The Seven Factors of Awakening


June 1, 2022
Filipe Bastos

The Seven Factors of Awakening are seven mental capacities on which Buddhist tradition places significant value. Known within the religion as “inner wealth”, these factors are mindfulness, investigation, energy, joy, tranquillity, concentration, and equanimity. Now, I know what you’re thinking — the term “Factors of Awakening” seems a little lofty and out-of-touch with everyday life. However, this assumption is actually wrong; the mental qualities developed as part of the seven factors of awakening are qualities we use all the time.

In this article, we’ll explain the origins of this philosophy, and look at why this way of perceiving the nature of reality and awakening can be hugely beneficial. We’ll go through these seven factors of enlightenment one by one, and explore what each stage means. Finally, we’ll highlight how this concept relates to both your daily life and your meditation practice. Let’s dive in.

Where do the Seven Factors of Awakening come from?

The Seven Factors of Awakening refer to inner human capacities which are often hidden or not fully utilised. Therefore, this practice should be viewed not as cultivating new abilities, but as learning to identify, appreciate and strengthen ones that we already have. The Seven Factors use mindfulness as a base, with each other mental factor supporting or facilitating the next.

But where does this concept come from? Well, like many things within the world of meditation and mindfulness, its roots can be traced back to the spiritual path of Buddhism. The Seven Factors of Awakening were originally shared via the Satipatthāna Sutta, a revered and widely studied text within the Pali canon of Theravada Buddhism. These enlightenment factors, viewed within Buddhism as a vital part of the path of awakening, are part of the Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness, “Mindfulness of the Dhammas” (more on that shortly).

In Buddhism, the Seven Factors of Awakening are considered to be the most important teachings a person can learn to live a more meaningful and fulfilling life. Each of these plays an important role in helping us become more aware and awakened beings. Even if you’re not a Buddhist, these factors can still be helpful in your own life. Let’s take a closer look at each of them.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is great at helping you identify and separate physical and emotional sensations. Techniques such as noting can shine a light on different habits, thought patterns, and qualities of mind that you possess. This represents the foundation of insight practices such as self-directed neuroplasticity, which increases our understanding of our minds and bodies and how they respond to different stimuli. This enhanced sense of insight provided by the foundations of mindfulness is crucial to the experience of awakening.

Investigation

Investigation refers to the ability to clearly distinguish different aspects of our present moment experience. Whilst driving, for example, we constantly make distinctions about the conditions of the road and how to steer, brake, and accelerate. For skilled drivers, this might come almost effortlessly, but it takes constant, careful discernment to be safe and confident on the roads. The Buddhist practice of meditation uses investigation to seek dhamma, which is the Pali term for “truth”. Becoming more aware of different aspects of present moment experience has strong ties to spiritual practices like this, which seek to inform us through meditation that nothing is permanent, and all thoughts and feelings should be viewed as passing phenomena.

Effort or Energy

Energy is all about applying yourself to the task at hand. This refers to the physical energy and attention needed to complete any task or activity, and it’s common for people to apply this effort without being fully conscious of it. Energy comes more naturally after we’ve taken the time to observe and organise our minds, which explains why this factor of awakening comes at this stage. However, if you feel as though you’re demotivated or struggling to find the energy for meditation, it can be useful to think about why you’re practising mindfulness meditation. It could be that you want to reduce mental suffering, increase your understanding of how the mind works, or increase the evenness of mind of both yourself and others. These motivations guide our experiences of effort or energy.

Joy or Rapture

The previous factors we’ve discussed often come as precursors to experiences of joy or rapture. By tapping into a sense of well-being that transcends your immediate circumstances, you can experience real feelings of joy or delight. And becoming enraptured by these pleasurable experiences is great for you! Developing new perspectives on life and cultivating a beginner’s mind in which you notice the natural wonder of the world can lead to a happier, healthier, and more awakened mind.

Tranquillity

The satisfaction generated by feelings of joy, rapture, or pleasure can lead to a genuinely tranquil mind. Religious and spiritual practices aren’t just motivated by blind faith — the joy and rapture that prayer is intended to promote often encourages feelings of tranquillity. But equally, this aspect of awakening can be a totally secular experience. Mindfulness meditation is about getting in touch with physical sensations, emotions, thoughts, and feelings, in order to generate peace of mind and balance. When those experiences of greater calmness become more regular and natural, you’ll know that you’ve activated the tranquillity element of awakening.

