7. The Seven Factors of Awakening
The seven factors of awakening are:
We have three concepts from the five spiritual faculties (mindfulness, energy, and concentration) and four that seem new but have already been touched on to some degree. The order here is closely related to the stages of insight, which is a map of the standard stages through which diligent insight meditators cycle. This connection is a more advanced topic that will be explored in Part Four.
The seven factors of awakening might be regarded as a pyramid with mindfulness as the base and each factor supporting or facilitating the next higher factor. However, every factor is important at every stage as well.
Mindfulness has been covered above, but in terms of practice I will say that mindfulness can be very useful in sorting out which sensations are mental and which are physical. We need to know the elemental sensations that make up our world. This is the crucial foundation of insight practices. Not surprisingly, the first classic insight that leads to all the others is called “knowledge of mind and body” and arises when we learn to clearly distinguish between the two as they occur.
So, with mindfulness we sort out what is somatic, what is visual, what is mental, what is auditory, what is pleasant, what is unpleasant, what is neutral, etc. We can know what is a mental sensation and what is a related physical feeling. We can know what specific mental and physical sensations make up our emotions and where they occur. We can know each physical sensation and the mental impression that follows it. We can know a sight and the mental impression that follows it, a physical sensation that follows it, even a thought and the mental impression that follows it. We can know the intentions that precede physical and mental actions. We can know the sensations that imply mind-states, knowing a clear mind as a clear mind, a dull mind as a dull mind, an agitated mind as an agitated mind, a focused mind as a focused mind, an expansive mind as an expansive mind, etc., as each of those mind-states and mental qualities are implied by various aspects of the myriad sensations that arise.
We can know where sensations are in relation to each other. We can know exactly when they occur and how they change during their very brief stay. We can and should sort these out as best we can. Be patient and precise. Become fluent in all the sensations and patterns that make up your reality. Increasing our direct sensate clarity through repeated attention to doing so is the point of mindfulness in this context. We are wiring the machine of our brain to be able to be more present to exactly what is going on in our experience. These two paragraphs contain formal insight practice instructions, so perhaps go back and read them a few times.
While I have tried to avoid advocating one specific insight tradition or technique over any other, there is an exercise that you might find helpful when trying to develop strong mindfulness. It is commonly called “noting”, and has its origins in Sutta 111 of the Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha (or Majjhima Nikaya [MN], very worthwhile reading), usually referred to as MN 111, called “One by One as They Occurred”, and in MN 10, Satipatthana Sutta (variously translated as “Four Foundations of Mindfulness”, or “Frames of Reference”, etc.), as well as Sutta 22, Mahasatipatthana Sutta (“Greater Discourse on Mindfulness”) of the Long Discourses of the Buddha (or Digha Nikaya [DN]), usually referred to as DN 22. Noting is used primarily in the Mahasi Sayadaw insight tradition from Burma, though related exercises can be found in various Zen traditions, notably Soto Zen and Korean Chan, such as repeatedly asking, “What is this?”
Noting is the exercise that gained for me the most breaks and insights in my early practice, particularly when done on retreats, and because of that my enthusiasm for it is extreme. I still consider it the core foundation of my early to middle practice, the technique that I fell back on when things turned difficult or when I really wanted to push deep into new insight territory. Thus, of all the techniques and emphases I mention in this book, take this one the most seriously and give it the most attention. Its simplicity belies its astonishing power.
The practice is this: make a quiet, mental one-word note of whatever you experience in each moment. Try to stay with the sensations of breathing, which may occur in many places, noting these quickly as “rising” (as many times as the sensations of the breath rising are experienced) and then “falling” in the same way. These are the fundamental insight practice instructions. When the mind wanders, notes might include “thinking”, “feeling”, “pressure”, “tension”, “wandering”, “anticipating”, “seeing”, “hearing”, “cold”, “hot”, “pain”, “pleasure”, etc.
Note these sensations one by one as they occur and then return to the sensations of breathing. When walking, note the feet moving as “lifting” and “placing”, or as “lifting”, “moving”, and “placing” as you perceive each of the many sensations of all those processes, noticing other sensations as they arise and returning simply to the sensations of the feet walking.
The details of this practice can be found in such books as Practical Insight Meditation, by Mahasi Sayadaw, which I highly recommend, available free online in various places and in book form. This is my all-time favorite dharma book. It is short and to the point. Its instructions work and the promised effects are reproducible. The first forty-two pages are total gold. There is no need for me to repeat much of the useful information found there, as it is pithy and now readily available online.
