Seven Factors of Awakening – talk 2 – Discernment


Tonight continuing our journey through the early Buddhist teaching called the Seven Factors of Enlightenment or Seven Factors of Awakening. I’m gradually leaning my preference towards “awakening” between those two actually. Coming to see this ongoing process of life as really just all process. Enlightenment sounds like a kind of state of being, that one can be a deluded person and at some point switch to become an enlightened being. A kind of state change. The same person maybe just like water is the same molecule if it’s liquid or if it’s steam, but in a radically different form. I don’t want to knock the great sages of old – we do seem to have exemplars in human history of truly exceptional people, at least they get described that way – but I think on the whole whether or not there is such a “thing” or a “state” called enlightenment it’s much much healthier and more skillful for us to let go of the idea of states of beings, planes of consciousness, or anything like this and think instead in terms of process. And so awakening is the process of waking up. There is a change implied – it’s different being kind of sleepy and half-attentive from being fully awake. Deeply present. But it’s on a continuous of practice and change and growth. We can have various experiences along the path but more and more it feels to me like a gradual process of waking up. Of becoming more fully just right here. Right here in the middle of our life.

And this week’s mental factor is all about what furthers this process of awakening and what hinders it. Discernment is the most common translation from the Sanskrit dharmavicaya.

Like everything in this teaching it’s about paying more attention to our moment by moment experience to see what’s happening. The Sanskrit term dharma-vicaya is a compound word. The first half “dharma” is the little-d dharma meaning experience. And vicaya means analysis.

In the traditional texts the focus is all on figuring out what actions of body, speech, and mind – most especially mind – are wholesome and skillful and lead to release from suffering, and which actions of body, speech, and mind – most especially mind – are unwholesome and unskillful and lead to more suffering, more tension

The idea is switch up our criteria for how we trend our mind, our goals, our actions.

And remember the first factor of the seven was mindfulness. Mindfulness of the particularities of present-moment experience. And that mindfulness practice is described as having four areas of focus – four frames of reference. First is mindfulness of the body, often using breath awareness as a support for knowing if we’re really in the present-moment felt body. Second is mindfulness of sensations and reactions – how are we leaning, in or out, positive or negative, pleasant and unpleasant, as each sensory experience is encountered. Thirds is mindfulness of how our thinking and emotion emerges creating our world inside our mind. To see the arising of those simple thoughts and complex assemblies of thought and emotion as mental events. And of course this reduces their compelling and self-enfolding power. And the fourth area of mindfulness being mindfulness of the great patterns of our lives. Our habits. And how in particular the patterning and habit-ing of life unfolds in relationship to the big patterns the Buddha recommended that we pay attention – suffering and the cause of suffering for example.

So mindfulness practice – the doing of mindfulness – that effort to take up these four areas and return to them again and again – this practice puts us more in touch with the experiential material of our life. Drops us out or punches us through cloud of thought and self-talk that it might be we mistake for our actual life at times.

And this is the material for the second factor for discernment. The operative idea is where to we put our energy. Which tendencies to we feed and which do we starve is one traditional description.

And you might remember from last week that these practices of bringing up the seven factors of awakening happen against the background of Buddha’s teaching of the five hindrances. One of those big habit-patterns that hinder us. Remember that list. Two pairs and doubt. The first pair is desire and aversion. And the aversion has an element of anger and ill-will in it. Stuff we are bugged by and the way we can feed that bugged-ness energy. The second pair is dullness and restlessness. Our quality of energy and being. Too loose, or too tight. And then there’s doubt. Doubt is so powerful and convincing sometimes. Such a well-reasoned voice in our head which takes selective data out of experience and blows it up in a certain way to prove how hopeless things are in one way or another.

So to discern what we’re doing and whether we are habitually moving ourselves into the dark or the light is one aspect of this second factor of discernment.

Which sounds good but I think it’s a little hard to get much purchase. We all have this intention anyway don’t we? No one wants to do things that make ourselves suffer!

Modern commentators on this factor bring up another quality that helps us. They often translate this factor as “interest” – getting more interested in experience. Maybe this is a kind of bridge concept between the mindfulness practice of seeing what’s arising more clearly and this possibility of discerning more wisely where to go from there. To get interested in experience itself. What’s really happening? What is this moment?

