Karma and Intention

Transcribed from a talk by Gil Fronsdal, April 3, 2006

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I would like to talk about the Buddhist concept of karma. It is a big topic, and you could spend years talking about it, and decades arguing about it. Karma is considered very important, and to get a little sense of its importance, a number of Buddhist teachers, including the Dalai Lama, have been asked, “What is more important: to understand the great philosophical Buddhist teachings about emptiness, or to understand karma, to understand cause and effect?” The answer is that it is more important to understand karma, to understand cause and effect. That teaching is really much more essential. Without understand karma, you will not understand where you have personal responsibility and how to take responsibility. Some people who understand emptiness only, or some of the deeper teachings of Buddhism, will sometimes interpret that to mean that there is no personal responsibility. They may abdicate responsibility and think that everything is OK, and perhaps just float along in life.

In a number of places, when the Buddha talked about the practice of Buddhism, he used a compound word. That compound word is sati-sampajanna. Sati means mindfulness, which is one of the core practices we do here. Sampajanna means wisdom, or understanding, or clear comprehension. Mindfulness focuses primarily on understanding what is, on what is going on, and learning how to be present for what is, learning how to be present for our experience. This is a huge undertaking because it can be very hard to be present for life as it is since we have so much reactivity and so many judgments and interpretations which we overlay on it. The primary task of mindfulness is to understand the way things are. Sampajanna, the wisdom side, has a lot to do with learning how we can respond to the way things are. So rather than just leaving things as they are, we, as human beings, have to respond, and we have to make choices about what we do in response. There was a period of time in my Buddhist practice where I became very good at the first part, at learning how to just be with things, and just let go of everything else. I would just let go and let go and just be really present. That can be very peaceful, and life could be very peaceful, very content, and very happy just being present by letting go. That was quite fine when I was a monk since I did not have to make a lot of choices. Then I became a parent, and just letting go and being present was not going to be enough. Lying in bed at two o’clock in the morning when the kid has an earache, or the two kids are fighting. Just let go, let go—this is not enough. You have to make a choice about how to act. You have to be creative and think ahead. A lot of thought has to go into how to respond to this situation. You cannot just sit there and be present to this situation. Being present and letting go is very important, but there is more to it. Something is required of us.

So what do we do about that part of life when something is required of us? Buddha’s teachings about karma have a lot to do with this aspect of our lives, the places where we have choice, and how we make choices. The practice of mindfulness brings us to that place where we see that we have a choice. We want to be present for “what is,” but as we are present for “what is,” “what is” not static. “What is” is actually an ongoing process of change and movement. The present moment is part of a causal chain of cause and effect. There is cause and effect and the effect is a cause for the next thing. It just goes on and on. We can see ourselves in the great stream of cause and effect and we find ourselves here in the present moment in that stream, the stream of change and impermanence. The question is: how do we relate to this sea of change and impermanence?

Mindfulness is clear. We learn how to rest and be present and be mindful in what is going on this moment. Then we start seeing where we have choice, where the moment of choice is. If a person does not see choice, then there is no choice. If we live deluded, and we cannot see what is going on, then we don’t see that we have a choice about what we do with our lives. The more carefully we investigate, the more sensitive we get to the present moment, the more we see that there is a lot of choice each moment about how we react and respond and behave. The greater array of choice and places for choice that we can see, the more choice we have and the more responsibility we can take. If a person sees no choice in their life, sees no place where they can make a choice and make a difference, then people will just feel like victims of life. They think that their happiness, their well-being, their peace, is just caused by the sway of the causes and conditions around them in the world. So when the world is a good place, we can be happy. When the world is a bad place, when unfortunate things are happening, then we are unhappy. Our happiness is a slave to the causes and conditions that are external to us. But as we can see the places of choice, then we are not victims of circumstances. We can actually send influence on this causal chain of cause and effect. Does that make sense?