Put another way, not reading Practical Insight Meditation about five times would be a little crazy if you care about these techniques and what they can lead to. I simply followed the instructions in it and the instructions of my teachers who taught me that same technique, and great things happened. For a deeper and more complete dive into the amazing world of Mahasi Sayadaw, his masterwork Manual of Insight is now available (Wisdom, 2016) and is very highly recommended for anyone wanting to practice insight meditation. Still, if you understood what was in Practical Insight Meditation from your own experience, you would be way ahead of most practitioners.
Here are some valuable tips for successful noting:
• Don’t get too neurotic about whether you have exactly the correct noting label for what arises. Stick to simple noting and move on.
• Noting should be as consistent and continuous as possible, perhaps one to five times per second (speed and an ability to keep noting no matter what arises are very important).
• Anything that derails your noting practice deserves fearless noting the next time it arises.
• Note honestly and precisely.
So long as you note whatever arises, you know that you were mindful of it. Noticing each sensation and those that follow, you will see their actual nature. Seeing their actual nature, you will gain profound insights directly. What the sensations are doesn’t matter one bit from the point of view of noting practice. What is important is that you know what they are. The difference between these two perspectives should be clearly understood. This practice is directly related to koan practices such as, “What is it?”, and is loosely related to breathing exercises where you count breaths from one to ten.
One of my best insight meditation teachers, Venerable Sayadaw U Rajinda, would hold interviews every two days while I was on my third retreat at a beautiful center in Penang, Malaysia, that was very conducive to practice. I would come in and describe all sorts of experiences that I was all excited about, and he would listen calmly to me go on and on and then finally ask, “Did you note it?” That was almost all he ever said.
It was amazing how easy it was to forget that simple instruction, and equally amazing how extremely useful it was when I remembered to follow it. He didn’t seem to care about anything other than that I grew to know my reality as it was with great precision and consistency. I knew very little theory then, but during those two weeks I practiced noting quickly all day long and made the fastest progress I have ever made in my life, getting all the way to the very brink of first awakening in a mere fourteen-day retreat. Since that time, I have been a big fan of this particularly direct and down-to-earth method.
There are many techniques for waking up to the truth of our experience, of which noting is just one. I have found noting practice to be extremely powerful and fast, but each person must find what works for them. The trick is to get to know our reality as it is, and what techniques we use to do this do not matter much so long as they work and bring results. What is meant by “results” will be clearly spelled out in The Progress of Insight in Part Four.
Once we start to know what our objects are, what our actual reality is, we can get down to the good stuff: knowing the truth of these things called, appropriately, “investigation of the truth” or “investigation of the dharma” (Pali dhamma). Dharma here just means “truth”, and it is sometimes used to mean the specific truths the Buddha taught. The word can also mean moments of experience, the actual, flickering sensate basis of our world, and it is these dhammas that we investigate. So, once mindfulness has made these dhammas, these moments of experience, a bit clearer, we can know that things come and go, don’t satisfy, and ain’t us. Hey, the three characteristics again! They are the truth; the sooner we understand this the better, and nothing helps us understand them like seeing them again and again. [My apologies for the seeming arbitrariness with which I use either Pali or phoneticized Sanskrit, or their English equivalents, for that matter. I have no loyalty to either Pali or Sanskrit though I appreciate both, and why sometimes one sounds better to my ear than the other in any particular context is unclear to me.]
Forgive this brief digression, but I am no fan of the popular term “mindfulness meditation”, as mindfulness is a mental factor that is essential for both concentration practices (which lead to temporary bliss states) and insight practices (which lead to fundamental freedom). Further, the “mindfulness meditation” movement tends to emphasize a degree of slowness in their mindfulness that I consider woefully inadequate to really penetrate what is going on in the sensate world, which is fast, rich, and intricate. Our minds are amazingly fast and powerful. Very slow investigation is sort of like using a Ferrari as a golf cart: a total waste of amazing power.
The crucial difference between insight practices and concentration practices is that insight practices also stress precise, rapid investigation of the three characteristics, whereas more “pure” concentration practices emphasize stabilizing in the illusion of solidity and continuity of those things we are mindful of while ignoring the fact that the sensations that make up this experience are all impermanent, etc. Thus, I hope that one day the modern meditation world drops this confusing term “mindfulness meditation” in favor of more precise language. The problem is that labeling something “mindfulness meditation” seems to imply that mindfulness alone is the preeminent or only factor required for meditation, whereas the seven factors of awakening clearly indicate that mindfulness is just one of seven requisites for successful insight practice.
In addition to the categories of sensations mentioned above under “Mindfulness”, we could also consider consistent investigation of all sensations that seem to have to do with the direction and movement of attention, as well as investigating all sensations that have to do with questioning, wanting, exerting energy, and even the individual sensations that make up the process of investigation itself. These are very interesting objects, as are what are traditionally called the “hindrances”.
