A Psychological Profile of Awakening


In my work as a psychologist I rely on lists. A lot. What are “symptoms” really? Lists. They
are a rundown of the qualities of experience a person has when struggling with a problem. Depression, anxiety, trauma, and so on are actually baskets into which lists of qualities are placed. But what about the opposite of mental disorders? Can healthy states be thought of in the same way? The short answer is yes. Positive psychology has begun to group positive qualities into larger constructs such as “kindness,” “bravery,” and “wisdom.” While some dislike the reductionist overtones of such an approach, it is nothing new. In fact, Buddhism is one of the earliest examples of how to do this well.

Buddhism is, in my opinion, the oldest and most sophisticated psychological science in the world. So it is not surprising that so many parallels exist with modern psychology, which is, in many ways, reinventing the wheel the Buddha set in motion millennia ago. Lists play a large role in Buddhism, especially when it comes to “diagnosing” rare states and transformations of consciousness. One of these lists is especially important. Think of it as the psychological profile of someone ready to awaken. The seven factors of enlightenment.

The Seven Factors

The seven factors are: mindfulness, investigation, concentration, energy, relaxation, rapture, and equanimity.

These seven arise in the meditator at certain stages of development, building gradually toward awakening. Then, when the first moment of awakening (stream entry) is close, all seven reach a peak. Six of them fall into balance with each other. The odd one out is mindfulness, which does not need anything to balance it. I often imagine these factors as being like a dog sled team. Mindfulness is the lead dog at the front of the team, followed by three equally matched pairs that balance each other perfectly.

Mindfulness – this one stands alone. Mindfulness is not merely bare attention to the present moment, it is also intuitively recognizing the kinds of things that are coming up and their significance (that is the fourth foundation of mindfulness). It sees what is happening and its significance right this instant. Mindfulness knows insights as they arise (the insight knowledges), and remembers what to do (or not do) at each development of the insight path. At first mindfulness is effortful. It is the first factor to come up, and it needs to be deliberately called up and entrained. When it begins to gain strength the meditator experiences the first stage of insight (knowledge of mind and body). So one way to tell if you are developing mindfulness, versus bare attention, is to see if you are able to experience the first stage of insight. As mindfulness is practiced in and out of meditation it becomes more automatic, taking on a life of its own.

This is where the dog sledding analogy is helpful. Mindfulness is like the lead dog, and lead dogs are very special. People build very close relationships with them and gradually turn over more of the responsibility for knowing the trail to the lead dog. Once a lead dog has experience with a path, it intuitively recognizes where the soft spots are, where the ice is thin, where the snow looks wet and where it is firm. It knows which turn to take and keeps the team moving down the center of the path and away from the slippery banks at the edges. It takes time and patience for a lead dog to learn, but once it knows a path, it can guide you along automatically, and you can let go and allow the team to take you to your destination. This is how mindfulness works as it matures and deepens. As a meditator gains experience, she learns to trust mindfulness more and more and to allow it to take the lead.

Investigation/Concentration – Investigation is the process of looking at an object and seeing that it is not what it appears to be at first glance. It is looking at something mundane, like the the sensation of the breath at the tip of the nose, and seeing that it is not just a single sensation called “breath,” but a dynamic field of flickering vibrations (anicca), that are not the observer (anatta), and are uncomfortable to hold on to (dukkha). It is balanced by concentration, which is the ability to keep the mind still for long enough that objects can be seen with sufficient clarity. It involves building a calm focus that is unwavering. Investigation is like the focusing of a camera lens. Concentration is like holding the camera still long enough to focus. When both of these factors are strong and in balance things can be seen clearly for what they really are.

Energy/Relaxation – These may seem contradictory, but they are actually complimentary. The great meditation teacher Ayya Khema sometimes described “energy” as “willpower.” This makes sense, although it is a translation that has lost popularity. It is the sense of applying oneself, giving all of oneself to the process and not holding back. It is the raw impulse that puts the other factors to work. It is balanced by relaxation, which is just what is sounds like. If you apply yourself, but are tight and clenched in body or mind, then the meditation is likely to stall out. Relaxation is that which allows the process to run smoothly, while energy keeps it running. These two, in a sense, feel like surrendering to the meditation, no matter how intense it becomes, with great alertness. To get an idea of what a peak balance between energy and relaxation feels like, reflect on how you feel right after a good workout, when you are letting go and not striving any longer but still full of energy.

