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!
Matt has been practising meditation for over ten years and hopes to share these powerful techniques for the benefit of all.