Texts on meditation generally go into detail about the hindrances to meditation. Here I will mention them only briefly. The hindrances are an extremely important topic, but they can easily begin to seem more ominous than they really are. The hindrances are formally listed as:
• sensory desire
• ill will or malice
Each of these states of mind will inhibit meditative progress if we are not aware of them as sensate objects for investigation as they arise. If you need more advice on them, you can go online and find much information on them, or read any great text on insight meditation, such as Venerable Bhante Gunaratana’s Mindfulness in Plain English, or Jack Kornfield’s A Path with Heart. For one of the most extensive and methodical step-wise discussions of the fine details of how to cultivate attention and deal with the gross and subtle hindrances ever written, see Culadasa’s excellent and very popular The Mind Illuminated, often abbreviated “TMI” in my social circles. There is no need for me to reproduce all the excellent advice you will find in these top-notch and widely available books. Read at least one if not all of them.
Hindrances are anything of which we were not mindful and of which we did not investigate the truth. Now that we know to be mindful and investigate the three characteristics of all moment-to-moment experiences, there will only be hindrances when we forget to do this. If we do not forget, there will be no hindrances. No phenomenon is inherently a hindrance unless we do not understand the sensations that make it up.
If we did not understand at least one of the three characteristics of each of the sensations that make up a phenomenon, no matter what it is, it is a hindrance. Remember that dwelling on the content of reality is not our concern in insight meditation, but instead we focus on the bare truth of the sensations that make up that reality. So, whatever seems to be in the way of your practice, remember that the experience of that moment is the practice and contains all the truth you could ever need! All phenomena, if properly investigated, can be a source of wisdom and demonstrate the nature of ultimate truth. When we know deeply that all of these are of the nature of ultimate truth, phenomena cease to be a fundamental problem. Specifically, noticing the many little rapid sensations that make up sensory desire, ill will, sloth, torpor, restlessness, worry, and doubt is insight practice. Sometimes noticing what those really are is more profound and useful than noticing aspects of our intended primary object.
There is an important shift that happens when we go from caring so much about what is going on, such as judgment, boredom, restlessness, or whatever, and switch to caring about whether we knew the sensations of what was going on. A meditator who doesn’t get this might get all stressed about their mind wandering. A more seasoned insight meditator is excited when they can note, “wandering” and perceive the wandering as sensations. See the difference? The same goes for all the other “hindrances”, since, if you note them, they aren’t hindrances. “Doubt”, “fear”, “irritation”, “dullness”, and the like are all great notes to make whenever those arise. You can note them again and again if they tend to linger, and that noting of those qualities is solid insight practice. Yay, noting! In this way, we gradually transform the hindrances from an impediment to practice into a reason to practice, then we transform them into an integral part of the practice itself, and finally we find them as much a basis of wisdom as anything else.
The Buddha was a master of teaching through stories and analogies that were easy for listeners to understand. I am certainly not in his league in this regard, as will be clearly demonstrated by the coming analogy relating to investigation. However, it has its points, and so after much consideration, I have included it here.
The Buddha gave his analogies names, and I have named this one “The Analogy of Shootin’ Aliens”. Bear with me here! Just about all of us today have at least seen if not played video games involving shooting aliens. As the game goes on, the aliens come in faster and faster, some requiring many hits to kill them. Some of these games penalize us for wasting ammunition, causing us to really focus on exactly where and when these aliens are appearing, so that we may shoot them exactly when they show up before they shoot us.
A few of you may already be thinking, “Get that bloody and violent analogy out of this book of wisdom!” However, if you would bother to read the old texts, you will realize that they report that the Buddha himself used many similarly edgy and even gory analogies. One that comes to mind has to do with a horse trainer who kills horses that simply will not be broken, which is meant as an analogy for a teacher who stops teaching students who are not able to be taught (Anguttara Nikaya [AN] 4.111).
Anyway, in this analogy the aliens are all the little sensations that make up our experience. Shooting them means paying attention to them and seeing their true nature, perhaps with the aid of noting practice (like a gun with a laser sight on it). The aliens shooting us is what happens when we do not see their true nature, as they become a hindrance, binding us in misperception for however long we fail to shoot them. Some may even take us out of the game (causing us to stop practicing entirely). The seemingly huge aliens that take multiple hits to kill are our own big issues, those things that are difficult for us to break into their composite sensations, termed “bosses” in video game parlance. Being penalized for shooting wastefully is what can happen if we note sensations that we didn’t experience because we fell into repetitive, imprecise, mantra-like noting habits.
Further, the speed, precision, and playful attitude required for video games is exactly like the feel of well-done insight practice. If you watch a kid playing a fast alien-shooting game, you will notice that they are really going for it. They are shooting very fast and thinking of nothing but doing that. This is exactly the sort of dedication and passion that helps with insight practice as we delve with penetrating insight into all the little sensations that make up our perceived objects and ourselves. I have met many adults who might arrogantly criticize a skilled gamer for wasting time playing video games when that same critical adult couldn’t come anywhere near to matching the gamer’s skills in rapid recognition and moment-to-
moment sustained concentration. Be like the gamer, not the critical adult. Have fun with your reality and blaze!
