Making the Seven Factors of Awakening work for you
(This week's article is based on a paper by Jud Brewer, Jake Davis and Joseph Goldstein. To read the paper in full, click here.)
A very common way to teach mindfulness to beginners goes something like this:
'Bring your attention to the physical sensations of your breath. Each time you notice that the mind has wandered, bring it gently back to the breath.'
This is a reasonable instruction - it's one I've given myself - but new meditators in particular really struggle with it. The mind doesn't want to stay on the breath! It just keeps wandering! It's maddening! Maybe I'm just not cut out for this? Maybe I can't meditate? And so the teacher duly explains that this happens to everyone, it's a natural experience, just part of the practice. It might even be explained as a good thing - 'each time you bring the attention back, you're strengthening the muscle of attention, training the mind to focus better'. Again, this is an explanation I've given myself; sometimes it works, sometimes I get the sceptical side-eye that tells me that I'm probably not going to see that student again.
Can we do better? Maybe! At least, Jud Brewer thinks so - and he suggests that we can find a way to do so right there in the earliest teachings of the historical Buddha, 2,500 years ago. Let's take a look.
The Seven Factors of Awakening
It's a standard joke that early Buddhism is full of lists. Four Noble Truths, Eightfold Path, Four Foundations of Mindfulness, Five Aggregates, Three Characteristics... and Seven Factors of Awakening.
I've encountered a few different explanations of the Seven Factors of Awakening, but never really saw the point until I read Jud's paper - it always just seemed like a big list of stuff to me, and it wasn't clear how to practise with it. Here's the list:
OK - it's a nice list, but so what? Mindfulness and concentration are things we can cultivate; piti and equanimity are both associated with jhana practice, so maybe that's something to do with it; investigation is part of insight practice... but it doesn't seem all that coherent at a first glance.
Some teachers like to carve the list up into 'energising factors' - investigation, energy and joy - and 'calming factors' - tranquillity, concentration and equanimity - with the seventh, mindfulness, as a kind of 'balancing factor'. The idea is that your practice should strike a balance between energy and tranquillity - too much energy and you'll get too distracted or worked up to meditate, too much tranquillity and you'll fall asleep or drift in dullness until the end of the sitting.
But what happens if, instead, we consider not just the elements of the list, but the order they come in? What if this is actually a practice map?
Seven Steps to Awakening
Think of an activity that you enjoy doing for its own sake - something that you can get absorbed into for long periods. Maybe that's reading a book, maybe playing a video game, maybe going for a long walk in nature. I'll use the example of reading a book because I like books, but please make the appropriate substitution if you aren't really a book person (and thank you for reading this far!).
To start off, you need some mindfulness to get going. If you're completely caught up in planning, worrying, storms of anger or whatever, you probably won't even see the words on the page, let alone be able to take them in. So establishing a basic level of present-moment attention is the starting point for any activity.
Next, we have to take an interest in what's going on - we have to want to know what the book says. (If it's a book we don't care about at all, it'll be really hard to motivate ourselves to read it - you've almost certainly had that experience in an educational context at some point...) So we need some basic curiosity. Either we have it already - maybe that's why we picked the book - or we have to take an interest in the subject, to find a way to understand its relevance to ourselves. Otherwise we probably won't get past the first page.
Let's say we manage this, and we start reading. Our interest in the material is sufficient to keep us going - and, after a while, this interest becomes self-sustaining. We find the energy to keep going - we're motivated to keep turning the pages, because the book is relevant to our interests.
As we get more and more into what we're reading, the activity starts to become more openly rewarding. It's more than just interesting - we're getting something out of the experience, and so we start to enjoy it. Reading time becomes something we look forward to.
When we enjoy doing something, it's easy to do it for longer and longer stretches of time. Our body and mind naturally settle into the activity, relaxing and becoming tranquil as we continue with the enjoyable activity of reading.
As the body and mind become tranquil, we become more and more focused on what we're reading. If the material has particularly captured our attention, we may find that we can stay focused on it even in busy environments, like a noisy coffee shop or a bustling train.
And as the concentration deepens, we become imperturbable. No matter what happens around us, our focus is absolute - we no longer need to worry about what's going on because it no longer disturbs us at all.
