In our tradition, awakening is not an accident or a mystical experience that appears spontaneously to open the untrained heart. Awakening, or the maturing of insight into life-changing wisdom, is a result of cultivation. Just as the hindrances are very real inner qualities that make calm and clarity difficult, there are positive qualities that are necessary for calm and clarity to be reliable supports for insight. One of the most important teachings on positive qualities to cultivate in our practice is the seven factors of awakening. As important as diminishing the hindrances is, it is equally important to develop and nurture these beautiful qualities. They are the heart of Buddhist “positive psychology,” and as they grow, they bear nourishing fruit throughout our practice and life.
The seven factors of awakening (bojjhaṅga)
They are traditionally thought of in three groups:
One balancing factor: Mindfulness
Three energizing factors: Investigation, Energy, and Rapture
Three calming factors: Tranquility, Concentration, and Equanimity
In the fourth foundation of mindfulness described in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (MN 10), the five hindrances are the obstructive qualities we work to diminish in our practice, while the seven factors is the list of skillful qualities to develop. Because it is divided into balancing, energizing, and calming factors, it is a practical support for working with the fluctuating energies of our body, nervous system, and mind.
Like many other lists including the Noble Eightfold Path, the ten perfections, and the four foundations itself, the seven factors is both an unordered set of qualities to bring into our practice and life as well as a sequential path of development culminating in deep states of meditation and insight. Guided by the flow of our practice and circumstances, we emphasize different qualities at different times, developing the full set over time. Using the list as a more linear guide, we may find ourselves initially supported by generating mindfulness and energy, then, as our practice deepens, we may find states of calm and concentration more accessible. Like the entire Dharma, the factors are “beautiful in the beginning [of our practice], beautiful in the middle, and beautiful in the end.” Though they are called factors of “awakening,” they are also simply wholesome energies to bring into every part of our lives.
Mindfulness: The Balancing Factor
Mindfulness is always skillful. Whatever experience, energy, or emotional state we find ourselves in, seeing clearly, understanding what’s happening, and making wise choices based on that awareness is good practice. Mindfulness is thus a balancing factor in our life, and is itself somewhat calming, but it supports both energizing and calming practices. Meditation trains us to make mindful, loving awareness our default, and then to bring that direct, undistracted awareness to everything we do.
Mindfulness is also a necessary support for the discernment needed in practice to know which other factors to lean into at any moment. Without clearly understanding what’s happening, we can’t know what choices to make in the flow of our practice. Mindfulness sees our states as they unfold, recognizes them, remembers the instructions, and thus helps us to know whether we would be better served by energizing or calming qualities.
The Energizing Factors
The list of the Seven Factors, taken sequentially, embodies the insight that most of us first need to arouse our energy for practice, and develop nourishing and refreshing states of pleasure and joy, before we can settle deeply into meditation. The list begins with three uplifting inner qualities that support engagement and passion for practice: investigation, energy, and rapture.
Investigation of Dhammas (dhamma-vicāya)
Investigation, or “investigation of dhammas,” begins the process of energizing our practice by bringing in curiosity, exploration, and inquiry. It develops the quality of “clear comprehension” (sati-sampajāna) that is inherent in mindfulness into an attitude of engaged observation of the world, both inner and outer. “Dhammas” is a Pāli word that can mean “things” or “experiences” as well as “teachings.” The dhammas that are to be investigated are the states, experiences, and conditions that arise in attention, moment to moment. As one of the more active aspects of our practice, investigation is not about simply observing experiences from a neutral distance, nor dismissing them as distractions, but understanding them by bringing discernment and intuition together with the teachings and guidance of wise elders, all in the service of insight.
Energy, or vigor, is an aspect of wise effort that brings the passion and dedication we have for the path into skillful engagement with our meditation and daily life practices. Energy is vital because the habitual forces of inertia, boredom, disengagement, giving up, and becoming overwhelmed are so strong. Energy can take the form of a powerful desire for liberation called saṁvega, which is present when we bring determination, devotion, and dedication to the path. Wholesome energy can be developed through physical practices like yoga or qigong, emotional practices like devotional chanting or prayer, intellectual practices like study, or through any aspect of practice that inspires us to dig deeper. Pleasure increases energy, and energy itself is pleasurable, which becomes a foundation for the deeper joys of meditation and stillness.