When our mindfulness and investigation are on hair trigger, being aware of every little sensation that arises and passes, we are bound to win sooner or later. The motto, “note first, ask questions later,” is so helpful if we are to keep practicing precisely without getting lost in the stories. Again, off the cushion the stories can have some value if not taken too seriously. On the cushion, take no prisoners: “Note ‘em all, and let God sort ‘em out!” This is seemingly extreme but actually very powerful and profound advice. Do not dismiss lightly “The Analogy of Shootin’ Aliens”.
Where “The Analogy of Shootin’ Aliens” breaks down is that these aliens want attention, recognition, understanding, and acceptance, and who could blame them? They come to us so that we will welcome them clearly and openly, but if we fail to do this they can get very troublesome. Their little alien hearts are being broken when we don’t get to know them as they are, so who can blame them when they get mischievous and try to trick us into paying more attention to them by causing trouble? Sure, it’s a bit childish of them, but we don’t always get to meet mature and well-adjusted aliens.
Thus, rather than killing our aliens by shooting them, we give them what they want by acknowledging, noticing, or noting them. We don’t invite the pretty ones to stay with us forever, nor do we ignore the boring aliens. We don’t kick out the ugly ones, either. Like a politician on the campaign trail, we extend a hand to all, say, “Hello!” and then quickly do this for lots of others. When we meet them, greet them, get to know, accept, and even love them, they go away happy.
I realize that I’ve just gone from apparently violent to apparently mushy, but somewhere in there is what insight practice is all about. We are simultaneously tearing down the illusion of a fixed and unchanging self while really getting to know and accept ourselves as we are in any given moment. Fun stuff! This specific video game is the most exciting, intimate, relevant, and amazing one I have ever played, and I highly recommend it. For those unfamiliar with it, it’s called “Reality”.
I have already mentioned many possible exercises, perspectives, and emphases that may be used when exploring our reality for the purpose of awakening, and I will continue to mention more as we go along. However, I recommend that the foundation of your practice be investigation of the three characteristics of the sensations that make up your reality. If you find it too complicated to try to investigate all three characteristics at once, then I recommend quick and precise investigation of impermanence. If that seems too difficult, I have found the simple practice of noting very quickly to be more than sufficiently powerful for gaining clear and direct insights into the true nature of things. Should you find that the many instructions and avenues of inquiry I present are too confusing, remember this paragraph and stick to these simple but profound practices. “When in doubt, note it out!”
We diligently investigate the ultimate truth of our experience, and this can be invigorating once we get into it. Just as playing video games can be very exciting, we have lots of sensations coming in all the time that are just screaming to be understood. When we rise to this challenge, things can really begin to jump.
Once we have sorted out what is mind and what is body and have begun to see a bit of the three characteristics, this can produce lots of energy, the third of the seven factors. This can be a bit scary until we get used to how quick and powerful our minds can be. As mentioned in the five spiritual faculties, energy is a good thing, as it obviously fuels and invigorates our practice. We can almost always call up just a bit more energy when we need it, and this is a good thing to realize. However, being mindful and investigating diligently can also increase energy, so now you have more than one way to go about this. Thank you, seven factors of awakening!
Too much of a good thing, however, can be trouble. I personally was blessed by an abundance of natural energy, and this, coupled with periods of really pushing myself in practice, has shown me that we can go way too far into the territory of hyper-energized practice, and this can fry us. Tranquility, which will be discussed below, is the natural counterbalance to energy, and in that and subsequent sections I will talk about how to try to balance our practice, realizing that this balance will be a moving target. If you are on the runway to Crazyland from jacking the energy too high for too long, figure out how to gently settle into the things that are arising naturally on their own rather than pouring energy into practice. Reality is constantly showing up in amazing detail, and if your mind is receptive, all that detail will reveal itself without you having to do much of anything, and that is the best kind of energy—energy that doesn’t really feel like energy but gets the job done.
One of the keys to mobilizing energy is motivation, so if energy is lacking, try to remember why you are doing all of this. I personally can think of lots of reasons, but will focus on the major ones:
• Because you are suffering, dissatisfied, or miserable and want to put a stop to the aspects of suffering that can be ended by skillful mental and perceptual development.
• Because you are curious about how the mind works, who you are and are not, what you can learn to do with your mind, and the like.
• Because you want to help others and so wish to transform yourself, your understanding, and your abilities for the better to make service to the world easier.
• Because challenges inspire you, as in, Q: “Why did you climb that mountain?” A: “Because it was there!”
