6. The Five Spiritual Faculties

5. The Three Characteristics   |  7. The Seven Factors of Awakening

The five spiritual faculties are said to be like a cart with four wheels and a driver. If any of the four wheels is too small, wobbly, or not in balance with the others, then the going on the spiritual road will be rough. The four wheels symbolize faith, wisdom, energy, and concentration. If the driver is not paying attention there will also be problems. The driver symbolizes mindfulness. [See SN 48.18, also Visuddhimagga, IV, 45.2.]

This is a really useful teaching and quite a fine list. The trick is that faith and wisdom must both be strengthened and kept in balance, as must energy and concentration. Mindfulness may always be increased, so for this one the sky is the limit, but no need to obsess about it. 

This list sounds simple and perhaps obvious, but there is much more to this than meets the eye, and on the spiritual path it is worth checking up on ourselves regularly to determine if the first four are strong and in balance and if we can be just a bit more mindful. Later, if you find yourself caught up in the insight and concentration maps, the stages to attain, etc., and find yourself having problems, remember to return to and reread these sections, as the answer is probably found here.

Faith and Wisdom

Let’s start with faith and wisdom. Lack of faith can lead to cynicism, giving up, half-hearted effort, and bitterness. Excess faith can lead to blind adherence, dogma, sectarian arrogance, being disappointed or disillusioned when you realize that your teachers do not meet all your expectations, an inability to realistically examine and revise your approach to spirituality when necessary, and many other problems. Insufficient wisdom can lead to stupidity, blindness, gullibility, and narrow-minded or agenda-motivated interpretations of the teachings.

Wisdom can become distorted by the intellect and this can lead to harmful or treacherous cleverness and vanity about our insights, which can lead to spiritual bullying and megalomania, rather than mature, heartful wisdom. Lack of wisdom can lead to an overemphasis on acquiring knowledge over practice and direct experience, and desperate attempts to think your way to enlightenment. (Note: Zen koan training at its best is something else entirely.) 

You can see that an excess of intellect is often a sign of a lack of faith, and an excess of faith is often marked by a lack of wisdom. When faith and wisdom are in balance there is a heartfelt steadiness, a quality of balanced and genuine inquiry, an ability to persevere, and with these an unmistakable humility. Faith at its best produces deep gratitude for life in all its richness, for its lessons, difficulties, and blessings, and for the chance to awaken. It provides enthusiasm, galvanizes energy, serves as a support in times of trouble, and allows us to move forward without holding back. Faith allows us to realize that some truly brilliant, dedicated, and wise people have come before us and left effective methods and maps that we can follow to achieve what they achieved. 

Wisdom at its best comes from deep and direct perceptual investigation of life as it is, right here and right now, and goes far beyond the reach of reason and rational thought, transcending the paradoxes that these inevitably create. In the end, wisdom and faith converge.

How do we apply this teaching? Most of us will suffer from imbalances of wisdom or faith with some regularity. So, if something in your practice seems off, just check in with the five spiritual faculties and ask yourself, “Could I perhaps work on strengthening wisdom, faith, or bringing them into balance?” This is a powerful question and if we are willing to be honest with ourselves, engaging it can correct a lot of errors on the spiritual path.

Another good way to apply this teaching is to review the symptoms of imbalance above and ask ourselves if any of them apply to us. This is an easy way to identify what might need some attention. If you start fixating on the maps presented later, wisdom has become distorted and imbalanced, and you should work on having faith that simple techniques relating to this moment applied again and again will move things along.

Energy and Concentration

The same principles apply to energy and concentration; they must both be strengthened but also in balance. With insufficient energy, there is sloth, torpor, dullness, and tiredness. When there is excess energy, the mind and body may be restless, agitated, jumpy, strained, tense, and irritable. With excess energy, we may be completely unable to focus at all because we are overemphasizing effort at the expense of focusing on the object of meditation.

With insufficient concentration, the mind won’t stay with its chosen meditation object and tends to get lost in thought or snagged by stories. With excess concentration, we can become strained due to focusing too narrowly and tightly for reality to “breathe”. Again, too much energy is related to a lack of concentration and vice versa. It is very common for people to forget these straightforward guidelines and forget to look back at a simple list like this one for help. Again, if after reading Parts Three and Four you have trouble, reread this section and see if it helps. When this balance is right, the posture is straight and steady but not rigid, and the mind is bright and focused steadily on objects and their back-and-forth interplay. 

Pay attention to how your practice is going and adjust the levels of energy and concentration accordingly. Finding the balance takes time, and may require regular readjustment as we learn to use the power of our minds. Sometimes it is helpful to be very gentle with our attention, as if we were trying to feel the wind on our skin from the flapping of a nearby butterfly’s wings. Sometimes it is helpful to use our attention like a machine gun. Often, we do just fine somewhere in between.

A willingness to tinker with various combinations of energy and concentration produces the necessary personal experience to figure out what helps and what is too much or too little. Many of the problems that meditators ask meditation teachers about relate directly to balancing energy and concentration, so engage with what that might mean and see if you can apply this powerful teaching to help you see clearly.

