The day after President Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2009, I attended my first meditation retreat. Instead of the relaxing getaway that I anticipated, I came away from the day of deep reflection and concentration exhausted, but strangely exhilarated. Most importantly, I learned something about myself that (I hope) will allow me to remain mindful, to engage the world thoughtfully, and to approach difficult moments with compassion.
That’s easier said than done. Just the other day I almost lost my mind at a Chuck-E-Cheese birthday party when an impatient, unsupervised little brat rudely nudged my daughter away from the air hockey table as her turn came to an end. As I looked around for the boy’s parent — where is this child’s mama? — I realized that I was more concerned about salvaging my pride as a mother than I was about my daughter’s feelings. She hadn’t even noticed the slight and was off to another game. Others may have handled the situation differently, but I let my anger dissipate in that moment. I decided to devote my energy to making sure she had a good time instead.
One of the lessons of the retreat that has stuck with me is about developing right intention (also called “right aspiration”) and being attentive to the thoughts, ideas, and assumptions that guide my decisions. We don’t often place much value on our motives as long as the outcomes are acceptable; after all, conventional wisdom says the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, right? As a black woman and a southerner, I know how to speak kindly even when my words are not rooted in sincerity or wisdom. As a survival strategy, it works. But then again, our nation’s history is distinguished by black southern women who took dangerous risks, speaking out rather unkindly against the status quo when spurred by the clear, earnest intentions of a righteous cause.
So I was especially intrigued by the way the Norwegian Nobel Committee praised Obama’s work through references to his vision, attitudes, initiative, and of course, hope. The sentiment was reiterated in the President’s remarks about the Nobel Peace Prize:
“Let me be clear: I do not view it as a recognition of my own accomplishments, but rather as an affirmation of American leadership on behalf of aspirations held by people in all nations.”
New pundits and bloggers of all political persuasions have been scratching their heads to figure out what Obama has done to warrant the prize. Okay, fair enough. Still I can’t help but be very glad to live in a world in which right intention is cherished. Undoubtedly, there is much work to be done on health care, education, and climate change among other issues. And like some of my friends, I worry about whether or not it is possible for Obama to meet the overwhelming expectations being placed on his shoulders. I am heartened, nevertheless, by the doors that open when we act “on behalf of aspirations.” Volition is a kind of power that is not confined to a meditation retreat, but when used as the basis for virtuous action, can be felt as close as the Chuck-E-Cheese air hockey table or as far away as Oslo.