The Five Mental Factors of Practice
Updated: Jan 18, 2022
It seems we’re all still on our individual islands.
All this time we have been a literal island, too, which is weird, and just a few months ago landed on another little island of our own, this time in the middle of a city. So much time in relative solitude has coddled my natural shyness and given me plenty of alone time, but recently I’ve found myself thinking a lot about relationships. Maybe it’s because our ability to relate to one another directly has become, in some ways, stilted (my casual conversation skills are nearly completely lost at this point), and in others more accessible (Zoom). Maybe it’s because I have historically had a contentious relationship regarding interaction via the internet, and now it is my only form of being able to touch into the communities for which I care so deeply. Maybe it’s because I have watched the most intimate spaces of my relationships - to people, to places, and to my body and practice - shift so greatly in the past few years. Sometimes this shift is quick or nearly imperceptible, sometimes it’s slow or obviously painful, sometimes it happens due to a catalyst and sometimes of its own accord.
Akin to being a little boat in the great big sea, life is subject to the shifting tides and weather patterns of the larger ecosystem. Sometimes it’s difficult to stay upright when the storms rage, and sometimes it feels like the hull is so full of water we will, if we don’t do something, anything, to fix it, sink down into the depths and be lost forever. Every so often we get really turned around and just don’t know which way is north. It’s hard to know how to keep going, but somehow we just...do. Instead of fighting the currents and trying so hard to stay upright we learn to surrender to the conditions at hand; to do our best and keep our eyes lifted. In learning to trust that we were made to ride the waves, get tossed about, and joyfully endure, we see that we are not only the little boat, but we are also the waves and not separate from the great big sea. We all have this capacity.
Our capacity is made up of three elements and their balancing factors, qualities of heart-mind that we as practitioners develop over the course of our lives. As in most of life, we often forget their importance and presence when things are going our way, and it is only when life serves us that which is difficult, heartbreaking, or even unfair that we notice their present, if faint, light. The first of these elements is Saddha, faith, or conviction, the foundation of our ability to move forward in the face of all odds. It may exist as the smallest seed in the most hidden corner of the heart, and it is inexorably connected to our will. Sometimes we have to borrow a little from the people around us - we have to take their word that we can and will be ok, that this too, whatever it is, will fall away to make room for something else. With time and awareness our conviction becomes firmly rooted and is self-fulfilling. It takes faith to sow the seeds of tomorrow and beyond, to understand that where we put our attention and how we relate to what is happening right now creates the conditions we arrive into in the future. Wisdom (panna), faith’s balance point, keeps us grounded so we don’t chase the proverbial carrots and forget about the here and now, where we’ve been, and the biggest picture. Faith and wisdom work in synchronicity, asking us to not fall asleep when things are going our way, nor to believe the mind’s threatened stories when things inevitably fall apart or we encounter the “roll up the mat” periods. These are the qualities of heart and mind, in both the most peaceful and challenging of times, that keeps us participating as fully as possible with life.
The brightening of faith naturally strengthens our sense of inner vitality, spirit, and persistence. For this reason, viriya, passion, or tenacity, is the second quality we cultivate. Nearly in tandem with heartfelt faith, our energy arises and sets into motion a cascade of positive realignments, and we’re able to navigate challenges as our compass points in the direction of the good. The body feels less heavy and stagnation begins to move upward and outward. The agitation of the heart softens, and our mind becomes less preoccupied with the whirls of thought to which we are so accustomed. We might realize all of the effort that it takes to maintain old hurts, to continually retell the stories of what we messed up or who did us wrong, and free that energy from old cycles. As if awakening from a dream, like being reborn into another childhood, we’re more interested in the world around us and the grip of personal story loosens. This provides a tremendous sense of relief from our mental gymnastics and psychological suffering - strengthening our faith, and, in turn, enlivening our efforts with renewed vigor. samadhi, most often translated as concentration, more akin to the still point of true balance. Even the smallest effort is able to shift the subsequent moment, and through this we begin to gain confidence with our ability to be with what is. Over time, our energy shifts from the will to begin (often again and again), to steady effort of sustaining interest and curiosity, and finally to one of realization. While it requires relatively great effort for us to start and stop, over time effort dissolves into a deep, sustained energy with a momentum all its own.
As we are able to more easily see our connection and interrelatedness with all things, it is as though the mind expands outward from a tense, contracted state. We live in a haze of near constant forgetfulness regarding who we are, often forgetting that it is not what we do in our life, but rather how we live that is our legacy. With sustained, light effort, remembering to remember arises spontaneously. This is mindfulness or Sati, and is the third quality of our capacity. Mindfulness is the preeminent wholesome factor of mind because when it is present, all of the other factors arise with it: faith, tranquility, integrity, wisdom, modesty, and lightness. Mindfulness manifests as observing, which really means to remember to observe. We can practice mindfulness in many ways, as separate elements, and each of these will strengthen our overall ability to cultivate more awakeness in life with greater nuance. Perhaps most obviously, we can practice mindfulness of body in the ways we move, stand, sit, or lie down. We can strengthen awareness of feelings and sensations within the body as we do these actions, and also notice the feelings and sensations of the body in relation to our fluctuating psycho-emotional states. Every experience has its own unique flavor; tingling is different from vibration, joy is distinct from depression. More subtly, we become aware of the stream of thoughts, opinions, likes, and dislikes rolling through the mind in a near constant state, and gain understanding of the inclinations and habits of the mind, and begin to see how these patterns affect the way we relate to all things - our body, self, other people, environment, etc. Each moment of mindfulness is a moment of clarity. In this state, as brief as it may be for a time, there is no room for hindrances and outside torments like judgement, fear, and doubt. Mindfulness allows us to be intimate with our experience, rather than running along with our thoughts, views, opinions, and preconditioned expectations of what we encounter. The effect of mindfulness is to ground us in the reality of here and now, and it calms the proverbial waters and creates the conditions for insight to arise.
While we certainly gain valuable wisdom from reading and analytical intellect, these can only become integrated on a superficial level. As a point of reflection, consider if you had never tasted a mango. You might believe you know, from a book or the internet or a friend telling you, that a mango’s interior is yellow-orange with a soft textured flesh and tastes sweet and tart. But, knowing what a mango in theory looks and tastes like is not the same as having tasted a mango. You would know that a perfectly ripe mango has a taste all its own, something like warm honey and tropical white flowers with the smallest tart finish that makes the mouth water. Likewise, there is no shortcut, posture, book or person who can give us our embodied wisdom. We must all walk our own path. Like a flower in continuous, slow bloom our practice sustains us through all that we contact in a life. We see these objects, thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and even the body itself as they are: simply nature arising, aging, and falling away in their own time. When we witness for yourself how everything we can touch, see, hear, taste, sense, think and believe changes, how every moment gives way to the next, it fundamentally changes our relationship to the events that make up life. There will still be challenges - sadness and grief, loss and disappointment, confusion and the feeling of being adrift at sea - but we begin to encounter them with a kind of reverent wonder and grace. Our mind is confident with clear comprehension and the embodied wisdom that our heart has the capacity to be with it all.
This is time well spent. This is a life well lived.