Rapture/Equanimity – Rapture is a combination of joyful feeling and physical “pleasure.” That word is in quotes because it isn’t pleasure in the normal sense. It doesn’t come from the five senses. A pleasant feeling fills the body in one of several different ways, electrical tingles, fine vibrations, pulses, warm light – it can be percieved differently by different people, but it is always very pleasurable. There is a kind of erotic feeling to it for many people, and this can throw off many westerners who read over and over about renouncing worldly pleasure and not becoming attached to anything. It is important to understand that this kind of pleasure is essential to the development of deeper meditation. However, it needs to be balanced with equanimity, which is that quality of mind which does not grasp or cling to experiences, good or bad. Of all the factors, equanimity may be the most odd one, because there are few experiences in normal life that are similar to it. It is a sense of calm that remains interested and focused, without feeling like anything occurring is consequential to the observer. As my teacher once put it, “you no longer feel like you have a dog in the fight.” And yet, with all the rapture you are still deeply interested in what is occurring. These two balance each other beautifully.

When all seven factors are working well, they feel almost as though they take over, pulling the meditator toward awakening. Along the way the meditator puts in work and effort to develop the insights and the factors, but once things mature the combination of factors seem to grow in strength, balance, and in a sense, it feels as though they take over. It is at this point that the admonitions to “do nothing” and simply “let go” make the most sense. With the right factors in place, the process can now do itself, you simply have to hold on and watch.

Posted on January 6, 2016, in buddhism, Enlightenment, psychology, Uncategorized, vipassana and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 24 Comments.

  1. Very interesting — thank you.

    I am a little reluctant, however, to equate Buddhism and modern psychology, or to say that psychology is reinventing what the Buddha discovered, or that Buddhism is psychological science, except in the utterly loosest meaning of “science”. “Parallel” is more like it, I think, but at different levels, vastly different, and the differences are as important as the parallels.

    • What are the most important differences, in your view?

      • One is — an inherently existent self (to use Mahayana lingo) is the very basis for modern clinical psychology. It’s what you are trying to establish, strengthen or heal. But in Buddhadharma you seek to dissolve that “solid” self altogether. As psychotherapist/Buddhist Jack Engler said (poetically, if a little inaccurately IMHO), “you have to be somebody before you can be nobody”.

        Another is the need for significantly enhanced attention in Buddhadharma, which is pretty much missing in Western clinical psychology. Even the level of attention studied in MBSR, MBCT and other so-called mindfulness-based methods in behavioral medicine and psychotherapy, which is somewhat enhanced over normal levels, is way below what is usually required for significant progress in Buddhadharma. After all, those programs entail only about 70 hours of meditation, even if you do all the “homework” assiduously.

        OK for a start?

        • Yes, that is great. Good points. I agree, and wrote a little bit about the first point in a post over at Buddhist Geeks. http://www.buddhistgeeks.com/2011/05/psychological-self-vs-no-self/

        • David’s point about attention is critical for me. In western psych, meds are the main way that attention is enhanced, whereas in Buddhist practice it’s these very long periods of training that are impractical for most people and of (in my opinion) debatable efficacy. Any chance of a post on this topic Ron?

          • I’d be happy to write about that, in fact there is something similar that has been on my mind. So look for a post about this in the future.

          • Not meaning to preempt Ron, but here is my take on that.

            If you read those refs I posted (below), you’ll see the crucial role that attention plays in our model of PTSD and samsara (aka every day life and consciousnesses) — both can be said to have attention deficiencies which impede our ability to heal from them via insight.

            But the attention deficit is at different levels in PTSD and samsara. The PTSD sufferer cannot maintain even ordinary attention because of their traumatic symptoms, including hypo- and hyper-arousal. And as we discover when we first try to meditate, what we call ordinary consciousness is attention deficient too, but at a different, subtler, level that’s usually hidden.

