Deep Dive into the Seven Factors of Awakening | 3 Energy

Energy

– Sayadaw U Tejaniya

MEDITATION

Take up a comfortable sitting position, keeping the back upright. Begin by bringing attention to the body sitting, tuning in to the condition of body as it is right now. Are there any places where there is some strong or obvious sensation? If so, we try to relax or relieve these strong sensations as much as possible.

Next we bring attention to the sensation of natural breathing. What is the quality of that breathing process? Is it flowing freely and openly, or does it feel somewhat constricted? Settle the attention upon this breathing process.

Now for a moment return attention to the sensation of body. Can you notice any obvious degree of energy in the body, or any obvious lack of energy? Is the energy you notice something you are creating or forcing, or is it there quite naturally? Bring attention back to the breathing again.

Now for a moment bring attention to the feeling tone. Is the most prominent feeling tone pleasant, unpleasant or neutral? Do you notice any particular energetic response with that feeling tone? Then go back to focusing attention on the breathing once again. For a moment bring attention to the condition of the mind. What degree of energy is there with that condition? Would you say it is energetic, or lacking energy, or other? Is the energy something you are making or causing, or is it due to something else?

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The theme of energy is a very important theme in the Buddha’s teachings. Energy is the third of the Seven Factors of Awakening. It’s also one of the Five Faculties, one of the Five Powers and a factor of the Eightfold Path. So the Buddha was very emphatic about energy. Fundamentally this goes back to the principle of what’s called kamma in his teachings. ‘Kamma’ literally means ‘action’, and the Buddha defined it as intentional action which has the potential to produce a result. His teaching was based on the principle that a person could put forth energy to generate skilful results, such as realizing awakening by developing the Factors of Awakening. In the Buddha’s time, like today, there were various philosophies around, some of which were very deterministic or fatalistic. Some people believed you were born into a certain situation and there was nothing you could do about it; you just had to bide your time and maybe, if you were a reasonably good person for countless aeons of time, you would eventually be welcomed into the bosom of God. Others believed that whatever happened to you was just an accident, a mere chance occurrence.

The Buddha’s teaching, however, is based upon causal action, developing spiritual qualities so as to create the conditions that give rise to realizing awakening. Of course, in practical terms some people have more difficulty than others. Some people seem to be born saints; others have to work really hard at spiritual practice. But it is possible to develop spiritual qualities, and energy is very much key to doing so. It’s not the only requisite, of course. Energy is developed within the context of all these other factors: the Seven Factors of Awakening, the Five Spiritual Faculties and Powers, the Eightfold Path. This quality of energy, this exertion, this putting forth of effort has two aspects to it: the development of energy itself, and the development of right effort. Energy can sometimes just be neutral. But what is most important is how we channel that energy, how we use it.

ENERGY – PHYSICAL AND MENTAL

Energy is both physical and mental. In our society these days we know more about physical energy, because of increased consciousness of health issues, keeping fit and in good health through proper exercise and suitable food, for example. How aware are you of changes in your physical energy? When I first practised in Thailand, my understanding of meditation was as basically just sitting, sitting, sitting, until my legs almost fell off. Then I wondered why I had trouble with sleepiness and nodding a lot. When I went to Ajahn Chah’s monastery, there was not a lot of formal sitting in the routine. There was much more activity – walking meditation, long periods of walking in the mornings for alms food, periods of sweeping leaves in the afternoons and other quite vigorous activity. When I had a chance to practise on my own in a mountain hermitage I found that I actually did more walking than sitting meditation, and it was very invigorating once I developed the physical strength for it. The sittings became better and clearer. I was no longer just sitting and having the mind become dull, being in a half-asleep state and thinking, ‘This is cool meditation!’ – peaceful, but not very clear, just floating around in some kind of dull state in a sort of never-never land. When I put more energy into walking meditation, it gave the quality of the sitting much more clarity, and vitality too. 

