Faith, along with effort, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom, are collectively known as the five spiritual faculties, or the five powers. This framework gives you a sense of where faith is found in the teachings so you can understand its relationship to other things, and also to show that the dharma is alive with all of these lists illuminating the interdependence and the interconnectedness of this path.

I like the word “power” to describe these five. When we hear the word “power,” we often think of a great force, possession, control, authority, or power over other people. But there’s another way to look at power: as a source of energy to produce an effect or an impact. That’s how I see the five spiritual powers, as the energy that moves us away from our suffering and toward our liberation. 

I’m a huge fan of the writer, poet, and activist Audre Lorde and am inspired by her teachings. To me, everything she did was straight dharma. There is a gorgeous photograph of her standing in front of a chalkboard, and on the board, it says “Women are powerful, and dangerous.” I don’t know the context in which that photo was taken. But I interpret it to be saying that within the feminine, there is an inherent nature, to be collective, to be patient, to be receptive, to be open. And these are all the qualities that we need to know the fullness and the complexity of the dharma. That can be dangerous to some because it means that we can get free. And that freedom begins with releasing ourselves from that doubt, that holds us back as we lean in toward our faith. I think that’s really powerful. 

Faith is referred to as the seed of our spiritual practice. There’s nothing that exists that wasn’t created from a seed that was planted, then bloomed and grew into something else. Without the seed, without faith, the rest of the practice can’t bloom. Faith is intuitive, it’s primordial, it’s something that we’re born with. It’s not something that we can go and learn about. We cultivate it and we continue to fine-tune it as we deepen in our practice. 

My nephew’s partner just had a baby, so I’m a great-aunt now. Watching her, I’m amazed at how intuitive babies are. They know how to get their needs met; when they’re hungry, when they’re wet, when they’re tired, they know how to cry to get the attention of someone that can take care of them. When they get ready to walk, they begin to pull themselves up, and they fall, and they pull up again, and they fall. Because they have faith, they keep going and they keep trying. Eventually, they will stand and they’ll be able to walk. Our faith continues to show up throughout other aspects of our lives: When we take the training wheels off of our bicycles. When we apply for schools. When we say yes to that first date. When we breathe a breath, we have faith that that breath will breathe itself out. 

There is a trusting in those butterflies that we feel in our guts, that little touch of fear that lets us know that we’re moving closer toward our truth. There’s a felt sense, a deep knowing in the body that words can’t really express. 

One of my favorite stories is of the Buddha’s awakening. Siddhartha Gautama was born a prince, and traveled for many years and studied with different political leaders and spiritual teachers because he was interested in liberation. He wanted to know what it meant to be free—to not be born again into this life. The night that he awakened, he sat under the Bodhi tree, and the embodiment of doubt, Mara, came to visit. Mara is a real bully! The Buddha is sitting there, trying to wake up, and Mara is shooting arrows at him, and he’s sending down his dancing daughters, doing all of these things to try to interrupt the Buddha and take him off his path. 

So the Buddha reaches down and touches the earth. And he asks the earth to bear witness to his waking up. The legend says that with this, the earth began to tremble and crack open. A version of the story that I love is that when Mother Earth came up, for some reason she had wet hair—maybe she was interrupted during a shower. She wrings out her hair and it causes a flood, and it washes Mara down to the depths of the hell realm. 

How powerful to have that kind of faith, to have someone throwing so many obstacles your way, and you say, “You know what? I need to get witnessed.” Faith isn’t something that can be substantiated by evidence. We can’t really touch it, we can’t lean on something that’s tangible. Our faith or belief must anchor itself beyond what’s available. We have to feel it. The person who believes has to be willing to fill in the gaps of what can’t be touched, what can’t be explained. We have to have an attitude of patience and trust. 

On my very first retreat I met Bhante Buddharakkhita, a monk from Uganda. He is amazing, he’s radiant, he kind of glows. I was blown away, because I’d never seen a Black man wearing robes before—ordained as a Buddhist monastic. I listened to him, and I thought, this person is magical. I need to know more about him. At the end of the retreat, he says, I’m opening up a center in Uganda, everyone should come visit me. I decided, “I’m going to do that.” So over the next six months, I moved to a more affordable apartment, I quit my job, and I took all the money that I had in my savings account, which was not very much, and I bought a plane ticket to Uganda to sit on a personal retreat for a few weeks.

After two weeks, I had to go home, I had to get back to New York. I didn’t have any money left, and I didn’t know what to do. I had just had such an amazing experience, having been completely immersed in the dharma. And I wondered, “How do I do this in my life, in my home?” Bhante said to me, “Your life has to be your practice, and your practice has to be your life. There can be no separation.” And I was like, “Cool, cool, cool. I’ll totally do that, Bhante.” But I was also like, I have no idea what that means!

He was asking me to have faith. He was asking me to not leave my practice on the cushion but to take it with me everywhere I go. And he trusted that I would figure out how to do that. So faith in this iteration of quitting my job and traveling halfway around the world to sit with a monk is called bright faith. Bright faith is a first step that can lead to verified faith, or unshakable faith, and that’s where we want to get to. 

Bright faith is being around someone or something and knowing that you want more of that but you can’t quite put your finger on what that is that you want more of. When you’re around that person, you’re inspired by the way that they move through the world and how they live their lives. So we hang out with them, trying to figure out what it is and how we can cultivate it for ourselves. My experience with Bhante was like that. He was so full of the joy of the dharma. There’s a radiance about him because he had truly taken refuge in the three jewels of the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha. There was no doubt anywhere in his body. 