The crucial role of motivation in practice
Let's go back to that basic meditation instruction. Pay attention to the breath, and bring the attention back whenever the mind wanders away. But it's really hard! Why? Because the breath is boring! It comes in, it goes out, it comes in again... it doesn't take long to figure the thing out. We don't have any motivation to watch the breath (apart from 'because the teacher said so', but who cares what the teacher thinks?), so it's very difficult to find the energy required to stay with this boring, unpleasant practice for any period of time.
More generally, I've noticed that one of the biggest obstacles for new meditators is finding the motivation to keep going. Meditation is hard work! And, to make matters worse, it takes time for the benefits to show themselves. One approach is to commit to doing a ton of practice - perhaps practising half an hour a day for 100 days, which is a traditional standard in the Zen world. If you can do that, you'll see benefits for sure, and then it becomes easier to motivate yourself to keep going. But it's a big 'if'.
Another approach - the one I take in my free book Pathways of Meditation - is to expose beginners to a wide range of different practices straight off the bat, showcasing the different things meditation practice can do for us, in the hope that one or more of the approaches strike a chord. It's also the same reason why I write these articles, and why I teach my Wednesday night class - not because my words have a magic power to enlighten you, but in the hope that by sharing all the cool stuff I've come across in my own practice, some of it will spark off some interest in you as well. If something jumps out at you as being interesting and worth pursuing - so the theory goes - you'll be much more motivated to keep at it. I see motivation and energy ('viriya' in the Seven Factors of Awakening) as two sides of the same coin. If you're motivated to do something, you'll find the energy to do it. If you aren't, you won't.
The basic point here is that if we can establish some interest in the meditation, the subsequent stages of the practice will take care of themselves. If we can approach our practice as a mixture of mindfulness and investigation - of curiosity, exploration, or simply wanting to know what it's all about - we will eventually arrive at concentration, as the sixth step of the list.
So how do we generate that interest in the practice? Ultimately, I think this is something you have to figure out for yourself. Jud suggests modifying the standard mindfulness instructions to suggest approaching the breath with a sense of curiosity, but honestly that instruction has always left me pretty cold. If someone wasn't already curious about the breath, I'm not sure they will be just because I tell them to be - the 'Who cares?' argument still stands.
Indeed, Zen master Bankei was highly critical of some of the methods used by Zen teachers of his era, which he saw as attempting to conjure up a fake sense of 'doubt'. He likened it to a monk pretending to have lost his surplice (a kind of base-layer in the Zen robes). When you're a monk, you only get the one surplice, so if you lose it, you're going to search and search and search until you find it again, otherwise your life is going to be very uncomfortable. But if you're just pretending to have lost it, you're probably not going to keep pretend-searching for it when you get tired, hot and bored.
Ultimately, you need an authentic reason to take up meditation practice. I've written before about the importance of figuring out your motivation. Read books, watch videos, look up different teachers, and find out what clicks with you! Once you have a sense of what draws you to the practice, you'll find it much easier to generate those early Factors of Awakening - you'll have a reason to investigate your experience, and a motivation that can provide the energy needed to keep going. And once you have those in place, all the other benefits of practice - joy, peace of mind and, yes, even concentration - will follow along naturally, in their own time. If you take care of your motivation, the rest will take care of itself.
Taking an interest in the breath
Getting back to the specific example of the breath, here are some suggestions that may help to make it a more interesting experience for you. (If you'd rather find your own way, of course, go for it - in the long run that will probably work much better for you than using my ideas.)
If the breath is just 'in, out, in, out', that probably won't hold your attention for long. So break it into smaller pieces. The in-breath has a beginning, middle and end. How are they different? How do you know you're at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end? Is the out-breath the same way? What happens in between the in-breath and out-breath?
Continuing down the deconstructive road, what are the actual micro-sensations that make up each part of the breath? How many sensations are there? How many can you perceive clearly without it turning into a mush?
If micro-sensations are not your bag, you could instead look at the rise and fall of the breath and the constant flux of sensations as a flow, like an ocean wave. Can you feel deeply into this flow, ride it up and down, really get a sense of the constant motion of the sensory experience?
Another option is to look at adjacent pairs of breaths. Is every in-breath the same length, or are some shorter and some longer? Is the current in-breath a short one or a long one, and at what point can you tell how long it is? Of course you can also do this with out-breaths, but you can also compare the in-breath to the out-breath. Is one consistently shorter than the other, or does it change?
