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Deepening Your Mindfulness Practice Using the Seven Factors of Awakening

If you've ever delved into Buddhist teachings, you've probably discovered that lists are a big deal in this tradition. Although we may tend to think of lists as bits of dry or uninspiring data to memorize, it makes sense that a largely oral tradition would rely on lists as a way to disseminate teachings, and allow everyone from monks and nuns to lay practitioners to receive consistent instruction.


I want to spend the next few blog posts exploring some of the most important "Buddhist lists", and to show how, far from being stuffy and stale, the wisdom in these lists can still be applied in very practical ways to the modern practitioner's everyday life. Sure, we might associate lists with the study hall (or the grocery store), but there's a lot of beauty and life in these teachings, so it pays to delve a little deeper!


The first list I want to take a look at is the "Seven Factors of Awakening" (sometimes referred to as the "Seven Factors of Enlightenment"). Although enlightenment might sound like a tall order, don't fret: these are seven very practical, down-to-earth factors that any mindfulness practitioner, from a Zen master to a beginner meditator, can consciously cultivate. Let's take a look:


Mindfulness

At the heart of awakening, and of any contemplative practice, lies mindfulness. It involves cultivating a deeper awareness of the present moment. In daily life, this means paying conscious attention to thoughts, emotions, and actions. From brushing our teeth, to taking that first sip of coffee in the morning, to noticing the solidity of the ground beneath our feet when we walk from our office to the boardroom, mindfulness isn't something otherworldly, or reserved only for the meditation cushion. In fact, mindfulness is really the opposite: it's about bringing our attention to the little details of day-to-day living that often escape our conscious attention when we're caught up in reveries of the past, or worries about the future. By bringing our attention to the here and now, we can break free from the constraints of past and future, fostering a stable and peaceful mind.


Investigation

The second factor, investigation, encourages us to explore the nature of our experiences and the root causes of our suffering. While this might sound like an overwhelming or unapproachable task, we can start very small! We might start a daily journaling practice, for example, where we note down some of the difficulties we experienced on a given day, what thoughts were going through our minds when the difficulty arose, whether those thoughts then triggered any emotions, etc. We can start to "zoom" out and get some perspective on how our perspectives lead to our thoughts, which lead to emotions, actions, etc. We demystify the mind when we begin to investigate how it works.


We also begin to see how the seven factors support one another as we cultivate them. For example, we might take a few mindful breaths after a stressful event to centre our minds so that we can investigate our thinking and cultivate insight into it. We might also use investigation of our thoughts to strengthen our mindfulness faculty.


Energy

So you're interested in cultivating a contemplative practice, you've got your meditation cushion set up, and you've borrowed every book about mindfulness from the local library. What now? It's one thing to have the intention to practice, and another to actually do it.


How do we apply energy or determination to our mindfulness journey? The going won't always be easy, and some days we just won't feel like doing it. I think having a consistent practice time can really help with this one. Getting into the habit of meditating first thing in the morning, for instance, or at the end of the day after the kids are in bed, can help bring a sense of sacredness and ritual to our practice, which might help us better sustain it. It also helps our brain establish our practice as a habit. My first meditation teacher taught me to see meditation as akin to brushing your teeth every morning -- something in your schedule that's non-negotiable. As unglamorous as that might sound, it's effective in developing a solid daily practice, which is very important for beginners in particular.


We also learn to trust the practice as we see some of the other factors of awakening arise in us, which gives us energy to continue. When we see that mindfulness and investigation are bringing about even the most subtle changes in our moods, or our ability to navigate stressful situations, we feel energized and encouraged to continue on. This energy then allows our practice to deepen even further. It's an upward spiral.


Joy

The fourth factor of mindfulness is a nice and juicy one: joy! At the end of the day, mindfulness and meditation should generally be enjoyable practices. Not every session will leave us with the warm-and-fuzzies, but meditation shouldn't be a grind, or a task to grimly set ourselves to. The more we focus on the present moment, the more joy and appreciation we can find in "the little things", which turn out to not be so little at all. The warmth of a cup of tea in your hand, the unique softness of your cat's belly -- these details are where the joy of life comes from.


We're taught in Western culture to always be searching for happiness or fulfillment around the next corner: "Once I get that promotion I'll be happy!" Or "Once I buy that dream house, I'll finally feel fulfilled." We set our sights high, and we set them on the horizon. Our mindfulness practice helps us to set our sights smaller and deeper, to see that there are "more than enough conditions in the present moment for happiness" as Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh would put it. Our practice then generates joy, and our joy helps us to sustain our practice.


Tranquility

Tranquility can sometimes feel elusive to newer practitioners, despite perhaps being one of the most sought-after "side effects" of a meditation practice. We all want to skip the tough work and get straight to the peaceful stuff, right? Unfortunately, while meditation offers rewards for persistence, we do need to be conscious of the fact that trying to obtain any particular mental state, or to "achieve" something through our practice is likely to be counterproductive.


Meditation is a "watched pot never boils" kind of practice: we do see results over time, but not when we're actively trying to attain them. But never fear: as we cultivate mindfulness, concentration, and insight, our minds will gradually become more serene and tranquil. When we are able to slow down and recognize our thoughts as just thoughts, not necessarily the objective truth of the situation, or as "us", we're able to let them pass and not get caught up in them. In those small gaps between thought, we gain access to tranquility. These moments may only be short flickers at first, but with sustained practice, they'll lengthen and deepen. Trust the process!


Concentration

Concentration involves the unification and steadying of our minds through the cultivation of focused attention. Through our practice, we develop the ability to sustain our attention on a chosen object, such as the breath, a mantra, or a perhaps even a visualized image. As concentration deepens, distractions and wandering thoughts diminish, leading to a state of mental absorption.


Concentration is closely related to the preceding factors of mindfulness and joy. Mindfulness helps initiate the process by directing attention to the present moment, and joy can then arise as a result of sustained mindfulness and concentration. Together, these factors create a conducive environment for the mind to enter deeper states of concentration.

Through sustained concentration into the nature of our minds, we gain insight into who we truly are. We cultivate a mind that is stable, solid, and free.


Equanimity

The final factor of awakening is equanimity. Equanimity is the quality of maintaining mental composure and balance, whether we're experiencing pleasure or pain, success or failure, gain or loss. It's often characterized as a state of relative "non-attachment", but it's far from being indifferent or cold! In the Buddhist context, equanimity is more about cultivating a sense of contentedness and wellbeing that doesn't depend on external situations being a certain way. It allows us to respond to situations with wisdom and compassion rather than being overly-reactive.


Equanimity is often considered a hallmark of spiritual maturity, allowing us to navigate the challenges of life with a clear and balanced mind. But don't worry if you're not there quite yet -- none of us are! Above all, cultivating a spiritual practice is a recognition that this is a lifetime process, not something we can rush through and tick off of a to-do list. The seven factors of awakening can help give us confidence in our path, and provide some signposts to focus on so that we can see all the positive progress we're making, even if that progress is often very subtle.


Embarking on a mindfulness practice isn't always easy, but by integrating mindfulness, investigation, energy, joy, tranquility, concentration, and equanimity into our daily routines, we open the door to a more fulfilling existence. These timeless teachings provide a roadmap for cultivating a peaceful and resilient mind amidst the complexities of modern life.

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