The teaching of karma has to do with the place of choice, the choices we make. It gets very subtle, if you want it to be. There is one story I like to tell. After spending about three years in a Zen monastery, it was a big surprise to leave the monastery and come back to San Francisco to live there. In many ways it was a surprise, and I had been changed by the experience of the monastery. One big surprise was that in the monastery, much of the daily life was choreographed. You were told how to stand, how to sit, how to eat—there was a choreographed way in which we ate most of the meals. You had these bowls and you had to lay them out a certain way and you ate in a certain way and you had to put down your spoons in a certain way and your chopsticks had a particular way to be put down. Also, your napkin had to be put down in a certain way; how you put it down was choreographed and how you folded it was choreographed. They rang a bell and you stood up, and then they rang a bell again and you would walk out. How you walked out was choreographed—in fact, it was choreographed right down to which foot went out the door first. Everything was well-choreographed.

Then I came back to San Francisco where life was not choreographed any more. I discovered I had a lot of choices I had to make that, before, the monastery had made for me. The choice that really stood out to me was that I had a choice about how I sat in a chair. In the monastery, I never realized I had a choice and that chairs were things to make choices over. In Zen they say that when you sit, just sit. It’s very simple—just sit. But I found out that I had a lot of choice. I could slump or sit up straight or cross my legs. Before I went to the monastery, I did not take advantage of all of those choices because I was unconscious about how I sat in a chair. After the monastery, it became harder to be unconscious about it, and I had to make choices about how to sit—slump, sit up straight, or cross my legs. I noticed that how I sit in a chair affected my well-being. In fact, it had a big effect on many different things. It affected my own well-being and my energy, and I noticed how, if I was feeling down, and I let myself slump really low, that it would subtly reinforce that feeling of being down. But if I sat up straight in a more energetic way, it did not take my blues away, but it made the blues paler, a lighter blue. It made a little difference. Also, how I sat made a difference about how I was in relation to somebody else sitting in another chair. If I were sitting slumped down and receding and trying to disappear in my chair, then I had a very different presence, a very different contact with someone than if I sat up and was facing them.

I saw all these little choices I had to make. I was in my twenties, and I also got interested in what it was like to fall in love. I wondered if there was choice in falling in love. We think that we are victims of love—that is the Romeo and Juliet scenario of something that just happens. So I tried to pay very careful attention when I was attracted to someone or getting to know someone to see if there was some turning point where I could make a choice to go towards that person. Sometimes I could see that there were very subtle choices abut leaning into someone or moving towards someone, or a choice to pursue a certain desire or wish or want. When I was nineteen, I can tell you definitively that I had no choice in the matter. And when I was fourteen, there was no choice but to go through the entire telephone book and call every house on the street where she lived and ask if she lived there. That is because all I knew was the street she lived on, and I knew her first name. I had help. My friend went through the phone book from the back, and I went through it from the front. We called all the houses on that street until we found her. There was no choice in the matter.

One of the functions of mindfulness is to show us where we have choice. Then the question is: how do we make choices? What is the basis of making a choice? There are many bases for choice. The Buddha’s teaching of karma is one consideration around the choices we make.

Karma, as it is pronounced in Sanskrit, or kamma, in Pali, has the usual meaning of action. It is related to words that have the meaning of to make and to do. Karma is activity. There are many theories of action in India, theories about the efficacy of action. What happens to action? Once you make an action, does it just affect that particular circumstance where you just made it, or does action have consequences in the next minute or the next hour or the next day or the next year? What are the consequences of the actions we make? Karma theory has to do with action and its consequences.

When the Buddha showed up on the scene, there were many theories of karma, and the Buddha offered his own. This is very important to understand because, here in America, many people think that there is just one meaning of karma. Actually, there are many kinds of theories of karma from different Indian religious traditions. We should not assume that all the different theories of karma are the same, and they are not the same as the Buddhist one.

For the Buddha, though it literally means action, the meaning of karma is intention, or intentionality. He equates karma with intention. This meaning of karma needs some explanation.

