Understanding the Seven Factors

What are the awakening factors? How do they enrich our lives and protect us from difficult mind states? How should we relate to them as practices and fruitions?


Understanding the Seven Factors

An edited transcript of the talk follows. All of the written content from this unit is available in the Unit 1 workbook.

0:30 – Awakening: the goal of the Buddhist path

At the heart of the Buddha's teaching is liberation, or nibbana in the Pali language, sometimes described as the unshakable deliverance or the unshakable release of the heart. This is what the Buddha always encouraged us to explore, no matter how remote or how impossible it may feel. The whole of the Buddha's teaching imparts this depth of confidence in our capacity to wake up, to be conscious, to be free, to know this deep liberation. As the Buddha put it:

"This noble life we live does not have gain, honor, or renown for its benefit or its goal. It does not have the attainment of virtue, concentration, or knowledge as its goal. But it is this unshakable liberation of the heart that is the goal of this noble life, its heartwood, and its end."

Liberation, nibbana, is not just a goal, but it is a process of waking up, a process of awakening, a process that as practitioners we are deeply engaged in. It's helpful for us to reflect on what this means for us. What does it mean to be awake? What does it mean to be free? And to also ask ourselves what does this path ask of us? How do we engage in it? How do we know how to navigate this path that is not just a meditative journey but truly a life journey?

I reflect on this often. I know there are many different views, many different opinions about what nibbana or what liberation means. But I do feel it is important that we hold it deeply as a possibility for each one of us. When I reflect on my years on this path, my years of practice, I see part of this process of waking up as discovering a way of living that is no longer governed by compulsive patterns or habits that tie us to distress, including patterns of greed, hatred, and delusion. I think of the journey of waking up as learning to live in the light of what we most deeply value, what we most deeply aspire to, our most noble intentions of peace, of kindness, of, compassion, of ethics, and insight. 

This journey of waking up, in my understanding, is learning what it means to be a truly embodied human being. To be free, as the Buddha put it in the Satipatthana Sutta—the teachings of mindfulness—to learn what it means experientially to abide independent, not clinging to anything in this world, not being governed by anything in this world.


If you wish, you can read Thānissaro Bhikkhu's translation of the Satipatthana Sutta, here.

3:43 – A transformative path

If we're quite honest with ourselves, I think we will acknowledge that we don't undertake this journey in order to remain the same. We don't undertake this practice in order to be more deeply intimate with our own disasters and frailties and afflictions. I think the path involves and invites a radical change in how we see and how we live and how we respond to this life. The Buddha said:

"I teach just one thing: that there is dukkha, unsatisfactoriness, and that there is an end to dukkha, an unbinding, from the patterns of greed and hatred and delusion, an unbinding from the patterns of confusion and reactivity that bind us to distress."  

This end of dukkha is exploring the freedom we have to flourish, to thrive, to be responsive, engaged human beings. Waking up is a noble aspiration, but the path is not easy. There are many moments of true joy and celebration and appreciation, and there are moments of doubt and despair. We appreciate the challenge of emerging from a habit-driven, compulsive life into a way of being, a way of inhabiting this life, where we flourish, where we are creative, where we are engaged, and where we feel free. 

5:25 – The treasures within

So we're invited to ask what allies support and nourish us on this journey, that incline the heart toward awakening. And this is where we come to this list. The Pali word is the bojjhangas. It is a word that describes the seven limbs—or factors, supports—of awakening. The "bo" in bojjhanga derives from "bodhi"—wakefulness, liberation—and "anga" translates as limbs. So these limbs, these factors are describing qualities or capacities that we already have. They are present in our consciousness; they are seeds of potential reality that we are invited to nurture, to identify, to appreciate, and to strengthen.

In the early texts, these qualities are referred to as an inner wealth or as the seven treasures that protect us against pain and adversity and incline the heart toward awakening. The Buddha said that when these seven qualities are cultivated and brought to fruition, they free the mind and heart from all forms of bondage and suffering, and they incline the mind toward nibbana. They are pathways, they are practices, and they are fruitions. If we ask ourselves, "What does the mind of a Buddha look like?" my understanding is that the mind of a Buddha would be infused with these seven qualities. They incline the mind toward liberation. Another way of reflecting upon these qualities is also to see them as nuances of sati, nuances of mindfulness.


7:40 – Gathering Momentum

So when we learn to recognize, activate, understand, and know how to develop these seven qualities within us, we enter a path of practice that, as the Buddha said, slopes and inclines toward nibbana. So we develop mindfulness, we develop the capacity to investigate dhammas (states), we develop energy, joy, tranquility, composure and collectedness (concentration), and equanimity.  

