by Erik Vienneau
More than ever our world needs beings who have awakened. The Seven Factors of Awakening - an important Buddhist teaching - is one of the main keys to this awakening to our fullest potential.
In the West, many think you don’t need a guide book to realize your true nature. Some believe if you sit there in meditation long enough you will simply “wake up.” Perhaps for a lucky few this is true! For the rest of us the Buddha left a clear, scientific path to realization. He did the hard work, realized his perfect nature (which is the same for all of us!) and figured he’d leave a map behind for the rest of us. Thanks Buddha! The best part is, is that every person who has handed down the teachings to us had to realize (experience first-hand) their meaning. So, the path - when handed down with integrity (ideally you can find a realized teacher to receive the teachings from) - is just as effective now as it was when the Buddha himself was doling out the wisdom himself 2,600-plus years ago.
Before we dive into this comprehensive guide to realization – the Seven Factors of Awakening - we should discuss what “realization” is.
A simple way to talk about realization is that one “realizes” no-self along with impermanence. The reason why one may want to realize no-self is that once no-self is seen there is no one left to suffer! This is good news. After all, when you say, “I have anxiety,” or “I’m sad,” there has to be an “I” that suffers. Lose the “I” – lose the “experiencer” of suffering. If there’s no one home to experience the i.e. anxiety or sadness the suffering becomes less relevant. One may then ask about the anxiety or sadness itself. That’s where the realization of impermanence comes in – those emotions are just made of moving parts with no solidity – when seen directly they will simply disperse (or you could say return to the same formless place they came from).
Hopefully this basic explanation of realization shows how the experience can end suffering. The cool thing about the Buddhist teachings are that it’s really not about religion. You don’t need to be a mala-carrying “Buddhist” to use the Buddha’s not-so-secret path to freedom.
To understand the teachings it may help to see the Buddha as a doctor. Before we cover the Seven Factors it's helpful to understand his most foundational - yet deep - teaching, the Four Noble (or realized) Truths.
Four Noble (Realized) truths…
Like any good doctor, he first diagnosed the sickness – the truth of suffering (1). “Suffering” in English doesn’t quite explain what he meant as well as the terms Dukkha and Samsara. Dukkha is that most basic human feeling that "something just ain't quite right" (A.k.a. is sense of dis-ease). It's the feeling that if one could just tweak this or that in their life, then…then they’d finally be lastingly happy.
The deeper sickness he diagnosed is called samsara. The essence of this term is that we are chasing our own tail. We chase (attachment) external people, places and things to get the happiness we seek. We avoid (aversion) people, places and things that we don’t like. All this misdirected effort aims to avoid suffering - but we never find the peace we seek. We just spin around and around experiencing only temporary happiness or short-term relief from pain never arriving at our goal of peace.
The Buddha kindly went on to let us know that there is an origination (cause) of suffering (2). Put bluntly, the cause of suffering (aka Dukkha/Samsara) is ignorance. We wake up each morning wanting to be happy and to avoid suffering but at the end of day we have not figured it out and are often exhausted from the chase. We don’t know how to obtain the lasting peace we seek. Knowing there is a cause of suffering is good news. Once we know there is a cause we can take heed knowing a cure is just around the corner.
The third noble truth is that there is a cessation of suffering (3). That solution is the Eight-Fold path. These are the medicine you take to “wake up” or said another way to “realize” no-self and impermanence.
To wake up you are going to need to cultivate equanimity which is the fruition of the Seven Factors of Awakening. Where this teaching comes in handy is when you are ready to deepen your meditation practice into something that not only relieves stress and creates some peace in your life (these are just side-effects of meditation) to a practice that ends your suffering completely. This is the point of authentic practice – to end the confusion and wake you up to your perfect, peaceful, limitless nature. Don’t settle for less!
If you really want to wake up you’ll eventually want to put the Seven Factors into practice in a deep retreat. The goal here is to simply plant a seed and layout the framework to experience some equanimity. One could describe Equanimity as the ability to let thoughts, feelings and mental formations come and go with out attachment - like clouds in a clear blue sky. Resting in this space of peaceful non-attachment is an important jumping off place for realization.
The Seven Factors start with mindfulness (present moment awareness) and end with Equanimity (non-attachment). The goal here – equanimity - is so basic that it could escape you. Equanimity is simply being OK with whatever arises. Spoiler alert… You may have thought that equanimity and your eventual awakening was going to be a big ol’ bliss fest (and you will certainly experience these pleasant side effects along the way) but at the end of the day equanimity/realization just may be as simple as getting to know your basic goodness. Said more simply you will stop riding the roller coaster of life and will be like John Lennon, “just sitting there (completely OK and at peace) watching the wheels go ‘round and ‘round.” Finally, the chase for pleasures and the avoidance of pain will be over. After all, if you know you are truly OK why chase and avoid? The big pie in the sky “realization” might not be all unicorns and rainbows but instead may be simply and finally being completely and utterly OK as-is.
Here in the blog we can only give you a quick overview of the Seven Factors. Join us for a retreat to take a deeper dive and put them into practice. The best way to explain the factors is via a guided meditation. First take a comfortable upright posture. Do some 4-3-5 breathing to settle in. Do a little loving kindness (metta) practice. Then settle into mindfulness of breath. Next step (2) is to investigate the breath. Look for texture, depth and temperature. Make these qualities of the breath the most important thing in your world – get curious about the breath.
Next increase the energy (3). Many think meditation is zoning out. The right way to meditate is “like your hair is on fire.” Increase that effort/energy! Next find some Joy (4), you can start simply with any sense of “Ok’ness” you can find anywhere in your body or mind. It doesn’t have to be big mind-blowing bliss – just a simple sense of something that is at ease. Then expand it throughout every cell of your body until it expands into rapture. This experience can be very exciting and a bit shaky. Therefore, you’ll want to calm things down and ease into tranquility (5) which is much calmer then the Joy/rapture. Let a sense of ease permeate your mind and body. Now you’ve set yourself up to concentrate (6). From here you’ll want a qualified meditation guide to help guide you, but mainly you’ll be doing a Shamatha practice as this point focusing attention on one point. From here you can rest in a non-dualistic state (equanimity). When you get pulled out you’ll simply start at the beginning again. Experience the Seven Factors of Awakening at an upcoming AWAKE Mindful Living retreat.
The Seven Factors of Awakening…
1.Mindfulness (sati) i.e. to recognize the dharmas (phenomena or reality, two ways one can translate "dharma").
2.Investigation (dharma vicaya) of dharmas.
3.Energy (viriya) also determination
4.Joy or rapture (pīti)
5.Relaxation or tranquility (passaddhi) of both body and mind
6.Concentration, clear awareness (samādhi) a calm, one-pointed state of concentration of mind, or clear awareness
7.Equanimity (upekkha), to be fully aware of all phenomena without being lustful or averse towards them.