We live in a sea of cause and effect. I like the word sea because, if you take a pond, and you throw a whole bunch of pebbles into the pond, you create wave patterns that ripple out in all directions. The waves will hit each other and create other wave patterns, which in turn hit other wave patterns, and it gets very complex. If you just throw one pebble, you just get one concentric pattern that is very clear. But if you throw one hundred pebbles in, the number of cause-effect relationships in the way the waves hit each other becomes quite immense. If you put a rubber duck in the pond before you throw all those pebbles in, which pebble is affecting the duck, making it bob up and down? They all are, and they all are in this complicated way by which the pebbles and the waves are interacting on the surface of the water. In the same way, in this life of ours, we live in this big sea of cause and effect. The ripples of cause and effect and the way in which all these ripples affect each other in turn affect us. We are like ducks. Then the question is: does everything that happens to us relate to our karma? Some teachings about karma say that everything that happens to us in this life is the result of our past karma. Whatever happens to you here is the result of past karma. The Buddha did not say that. What the Buddha said is that there is a big sea of cause and effect, and within that, there is a subcategory of cause and effect which has to do with a cause and effect of intentionality, of the intentions we act on. In the case of sickness, the Buddha did not attribute all sickness to karma. Sickness may happen just by logical conditions or by genetic conditions. You do not have to attribute the sickness to your karma. The Buddha also said that even if someone assaults you, like when you are in a war, it is not necessarily the result of your past karma. In a sense, it may just be bad luck—you happen to be born in certain place and time.

There are many people who would like the teaching of karma to be a theory of justice. People really would like the world be a just place. Karma is one way of getting justice out of the world, because it guarantees that the sucker will get his due sooner or later. The idea here is that there is a wonderful correlation that every action has a karmic result, or every result has a karmic source. If someone has stolen from you, or has done something terrible to you, as a result you have became poor by the end of your life, while the offender has become rich and dies rich. We would like to think that the offender will get his just punishment in the next life. That is the balance–the confirmation of justice is maintained by having a theory of multiple lifetimes in which everything works out eventually. But I don’t think that the Buddhist idea of karma was meant to be a form of justice. It is not supposed to explain everything and why everything is happening the way it is. Some Buddhists, especially later Buddhists in the development of Buddhism, took karma theory to be an explanation for everything. I have heard Buddhists say that if your retreat center is on a road with potholes, it is because the people at the center have not practiced right speech. If everyone just practices right speech better, somehow those potholes will get cleaned up. We have some cracks in our sidewalk—I don’t know what karma that is. We have had septic problems. Was that our karma, or was it the karma of the previous owners of the building?

People want karma to explain everything, but the Buddha did not want karma to explain everything. What the Buddha was trying to do was to point to the tremendous impact that our motivations, our intentions, have on our lives. In looking at the choices that we have to make, the Buddha said that it is very important to look at what motivates those choices, what intentions fuel those choices. To be somewhat simplistic about Buddhist karmic theory, it might go something like this: in whatever fuels an action, the fuel of an action produces more of itself. If your action is fueled by hate, it somehow produces more of itself. In different words, if our intentions are unhealthy, that unhealthy fuel produces more unhealthy intentions. If our intentions are healthy, it produces more health. If the actions which fuel our actions are healthy, they tend to produce more health. If the intentions which produce our actions are unhealthy, it tends to produce something unhealthy.

For example, if the action I do is motivated by hate, that puts in motion a certain cause and effect relationship that creates some kind of disease for me and the world around me. If I act on hate, it sets in motions two distinct causal chains. One is that there is a kind of physical cause and effect relationship in the world. If I do something hateful to all of you tonight (I won’t do it intentionally), some of you could be hurt, or some of you could leave here and be distressed or angry, or you could get in your car and drive angrily and run through a red light and get a ticket. There is a cause and effect chain that gets sets in motion. You can see the conditionality of how my hate conditioned certain behaviors in you and that ripples out into the world. It does not have to ripple out into the world. Some of you have spent 45 minutes meditation first, so you are cool and collected and you are tracking yourself and see how you have a choice. You may say to yourself, “I don’t know what Gil was about today. I’m just going to leave that at IMC and not take it with me.” So you get in your car and forget that I was being mean and drive home mindfully and clearly. You don’t get a traffic ticket. Or you leave here and are subject to whatever cause and effect process is happening out there. Thus there is a physical causal process that gets set in motion that sets up conditions.