Body and mind are inter-related. Too often meditation is interpreted or emphasized as just a state of mind – you sit there and watch your breath, and forget about the body. But you have to sit with the body too, and if your body is not in good physical condition it’s very practice, we need to ease ourselves out of the concept-dominated, goal-oriented attitude. The right attitude for practice means really letting go of all the props of selfhood, including the goal of enlightenment. Through relinquishing, putting down, surrendering the supports for self-grasping, we can tune into another kind of energy, the energy of relaxation and release, an exhilarating energy. For this, however, we need a ‘long-haul’ attitude. Rather than rushing frantically towards some ideal goal, we need to shift the emphasis to the here-and-now practice, outside a time-bound end. It is very hard to relax when we are fenced in by a set goal or a fixed time – better just to start where we are and see how far we go.

So one aspect of the meditation process is waking up from a concept-oriented approach to life to an experiential one. We become more aware of what is, rather than what should be, or what we would like things to be or think they should be. By at least acknowledging that aspect of reality as a possibility, we may slowly wake up to it. If we’re still concept-oriented it is very hard to meditate, because breathing is not a concept, being aware of your thoughts is not a concept. Maybe the concept gives us a direction to pursue, but to be aware of the breathing one has to let go of the concept and move to the direct experience. Really knowing one’s mind means being with that mind as it is, not just with ideas such as: ‘Oh, maybe I’m thinking, maybe I’m imagining, maybe I’m doing this, maybe I’m doing something else’, but reaching the direct experience of what is actually going on in the mind.

AROUSING ENERGY

The most powerful motivator for spiritual practice is a sense of spiritual urgency (saṃvega). We may be having a life crisis or know others who have experienced severe suffering, and this may stimulate us to seek a spiritual solution. Even if we are not overwhelmed by distress we may have some reflective capacity for considering what the real purpose of life is, but unfortunately it often takes some serious emotional shake-up to rattle us out of our complacency.

Among the meditation themes suggested for rousing energy is the contemplation of our imminent death. Or reflecting on the theme that all conditioned things are unsatisfactory may inspire a more diligent attitude. The life of the Buddha is an example of this. He was trying to find out why there is suffering in the world. Why do people fall sick, grow old and die? He had lived a very sheltered life with every luxury, and then he was exposed to the realities of life. Personally, I see this as an allegorical description of most people’s lives. When we are young we are often innocent of the wider implications of death, old age and sickness. We may fall sick, but are then so overwhelmed that we are not able to reflect upon it. We may notice old people or hear of people dying, but it is hard to understand fully what is happening. However, as we grow older we experience these natural processes more often, in different contexts and from a more developed reflective consciousness. We fall sick and have enough reflective consciousness to realize it’s not nice to be sick. And we see that people close to us die. What is this? ‘Oh, they’ve gone for a long holiday somewhere. They’ve gone to heaven.’ Actually, they simply died. But what does that mean? For most of us the deaths of people are not very pleasant. As we wake up to these things we ask, ‘Why? Why do people die? Why do people grow old, why do they suffer?’ When the Buddha was confronted with this particular question, he went off to seek an answer through spiritual practice. 

In a positive sense this is inspiration or faith. What inspires you to practise? Is it something like the principle of aspiring towards realization of truth? Or is it to imitate the Buddha, or gain something like enlightenment? What inspires us to keep going and motivates us? If our motives and inspiration are too goal-oriented they’re a bit crude, and probably won’t work for very long. But maybe in the process we will see something else. Inspiration can motivate us, but unless it turns into a basis for understanding or wisdom, it’s as if we’re chasing a cloud. 

Somewhat less spiritual, maybe, is curiosity, having an interest in something. For example, instead of being inspired by enlightenment we may be curious about it; what is it anyway, this thing called enlightenment or awakening? This approach is then transformed into something which is closer to investigation of dhamma, investigation of the truth, investigation of phenomena. And this interest may bring to light more and deeper levels of what motivates us. Likewise with the theme of energy; we take energy as a topic of interest and investigation. Where does energy come from? And maybe in this way we find a deeper source of the energy that keeps us going. Perhaps at the beginning we’re inspired by the example of the Buddha, but deeper down we contemplate: what is this enlightenment? For example, I ask myself what it is that keeps people practising. Why do they persevere, what’s their motivation? It seems to me to be something universal, like truth. They aren’t just inspired by a person or by a certain philosophy. There’s some aspiration to realize the truth, or realize how things are. 