Where are you feeling the breath, specifically? How big an area are you focused on? What shape is your attention? Is it fixed, or does it change? What happens when you get distracted, when your attention moves away from the breath entirely?
These are just some ideas - I'm sure you can come up with more. So play around with it - take an interest in the process of taking an interest! And see if you don't end up really pretty concentrated on the breath - but as a side effect of the mindful investigation of the breath, rather than as the 'goal' of the practice. See how you get on!
The Zen practice of koan study
A monk asked Yun Men, 'What are the teachings of a whole lifetime?'
Yun Men replied, 'An appropriate response.'
-Blue Cliff Record, case 14.
The essence of Zen is questioning
One of the most well-known practices of Zen is its use of koans - typically presented as illogical riddles designed to frustrate the thinking mind. That's one way to look at them, but it's perhaps more helpful to think of a koan as a kind of question - an inquiry which, if pursued deeply enough, can lead us to profound breakthroughs and realisations which change the way we see the world. Each koan represents a pivotal encounter, and we are invited to use it in order to reach a pivotal experience of our own.
All modern Japanese Rinzai Zen lineages (as far as I know!) descend from the 18th century Zen master Hakuin, who revitalised a tradition which had been in decline for some time. One of Hakuin's principal achievements was to take the vast body of koan literature and organise it into a curriculum, with koans grouped into various categories according to their purpose and the stage of training for which they're most appropriate. This is a powerful approach - my own Zen teacher has said that the Japanese Rinzai Zen curriculum is a remarkably complete approach to contemplative practice, one which leaves no stone unturned and ultimately provides a thorough education not just in coming to one's own realisation but also in being able to communicate it to others.
Korean and Chinese Zen take a different approach, in which typically a student will work with a single koan for life. Perhaps this seems limited compared to the comprehensive syllabus of the Japanese approach. But it works, and the fact that it works tells us something important about koan practice. It can be tempting to see each koan as a kind of puzzle which, once solved, has nothing more to tell us - so we move on to the next, and the next, and at some point we finish the syllabus and we're done.
Really, though, the essence of the koan - and, I would suggest, of contemplative practice in general - is not so much the answers that come to us, but the questioning itself. Engaging with a koan requires us to put down our preconceived ideas - what we 'know' about Zen practice, what we 'expect' to find, what 'makes sense' and what is 'nonsense'. Koan practice requires us to let go of our certainty, and enter what is traditionally called the Great Doubt.
Great doubt, great awakening; no doubt, no awakening
The idea of 'Great Doubt' can sometimes be puzzling or even unappealing, and it can be a little confusing for people who have been exposed to the early Buddhist list of Five Hindrances - five obstacles to contemplative practice, the fifth of which is often simply given as 'doubt'. In early Buddhism, this doubt is seen as something to be overcome, rather than something to be actively cultivated.
But the doubt of the Hindrances is what's called 'sceptical doubt' - a lack of confidence in oneself, in the teacher or in the teaching, an insidious doubt that undermines our willingness to commit to the practice. This is not the kind of doubt that Zen is talking about - and, in fact, Zen also talks about 'Great Faith' as an antidote to this kind of lack of confidence.
Rather, Zen's Great Doubt is about having the willingness to make a leap of faith - to step beyond the confines of our familiar ways of looking at the world, our need for certainty. The idea of letting go of fixed views and thereby finding freedom goes back to the very earliest teachings of the historical Buddha; that theme was picked up and further elaborated by the 2nd/3rd century CE Mahayana teacher Nagarjuna, and it continued to flourish as the Zen tradition came into existence in the 5th century. Modern-day teacher Stephen Batchelor describes the purpose of koan practice as 'burning away the habit of finding answers', and instead resting in the feeling of uncertainty - bafflement, astonishment, even awe.
Dead words and live words
When we first take up a koan, we can't help but approach it on a conceptual level. We might work with a whole koan, trying to understand the entire story, or we might be invited to focus just on the pithy essence of the story - a short phrase or question which we are invited to investigate. Either way, though, the koan is presented to us in the form of words - words which represent shared concepts that we can use for communication. As such, the exploration of a koan typically starts on the conceptual level - we think about the question, we come up with ideas, we mull it over and try to get to the bottom of it in the way that we normally do when faced with any question or puzzle in life.