That is not what the Buddha was talking about as karma. If you put a ball on the top of a hill and push it down, it will roll faster and faster. That is not karma—that is just how the ball works because of gravity. The karma theory of the Buddha has to do with the causal chain, the causal conditions that are set in motion directly by our intentions. The intentions themselves, especially when we act on them, operate in some kind of tracks. So we have to understand what kind of tracks that intentionality works at. For that, we have to see how intentionality works within ourselves. That is where the real primary track is. For example, there is the instant karma that we have. If we do something that is really generous and we feel really happy because of it, that sense of generosity instantly produces a sense of well being. That is called instant karma. But it also produces something down the line. One of the things that our actions produce is memory. We remember what we have done, and that memory is not something that disappears, but it can actually have a very profound influence in our lives. Meditators will sometimes see this because, especially during retreats, memories long since forgotten will bubble up. Those memories have not been forgotten deep in the psyche or body. They are somehow there and have not been noticed and we have been so busy dealing with our lives that we have not finished processing or dealing with those events. It is common for meditators to have all these memories bubbling up at 20 or 30 or 40 years old, because they are unfinished and the have to be finished. The mind has to process it. Sometimes they are unfortunate things we have done and we feel really bad about it. I have known people who have had to go make amends after 20 years. They call up someone and say, “Remember me?” And the other person says, “No.” “Well, I want to apologize.” When you get really quiet and still in the mind, when the mind gets really peaceful, it gets to a point where it realizes that further peace in the mind will not happen unless you somehow resolve some of the conflicts and issues that are unresolved. Or there can be really good memories that come back When I was beginning to meditate on a regular basis, I started having memories of when I was a child of six or seven or eight years old in which I had feelings of tremendous well being of laying in bed before I went to sleep. I felt complete and whole and very peaceful. When I started meditating as an adult, I had forgotten those memories and the felt sense of well being I had as a child. When I started meditating coming towards that edge of the possibility of that kind of well being and peace then those memories resurfaced. I did not have to resolve anything about it, but those memories resurfaced for me and became a support for me to go further into the happiness and well being that meditation can provide.

We carry our memories with us to certain degrees. Good memories can produce a sense of happiness and delight for a long time. Bad memories can produced the opposite for a long, long time. Still, if I think about certain things I did forty or thirty years ago, I actually feel kind of off—it still affects me. If I spend the whole day thinking about some of the things I did, by the end of the day, I would feel lousy because those memories have perhaps a charge and are not happy memories. The intentions we live by give us memories. The intentions we act on give us memories. Do not underestimate the power of those memories in our lives.

The other kind of track that intentions have is that they affect our physical body. When we act with fear, when fear is in our intention, then it produces tension and the body contracts. Anger and aversion also contract the body. If you live chronically trying to protect yourself from the world, if that is your intention, or if you live chronically in a state of greed or ambition in which the mind is always wanting, then the physical body is affected. You will also notice this if you start meditating regularly, because some of the holding patterns of the body get revealed and show themselves. People start noticing: “I did not know that my shoulders are so tense,” or “I did not know that I have so much tightness in my belly.” For example, I had just taught a month-long retreat. One person came to an interview with me after three weeks of the retreat. She basically said, “I did not know that I carried chronic tension in my belly.” This person was about fifty years old and realized that the tension had always been there throughout her adult life. But she had never noticed that it was there. She had kept a distance from it, but as her mind became very still in meditation, the chronic tension of fear in her belly revealed itself.

The intentions that we live with regularly will affect our body, and sooner or later we will have to come to terms with that. In the extreme form, it affects our health, and a person could become quite unhealthy because of the kind of tension they carry around.

Another way that tracked intentionality works within us is that it works by conditioning us. It sets up habit formation. As a habit gets formed, it becomes easier and easier to do that action and harder not to do that action. I have noticed that process, for example, if I get a little bit too enthusiastic or frantic about cleaning my house. I do a lot of cleaning and laundry and this and that and it becomes doing, doing, doing. At some point, when the basic stuff has been done, and I stop, I can sometimes feel that my mind is in a “have to do stuff” track—the momentum is still there and I can’t put it down. A habit is created. Some of us do the same things over and over again for decades. We are always trying to defend ourselves, or we are always trying to measure up to other people, or we are always judging other people to make ourselves safer, or we are always trying to make ourselves as comfortable as possible in every possible situation as we are driven by comfort. There are many very common habits that we have that represent a certain kind of motivation. The more we act on that, the more it can become a habit, and habits can be something that drives us, rather than we driving it. Addictions can be like that, addictions to cigarettes or alcohol or almost anything. We can even include the addiction to talk, for some people just cannot stop talking, and they have such a strong momentum, such a strong drive, to talk.

What is often said about intentions is that intentions are seeds. If you act on certain intentions, you are planting those certain seeds. You may plant seeds of hate, of greed, of lust, or of delusion. It is one thing to plant one seed, but if you keep planting them, then you keep nourishing them, keep watering them, and they grow and grow until they almost become our character.