As the balance of energy and concentration matures, it may feel, strangely, that there is little energy or much concentration. Things may be perceived clearly and with very little effort. Experience may seem quite spacious and inclusive rather than narrowly focused and concentrated. These surprise many people, and they may cling to a less mature phase of developing concentration, which feels narrow and tight, and the less mature phase of developing energy, which feels effortful. When energy and concentration mature, the feel is spacious and easy, natural and clear, gentle and broad, rich and subtle, all at once. Everything is just showing itself all the way through on its own.

As we apply effort to practice and build concentration, our mind will grow stronger. This in general is a great thing, but can also have a downside, which is that however we happen to be when our mind is more energetic and concentrated is written more strongly into our brain, and thus our habits and personality. Therefore, when cultivating an energetic and concentrated mind, guard it well and direct it to skillful practices and ways of being so that skillfulness is written deep into the mind, rather than things like rage, jealousy, terror, or conceit. Do not allow the mind to go down unskillful tracks and channels for longer than it takes to honestly recognize that it is doing that, or those harmful mental habits and tendencies will be written in your mind with that same power.

When energy and concentration come online without mindfulness being strong enough, the mind may be prone to getting caught in obsessive thinking fueled by the strong energy and concentration, so watch for this and generally stay grounded in physical objects, such as the feet and the breath, until some more skill is developed. This is particularly common a few days into a retreat.

A cultivated mind is like a fire. The hotter the fire, the more it can accomplish useful ends, like cook food or melt iron for forging. However, the hotter the fire, the more it can get out of control and burn things down if not properly tended and monitored. Thus, when practicing, particularly on retreat, but also in daily life, be careful and respectful of the power of an energetic and concentrated mind. Use it skillfully, just as you would any powerful tool. Imagine that a very strong mind is like an acetylene cutting torch—useful for cutting through things (like delusion), yet capable of hurting self and others if not properly handled. Keep this analogy in mind, remember training in morality, and you will likely do much better in your practice.


Mindfulness is in a category all by itself, as it can potentially balance and perfect the remaining four spiritual faculties. This does not mean that we shouldn’t be informed by the other two pairs, but that mindfulness is extremely important. Mindfulness means knowing what is as it is right now. It is the quality of mind that knows things as they are. Really, it is the quality of sensations manifesting as they are, where they are, and on their own. However, initially it appears to be something we create and cultivate, and that is okay for the time being. [The double entendre related to “time being” is intentional, in case you were wondering.] If you are trying to perceive the sensations that make up your experience clearly and to know what they are, you are balancing energy and concentration, and faith and wisdom. Due to energy, the mind is alert and attentive. Due to concentration, it is stable. Faith here may also mean acceptance, and wisdom here is clear comprehension.

Notice that this has nothing to do with some vague spacing out in which we wish that reality would go away and our thoughts would never arise again. I don’t know where people get the notion that vague and escapist aversion to experience and thought are related to insight practice, but it seems to be a common one. Mindfulness means being very clear about our human, mammalian reality as it is. It is about being here now. Truth is found in the ordinary sensations that make up our experience. If we are not mindful of them or reject them because we are looking for “progress”, “depth”, or “transcendence”, we will be unable to appreciate what they have to teach, and be unable to do insight practices.

The five spiritual faculties have also been presented in another order that can be useful: faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom. In this order, they apply to each of the three trainings, the first of which, as discussed earlier, is morality. We have faith that training in morality is a good idea and that we can do it, so we exert energy to live up to a standard of clear and skillful living. We realize that we must pay attention to our thoughts, words, and deeds in order to do this, so we try to be mindful of them. We realize that we often fail to pay attention, so we try to increase our ability to concentrate on how we live our life. In this way, through experience, we become wiser in a relative sense, learning how to live a good and useful life. Seeing our skill improve and the benefits it has for our life, we generate more faith, and so on.

With respect to training in concentration, we may have faith that we might be able to attain high states of consciousness, so we sit down on a cushion and energetically try to stabilize our attention and tune in to skillful qualities. We realize that we cannot stabilize our attention without mindfulness of our object and of the qualities of the state we wish attain. We develop strong concentration by consistently stabilizing our attention. We attain high states of concentration and thus gain a direct understanding of how to navigate in that territory and the meaning and purpose of doing so. Our success creates more faith, and so we apply energy to further develop our concentration abilities.

With the faith borne of the experience yielded by strong concentration, we begin to think it might be possible to awaken, so we energetically explore all the sensations that make up our world. With an alert and energetic mind, we mindfully explore this heart, mind, and body just as it is now. Reality becomes more and more interesting, so our concentration grows, and this combination of the first four produces fundamental wisdom. Wisdom leads to more faith, and the cycle goes around again.

The teaching of the five spiritual faculties has also been explored at great length in many books, and there really is a lot of depth and nuance to it. In its simple form, you can easily apply it, and at critical times it can really help. Balance and strengthen. Strengthen and balance. These are the cycles we go through with these faculties, and there is no limit to the level at which they can be mastered.

It is aptly said that when balanced and perfected, the five spiritual faculties as they apply to insight training are a sufficient cause for awakening.

5. The Three Characteristics   |  7. The Seven Factors of Awakening