After some time, though, this approach runs out of steam - the question seems to lose all meaning. The words become nonsensical; we feel that we've explored every possible avenue, looked at the problem from every angle, and nothing makes sense any more. In the Zen tradition, this is called the stage where the question becomes 'colourless'. Now, further progress seems impossible, because there's nothing left to investigate - and yet we're asked to find a way to keep moving forward anyway.
In the Korean Zen tradition, they talk about 'dead words' and 'live words' as different stages of working with a koan. You might think that the words of the koan are 'live' at the beginning, then become 'dead' when they reach this latter stage of 'colourlessness' - but actually it's the other way around. In the beginning, the words are dead, because we're still approaching the question on the level of concepts - the same old concepts we had before we took up the koan. Nothing new has happened yet; we're just juggling our concepts around, trying to find an arrangement that makes sense of the puzzle.
Concepts are basically abstractions - a way of taking the full complexity of a living, breathing animal and boiling it down to the three-letter word 'dog'. Concepts are really useful because they reduce the amount of detail that we have to navigate in the world, and they're reusable, so we can apply this one word 'dog' to all sorts of dogs, not just a particular Golden Retriever called Snuffles. But the more abstract the concept becomes, the more specificity and richness is lost from the actual experience - the dynamic, vibrant, ever-changing reality is frozen in place, tagged with a label, and then forgotten.
So it's only when our concepts cease to be of value - when our question becomes colourless, when all the meaning drains out of it - that we move beyond the dry, sterile framework of 'dead words'. What lies beyond that is, by definition, impossible to articulate conceptually - the very attempt to do so immediately loses the essence of the experience. Nevertheless, it can be experienced - and this is the realm of 'live words', the realm of Great Doubt.
Facing the great questions of our lives
So which question should we take up? Well, traditionally in Rinzai Zen the teacher will assign a koan for you to work with, drawn from one of the many koan collections that have come together through the centuries.
Another approach is simply to see what our personal questions are - what is it that we want to know? The great Rinzai Zen master Bankei was actually quite critical of formal koan study, which he regarded as an attempt to 'fake' a doubt that wasn't really there - but his own life of practice was driven by a quest to understand a line from a Confucian classic: 'The way of great learning lies in clarifying bright virtue.' It could be said that all of his years of travel and study were his way of exploring this question. Similarly, we could see the historical Buddha's entire teaching as coming out of his investigation of the question of suffering - why we suffer, and what could be done about it. Stephen Batchelor has pointed out that there's a great tendency to focus on the answers to these questions - the specific practices and methods developed by the great masters, the language those teachers used to express their own personal revelations to others - but actually what is perhaps more useful for each of us is to go through our own personal process of questioning.
We can even see the approach of koan study as a way of life - one which is based in continual engagement, never-ending exploration and questioning, not content to settle on dogmatic answers or stale, rigid ways of being in the world, not blindly accepting someone else's 'truth' just because it seems to work for them, but instead continuing, moment by moment, to inquire into this moment, to see what - in the words of Yun Men, constitutes an 'appropriate response' to the situation at hand.
What is your appropriate response, right now?
Taking a look at Buddhism's central promise
At the heart of Buddhism is the idea of awakening, or enlightenment. The basic idea is that the practices of Buddhism lead to a fundamental shift in the way you experience the world, with the result that life is immeasurably better thereafter. But what changes, and how?
Liberation from suffering in early Buddhism
A key concept in the Pali canon - the earliest records we have of the teachings of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, who lived roughly 2,500 years ago - is the teaching of the Four Noble Truths. These encapsulate what is usually seen as the central problem that Buddhism intends to address:
You'll find different translations and interpretations, but the gist is generally pretty straightforward - life sucks, but the Buddha found a way out of life's suckitude, and if you follow the Eightfold Path then sooner or later your life won't suck any more either.
Early Buddhism elaborates the path of awakening by describing ten 'fetters' which are progressively 'unbound' through practice. Along the way to full awakening - becoming an 'arahant', a 'worthy one' - you'll overcome sensual desire, ill will, restlessness and ignorance. Finally, you achieve nibbana (aka nirvana, not to be confused with the grunge band), which literally means something like 'blowing out', like a candle flame.
The 'candle flame' analogy also works nicely with another central teaching in early Buddhism, that of the 'three fires' of greed, hatred and confusion. Through practice, we extinguish these fires, and as a result we come to see the world with their opposites, generosity, compassion and wisdom.
So far, so good. But what does it actually look like to 'extinguish' greed, hatred and confusion?