            A prerequisite to healing in either realm is to cultivate better attention capacity — at the respective level. That’s one of the goals of the first phase of trauma treatment in essentially all therapies — in fact, that phase is often called “safety and stability”, with “stability” referring to attention, that is, overcoming hypo- and hyper-arousal. The corresponding initial phase in healing from samsara via Buddhist practice is developing some progress toward shamatha/concentration to overcome laxity/lethargy and excitement. Of course, these aspects of “treatment” are not at all the same, but they serve the same function relative to their different levels of attention impairment.

            Make sense?

            Does this generalize from PTSD and its treatment to all of clinical psychology? That’s a tall order. But if you start looking in detail at specific psychological problems, it kinda does, for example depression, which is often trauma masquerading, can be characterized in part as inability to pay attention to positive cues and aspects of one’s life (is that stretching?).

            BTW, what did you mean by “debatable efficacy” of Buddhist attention training — did you mean efficacy for psychological disorders or in general?

        • Johnny Walker

          I cannot say I agree with your analysis, David. For a start, I accidentally reached the A&P (and then the Dark Night) after following a book on MBCT for six months.

  2. Provocative model — thanks! I have a number of questions, but I’ll only ask one now, to keep it simple. ;-))

    You say re Engler’s model (and yours too, I think): “you can support someone in building their self-esteem and support another person in seeing through the illusion of self, and you are really doing the same thing: encouraging growth along the spectrum of self development, but from two different points.”

    I guess I don’t get how building self-esteem vs seeing through the illusion of self are the same kind of process — they sound like fundamentally different processes. Yeah, you are calling both “growth”, but that’s just giving them the same name, not explaining anything. Calling “seeing through the illusion of self” a form of “growth…of self development” kinda brings out my confusion. Is it the same “self” in both cases?

    And if I get your alternative model, the same question applies, except that the two process for one person can go on together rather than linearly/sequentially. (BTW, I’d have to reread Engler, but is he really saying they have to be strictly sequential — or is that just a theoretical simplification? Kornfield has similar model, and I think he says they can go on together, though the amount of overlap varies from person to person. In fact, he says he id a lot of his own personal growth after getting quite far on the insight scale.)

    Make any sense?

    • I get the confusion – I was referring to Engler’s model when I wrote that seeing through the illusion of self is a form of self development. In that model, they are processes that compliment each other at different points along a continuum. In the model that I propose the insight and self-development are not yoked so closely together, but they are related. I find that they do inform each other but they are not the same process, and that is why so much personal growth can happen even after deep insight.

      But to go back to your original point – I have gone back and forth over the years as to how different and similar Buddhism and psychology are, and am in a phase where I see more similarities than differences. A few years ago, all I saw were differences. Now it has changed, and I expect it to change again. The deeper I study Buddhism, especially that Abhidhamma, the more psychological the underlying theory seems. There are profound differences, but the more I study the more I see that these two projects of humanity share key qualities in common. Possibly even defining qualities. As of now that is my focus, but it may change with further study and reasoned discussions like this one. Thanks for being part of the process.

  3. Thanks! Actually I agree with you that there are profound similarities between Buddhadharma and clinical psychology, despite the vast differences in scope and depth. A good theory would encompass both similarities and contrasts.

    My ​colleague Deborah Rozelle (and wife, a clinical psychologist) and I have been working out this idea in some detail. It revolves around using psychological trauma (PTSD, etc) and correlating with Tibetan Mahayana theory and practice, but not trying to equate or even overlap them, and certainly not reducing one to the other. We call it a mapping framework built around functional analogy. We find it very helpful to use specific systems on both sides — both Buddhadharma and clinical psychology are so extensive and varied that theorizing is difficult if you start at the generic level. Trauma turns out to be a particularly good domain to start with for a number of reasons. But we do think the theory generalizes to other disorders than trauma and, as you note, to “positive psychology”, that is, well-being beyond pathology. It also applies to relational and developmental psychology.