So why is there this focus on intentions, why is it so important in Buddhist practice? It is because the world of our happiness and our inner peace is primarily a product of our intentions. That is a surprise for many people to hear because many people think that happiness is dependent on the stock market or who I manage to partner up with. Or they think that happiness depends on getting a good job. These things can be conditions for happiness, but it can be fleeting and unstable to have the world be the reason for why we are happy or unhappy. In order to become mature spiritually in Buddhism, we have to learn to be happy and at peace independently of the conditions of the world. If we are always looking for the conditions of the world to be just right, our happiness will be fleeting at best. But if you want your happiness to be stable, then you have to find the kind of happiness and peace that is independent of the conditions of the world. Whether or not you have a job, you have the capacity to be at peace with yourself. You can be happy whether or not you have a relationship, or whether or not you are healthy, or whether you have a good job or not, or whether you have recreational opportunities or not, or whether you have a good house or not. If we can learn to be happy independent of those conditions, then Buddhism says you have a stable happiness. That world of happiness that is stable has a lot to do with our intentions.

If we monitor our intentions and make choices based upon which motivations produce health and happiness and which do not, then it is possible to set in motion the conditions that make it possible to be happy. If you act on intentions of generosity or personal integrity, or on intentions of kindness, love, friendship, or compassion, then those are watering those seeds, and that will help to form and shape the inner life in a particular way. It forms in such a way that you are much more likely to discover the capacity for inner happiness. If you act on greed or hate or delusion, you create different kinds of internal conditions. I remember once when I lied to someone, and the lie seemed to help very much at that moment. But it set in motion all kinds of problems. There were problems in me because I felt I had to lie again to get around it and hide the lie. Then I was worried about getting caught, and it just became a mess. It creates a situation in which it is hard to be happy because you have to worry about your ethical integrity.

Certain intentions are conducive to creating more happiness and certain ones are not. The ones that will create a stable sense of happiness are the ones that are said to be health producing, skillful, or wholesome. They are based on love, generosity, and wisdom. Those are the primary roots for healthy motivations. If you want to be happy, or create the conditions for a more stable inner happiness, then you want to begin being the gardener or tender of your intentional world. You want to be able to stop and look carefully at what is motivating you to do this activity right now. You ask, “What is motivating me to do what I am about to do?” Learning to stop and consider your intentionality becomes a very important thing. You are in the present moment, you have gotten that far, and then you see that you have a choice, and then you can ask yourself, “What is my intention in the choice I want to make here? Why do I want to say what I am going to say?”

Speech is very interesting to do this analysis for, because most of the time we are not talking because the person we are talking to needs to have this important information. It is not about just giving information, as when someone asks you for directions on how to get to San Francisco. Speech acts have a lot of motivations and intentions around them. We may be trying to have a relationship with someone and trying to communicate much more than facts and information. We may be trying to accomplish much more, as when we are trying to show ourselves in a certain way—we want people to see us in a certain way, or we are trying to manipulate the situation. So what is the intention behind saying what you are going to say? Look at that and you will find it very interesting. Stop and look. Stop and pay attention.

One of the great supports for the study of intention is your physical body. To really be in touch with your body, to feel your body, to be in touch with the physical experience of being in a body, enables you to notice the tensions and release of tensions. You can notice the warmth and energy in your body. That becomes a very important guidepost for understanding your intentions. If your intentions are ones that are going to produce disease, you will feel that disease when having that intention. If you feel hate, you will feel physically what that is like in your body, the anger, and it just does not feel good. If you have genuine generosity, you will feel good, you will feel that physically. So it does not have to be only a mental analysis that tells you what the intention is here and what the results are. You can actually feel it in an embodied kind of way.

It helps to spend time reflecting on what your intentions are before you do certain activities. Sometimes you can plan ahead. For example, it can be small things, as simple as going to the market to go shopping. What is the intention? To get food—that is pretty simple, right? That’s fine, but it is a lost opportunity. What about infusing that shopping trip with some intention, “I will shop for food in such a way that I am really present for the experience of shopping,” as opposed to, “I’m going to get this over with as soon as I can so that I can get on with my life.” To be really present for shopping, as if that is the only important thing to do at that particular moment, has a different karmic effect than rushing through the job as quickly as we can so that we can get home to meditate. Or you could decide to go to the market and practice acts of kindness there, or practice being generous to the people there. You can do that, and if you start living your life making choices like that, it will tend to create a different kind of garden in your mind and in your heart than if you do not ever consider what your intentions are and you are just swept along by the winds of desire.