• Because you can see how much better things could be if you were to transform your mind in specific ways related to practice—the flipside of the suffering coin.
• Because you want to finish what you have already started.
• Because waking up is just so totally cool!
All the above may figure into your reasons for mobilizing energy in practice, and reconnecting with them when the energy is low can help.
When energy comes online with mindfulness and investigation, this can produce something called “rapture”, which has two general meanings, the first of which relates to deep joy, pleasure, and enthusiasm. These are valuable spiritual qualities. Ye of dark puritanical tendencies take heed of this! It is much easier going on the spiritual path if we are generally enthusiastic, and not overly grim about what we are doing.
This should be no surprise, but somehow it is often overlooked. I’m not advocating hedonistic Epicureanism here (nor particularly condemning it either, if done skillfully), but to walk the spiritual path with a sense of joy, a sense of wonder, a bit of a smile and especially a sense of humor is good for you and everyone who must be near you. Sure, there will be hard times and difficulties that can have good lessons to teach us, but be open to the joy and happiness life can bring.
Natural wonder really helps many things, including and specifically investigation. Reality is simply amazing. Our minds are amazing. The vast intricacy of what happens in each moment is truly remarkable. When you sit, sit with amazement at what is going on, like a vast, complex, rich work of moving, fluxing art. When you walk, walk with a sense of wonder at all the little aspects of movement, of balancing, of a body moving through the air, through a changing landscape, with all the little facets that make that up. The feel of our foot touching the floor, earth, sand, grass, moss, leaves, stones, or whatever we are walking on is simply amazing. Air is amazing. Breathing is amazing. That we think is amazing. Food is amazing. Have you really looked at a glass of water lately? When tasting, smelling, hearing, seeing, feeling, thinking, speaking, eating, and doing anything else, really tune in to how fascinating it is to perceive all these things. This natural curiosity, this enchantment with the experience of the ordinary world, is total gold.
Practitioners who incorporate natural wonder into their practice will do much better, have a much better time, and be much more fun to be around than those who don’t. Reconnect with that effortless wonder that children have about themselves and their world. If things get dark, difficult, painful, dull, lifeless, heartless, frustrating, edgy, or boring, reconnect with this meaning of the word rapture and see if you can find something amazing about every moment: you will be glad you did.
Spiritual practice can also produce all kinds of odd experiences, some of which can be very intense, bizarre, and far out. This is the second common connotation of the word “rapture”, and these experiences are commonly referred to in this and other traditions as “raptures”. So, when the word is in the singular, “rapture”, this means being enraptured with your sensate world. It can also mean an upwelling of pleasant euphoria, as we will see in the section that maps concentration states. However, when I use the word in the plural, “raptures”, this means strange meditation side effects. Some of these experiences that I will refer to generically as raptures might be pleasant, some may be weird, and some might completely suck.
All the strange physical sensations, pains, pleasures, movements, visions, lights, perception distortions, energetic phenomena, muscle tensions, etc., which may or may not show up as a result of spiritual practice are all just raptures. Repeat, just raptures. Don’t get hung up on them or spin stories out of them, as compelling as they can be, and don’t think that they are required or a mark of authenticity or spiritual superiority either: they are not. The sensations that make them up come, go, don’t satisfy, and ain’t you. Most are just byproducts of meditation and strong concentration. Some produce zero wisdom. Some can be disorienting and troubling. Some, of course, can provide deep insights into the truth of things, but don’t get stuck on these. Many of these lessons show up once and never again.
Some people can get so serious and fixated on suffering that they fight the pleasant raptures and even cling to the difficult ones. Don’t do this! The joy and pleasure that may arise in meditation have wonderful healing aspects to them, and can lead to deep tranquility, concentration, and equanimity, which are all good things that support further practice. On the other hand, you don’t want to cling to pleasant states either, as you will just get stuck and be frustrated when they end, which they always do. In general, if you try to fight or cling to raptures you will get stuck, and if you can accept them as they are, you will benefit. See equanimity at the end of this list, as well as the expertly written chapter nine of A Path with Heart, by Jack Kornfield, whose whole book is well worth reading.
This is a good place for me to mention the concept of vedana, a Pali word that relates to the degree of pleasantness, unpleasantness, or neutrality of a sensation. We have no similar word in English (and probably not in whatever language you might be reading this in), so perhaps we should just use the word vedana as it is. If we pay too much exclusive attention to sensations that are pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, while ignoring the other sensations going on at that time, we are likely to miss many opportunities for insight. Preoccupation with pleasant sensations can cause us to become vapid bliss-junkies. Preoccupation with unpleasant sensations can cause us to become dark and depressed. Preoccupation with neutral sensations can cause us to become dull and emotionally flat. (Thanks to Christopher Titmuss, one of my more important meditation teachers, for the inspiration for this paragraph.)
