The seven factors of awakening are qualities that lead us to awakening and also describe the awakened mind. These seven factors are considered the most important qualities in helping us along our spiritual path towards awakening our minds. So, we begin to see things as they actually are, and not as we imagine them to be.
They are also useful antidotes for the five hindrances, which quite regularly disrupt our meditation practice. The seven factors are: mindfulness, investigation, effort, joy, tranquillity, focus and equanimity.
Mindfulness is about being fully present in the moment, without any judgement or conceptualisations, and not getting lost in daydreams, indulgences, anxiety or worry. It is simply an awareness of what is going on in that very moment. Not wishing to change the moment or blindly react to it, but to face it and responded in the best possible way.
It is an awareness to the reality of things as they truly are. It can also be considered an antidote to delusion, because we are not personalising the moment. The moment is simply the moment, not my moment or a good/bad moment, just a moment. So, when we are being mindful of the breath, for example, it is just breath, not “my” breath.
Buddha taught fourfold foundations of mindfulness, which are contemplation of the body, feelings, mind and mental objects.
The second factor is intense investigation into the nature of reality and Buddha dharma. The word dharma has many uses in Buddhism, but the general meaning is natural law, but it also refers to the teachings of the Buddha.
So, this intense investigation of dharma is both an investigation into the Buddha’s doctrines as well as into your own mind. The Buddha taught in the Kalama Sutra – The Charter of Free Inquiry – to not accept what he said on blind faith, but instead to investigate his teaching to realise the truth for yourself.
It states in the sutra, ‘Believe nothing no matter where you read it or who said it, unless it agrees with your experience and observation.’ He didn’t want you to follow his teachings just because he said so. He wanted you to think, meditate and then implement the Buddha dharma, but only after you have intensely investigated.
We also need to investigate how the mental states arise and understand the true nature of all constituent things. It is seeing the things as they are, in their proper perspective, and not how we think they are or should be.
Buddha spoke about four great efforts: the effort to avoid, the effort to overcome, the effort to develop and the effort to maintain.
The first effort, the effort to avoid, is to prevent harmful actions and emotions that have not yet arisen. These harmful potential actions disturb our minds and the minds of others around us. So, we have to make the effort to avoid arousing them.
A big obstacle that hinders our effort and concentration, and so makes it difficult to stop the arousal of harmful states, are the five hindrances.
The second effort is the effort to overcome. The first effort stopped harmful actions and emotions from arising, whereas this effort is to overcome the harmful states that have already arisen. Buddha stated that we should abandon the harmful states, dispel them, destroy them and cause them to disappear. But how? He gave five techniques to help us do this. They are:
1. Chase away the harmful thought with a helpful one.
2. Regret—we are not talking about guilt here; that is quite a different thing. Our effort must be focused on never repeating these harmful actions.
3. Divert your attention. When a harmful thought arises, do not indulge it.
4. Confrontation. This technique is the opposite of the third one: Confront the harmful thought head-on. Do not shy away from it. Look at it and see where it came from. By doing this, the thought will eventually disappear.
5. Suppression. A note of caution: In my experience, when you suppress things you are just storing up trouble for the future. If you suppress a bad experience or a powerful emotion, it will resurface, much stronger, later on. This technique is my least favourite and must be used only as a last resort, but I hope the other four techniques would have already worked for you.
You have to put a great amount of effort into keeping these helpful states going
The third effort is the effort to develop helpful qualities that have not as yet arisen. This is where you should make an effort to develop thoughts and actions such as generosity, patience, an ethical code, empathy and compassion.
Remember that we are trying to live a responsible life that disturbs neither our mind nor the minds of others. So, what is really needed is honesty. We must be completely truthful with ourselves and investigate which helpful states we do not have, and then put all our effort into cultivating them.
The fourth effort is the effort to maintain the helpful states that have already arisen.
This follows on from the previous effort, but now you must focus on the ones you do have. You should remain mindful always of these helpful states, so they can become a habit. It is no good lying sometimes and telling the truth at others; stealing sometimes and not stealing other times; or being faithful sometimes and cheating on your partner at other times. You have to put a great amount of effort into keeping these helpful states going, because if you do not stay aware, they can easily drift away from you.
It is only the tranquil mind that can easily focus on a subject of meditation
The spiritual path often begins when we realise that getting what we want doesn’t make us joyful, or at least not for very long. So, what will bring us joy? It’s what we do, not what we buy or are given, that builds joyfulness. This means joy is an inner phenomenon, it cannot be bought. Outside things may give us short term joy, but they are impermanent and so won’t last. When we understand this, we become contented and grateful, this leads to real joyfulness. We spend more time meditating and less time craving. When we are excited about meditating, and not forcing ourselves to sit down on the meditation cushion, we are using the factor of joy.
Tranquillity refers to our ability to relax. This is important on the spiritual path because if we have anxiety about the path, it may end up causing us problems, or at the very least, stop us moving down the path. So, tranquillity represents our ability to manage our stress and anxiety on the path.
Tranquillity here means relaxation of both body and mind. While the previous factor is joyous, this factor is more like the contentment and satisfaction of someone who has finished what they had to do and are now resting. We cannot force tranquillity as it arises naturally from the other factors.
You may feel mindfulness and focus are the same, but they are not. So how do they differ? Very basically, mindfulness is a body and mind awareness, usually with some frame of reference, such as body, feelings, mind or mental objects. Focus is concentrating all of one’s mental faculties onto one physical or mental object, such as breath, a statue or visualisation of a deity.
It’s a slowing down of our mental activity through single-pointed focus. In this state, all sense of a solid, independent, permanent self disappears, and subject and object are completely absorbed into one.
Focusing is our ability to keep awareness on a single thing, without distraction. When we count our breaths during meditation, that is focus. We are trying to keep our minds on our breathing and stopping them wandering off. When we really strengthen our ability to focus, it gives us real insights into the true nature of our mind.
It is only the tranquil mind that can easily focus on a subject of meditation.
Equanimity helps us see phenomena arise and then pass away
Equanimity in the Buddhist sense is about walking the middle path between the extremes of aversion and desire. In other words, it is not being pulled this way and that by what you like and dislike. It is sometimes referred as an evenness of mind or a non-dual mind.
Equanimity represents facing the difficulties of life without getting attached or having aversion towards them. When something bad happens we usually get angry, become anxious or start to worry, which makes matters worse. Equanimity stops us making situations bigger than they are.
During meditation, equanimity helps us see phenomena arise and then pass away with a calm and tranquil mind. We don’t see good and bad, like and dislike; we only see non-dual awareness.
In a nutshell, equanimity is the neutrality that is born of a calm and focused mind.
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