Our practice starts to gather momentum. One of the images the Buddha used is of the waters in the high Himalayas that gather in pools, then flow into streams, then into rivers, and gradually down toward the ocean. In the same way, as we engage these qualities, the mind naturally starts to dissolve its afflictive patterns. We incline toward freedom and understanding. 

8:50 – Anti-hindrances

The awakening factors are sometimes referred to as the anti-hindrances. There's a way in which practicing these qualities provides antidotes to and a pathway out of the veiling factors: the more afflictive qualities of mind. 

When I first was introduced to dhamma practice, and this may be true for some of you, I had this impression that I had to work to overcome the hindrances before I could settle into anything that was more enjoyable. Actually, I've really come to see that we can practice from the beginning by engaging these brightening qualities of the mind.

The Buddha referred to these seven factors as makers of vision, makers of knowledge, promoting the growth of wisdom and freedom from vexation, leading toward nibbana. 

"They feel good to develop. They feel good to cultivate and the Buddha described his path as one that is beautiful in the beginning, beautiful in the middle, and beautiful in the end. It yields fruit immediately. We don't have to wait for some final epiphany, but we can actually start to taste the flavor of awakening as we walk along."

I very much like Christina's emphasis on the root meaning of "bojjhangas" as being limbs for awakening. Limbs are things that you use to walk. This is a practice that we can engage with and do. In some ways, these lists and descriptions—which can sound very dry, being given a list of factors—is actually a list of practice instructions, a list of tools that we can take out of our toolbox and use in our everyday life.


11:08 – The veiling qualities

The Buddha was a mapmaker. I often think of him as a mapmaker. He identified the patterns—universal patterns, personal patterns—that bind us to confusion and distress. It is in the classroom of these patterns that we cultivate the factors of awakening. In Pali the word for these universal and personal afflictive patterns that we can so easily recognize in our experience is nivaranas. Sometimes this is translated as "hindrances" but I think, more accurately translated, they are veiling or distorting qualities: as if you were looking through a colored cloth that prevents you from seeing clearly, from acting appropriately, from responding in ways that are needed. It is important that we recognize that in the Satipatthana Sutta the awakening qualities and the veiling qualities sit side by side because there's a powerful relationship between these two lists. 

Now, the Buddha described these veiling qualities, and let's just name them:

  • Sensual craving
  • Ill will
  • Numbness, dullness, dissociation
  • Restlessness and worry
  • Skeptical doubt. 

So these are almost five limbs of another body: they are the limbs of confusion and distress, and they make a powerful impact in our life. I'm sure none of us are strangers to these patterns. And it's helpful to reflect on the impact that they have on our lives and our deepest aspirations. The Buddha described these patterns as creators of mental distress or mental illness. They are the primary saboteurs of aspiration and intention. They make us forgetful. They make us forget what we most deeply aspire to. They make us forget what we most deeply value, often taking us to places far from where we wish to be. They undermine our capacity to live in the light of our understanding, and they bind us to distress. They lead away from freedom, distorting our capacity to see things as they actually are. Now, this might sound like very bad news or very depressing news. But it is important to recognize that this is the classroom of this cultivation we are speaking of. This is the classroom in which we cultivate the beautiful and the lovely and the wholesome that are too important for us to forget.


14:45 – The quality of attention

The one thing that's understood to be really critical in navigating this dance between the veiling factors and the awakening factors is the quality of our attention. There's a teaching where the Buddha asks us to consider what it is that nourishes or feeds both the obstructive qualities of mind and the awakening qualities of mind. What it all really comes down to is the application of wise or unwise attention. It's really valuable and important to learn to recognize both the awakening and veiling factors, and to learn to give them our appropriate attention. We'll be exploring this in subsequent units, how the awakening factors grow under the gaze of our attention when we bring awareness to them.

15:55 – Wise friendship

The other factor that is critically important in this dance and is the basis for being able to offer our appropriate attention is the cultivation of wise friendship. Remember this image of the awakening factors being like the streams that gather momentum and flow down toward the ocean of nibbana, the Buddha also gave a simile where he talks about the nagas, or the spirits of these streams, and how they are birthed from a ground of ethics, from a ground of skillful conduct. And this whole path of engaging these qualities of mind, developing these qualities of mind, really needs to be based on a recognition of the inseparability of the cultivation of one's mind from the cultivation of one's behavior and understanding. It's not only what's going on in our heads that matters but the way we show up in the world. This is inextricably linked to our own happiness and well-being and our own happiness and well-being is inextricably linked to our care for one another and for the world around us.


17:30 – What will we cultivate?