Sometimes we are inspired by a teacher. I must admit I found a kind of a second wind in my spiritual practice by meeting Ajahn Chah. He was inspiring because he was a very grounded and authentic human being. He wasn’t always saying wonderful things, and he wasn’t always so wonderful; he had body odour, he fell sick and died. But he did represent the possibility that one could practise the Buddha’s teachings and achieve some realization. So there was an aspect of inspiration in knowing him. During the Rainy Season Retreat which I spent with him I would often go in the evenings and sit near him, just to listen to his conversations with visitors and resident monks. I found that I could sit there wide-awake for hours, listening attentively. One evening, however, he dismissed us early and I headed back to my hut on the far side of the monastery. I noticed that the further away I walked from him, the more tired I felt, until I arrived at my hut and suddenly fell asleep. I then realized how much I had been feeding off his charisma; I had been vitalized by his energy, not my own. So I decided that I would have to leave his presence and learn to develop my own energy for practice.

Sometimes our energy level can be inspired for a while, but then it fades out. And what’s left? What holds us up, what keeps us going? We can see that on the surface we’re maybe kept going by some kind of energy such as willpower. I usually suggest that when people are aware of their energy level in the body and mind, they should also become aware of this willpower, for example by bringing attention to the body sitting upright. People may begin by sitting there as stiff as a brass Buddha statue, but they can’t sustain that. They’re just willing themselves to do it. But if they relax a little they may be able to experience what their natural level of energy is and sustain that practice. I must admit that willpower does work; some people have very strong willpower, so they can will themselves to sit for hours through much pain. But in the end they can’t sustain it and ultimately they reinforce rigidity of body and mind.

So if we’re only running on will, only one small part of our psyche is operating. The dark side of will is self-will or will to selfhood, the fundamental support of ego. This is usually expressed through desire or aversion. Some people generate a lot of energy from anger and aversion, and if we want something we will ourselves to get it. So we try to will ourselves to enlightenment – tonight will be the night! Or maybe we’ll wait until the next full moon, to draw some extra energy from outside forces – then we’ll sit through the whole night and wake up next to the Buddha! But it’s more likely that we’ll just get sore knees and be disappointed. However, on the positive side there is the desire or will to realize Dhamma (dhamma-chanda), and a type of spiritual ‘aversion’ termed disenchantment (nibbidā). They serve to reduce the grasping of selfhood

Willpower can keep us going for a while, and then we can go to the opposite extreme, frustration and resentment, because things are not working and we haven’t got what we wanted. When we reach that place we may be forced to surrender our wilfulness. Then we may notice that beneath it is something which is not so obvious or outstanding, but which is more important. We can open to the life force of simply being present with whatever is. There’s a special quality to this energy which is more like a peaceful vitality, the power of presence into which we can tune. 

Discovering and exploring a lack of energy is also part of investigating energy. It’s quite common for people on meditation retreats to go through periods of sleepiness and dullness. Maybe this makes them frustrated or even embarrassed – everybody else is sitting there looking like the Buddha, and they’re sweeping the floor with their hair! But rather than just resorting to willpower and forcing oneself to sit there and look like everybody else, one can begin to investigate the problem and maybe find what is hindering or blocking the free flow of energy within. Normally sloth and torpor is considered as one of the Five Hindrances, but for investigation of dhamma this is a very important area to investigate. It can be transformed into a great source of wisdom. 

We have this experience of dullness or sleepiness because we are holding on to some aspect of our self. For example, if we’re holding on to a fixed idea of what practice is and our practice isn’t living up to that idea, there’s a conflict. So our energy drains away. We may want to watch the breathing – that’s what we should do, that’s the good thing. Then the mind wanders off – wait a minute, hold it. Back again. Then the mind starts doing something else. If you really resist these fluctuations and start struggling against them, you’ll waste your energy and end up sleepy and dull. But if you can observe that the mind is wandering and have an open, aware attitude to it, you don’t create this friction and struggling. Maybe the mind is not always on the breathing, but you are aware that the mind is wandering. That too is awareness, and it’s awareness of what’s really happening. Through this approach you find that the energy which before was wasted in the struggle becomes available to you. When you free that energy to be available, you find you’re more awake. It’s not a matter of just fighting with the problem through willpower, but of recognizing what’s happening. Then you can be aware of the wandering mind and the breathing, because this energy has been freed.