In mindfulness classes I often teach what I call the mindful check in. A possible practice for bring forth mindfulness and this quality of interest and curiosity. Let’s try it.

It’s an embodied practice so we need to switch out of our beautiful Zen Dharma Talk absorbing mode for a minute. Let’s stand up and just stretch a little to ease the body. Then the mindful check-in practice can be done sitting or standing or really in any posture but I find standing to be helpful because it signals to our various associations that we’re doing something deliberate.

[Body, give this 1 minute] examine the sensations in the body. What do you actually feel now? Particular sensations that come to mind from particular parts of the body? An overall sense of the body and how it’s feeling? Trying just to note sensations with as few words as possible or maybe no words, not to go to story or narrative or judgment or wishes about the body as much as possible.

[Emotions, give this 1 minute] then moving attention to our emotional life. An area we usually don’t attend to unless the emotions are totally flaring up and we’re enraged or depressed or something like that. To tune in to emotion. What is the sense of the emotional life right. If you had to give your emotional state a color or a mix of colors what would it be? Particular emotion or emotions are there? An overall sense of the emotionality of experience?  Just pause in the breath a minute and see what arises in the emotional mind.

[Thinking, give this minute] and then moving attention to our thinking. This part may be more fruitful when you take on this practice in the middle of your daily life than here listening to these instructions but it’s still worth doing. What are the dominant thoughts that have been moving, are moving, through the mind? What is the current pattern of the thinking – fast flitty thoughs? Dull thinking? Have elaborate stories or memories been moving through the mind? What do you notice about the thinking. Just pause in the breath a minute first and see what arises in the thinking mind.

 So that’s a kind of semi-formal practice we can do to develop our ability to get interested in experience as it’s unfolding and from there we have more information for our practice of discernment. And I really find those three axes helpful – bodily sensations, emotions, thoughts. And thoughts as events. So often we don’t look past the current narrative do we?

An example from my experience recently was we were getting ready this last Friday morning to hold a weekend retreat in the mindfulness, stress reduction mode at Samish. Now of course I’ve led many retreats and been to the Samish campground many times so the mind expects it to be easy to do what you’ve done before right? That’s a habit of mind. This should be easy and familiar. But what I started noticing was the body felt really tight. A queasyness in the gut, a tightness in the chest, the breath felt a little fast and shallow. Hmm… sounds like a kind of nervous tension. And of course I can shift the narrative and realize “well this is different, different group of people, different style of practice, I’m one of the main teachers, I’m team teaching, lots of aspects of this are unfamiliar” and adjusting the narrative to be a little more accurate seemed helpful but more helpful seemed to be just to move attention back to what I was doing. To slow down a little. To acknowledge that I was in a challenging sort of state. I verbally expressed this to my assistant in this work which also helped to bring it out into the open. And then I continued my work.

So becoming more aware of what’s happening and then discerning what’s skillful. To be interested in present-moment experience in this body and mind. To pause and not just barrel on. And sometimes maybe we need to adjust various things in the outside world. I could perhaps have asked Heather or someone else to help with more of the retreat setup tasks, and maybe I did I can’t totally remember, but to be moving forward with clearer awareness of what’s actually going on. That’s a discernment practice.

Another way of looking at discernment is to look at what we add and what we resist. Two popular stories from Buddha come to mind, both having to do arrows. Like we’re worried about gun violence they must have thought about arrow violence back then.

The first is his story of the 2nd arrow, sometimes the 2nd dart it’s translated. The first arrow hits us. Some pain. Some problem. Something that hurts our feelings, hurts our body, something happens that’s painful and difficult. That’s the first arrow. But then do we turn around and shoot a second arrow at ourself? This isn’t fair! – second arrow. It’s his fault, or her fault, or my fault – second arrow. Even I don’t want this to be happening which is something that comes on so strongly and quickly for us – also a second arrow a way of making it worse. A way of not accepting what is.

Here’s an excerpt from the sutta on this:

The Blessed One said, “When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental.Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows; in the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental.

