The Fourth Noble Truth: Insight 2 The Eightfold Path Step 2 Skillful Intention

“And what, monks, is Right Thought?  The thought of renunciation, the thought of non-ill-will, the thought of harmlessness.  This, monks, is called Right Thought.”  The Buddha

Dancing with Life (DWL) Chapter 20   Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness:  Step 2 (pp. 57-89)

Please note that Skillful Intention is sometimes called Skillful or Right Thought, Thinking or Resolve.  I prefer “Intention” because this means that this is how you are living your life rather than just mentally contemplating.

Step 2:  Skillful Intention

Thinking is very powerful and can make us happy or miserable.  We worry, obsess, have fears, fantasize – all of which can cause suffering.  This directly affects our intention to lead a skillful life.  With the first step, Skillful Understanding, we learned that skillful actions lead to happiness.  This gives us motivation to abandon unskillful thoughts and cultivate skillful thoughts

With Skillful Intention, we learn that unskillful thoughts are based on clinging, ill-will, and cruelty (wishing to cause harm to others).  These thoughts lead to unskillful intention.  We can let go of these thoughts and replace them with skillful ones based on generosity, loving kindness and compassion.

The crucial step in this process is recognizing the unskillful thoughts when they occur.  This calls for being mindful (paying attention moment to moment to what is).  Once you recognize that a thought is unskillful, you can investigate it to discern what it is based on (clinging, ill-will, and cruelty) and take the appropriate action (letting go, loving kindness or compassion).

Please note that other steps in the Eightfold Path assist us in dealing with unskillful thoughts and cultivating skillful ones (e.g. Skillful Effort, Skillful Mindfulness and Skillful Concentration).  The main focus of Skillful Intention is to understand what unskillful thoughts are and the significance of their opposites (renunciation, loving kindness and compassion.

Renunciation or abandonment or letting go

Unskillful thoughts from clinging (which include the clinging of wanting to get rid of), can arise from:

  • Attachment to material objects
  • Clinging to People, Experiences, Beliefs
  • Fear

It is very difficult to let go of the gratification of our wants, particularly the mental habit of wanting itself (‘catalogue desire.’”  Step 6 of the Eightfold Path, Skillful Effort, gives detailed guidance on how to replace these unskillful thoughts with wholesome ones.  Some ways to practice letting go include changing your habit patterns, practice the wisdom of no, and cultivate an unshakable mind.  (Goldstein, Practical Mindfulness p 351-2

Loving Kindness

Unskillful thoughts from ill-will (including anger) can be addressed by applying the opposite, loving kindness.  Note that the practice of living kindness is not given with the expectation of getting anything in return.

Loving Kindness is often referred to as the Pali word, metta. The practice of Loving-Kindness helps us to replace our thoughts of ill-will and negativity towards others with openness and understanding.  The practice can also replace neutral feelings with positive ones.  How we feel about someone is up to us.

To prepare for a Loving Kindness meditation, first relax the mind through a concentration practice of observing the sensation of the breath on the nostrils while breathing in and breathing out.

Then make an intention to come from your heart and to be as open as possible.  Make an intention to offer joy and happiness to yourself and others by repeating a series of phrases.  Start with yourself and then move to a loved one.  Shift to neutral person (someone whom you have no positive or negative feelings about).  Then shift to someone with whom you feel ill-will. Finally, gradually expand your loving-kindness to all beings.  You can start with a small geographic area and expand to the universe.

There are many phrases that you can use or you can create a set of your own, all with the intention of wishing happiness and peacefulness to yourself and others.

May ______ be happy and peaceful.

May ______ be safe and protected.

May ______ be filled with contentment.

May ______ be free from suffering.


Unskillful thoughts of cruelty (the disposition to give unnecessary pain and suffering) can be addressed by compassion.

Compassion is the intention to relieve the suffering of others. It arises with the recognition of the universality of suffering and the realization that all living beings desire happiness. You cannot generate compassion.  It is solely by experiencing your experience of another’s suffering that leads to the appropriate action.

How do you cultivate compassion?

  • Reflect on your own suffering.
  • Be aware of the suffering of others and how you feel when you approach a situation of suffering.
  • Know that suffering is universal (make the connection between your suffering and others).  This can also work in reverse.  As you become aware of the suffering of others, you can see the connection with your own suffering. 


  • Reread this talk and reflect on it.  Also review the recaps on Skillful Thinking in the Eightfold Path.  What did you learn from this step?


  • Meditate as usual in your daily practice being mindful of what arises and falls away and how all have the same characteristics of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and selflessness.

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