Our experience tends to be a complex mixture of many flavors of sensations. They are all quite worthy of investigation. Becoming fluent in the vast range of our varied experiences makes meditation much more interesting, workable, and broad; and is required to pass the final exam, as it were.
The take-home here is that rapture and raptures are to be understood as they are and should be related to wisely, accepting all sensations that make them up, be they pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Learn when to put the brakes on practice if the difficult raptures are teaching you their important lessons a bit too fast for you to keep it together, and learn how to open to the wonderful joy and bliss that spiritual practice may sometimes produce.
Joy, bliss, and rapture are relatively satisfying things, and this satisfaction can produce tranquility. We can associate being peaceful with tranquility. Focusing on tranquility and a more spacious and silent perspective in the face of difficult raptures can help you ride them out, and just sitting silently and observing reality do its thing can be very powerful practice. There are whole schools of spiritual practice dedicated to this. Thus, tranquility is a good thing in meditation. We may think of great spiritual masters being internally tranquil, and while it may or may not be true, there are reasons that we associate tranquility with spirituality. A mind that is not tranquil will have a harder time concentrating and being balanced. Simple as that. Being kind and moral also help develop tranquility, as moral conduct lessens harsh and therefore agitating thought and behavior patterns, which necessarily obstruct tranquility.
This does not mean that agitated, non-tranquil moments are not “spiritual”, or that we must adopt some sort of restrained and artificial flatness. Remember, all types of sensations, mind states, and actions are valid phenomena for investigation and real expressions of what is going on. Authentic tranquility comes from a deep understanding of this, but all too often this ideal becomes a dehumanizing exercise in passivity or robotic lack of emotional affect. Real tranquility often comes naturally, though it may be skillfully cultivated as well, such as by just tuning in to that quality as an exercise in calm abiding, or more formally by doing concentration practices and cultivating deep states of stillness and peace, the afterglow of which can be very useful for investigation if we can rouse up a little energy and interest afterwards. Cultivating equanimity of the kind mentioned later is helpful for developing tranquility, as is deepening in pure concentration practices, the second spiritual training. Tranquility, concentration, and equanimity are intimately related.
Concentration we have seen twice before, and we will see it again in much more detail in Part Three, so I will give it a short treatment here. One of the challenges of deep tranquility is keeping the mind concentrated. This may seem like a direct contradiction to what I have just said, but there may be stages of practice where there can be so much tranquility that the mind can become dull and hard to focus. So, just as tranquility is good for concentration and acceptance, too much is similar to not having enough energy. Remember, balance and strengthen, strengthen and balance.
As these are the seven factors of awakening, they apply directly to insight practices and training in wisdom. Thus, the concentration referred to here is a very different kind of concentration than that used for attaining high concentration states. It is called “momentary concentration”. In the context of insight, concentration really means that we can consistently investigate each sensation that arises, one after the other, second after second, minute after minute, hour after hour. When we can practice moment after moment, sensation after sensation, but just before we shift into the stages of insight (detailed in Part Four), this is also access concentration, only achieved with a different set of emphases, and it will shortly lead to the stages of insight. In this way, we have stability in our ability to investigate, in that it can happen again and again without interruption, but we are not trying to attain stable states or anything else, since we are doing insight practices.
As mentioned before, concentration can produce great stability and consistency of mind, and this can lead to equanimity, which is that quality of mind that is okay with things; or balanced in the face of any internal or external painful, pleasurable, or neutral condition, including a lack of equanimity. This may sound a bit strange, but it is well worth considering. Equanimity also relates to a lack of struggle even when struggling, to effortlessness even in effort, to peacefulness even when there is no tranquility. When equanimity is well developed, we are not frightened of being afraid, concerned by being worried, irritated by being annoyed, pissed off by being angry, etc. Phenomena do not disturb space or even fundamentally disturb themselves from a certain point of view. I have wept and yet been very equanimous about it, if that helps clarify what I am talking about. Equanimity can be regarded as a meta-perspective able to hold everything else. There are lots of different technical uses of the term equanimity in Buddhism, so watch for its various meanings in different contexts.
There are entire spiritual traditions that involve just tuning in to this basic truth. There can be great value in learning to include the space that holds things, rather than just being caught up in the things themselves. A useful phrase from one of these traditions is “cultivating space-like meditative equipoise”. The more we habituate to this way of being, the more we connect with the truth of our minds. Real equanimity has a spaciousness to it, an openness, a flowing, volumetric component that is important.