What does it mean to be 'free' of something?
Freedom means different things to different people.
Some - particularly orthodox Theravada teachers - would say that when one of the fetters is overcome, it's totally destroyed, eradicated, finito - so, for example, when you overcome the fetter of ill will, you will never experience ill will ever again, for the rest of time. If you do find even the tiniest flicker of ill will - oops, you weren't as enlightened as you thought, better keep practising.
This is a very high standard. For some of us, this is very motivational - it suggests that the outcome of truly devoted practice is extraordinary, and we can feel blessed even to have the good fortune to have encountered the teachings and to know that such things are possible. We can also look to real-life examples of deeply committed practitioners who are able to bear remarkable levels of suffering with profound equanimity - for example, when my teacher's teacher, Ayya Khema, was dying of cancer, she maintained a remarkable and inspiring peace of mind, calmness and clarity throughout the process.
On the other hand, for some of us this kind of ideal can be quite unhelpful. As I mentioned in last week's article, there's a fine line between working skilfully with difficult emotions and simply suppressing them, and if our idea of success is to have completely extinguished all negative states then that's a recipe for suppression. Alternatively, perhaps we regard the goal as unachievable - maybe it's something that monastic practitioners can achieve, but daily life is sufficiently intense, busy and triggering that it seems there's no hope of totally eliminating our reactivity. Or maybe it's actually unattractive to us - we value the richness of our emotional life, and what's being described sounds worryingly close to becoming an emotionless robot who is only capable of experiencing a bland, tepid neutrality all day long.
Another interpretation of 'freedom' is that the condition may still arise, but it no longer has power over us. Someone cuts us off in traffic, and we experience a surge of anger - but that anger is seen for what it is, and we can allow it to arise, be experienced and then pass away again, without the anger forcing us to act in a certain way. This type of freedom is not so much about eliminating anything as giving us the choice about whether or not to participate in it.
This type of freedom is what tends to be found in Zen, where there's a strong emphasis on having a full emotional range, rather than being what my teacher Daizan calls a 'good little Buddhist' who is always buttoned up, well-behaved and never deviating from the straight and narrow. In Zen, emotions - even the 'negative' ones - are seen as something to be included in the practice, rather than something to be eliminated.
In fact, Zen goes as far as to say that achieving permanent nirvana is not the goal of the practice - actually, the experience of nirvana is merely a way-station on a much longer journey. The peace of mind of nirvana is certainly a worthwhile experience, but the ultimate aim of Zen practice is to help us live a fully engaged life, not simply 'extinguish' ourselves.
Experiencing moments of freedom
Let's go back to the three 'fires' - greed, hatred and confusion. We've all had experiences of acting from a place of one (or more!) of these three, and we would probably admit that these were not our wisest actions in retrospect.
On the other hand, we've all had experiences of their opposites as well - acting from a place of generosity, compassion, and wisdom - and I'm willing to bet that these were happier, more fulfilling experiences. We could look at experiences like these as moments of freedom - moments of nirvana.
The three fires typically arise in the form of reactivity - an instinctive grasping, pushing away, or misunderstanding of what's going on. (This is what's meant by 'craving' in the Second Noble Truth - the urge to act in a certain way which arises in response to a situation.) By cultivating mindfulness, presence and open-heartedness, we develop the ability to see that reactivity arise and then let go of it, without being compelled to act on it, making space for a wiser response to the situation. Over time, we find that more and more of our behaviour comes from a place of generosity, compassion and wisdom - the moments of nirvana come more frequently and last longer. This type of freedom profoundly enriches our lives, without requiring us to eliminate or suppress anything - a moment of freedom is a moment of freedom, even if it's the only one we've had all week. Nirvana then becomes not a permanent resting place - retiring to the beach with a deck-chair and waiting for your life to come to its end - but a powerful support for a life of action.
A classic Zen practice which cultivates this very directly is 'just sitting' (also known as shikantaza, Silent Illumination, resting in the Unborn, and various other names). In this practice, you simply sit, aware of whatever comes and goes, without pushing away or grabbing onto anything - in other words, the direct experience of non-reactivity. The great 13th century Zen master Dogen went as far as to say that this kind of practice is enlightenment, and that there is no other liberation than this.
So why wait? Experience nirvana today! You can find a guided shikantaza practice on my Audio page to get you started. Enjoy!