illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)
Recently, someone asked « How do you apply "intentions matter" in the case of a catastrophic outcome due to a poor judgement with good intentions? To what extent do they matter in a practical way? »
Part of the pun of « Intentions do matter » is simply to point that intentions have physical consequences (in acts, possibly via speech first), i.e. intentions are 'causes' and should therefore be engaged with seriously, in particular if one wants to treat various causes of suffering rather than merely the symptoms.
But one has to be careful about a classic cognitive error: saying that some phenomenon is a cause for some other phenomenon does not imply that it's the only cause, or that the causal unfolding is independent from the context at hand.
Good intentions are what makes you want to iterate and fix things, an attitude which is extremely 'practical'.
Mistakes happen, it's human. But people who just want to look good (the "reputation" angle of the "8 worldly winds") abandon the situation once the reputation has been damaged… while people who had actual good intentions iterate, try again differently, etc. Often the next iteration starts with an apology and an explanation of one's previous, flawed thought process: victims of errors can often forgive errors made in good faith, people know that humans aren't gods and can make mistakes.
So intentions do matter, since repeated attempts are more likely to succeed than a one-off (this is true whether the intention is wholesome or not… "Practice makes perfect").
As a side note, karma relates to habits, views, repetitions, 'tendencies'… One-offs are not karmic. Once you intend to repeat (maybe because you liked the outcome of the first time), then there's appropriation, there's grasping, there's karma… So wholesome karma is directly linked to repeated attempts to live wholesomely; it's not about doing good from time to time, to self-servingly calm one's conscience when anguish rises.
But a key point to remember is that good intentions alone aren't enough to guaranty a good outcome.
Partly karma (consequences of previous intentions still unfolding: the past doesn't vanish just because of one good intention now)…
Partly the fact that intentions do not exist in a vacuum (interaction with a context might cause lack of fitness between intention and situation at hand: a classic example is when a right intention turns into righteousness)…
And partly the simple fact that intentions are usually aggregates: we don't have just one intention, we have many at the same time (e.g. doing good and looking good).
When things go 'wrong', we tend to pretend that we only had one ('good') intention, and that its purity should have guaranteed a desired outcome… but it's not reality. The mind is an aggregate: many streams inter-acting. Moreover, no matter how 'good' or 'wholesome' a desired outcome is imagined to be, clinging to an outcome is still samsaric clinging, a source of frustration when the desired outcome doesn't materialise as expected (or even as soon as expected).
One example of how multiple intentions can interact appears specifically when we do mistakes we could have avoided: there was an intention to help but there also was e.g. an intention to do so quickly, or to do so without putting too much effort / attention / mindfulness (maybe due to an erroneous view that "it's easy" or simply that one "has other things to do" —mixing expectations and anticipations with the here&now!)… i.e. trying to help at minimum cost (the minimum cost might be high already, but it's still the minimum).
The intention to save one's resources ("emotional energy" to start with, but also time, money, etc.) is usually called 'greed' and, therefore, a greedy intention often interacts with a more generous intention. We want to be generous "but not too much"… It's 'normal', it's "things as they are", it's who we are (greedy, unawakened, selfish self-centric me,me,me) but this illustrates how multiple intentions interact. And it's not about judging this situation, it's about engaging constructively with it to move beyond (for example by questioning our prejudices, our preconceptions, our priorities, our views…).
Good intention associated with not wanting to spend too much resources might lead to negligence, to not paying attention enough, which in turn might lead to errors and bad outcomes. At that point, coming up with a narrative about the good intention is obviously not telling the whole story, and it's not gonna help anyone. But that's where iterating matters, where perseverance and patience matter, where goodness matters: we learnt that the situation is not as easy as we thought, and we were reminded that we should give full attention to what we do (e.g. "here and now" while helping, not helping here and now but thinking of resources elsewhere or in the future)… With this lesson in mind, and compassion for our ignorant self, we can iterate and do better next time, maybe even solve what we initially wanted to solve!
As a side note, « no matter how 'good' or 'wholesome' a desired outcome is imagined to be, clinging to an outcome is still samsaric clinging, a source of frustration when the desired outcome doesn't materialise as expected (or even as soon as expected) » is a reason why bodhisattvas return/live "in saṃsāra": even being fully dedicated to help all sentient beings can prove frustrating (as one clings to a prejudiced outcome, which might e.g. not turn up as soon as one would hope… or as one clings to a generic version of "save all beings" and becomes frustrated by the endless need to decline this for each specific being in their specific situation with their specific defilements —classic case of "compassion fatigue")!
Good intentions do matter, but they don't shield one from frustration.
Patience and perseverance are perfected qualities (paramitas)… Acting out of seeing clearly, rather than out of righteousness, is key. When your intention aligns with what's constructive / wholesome in the context at hand, there's less weight given to the anticipation of a particular outcome and more weight given to simply doing what needs doing. By re-centering from future imagined 'outcome' to current factual 'need', one reduces the frustration (reduce, not avoid).
If some element of the context (possibly some persistent unfolding from the past) interferes and prevents the "right view" from leading to a constructive response immediately, then equanimity, patience and perseverance are your best allies. Equanimity helps in not seeing oneself as a failure, or an intention as faulty, "in hindsight", due to the difficulty met: keep looking clearly (without biases, preferences, prejudices, self-centredness…), see what's blocking the situation, and engage again, as constructively as needed!
With my deepest thanks to the person who asked the questions this post starts with.
Unattributed illustration of a bodhisattva