I could feel it. And I wanted some of that. 

Faith is more a matter of a courageous heart than that of intellect. Faith involves trust and confidence, and for some, that’s taking refuge in the three jewels. By going for refuge, we turn from what we can touch and feel and what’s tangible, and we turn more toward things that are invisible and elusive. 

Going back to the five spiritual powers, there is an energy that pushes our faith forward, allowing it to blossom and to become verified, or unshakable, faith. That’s a kind of faith that is known through our own experience; because we’ve lived our own experience, we know what is true for ourselves and what isn’t. It’s the kind of faith that no longer relies on another person but on our lived experience. We can get to this kind of faith only through the heroic efforts of the heart, mind, and body and their ability to persevere, to stay. It’s really hard to stay when the body is exhausted and restless, when the mind is busy, grasping, pushing away, or running around in circles. So our practice is to rest, to be open, and to see what arises from that heart space. To move bright faith forward, we can reach mindfulness. 

Over the last decade, the word mindfulness has been thrown around a lot. I was supporting a group of teachers a few years ago. I asked them, when you teach mindfulness, what are you teaching? What does it mean to you?

They said, for them, mindfulness was like a turning toward. And knowing through the felt sense of the body. And opening up to the sense doors of hearing, smelling, tasting, hearing, touching. They referred to mindfulness as a sweetness, a knowing, a forgetting, and then knowing again, knowing your home, getting lost, and coming back home again. Listening quietly, when it’s very loud out. And that it’s deeply, deeply intimate, and personal. 

We’re letting go of this gripping and the pushing away of what we think isn’t supposed to be here. And we rest in what is. Mindfulness reminds me that I can always come back home again. That no matter how far away I’ve gone in my practice, whatever story or movie that I’m playing in my head, no matter how long that I am gone, that I haven’t broken anything. Nothing is damaged. That I can always recollect my mind and come back home again.


One month ago, almost to the day, I learned how to swim. I am 48 years old, and I just learned how to swim. There was a lot of doubt, a lot of fear, a lot of gripping, a lot of holding, which didn’t allow me to just let go and allow the sea to hold me. I was in Italy for a month; the first two weeks were spent with my partner and her parents on the island where her father grew up, and we stayed in his sister’s little hotel. Growing up on an island, my father-in-law could not wrap his head around how I never learned to swim. We went down to the sea, and he somehow found a noodle, a big Styrofoam thing that you swim with. I got into the water with the noodle, and I was playing around. The second day, when I reached for my noodle, he was shocked that I hadn’t learned to swim yet… It had been only one day! 

A few days later, we went on a boat ride, and still being pretty terrified of the water, I was gripping the side of the boat, attempting to control the situation instead of allowing my body to rest in the experience. The boat driver tells us we’re going to go to these beaches today. But he doesn’t take us up to the beach, he stops in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, and we have to jump out and swim to the beach. So I grab my noodle, and my mother-in-law says, “Why don’t you just let it go? You can swim, you can do this.” 

I was holding on to the back of the boat. I thought that my bones were actually made up of rocks that would immediately pull me to the bottom of the sea. But I tilted my head back, let my back touch the water, and then I pushed off the boat. And I allowed myself to kind of begin to swim. Then after a moment, I turned over on my belly and I began to really swim. For those of you who are swimmers, it’s that essence of freedom, right? When you push off and your legs float up and you’re just there. Letting go of holding on to the boat so tightly and allowing my body to rock with the waves of the sea, allowing the sea to hold me, this is where wisdom is born, with faith leading the five spiritual powers. They bring a sense of ease and wholeness to the mind. 

Faith gives us trust and confidence in the dharma and in everything that we do. It allows us to dispel doubt and inspires the energy needed to propel us forward. And when energy has found its equilibrium, then there is much more ease in the body. And from this ease there can be a continuity of mindfulness. And when there is steadiness of mind, concentration can grow. And as concentration deepens in the stillness, the attentive mind and wisdom that emerges is the wisdom of emptiness, of letting go of all that is not true. The stories that we tell ourselves are movies that play in our heads. When we can let go of all of that, that is what brings about our liberation. 

You might still be holding on to your noodle, and that’s okay. The container that is created on retreat—the teachings, the yoga, the nobility of silence, the structure of the schedule—is all here to conspire to support your practice. The only thing that you have to do is to have faith to rest into it and allow the beginning of your liberation to unfold. 

The stories that we tell ourselves are movies that play in our heads. When we can let go of all of that, that is what brings about our liberation. 

I invite you to explore these small moments of faith in your day. So when you breathe in, know that the breath will breathe itself out. When you put one foot forward, know that the other foot will gently begin to rise, move, and place itself down. And when you reach down to touch the earth, you can have faith that it will be there to witness your liberation, to witness your awakening. When you hear that voice of doubt, the one that tells you that you are a separate self and that you belong to no one and nothing, there is faith and wisdom that reminds us that we belong to everyone and everything. 

Take a moment to allow those words to rest in your body. Feel into where there was a recognition in your own experience to observe where these hindrances might be arising and see where you can find your portal of wisdom, to freedom. Explore where you can find your moments of faith, the experiences that allow you to continue on this journey of liberation.

This article was excerpted and adapted from Leslie Booker’s dharma talk “Meeting the Hindrances with Faith,” given at Spirit Rock Meditation Center on August 26, 2022.

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