    The theory is sketched in Chapter 7 of this book​ — http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1462518583​ — and in two talks ​we gave at a recent conference at Harvard Divinity School — http://www.TraumaAndContemplativePractice.org/video/#Lewis. If you watch the videos, we recommend following along with the slides, as they are tightly coordinated with the talks. We are now writing other book chapters and papers expanding and applying the theory (and have made a couple of presentations at other conferences.)

    We’d be interested in your reactions and feedback, or anybody’s.

  4. Reply to David: By “debatable efficacy” I mean literally that the efficacy of behaviouristic interventions into sustained attention (i.e. concentration based dharma practice) is debatable due to a lack of good data. For example, what proportion of the population can potentially achieve a jhana given reasonable effort and conditions? It seems clear that ability varies in this area but by how much? Is it similarly distributed to hypnotic trance ability (i.e. only about a quarter of the population can do the cool stuff)? Western Buddhists are highly self selecting group who have an interest in the contemplative life, so I would suggest that our anecdotal experience is of limited value. For me, a pragmatic approach to dharma means looking at these kinds of questions.

    • Absolutely agree, Paul.

      But there will never be “good data” on “real” dharma such as the jhanas, and the “efficacy” of sustained attention at that level will never be subject to meaningful scientific inquiry — they are fundamentally immiscible domains, though they do shade into each other in places. In fact — and I don’t mean to pick on you, because this is rampant — the use of “scientific” terms like “behaviouristic intervention” for phenomena clearly in the dharma domain only confuses the issue by promoting the conflation. Even — especially, actually — the using the term “mindfulness” mindlessly for both domains greatly compounds the confusion.

      • For what it is worth, there are studies happening now in which meditators are running through the jhanas while in fMRI and EEG, and the results are started to cohere. I talked to two people who were in a study at Yale and they could clearly “see” the jhanas in the data. I think saying that there will “never” be good data on jhanas or other meditative states may be an overstatement. We are in the infancy of this kind of research. The next 50 years is going to be very interesting.

      • David – with respect it sounds like we’ll have to agree to disagree on that one. If dharma practice isn’t behaviour then I don’t know what it is, or how to say anything further about it. Even if I accepted that such a position was “true” I would be concerned about its usefulness.

        As Ron mentioned, there are studies, such as the Shamatha Project. And of course there is more basic psychological science on things like sustained attention and vigilance. There is probably a lot of useful information out there but you have to be willing to crack a few eggs to make the omelette.

  5. Gee, dharma practice as behavior? Well, I assume you don’t mean setting your butt down on a cushion at 6 AM, closing your eyes, arranging your hands, etc. Seriously, don’t you think that dharma practice is about the least observable mental activity possible. In fact, Richard Davidson wrote a recent paper about the challenges to contemplative research, and one of the biggest ones was knowing in a measurable way what’s actually going on in the mind of a meditator, both in terms of process and outcome.

    As for cognitive neuroreductionism and the attendant optimism about progress in the next 50 years (or 25, or 100, or whatever), I think you guys have fallen prey to the steady drumbeat of the popular press looking for exciting stories and scientists looking for more funding. In fact, the impression that we are on some kind of steady, predictable track to meaningful science or technology that relates brain to high-level mind in any operational sense is an illusion.

    The 2014 Nobelist/neuroscientist John O’Keefe said that cognitive neuroscience is in a “pre-newtonian” stage, to which I will add that its Newton is nowhere in sight. In fact, the Newtonian leap for neuroscience may well turn out to be the opposite of what you expect — science does have a way of double-crossing us. Remember, one of the greatest accomplishments of 20C science was rigorous demonstration of science’s limits — Einstein, the speed of light and all the consequences of that; Heisenberg’s uncertainty; Godel’s incompleteness; etc.

    Here is a paper that nicely lays out the case against neuro-optimism — http://www.behavior.org/resource.php?id=864. But you won’t find references to this material in the popular press, nor in the annual reports of the NIMH which has switched most of its funding from clinical psychology to neuroscience. I will let you ponder why this work remains obscure — hint: *not* because it is faulty.