There are also some excellent teachings, especially from Zen and Taoism, that relate to this, such as the teachings about no defilements, no enlightenment (or, said another way, practice itself as enlightenment), nothing to perfect, nowhere to go, etc., and checking in with some of these teachings can be very helpful, particularly if we are stuck in the feeling that the goal is unattainable. I will talk more about the dangers and uses of such perspectives in Part Five. This is the important counterbalance to spiritual striving and gung-ho practice that can get very future-oriented if done incorrectly. In the end, even if you have all kinds of insights, if you don’t have equanimity, you will be beating your head against the wall, and it actually might feel like that or worse.
I have realized since receiving feedback on the first edition of MCTB that, when I wrote this book, I had access to many written and living examples of softer styles of practice and very skillful yet non-gung-ho perspectives. Some examples are Achaan Chah’s A Still Forest Pool, and Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, as well as the gentle, settling, heart-centered, down-to-earth, and non-map-based styles of meditation teachers Sharda Rogell and Yvonne Weier. If you don’t have the opportunity to sit with them, you can find their talks (and many other great meditation talks) for free on www.dharmaseed.org and on YouTube.
As important as the profound words they say is the way they say them. Pay attention to that. Check out the YouTube videos of Ayya Tathaaloka, as that’s the good stuff. Being influenced by gentler approaches really helped me with the equanimity part of the equation, which was not my forte, and I recommend that you find something for yourself that serves to balance my vibe. Looking back, I feel that balancing my practice by exposure to these sorts of influences facilitated a settling into what was happening naturally, and that my practice would have been much more difficult without exposure to that sort of gentler approach.
Once again, we are back to knowing this moment just as it is. This “just as it is” quality is related to mindfulness and to equanimity. In the end, we must accept the truth of our specific lives, of our minds, of our neuroses, of our “defilements”, of impermanence, of suffering, and of emptiness. We must accept this, and this is what they are talking about when they say just “open to it”, “be with it”, “let it be”, “let it go”, and so on.
From a pure insight practice point of view, you can’t ever fundamentally “let go” of anything, so I sometimes wish the popularity of this misleading and apathy-producing admonition would decline, or at least be properly explained or challenged. However, if you simply investigate the truth of the three characteristics of the sensations that seem to be solid, you will come to the wondrous realization that reality is continually “letting go” of itself. Thus, “Let it go” means, “Don’t artificially solidify a bunch of transient sensations.” It does not mean, “Stop feeling or caring,” nor does it mean, “Pretend that the noise in your mind is not there.”
If people start with “just open to it” yet don’t develop both strong mindfulness and careful investigation into the three characteristics to gain deep insights, their practice may be less like meditation and more like psychotherapy, day dreaming, cultivated passivity, denial, or even self-absorbed, spiritually-rationalized, neurotic indulgence in mind noise. Noticing again and again the prevalence of this activity and the pervasive and absurd notion that there is no point in trying to get awakened has largely demolished my vision of being a happy meditation teacher in some mainstream meditation center.
On the other hand, even if you gain all kinds of strong concentration, look deeply into impermanence, suffering, and no-self, but can’t open to these things, can’t let them be, can’t accept the seemingly absurd and frightening truths of your experience, then you will likely be stuck in hell until you can, particularly in some of the higher stages of insight practices.
Reflect on these previous three paragraphs now and often, as many errors on the spiritual path come from not understanding the points made therein. Too often there is an imbalance between the first three (mindfulness, investigation, and energy), and the last three (tranquility, concentration, and equanimity). Most aspiring insight meditators are, to be honest, way too slack about the first three. Just so, some gung-ho meditators like the people who have tended to be attracted to this book may get into trouble when they don’t cultivate enough acceptance, balance, and peace, related to the last three. When people focus for too long only on the middle factor, rapture, they become bliss-junkies. When they fail to include rapture in their practice, they often get darker and gloomier despite otherwise good effort. In short, it is critical to cultivate all seven factors.
The order here is important. Start with good technique, mindfulness, investigation, etc., and work on the others along the way. In summary, you must have both insights and acceptance, and each perspective can and should help the other along the way. They are actually one and the same, but getting to that understanding generally benefits from a whole lot of good practice. In other words, if you are getting nowhere and not much is happening, you probably need more of the first three.
If you are frying yourself on the path of insight, as evidenced by becoming uptight, wound up, reactive, cranky, angry, frustrated, edgy, or nervous, then it is time to ease up, back off, learn concentration practices, do some loving-kindness or similar practices (described later), and cultivate the skillful aspects of the last three factors and perhaps a bit more rapture in the “stop and smell the roses” sense. Many hardcore meditators will ignore this piece of advice to their detriment, assuming it is only by being plugged into 100,000 volts and flipping on the big switch that anything good will ever happen. Numerous points along the way should help elucidate how to find this balance and the markers of progress versus being stuck.