Also, it can be very helpful to spend some time thinking very deeply about big decisions in your life, as the intentions behind the work we have, or major turning points in our lives. Perhaps you can go off someplace for a few days or a week by yourself to really think very carefully and deeply. “What is my intention? What is my motivation? Why am I doing this?” I once spent a whole year looking at my intention and the purity of my intention before making a big decision for my life. It was a very productive time to look and look at what my intention was for doing that.

Another significant thing to do around intentions is to, on a regular basis, ask yourself and explore for yourself: what is the deepest intention that you want your life to be based on? What is the purpose or the motivation that you would like your life to be? That is an interesting one to do regularly because that can change and morph over time. It is interesting to watch it. If you keep doing it, you might be able to refine it or take it to deeper and deeper levels. For example, if you ask yourself, “What is the deepest intention for my life?” If it turns out that the answer is a negative statement, as the absence of something in the statement, “I would like to live without fear,” that is a great intention because some people are completely motivated by fear. That is a negative way of stating an intention. Turn it around and make it a positive statement and you might take it one step further. If I can live without fear, it means that I can connect in a deep loving way with other people. So that is my intention—to have a deep loving connection with other people. That is actually a whole different intention than saying that you want to live without fear.

According to Buddhist teachings, if we want to be the custodians of our happiness, we do not look at the world externally to make us happy. We become the caretakers of our own inner life. The primary way to do that is to work with our intentions. As we create greater health in our life to act on healthy intentions, it conditions the mind in ways to make it easier to practice the Buddhist path. As we practice with good intentions, it becomes easier to practice with good intentions in the future. More importantly, as we practice with good intentions and as we have a sense of happiness and an inner sense of well being, it becomes easier to let go of the things we are clinging to. This is one of the great secrets and one of the great aspects of Buddhist teachings. If you really want to be able to let go of the things that you are clinging to, it is easier to do that if you have some happiness and a sense of well being. Some of the things that are hardest to let go need help to allow you to let go of them. One of the deepest things we cling to is our sense of self, our self-identity, and our selfishness and self-preoccupation and self-concern. How can we in a healthy way let go of that? And how can I let go of my self-concern and still be OK. You can let go of your self-concern and self-attachments in the easiest way if you are first happy. Then you are still left with your happiness. You are not left with nothing or less or a blank state. You are left with your happiness and well being.

Finally, when you create the conditions in the mind and the heart, so that you have a sense of ease and well being and peace, it becomes easier to do the greatest letting go that the Buddha was pointing to, which is the experience of liberation or freedom. This is to have an experience of the mind and the heart that has been liberated from all intentions. Isn’t that great? The point is not to keep endlessly having intentions. The point is to put the conditions together so that you can have the experience of letting go of all intentions. Then you might say, “Wait a minute. I wasn’t concerned at all about my intentions until I came here and heard this talk!” But actually, unless you have some degree of liberation, intentionality is part of every moment of human consciousness. Somehow, every moment of human consciousness is filtered or informed or influences by intentionality. Most of the time, we do not have a clue that it is operating. It just operates unconsciously or subconsciously. We want stuff; we don’t want stuff; this and that; trying to figure things out. Even when the mind thinks about things, it generally has some intentions. There is some direction towards which we are trying to go. You might feel quite peaceful and at ease because the flow of intentionality is unobstructed, but still intentionality is there. The tremendous treasure of Buddhist practice is to point to that possibility of a mind and a heart which is resting or settled on itself in such a way that it is not driven by intentionality at all. The intentionality disappears completely. The mind is not trying to get anything or do anything. And since the idea of self has so much to do with intentionality, the self disappears. The mind and heart have a sense of being present in the world which is transparent and luminous and at peace. It is not about me anymore. It is not about what it can get for me or what it can do for me. It just is.

So I hope that this has made Buddhist karma theory a little more understandable and showed you also that you are responsible. You are in the driver’s seat. Thank you.