And this is how we can work with all these so-called Hindrances. When we’re able to access them and be more receptive to them, the energy which before was used to suppress or deny them becomes freely available. We have a free source of energy here. This may sound a bit odd, because normally we believe we shouldn’t have the Hindrances, we should get rid of them. But that again is using some of our energy to struggle with what’s really going on in our minds. And the struggling doesn’t actually resolve the problem; it’s still there and we’re just wasting energy in trying to suppress it. However, we can instead become more aware of these mental states and learn to investigate these aspects of our being, rather than trying to deny them. Then we can tap into this energy and transform the Hindrances into a source of wisdom.

Spiritual wisdom is a source of energy. It is not a compulsive, driving, willpower energy, but  a living vitality. That was what I recognized in Ajahn Chah, a peaceful vitality. He didn’t have to run around doing things, accomplishing things and enlightening people. Indeed, he didn’t have to do anything; he was just himself, just body and mind with awareness and wisdom. He had vitality but not compulsiveness, he wasn’t driven by self-will. 

There is also a danger side to energy, of course, when it is harnessed into the service of the ego as inflation. Thus some people who are exceedingly energetic may be driven by self-aggrandizing forces. This kind of energy can be impressive, but narrow-mindedness and on-a-mission enthusiasm are usually lurking beneath the surface. When energy is not well-balanced by the other Factors of Awakening, especially the more calming ones such as tranquillity, concentration and equanimity, it can easily be mistaken as an end in itself.

RIGHT EFFORT

Probably the clearest explanation of right energy is in the Eightfold Path, where this quality of energy is explained as the four right efforts – putting forth effort, but in the right way. We can generate all kinds of energy, but where does it go? Maybe it even inclines towards being an obstacle, just making us more restless. And maybe we put energy in the wrong place, focus or channel it in the wrong direction. I’m sure people who are out to make a million dollars are very energetic too. So what is right effort? Its four different aspects are refraining from the unwholesome, putting away the already arisen unwholesome, developing the wholesome and maintaining the wholesome.

The first right effort is avoiding unwholesome actions. Of course, we need to know what is unwholesome. In part we can be guided by the Buddha’s teachings. The Buddhist scriptures explain the ten wholesome courses of action as refraining from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, malicious speech, harsh speech, gossip, covetousness, ill-will and wrong view. That is a very good start. However, we need to be able to apply this teaching to our own particular life and cultural situations. The scriptures suggest that the best way to refrain from the unwholesome is to guard the senses, so that covetousness, dejection and evil and unwholesome thoughts do not flow in. Thus we can be aware that they are just sense impressions which may sometimes trigger off perceptions and thoughts. If mindfulness and investigation of dhamma are well enough established we are not moved to act on these impressions in an unwholesome way, and thus do not increase unwhole-some results.

An example of this which may be a little controversial has to do with intoxicants. In our Western society alcohol is considered as OK, it’s not bad to have a little drink – or maybe even a big drink. Alcohol is not necessarily looked upon as an unwholesome thing, except when taken to excess. However, when we are serious about avoiding unwholesome actions, we may recognize that any sort of intoxication or artificial altering of mood is not a very skilful thing. We should know what the principle of cause and effect, action and result, is telling us. The Buddha emphasizes that kamma is actually intentional action. So we must look at our intentions, and this may require some careful observation. Do we know our intentions in drinking alcohol? Do we take intoxicants to distract us from our misery? Does this really work? Or is there maybe a better alternative?

In practical terms, of course, many of us have a range of behaviours which we might consider unwholesome. Sometimes we may be required to consider some very creative ways of dealing with them. A monk I knew in Thailand was an exemplary teacher for people with problems. Once a man addicted to drinking came to seek his advice. He suggested that the man stop drinking at least one day a week on his birthday. In Thailand each person’s name is determined by the day of the week on which they are born, and thus that day is special for them. So the man made a special effort to refrain from drinking on his birthday. After some weeks he could manage this well and came to the monk to report. The monk congratulated him and then suggested that he refrain from drinking on the following day as well. The man managed to do this successfully. Then as his confidence grew, and with constant encouragement from his monk teacher, he was eventually able to refrain from drinking on every day of the week.