One last thing about equanimity: its near enemy, its deadening impostor, is indifference or apathy. Real equanimity is accepting the full range of the heart and experience, whereas indifference is dry, flat, chilly, dissociative, robotic, and heartless. Real equanimity is extremely honest about what is going on. It is very human, very down-to-earth, very full-spectrum, and very ordinary in most ways. This point is frequently misunderstood. However, being accepting of the full range of the heart doesn’t mean acting on whatever impulse comes up. Act only on the impulses of the heart that seem genuinely skillful and kind. Real equanimity is even accepting of the fluxing sensations that make up flatness, strangely enough, but it is more honest about them. This is a fine line, but the point remains.
Plenty of people practice based on a model that idealizes objectifying all feelings and sensations. Because of this ideal, they hold their emotions at arm’s length and cultivate immunity or passivity to them. The ideal of “letting it all come and go without attaching any importance to any of it” sounds so very nice, so very “Buddhist”. However, instead of cultivating actual equanimity, they accidentally cultivate denial, repression, dissociation, depersonalization, derealization, and a stabilized illusion of some split-off and distant or “objective” observer. This indifference and denial can easily flip over into ugly and treacherous forms of passive aggression. Beware of this trap, as it is extremely common and is the exact opposite of insight practices, being largely a dressed-up exercise in finely honed aversion and ignorance rather than a careful investigation of this real human life.
To balance and perfect the seven factors of awakening is sufficient cause for awakening. Thus, checking in from time to time with this list and seeing how you are doing and what might need improvement is a good idea. Just having this list in the back of your mind can be helpful. Furthermore, the seven factors of awakening make for great meditation description and categorization that guides the process of self-correction.
For example, we might say, “That last sit was characterized by a moderate degree of mindfulness, a pretty high degree of investigation, moderate energy, not very good rapture, poor tranquility, moderately good concentration, and a pretty low degree of equanimity.” Being able to use this list to assess sits, meditation events, and various stages of practice will give us a sense of what we need to work on to round out our practice, as well as possibly to identify the phase of practice, as we shall see in a bit when we get to the maps, as each stage has its characteristic pattern of qualities, strengths, and weaknesses. This sort of description will also help us when we work with teachers, as learning to skillfully describe our meditation is a skill worth grounding in standard terms when possible.
We can use this framework during sits to try to re-calibrate our practice as we recognize imbalances. The meta-perspective on our practice that develops if we can do this will benefit us in many ways since, not only does it give us the presence of mind to adjust our practice, just being able to recognize the qualities of our mind has its uses and brings awareness to some of the core aspects of our way of being in that moment. While it might be possible to be too hypervigilant about the factors, most practitioners would benefit from increasing the degree to which they monitor them in their practice sessions and life in general.
It is important to note that only one of the seven factors, namely investigation of the three characteristics, distinguishes training in concentration from training in fundamental insight. When intentionally training in concentration, we decide to be mindful of a limited and specific concentration object, such as the breath, a mental image, or even a rarified state of consciousness. We do not, however, investigate the individual sensations that make up the state of meditating with that object, as the object of focus would dissolve under that investigation and produce insights. If we are not looking for ultimate insights at that point in time, then we should avoid investigating that state. However, we do apply energy to stabilize our concentration, and this produces rapture, a characteristic of the early concentration states. We also strongly cultivate concentration, along with tranquility and equanimity, which help us stabilize early states and attain to higher ones. Thus, six of the seven factors of awakening are cultivated by training in concentration, and so concentration practices are often recommended by some teachers as a preliminary training before training in insight for this and other reasons. [I must add an advanced qualifier here for stronger practitioners: past a certain point, the vibrational synchronizing of attention and object that must be done to attain greater depths of concentration does have some investigative aspects to it which, past a certain point on the path of concentration, it is impossible to ignore, and that is actually a great thing.]
Training in morality also develops some of the seven factors of awakening, though in a less formally meditative way. To work well in the ordinary world, it is helpful to be extremely mindful of our actions of body, speech, and mind, as well as what effects these actions might produce in the world, so that we can consciously work to craft to the best of our ability the life we want to lead. For obvious reasons, it is helpful to exert energy as we craft our life. We can cultivate rapture with life that allows natural and playful curiosity about the remarkable fact of experience itself. We also cultivate tranquility, the ability to not take life too seriously, to relax, to find a balance between focus and ease that makes for a good life. We can learn to concentrate on staying on track with our tasks, goals, and aspirations, though in this case concentration is more like a form of discipline than the concentration of formal meditation; to be sure, discipline of actions of body, speech, and mind are vital for the other two trainings. Finally, we learn that we cannot get rid of all the bumps on our road, so having the shock absorbers of equanimity, the ability to remain spacious, even-minded, and accepting of what life brings, including our honest, human, and understandable reactions, is also very helpful for crafting a good and healthy life.