    So don’t feel bad that you have fallen for the line — most people have! But hey, look into it — you can be the first on your block to know the real truth, the “next big thing” — neuroreductionism is a dead end! And I’ll leave it to you to ponder the consequences for the so-called neuroscience of enlightenment.

    • David, from my perspective, behaviour can be public or private. This might seem strange in some disciplines but it’s not such a new idea in certain branches of psychology. So no – I wouldn’t confine behaviourial description to physical posture nor would it be necessary to invoke neuro-reductionism. I think many of the processes involved in basic meditation practice can be described naturalistically, at least with regard to a pragmatic outcome such as helping with trauma.

  6. The Davidson, Kazniak paper is here. As you read it, bear in mind that Davidson has a (big) dog in this fight, so you may want to assume that what comes across as muted pessimism or tentative optimism may actually be a lot more pessimistic in reality — the old “more research is needed” ploy.

    Click to access 561d414908ae50795afd7b07.pdf

  7. DJ – I wonder what your thoughts are on the fundamental assumption. If we set aside the popular press, the hyping of the research, and the problems with the existing research and look at the basic idea underlying this – that meditative states are experiences of brain activity – I wonder if you buy that idea. Do you think that is true?

    • Hi, Ron — David is the name ;-)) Excellent question! I’m happy to give my personal, somewhat nuanced answer. But before I do, have you read that Uttal paper — http://www.behavior.org/resource.php?id=864 ? When I answer, I can repeat the key concepts there, but I don’t want to be relitigating the basic arguments he makes quite clearly. That way, we can cut to the chase more quickly. He is really very astute and articulate — you may disagree with some (or all) of what he says (and I say too, mostly), but at least we’ll know the fundamental issues at stake.

      • Hi David, I just read it. It seems that he generally accepts that there is a fundamental relationship between the mind and brain but thinks the current theories and methods for explaining it are pretty terrible. I’m curious what your thoughts are. Are mind states brain states?

  8. Hi, Ron:

    To answer your question about whether I believe that mind states “are” brain states, a bit of a circuitous argument… sorry…

    Yes, that’s true what you say about Uttal. But, apart from current technology — which he is saying has delivered essentially nothing but meaningless, trivial and/or spurious results at the cognitive/emotional level — I think he is raising the possibility that there are insuperable barriers to *any* meaningful operational linkage between mind and brain (apart from low-level sensory and motor issues, which I will tacitly ignore from here on).

    I personally suspect strongly that there are such barriers, and ultimately crucial to them are issues of computational complexity. Put simply, even if neurological technology suddenly made it possible to noninvasively monitor every neuron in the brain (which is pretty far-fetched by itself), we’d be drowning in a galaxy-sized sea of data and the computational modelling limitations of any possible computing technology (which can be made rigorous by math and physics) would prevent us from making any significant or useful sense about the relationship between higher-level mind and all that data — like Koch’s computation as related in Uttal.

    So even if we agree that there is in “theory” an intimate relationship between the mind of a living being and its brain, which certainty cannot be denied, such as some kind of state correspondence, nature imposes an impenetrable veil between us and that relationship, so its exact character will remain forever as hidden and mysterious as the nature of coming-of-age rituals among the beings on exoplanet SWEEPS-11 (if there are any).

    Of course we can project all kinds of artifacts (myths?) onto that mystery — which is essentially what neuroscience is doing at the moment — and use those artifacts to inspire and motivate us (see here for a particularly crude example — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qke6UWcFcBU).

    Make any sense?

    • Thanks for the response. I’m glad we are working from the same basic assumptions. I simply disagree with the pessimistic appraisal. I should add the caveat that I’m a clinical psychologist and not a neuroscientist, so my understanding is limited. But just on the surface of it these points sound similar to early assertions that computers would never be smaller than a house. My sense of it is exactly yours in that we are in a Aristotelian period, searching for the right questions to even ask, but I think that maybe for the first time in history we are asking wrong questions about the right things. Getting closer. It is only a matter of time until we have a much better understanding. It could be 50 years or another century, but I do believe we will understand the mind in a much deeper way through these kinds of investigations.

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