The second of the four right efforts is to be able to let go of, overcome, abandon unwholesome actions. Most specifically, continually dispelling thoughts of sensuality, ill-will and cruelty is mentioned. As we may know, thinking in certain ways can become habitual, and may then become a behavioural tendency which is hard to undo. If we can look carefully at what is motivating our behaviour, perhaps we can see what the thoughts or attitudes behind it are so that we can work to transform them.

The third of the right efforts is to develop wholesome actions. The Pali word for ‘develop’ is also the word used to translate ‘meditation’; thus real development is through meditation. Most specifically, it is stated as developing the Seven Factors of Awakening. Not only are these Factors wholesome in themselves, but their cultivation can alleviate the effects of some of the unwholesome habits and tendencies which we may have accumulated.

The fourth right effort is to maintain a suitable meditation object. Since the roots of many of our unwholesome attitudes are due to unskilful states of mind, the way to uproot those attitudes is through meditation practice. I think the really important part of meditation practice is continuity. If we just practise when we’re inspired or when we need some comfort, our practice is quite limited. What really matters is the continuity of it. 

Being able to continue to develop and maintain wholesome actions requires us to investigate and carefully study what is wholesome and what is unwholesome. Some people may find it much easier to think in terms of what’s good and what’s evil. For me that’s a little too black and white, and is often infused with cultural values. Considering what is wholesome and unwholesome is more subjective, because it means you have to decide how your actions measure up to where you are in spiritual practice. And your perception of wholesome and unwholesome can change. Just refraining from intoxicants may be a wholesome action in the beginning, but later on it may not be enough. Developing meditation may then become the wholesome action, and then maintaining meditation practice may become even more wholesome, more skilful. So our standards of what is wholesome or unwholesome change as we reach different levels of experience, as we gain understanding and wisdom. Being able to understand what is wholesome and unwholesome gives us the right channel for this quality of energy in spiritual practice, energy based upon wisdom.

CONCLUSION

This theme of energy is very fundamental to the Buddha’s teachings. It also brings us very close to what the nature of our self is, through observing this willpower to selfhood. But if we begin to see what the nature of this energy is, what this self-power is, we also begin to see what’s fuelling the grasping of selfhood. Only when that fuel is eliminated does grasping at selfhood lose its power over us. If we’re still being driven by willpower, even though we may realize moments of clarity and concentration, we haven’t yet realized what is supporting selfhood.

So we investigate the nature of energy – the nature of energy in the body and in the mind, what stimulates it, what depletes it, its basis. Is it goal-oriented or ego-supported, or is it natural, open and free-flowing? Is it open to all aspects of our experience, or are we energized only when stimulated by what the self chooses to focus on?

How much are we being energized by our beliefs? Some people have fixed ideas about what enlightenment is, or what spiritual practice is. Often their fixed ideas are still being supported by their selfhood – me and enlightenment too. Maybe we need these fixed ideas to some degree as incentives, a little carrot to lead us onward. But ideally we should see that this carrot is just a technique, a method for deepening practice. If we see what is motivating us, we can then try to investigate what’s behind it. Do we really need stimulation all the time? If so, our practice is quite limited, because sometimes the stimulation won’t be there. However, we do have the possibility to investigate the nature of energy and eventually return to what is powering or motivating us. And to what is behind, outside and beyond the self. 

This quality of energy is the basis of the principle of kamma, or ethical cause and effect, because we’re acting all the time, we’re putting our energy all over the place in different ways. Until we know where we’re directing our energy, we won’t recognize what its effect is. Is it really wholesome? Is it really beneficial for ourselves and others. Is it in harmony with the way things really are? Is it leading to liberation?

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Dhammapada (292-293)

In those who reject what should, & do what shouldn’t be done — heedless, insolent — effluents grow. But for those who are well-applied, constantly, to mindfulness immersed in the body; don’t indulge in what shouldn’t be done & persist in what should — mindful, alert — effluents come to an end.

Effluent: liquid waste or sewage discharged into a river or the sea

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