It is helpful for us to acknowledge that in every moment of our lives, in every moment of experience, we're always practicing something. Sometimes we are practicing our habits, and sometimes we are practicing, in a more intentional way, the cultivation of a quality that frees us from habit. As the Buddha put it:

"Whatever we frequently think about and dwell upon, to this does our mind incline."

We learn to develop a literacy inwardly—a felt literacy, a reflective literacy—a quality of knowing when these veiling factors are present and when they are absent, when any of the awakening factors are present and when they are absent. This quality of literacy informs the kind of response, the kind of effort, the kind of energy we bring to living in the midst of these patterns, these qualities.

One of the greatest gifts of mindfulness, I feel, is to understand that we have choices about the quality of attention we develop, as Jaya has pointed out, and where we place that attention. If we are not conscious of the veiling patterns, it's very possible that we are unconsciously practicing them. We have a choice about what we feed and what we fast. Do we learn to nourish the qualities that really enliven us, that bring us to embodiment, that free us, or are we unconsciously choosing to foster and to repeat time and time again the patterns that create confusion?

As I've mentioned, the Satipatthana Sutta is one of the primary discourses on the teaching of mindfulness, where we see the dance between the veiling patterns and the awakening factors, and it's almost as if they seem to pull us in different directions. The veiling patterns pull us in the direction of ever greater confusion and forgetfulness: feeling lost, feeling overwhelmed, dissociated, submerged in ill will, craving, doubt, worry, or simply checking out; while we see the bojjhangas are pulling us in the direction of that which we most deeply value, most deeply aspire to, that which we feel to be the most worthy. They pull us in the direction of freedom.

We see that there is a certain tension involved in waking up, the tension between these two different poles. It is easy at times to see this as being a negative tension, and people can become very judgmental of themselves because, "Oh, there I am again, once more lost in craving, aversion, or doubt."  But I don't see this as a negative tension. I see this as a creative tension. Where would I cultivate joyfulness other than in the midst of the craving for sensual pleasure? Where would I cultivate courage and energy except in the midst of those moments of numbness or dissociation? Where would I cultivate collectedness except in those moments of agitation and scatteredness and fragmentation? 

21:40 – Confidence in beauty and liberation

In many ways, this invites a reorientation of how we approach the path. The bojjhangas, these qualities of awakening, are not rewards for having suffered enough. They're not rewards for having struggled enough. They're not rewards for having somehow managed to quell or mute the veiling factors. It's a reorientation where we develop the confidence that by cultivating the liberating, the healing, and the lovely, that which is beautiful and liberating unbinds from historical patterns of confusion and distress. 

Let's take a moment just to reflect on what are the factors that actually feed the difficult patterns, the veiling patterns that we struggle with and that bind us to distress.

What Supports the Veiling Factors?

Support Description
Lack of mindfulness; heedlessness We can be so lost in our busyness, in our leaning forward or leaning backwards into the past, so lost in our agitation that we simply become forgetful.
Disconnection, dissociation This is sometimes even an unwillingness to embrace the universal laws of all of our lives, of change, of conditionality, the reality that we live in a world where we stand on shifting sands. Ideas of certainty, guarantees, ideas of predictability – these are all part of a camouflage to protect ourselves. We think it protects us.
Lack of restraint How easy it is to go through our lives in an endless pursuit of pleasant sensations, giving authority to our prevailing mood and the reactions that this mood generates. Almost going through life—it's a very crude way of saying it—like a beggar at the sense doors: needing more, wanting more excitement, stimulation, gratification, pleasure.
Unwise attention Dwelling upon the thoughts, the preoccupations, the obsessions that simply do not serve us well.
Skeptical doubt A lack of confidence in our ability to awaken, the lack of confidence in our capacity to be the graduate that the Buddha really sought in this journey.

What Supports the Awakening Factors?

Then to reflect on the factors that support the treasures in our hearts leading to awakening.

Support Description
Mindfulness Learning to be here. Learning to inhabit this body, this mind, and this moment fully.
Living in the light of our understanding ... of change, of insubstantiality, of conditionality and our understanding of what leads to distress and what leads to the end of distress.
Contentment, easefulness in our lives Using our sense doors—the five traditional sense doors and the sense door of the mind—in the service of sensitivity, in the service of respect, in the service of care, being mindful of the kind of footprint we are leaving upon the world in every moment and the kind of footprint we leave in our own hearts.
Skillful, wise attention Not grasping at sensory impressions or our associations with them.
Trust and confidence Confidence in the capacity we have to be awake, to know the fruition of these qualities for ourselves, to trust in our capacity to walk this path with courage, with fearlessness, and with trust.

Complete and Continue