Concentration

Most meditators begin by learning concentration practices, which require focused attention on an object of meditation, like the breath or a mantra. As one of the enlightenment factors we’re exploring today, concentration refers to paying close attention to whatever you’re doing in the moment — this can have the positive impact of taking your mind away from unrelated thoughts and concerns. Now, when we get into experiences of deep meditation and tranquillity, keeping concentration can be a challenge. Instead of focusing on a specific physical or mental object of meditation, this factor of awakening is about attaining “momentary concentration” on each sensation, as it arises.

Equanimity

Equanimity is a term that is often misunderstood. Essentially, equanimity is the ability to remain calm, composed, and relaxed in a variety of circumstances, however challenging or difficult. Developing our ability to remain concentrated and tranquil will often naturally lead towards greater equanimity, which can be equated with a lack of struggle or a sense of effortlessness. When we develop equanimity, we become less scared of being afraid, less concerned about being worried, and less reactive in the face of frustration. This reduced emotional reactivity is key to both the Seven Factors of Awakening, and to the practice of mindfulness more broadly.

How meditation helps us to live a better life

Using meditation and mindfulness exercises to develop these core mental qualities can have a huge positive impact on your life. Practising meditation can lead to increased acceptance, empathy, and compassion. It also allows us to separate ourselves from negative thoughts and emotions, becoming less reactive and more constructively responsive. We cover this subject in more depth in this article.

It should go without saying that enhanced communication skills, increased empathy, and greater balance and equanimity can have all sorts of positive effects during our day-to-day life. But how exactly are these changes manifested? Let’s look into it.

How awakening affects your daily life

The seven factors of enlightenment or awakening can impact both your daily life and your formal meditation practice. Within meditation, they can lead to increased engagement with the practice and its conditions, making meditation more satisfying and beneficial. However, the benefits extend far beyond that.

Let’s consider a couple of real-life examples of how and when these factors of awakening can appear. Picture this: you wake up from a nap, and begin to re-accustom yourself to your surroundings. Your senses are engaged, while you’ve benefited from a break from the daily concerns and stresses occupying your mind. As you regain full consciousness, you’re not just waking up physically, you’re also experiencing the Seven Factors of Awakening we’ve discussed today. You begin investigating the sights, sounds, and smells around you in a balanced, equanimous way, concentrating on certain aspects of experience, but feeling tranquil, at peace, and perhaps even joyful after your rest. You’ll become more mindful of your body and senses, and begin exerting physical and mental effort to move yourself and carry on with your day.

This example shows how the Seven Factors of Awakening are a natural part of human life; however, this process also becomes much easier when you’re used to acting mindfully throughout your life. Being aware of different aspects of awakening both in your formal meditation practice and across your life means you’re covering both bases, and you’re more likely to experience greater focus, awareness, tranquillity, equanimity, and happiness in a variety of circumstances.

As we’ve explored in this article, the seven factors of awakening are mutually supportive, meaning that they can and should be developed alongside each other; they work together to help us experience and enjoy the present moment with greater clarity, balance, equanimity, and delight. Awakening can stop us from clinging to negative thoughts, emotions, and experiences. By growing our capacity to resist the process of attaching ourselves to these things, we can lead ourselves on a pathway towards real happiness.

Frequently Asked Questions:

Why is it so hard to pay attention?

Humans have evolved for survival, not for mental well-being. That’s why our minds are constantly ruminating on the past, thinking about the future, and getting distracted, with little attention paid to the present moment. This can make meditation difficult; however, mindfulness and concentration practices are all about training our attention skills. You can find out more about this in our free eBook, ‘Why Can’t I Meditate? 5 Common Challenges and How to Overcome Them’.

Do the Seven Factors of Awakening lead to deeper meditation?

The Seven Factors of Awakening can significantly improve the impact of your meditation practice. While deep meditation is a broad term that can have multiple definitions, you’d be right to think that these enlightenment factors can lead to deeper forms of meditation. You can find out more about this subject here.

Does awakening mean letting go?

Experiences of awakening or enlightenment can help us shift our minds away from negative thoughts, feelings, and emotions that are holding us back. Letting go of these things can have a super positive impact on our mental well-being. For more on this idea, check out our article on Meditation for letting go.

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