, so it’s important for you to be aware of your intentions and to hone them.
So far in the series of posts on the goodness-harm quadrant, we have been focusing on the results axis. After all, good intentions alone are not enough, for they can still lead to hurting others in the bigger picture.
However, having the right intention is extremely important too. We should do good things, like helping others and improving ourselves, because we actually want to do those things. We should not do those things just because it’s the “right” or “good” thing to do and certainly not because we want a reward in exchange. The way to examine and hone our intentions is to study our speech with others and with ourselves.
Speech with others
Let’s illustrate an example of a person who is frustrated with another person in a relationship because she feels like she does much more for the relationship.
Someone with the wrong intentions would say something like, “I’m always doing this and that for the relationship, yet you do so little for us.” Because the person wants a return for doing the “good” and “nice” things, those things become tainted, damaging the relationship.
On the other hand, someone in the exact same situation, but who did all those things with a sincere intention, would say, “Hey, can you do X, Y, and Z for us? I know you’re busy, but I want to focus on doing A, B, and C well for us, and it would be really helpful if you could do X, Y, and Z.” It’s clear that the person’s intentions is to benefit the partner and the relationship. The key to being able to have the second thought arise instead of the first is to have the proper intention when doing things for the relationship.
Speech with ourselves
When looking at ourselves, we should not keep tabs of all the good things we’ve done after we do them, expecting life to reward us. That’s a selfish intention for doing “good” things. And the thing with selfish intentions is that you become too focused on your ego and what you “deserve”, which blocks you from being a person that actually deserves the rewards you sought.
Adam Robinson, founder of Robinson Global Strategies, puts it eloquently in his interview on the Tim Ferriss show:
“If you experience any negative emotion…doubt, fear, frustration, anger… it’s almost always a sign to redirect your attention, either to the task at hand, or to others.” He explains that “the most important gifts and goals in life, including love, success, and happiness, are never achieved by pursuing them directly. Those people focused on finding love, for example, have their attention and priorities diverted from being the kind of loving, lovable person that would actually attract the love they’re looking for. And if you’re focused on becoming successful or wealthy or whatever, your attention isn’t focused on the activities and tasks, and the others, that will actually lead to that success and wealth. Love, success, and happiness catch you best by surprise, while your attention is focused on doing in the world and being your best self in that world.”
So be humble about what you do, be patient, and you will get lucky by Seneca’s definition: “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.”