Rapture, or joy, is a natural somatic and emotional state that spans a wide range of wholesome pleasurable experiences. It can arise as a physical/energetic thrill that moves through the body, or a more emotional delight and uplift that pervades the body and heart. Rapture is a common side effect of concentration, and in the context of meditation is considered wholesome and important to develop. In daily life, rapture can be felt in moments when we are safe, engaged in a wonderful activity, and the mind relaxes enough to connect deeply with the joy and ease that are present. Rapture and joy are healthy.
One of the most important insights that Gotama, the Buddha-to-be, had before his awakening was that the rapture and pleasure of embodied meditation was “not to be feared.” This tells us that we don’t need to worry about becoming attached to joy or rapture, or think that it will lead us away from the path of clarity. Quite the opposite, rapture is an indispensable factor on the path to deep stillness, insight, and awakening.
The Calming Factors
Though we may feel like our anxious, exhausted minds need calm and concentration before they can do much else in practice, the Seven Factors suggests that the nourishment of engagement, effort, and joy may be a stronger support for depth, and initially more accessible. The placing of the calming factors after the energizing ones indicates—as most of the lists do—that deep calm and stillness need to be well-supported by more active practices if they are to truly stabilize and take root.
Nourished by rapture and supported by wise effort and mindfulness, the body and mind can finally allow themselves to settle down into a comfortable stillness. Calming the body and mind doesn’t happen through force of will, but must be invited through progressive relaxation and letting go. It’s difficult to let go while the nervous system is still anxious and activated, and as we try to relax into stillness we almost inevitably encounter the hindrances. Before we can really settle into calm and concentration, the hindrances have to be subdued, and we do this by bringing the energizing factors to bear on them. Mindfulness sees hindrances as they arise, investigation understands them and where they come from, we bring energy to settling them, and the result is a deeper embodiment, pleasure, and joy. With this as a foundation, tranquility becomes possible, and from tranquility, concentration.
Concentration is the common translation of the complex word samādhi, which describes the states of immersion, deep stability of attention, and one-pointedness that develop primarily in meditation. Immersion refers specifically to the four jhānas—states of meditation that can arise when the hindrances are absent and tranquility and steadiness are strong. The jhānas begin with states where active thought and investigation are needed to keep attention steady, and deepen through states where rapture, easeful happiness, and finally profound stability and luminosity are prominent. Samādhi is also used to describe daily life states of flow and effortless engagement outside of formal meditation, states in which pleasure and ease support sustained clarity of mind.
Besides being a profoundly nourishing inner space, samādhi also shows the heart what it feels like to be unconfused by external pleasant and unpleasant circumstances. When we’ve tasted the ease and flow of immersion, the reactivity of the mind can be more easily seen for the suffering (dukkha) it truly is. This clear seeing is the basis of equanimity—a powerful state that has both emotional and cognitive aspects. As the fourth of the divine abodes, equanimity brings the love, compassion, and appreciation of the open heart to rest in a space of loving acceptance without judgment, attraction, or aversion. And as a wisdom quality, equanimity is very close to awakening itself, holding everything that happens in the perspective of the Four Noble Truths and the laws of kamma and conditionality. Equanimity knows that every experience arises and passes due to conditions, and that every being will experience the results of their own actions. As this deep perspective and nobility of heart grows, it brings together all the elements of the path into a way of being that is the manifestation of wisdom and liberation.
In practice, we can use the list of the seven factors as a way to check on which good qualities are strong in us and which need development. Often we’ll find we have a tendency toward one or another factor, or a personality that prefers either the energizing or calming factors. Both energy and calm, or activation and deactivation, are necessary for the heart to grow strong and wise on the path. And if we find we have been focusing too much on the negative—always looking for and working with the hindrances—focusing on the factors of awakening can be a refreshing change.
As you memorize this list and begin to use it in meditation and daily life, you will see these qualities everywhere. Developing the path—in meditation, in our relationships, and in our work in the world—is synonymous with developing the factors. As these positive qualities grow in us, the hindrances naturally lose their addictive power, and the practice truly starts to transform our lives.