And the second story is around the way we want to know why so intensely. Some difficult thing happens and we don’t just say ouch and do what we need to do to heal.  We’d rather know why and who to blame even if we suffer more. The story he uses there is someone is struck by a poisoned arrow. The arrow is sticking out of their body and their friend is ready to pull it out and start treating the wound before the poison kills him. But the injured person says “wait, before you take that arrow out, can you just look at see what kind of arrow is it exactly? What kind of wood is it? What kind of feathers? Can you see the owners mark?” this wanting to know all about our wounds about our pains, why they happened, what all their qualities are even if that means suffering even worse.

Here’s how the Buddha put it – this is such a fun passage. He goes on and on. And what are the ways we go on and on when we get hurt. Can we discern this process when we do it?

“It’s just as if a man were wounded with an arrow thickly smeared with poison. His friends & companions, kinsmen & relatives would provide him with a surgeon, and the man would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a brahman, a merchant, or a worker.’ He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know the given name & clan name of the man who wounded me… until I know whether he was tall, medium, or short… until I know whether he was dark, ruddy-brown, or golden-colored… until I know his home village, town, or city… until I know whether the bow with which I was wounded was a long bow or a crossbow… until I know whether the bowstring with which I was wounded was fiber, bamboo threads, sinew, hemp, or bark… until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was wild or cultivated… until I know whether the feathers of the shaft with which I was wounded were those of a vulture, a stork, a hawk, a peacock, or another bird… until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was bound with the sinew of an ox, a water buffalo, a langur, or a monkey.’ He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was that of a common arrow, a curved arrow, a barbed, a calf-toothed, or an oleander arrow.’ The man would die and those things would still remain unknown to him.

A big part of all of this work actually involves our imagination. It’s a kind of imaginative and intuitive act to shift the mind into the possibility of seeing things in a different way than we usually do. There’s a kind of deep reframing involved. And this imaginative act of reframing experience as a more moment by moment unfolding is supported by meditation practice in a very direct and experiential way. So we can’t just think about the seven factors of awakening. We practice with them.

And through this two level work with our habitual view, imagining a better way of being and experiencing experience in a fresh way through the practice, we start to see how important it is to be deliberate about where we put our attention, what we feed inside. The Buddha spoke about appropriate attention. Attending to qualities of mind and experience that support our awakening and deliberately withdrawing attention from aversive things.

Last week I suggested that you notice the arising of the 5 hindrances – see which one or two hindrances tend to be more prominent and see if you can respond with mindful awareness of the body and the sensory experience. Did anyone take me up on that? What did you notice?


The practice suggestion this week is to get more interested in what’s happening on a moment by moment basis, sitting as regularly as you can or perhaps walking meditation if sitting is difficult, and to bring online a practice like the mindful check in we did. Notice what’s happening And then after you notice see what, if anything, should be shifted to reduce suffering and increase awareness. And the just being a little more aware of experience all by itself might be plenty all by itself to shift you a little in some way.

So maybe we should think of the second factor of discernment as something like “get interested in experience and then see where you go?” The traditional explanation of very deliberately sort of sorting every choice point into wholesome or unwholesome maybe feels a little ponderous and self-conscious in a way that we’ll really muck up. Maybe to leave a little room for our natural and organic attraction to that which is truly helpful and healthy that seems to arise more naturally when we’re a little more awake to what’s actually happening. So let’s try that this week. Regular practice. Pausing. And “get interested in experience and see where you go?” practice.


About Nomon Tim Burnett

Spiritual Director and Zen priest Nomon Tim Burnett has been a student of Zoketsu Norman Fischer since 1987 when he was a resident at San Francisco Zen Center's Green Gulch Farm. After sitting practice periods at Green Gulch and Tassajara Zen Monastery, Tim helped found the Bellingham Zen Practice Group in 1991. Tim was ordained as a Zen Priest by Norman in 2000 and received Dharma Transmission in July, 2011. A person of wide-ranging professional interests, Tim has been a botanist, carpenter, elementary school teacher, writer, and computer programmer. In addition to his work at the Spiritual Director of Red Cedar Zen Community, Tim is Executive Director of Mindfulness Northwest.
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