I once heard a dharma teacher say, “Whenever awareness of awareness is present, there is mindfulness.” I have been thinking of this statement in relation to the study of the Twelve Insights of the Four Noble Truths, which many of us within VIMS have been engaged in since January. The Third Insight in each of the Four Truths has to do with this level of understanding. We are encouraged to “know that we know,” first, the very natural arising of the challenging aspects of life; second, the cause of the exacerbation of our feelings of stress around these challenges; third, the times when difficulties and hardships have ended and are not present; and fourth, a way to encourage the ending of the reactivity that often arises in response to difficult moments and always makes matters worse.
“Knowing that we know” describes a mental process that supports a very ordinary and extremely important mental capacity that we all have, which is conviction: Saddha, a word from the Pali language, literally means “to place one’s heart upon.” Often translated as “faith” or “confidence,” it references the initial impetus, the shift in our attitude that opens for us an opportunity to take advantage of the brain’s neural plasticity: change becomes possible with this simple opening in the heart and mind. Thanissaro Bhikkhu calls it “conviction,” the inkling of a new direction.
The poet David Whyte once spoke this variation of a well-known poem of his:
I want to write about faith.
About how the moon rises,
Even in its own darkness.
It is faith that allows us to meet our “own darkness,” evidenced in a moment of distress or confusion, in a new way. We have read the teachings and been inspired to try responding differently. This is called “bright faith.” It can feel encouraging and wonderfully liberating, but unless we put the teachings into practice, its flame gradually goes out. Yet, with a growing conviction and enough confidence, we can dare to take a risk and see whether this new way of interacting works or not. In this process, if our lives begin to feel a bit easier and more integrated, a “verified faith” grows. We really do “know that we know,” and in a deeper way. Eventually, over time, our understanding of the Four Noble Truths and the practice of the Eightfold Path become a familiar way of life. We become the Path, and our conviction becomes unshakeable.
Faith is the first of a group of five ordinary mental factors common to all of us, which can help to direct and coordinate our natural energies in the service of learning new skills. The Buddha taught that these mundane capacities can be brought into service in the quest to end the distress inherent in a human life. For this reason he named them Spiritual Faculties. The other four are: energy, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom (another translation names them as persistence, presence, nondistraction, and understanding). Practiced over time the Five Faculties stabilize into the Five Spiritual Powers, creating within our bodies, minds, and hearts an unshakeable, resilient presence in which the vigor of persistence and the tranquility of concentration are in balance, and wisdom informs confidence. This is the unfolding of awakening in our lives.