What are the seven factors of enlightenment?

The seven factors of enlightenment are qualities of mind that the Buddha said were conducive to good practice and essential to master on the path to nirvana, or awakening; they are primarily taught in the Theravada tradition. The seven factors are: mindfulness, investigation, energy, joy, tranquility, concentration, and equanimity.

Mindfulness is the first factor of enlightenment. Mindfulness is complex, but in its basic form it refers to staying aware of body and mind in the present moment. (Right mindfulness is also the seventh area of practice on the eightfold path.)

Once mindfulness is established, the practitioner can engage in investigation and clearly see the details of the present moment.

Energy means applying oneself to the task at hand, while being attentive to the details one has investigated.

Joy comes from the application of mindful energy. Finding joy in the practice is essential for maintaining a steady practice—who wants to persist in a joyless endeavor? (Joy is also one of  the four immeasurables, another list of virtues essential to awakening.

Tranquility comes with the confidence gained from the work put into earlier efforts.

Concentration is the ability to fully focus on the task at hand, blocking out distractions and overcoming fatigue.

Equanimity, the pinnacle or conclusion of the seven factors, is not the same as tranquility. Instead, it refers to a balanced mind, one that is not swayed this way and that by desire and aversion, one that can weigh feelings with reason and exercise sound judgment. A mind in this state is ready to practice more advanced meditation or face the many challenges that arise in life. (Equanimity is also one of the four immeasurables.)

Using the analogy of a roof, the Buddha said that just as all rafters slope toward the peak, so the seven factors of enlightenment lead toward awakening. The seven factors are progressive, constituting steps along the way to culmination in enlightenment. Practicing mindfulness, for example, leads to investigation and so on. 

Buddhist texts note that cultivating the seven factors weakens the five hindrances. This is another way they can aid us in our practice.


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