The Five Faculties

adapted from a talk by Gil Fronsdal, October 1st, 2003

The Buddha was very pragmatic. He didn’t philosophize about “the nature of reality”; he gave us simple, basic guidelines about how we can manage the challenges and difficulties of life.

The Buddha started with the basic human condition: we often suffer. Suffering can take many forms: anxiety, tension, stress, grief, fear, or dissatisfaction, to name a few. He emphasized that suffering is workable, that we can engage with our suffering in such a way as to be freed from it. He described five faculties that we need to develop to do so: confidence, effort, mindfulness, concentration, and discernment.

These five qualities are present in varying degrees in almost every activity. They are useful in developing any skill, be it playing a musical instrument, training in a sport, or cultivating a meditative mind. The Buddha recognized these universal human capacities and taught us how to use them to develop the craft of meditation.

Confidence comes first because without it we would probably never step onto the Buddhist path. With confidence, we apply ourselves and experience the results. The more confidence we have, the more fully we engage in the process of meditation.

When we begin spiritual practice, our confidence may be inspired by someone we’ve met or something we’ve read. In time, we learn from our own experience that the practice is helpful: our confidence becomes verified. For example, perhaps you’ve learned from experience that mindful breathing can calm your nervousness or temper impatient impulses. Perhaps you’ve learned that remaining mindful of your body gives you more stability and calm. Or maybe you’ve seen that mindfulness of clinging helps free you from clinging. With each of these experiences, your confidence in both your ability to be mindful and the value of mindfulness grows.

The next faculty is effort. The more confident we are, the more likely we will apply ourselves in spiritual practice. There is no spiritual practice without effort. A regular meditation practice requires effort. It takes effort simply to get to the meditation cushion. Once we’re there, we have to make some effort to turn our attention to the breath or to let go of thinking.

The effort in meditation should be neither strained nor complacent. Even so, sometimes heroic effort is required; just to stay present for our experience may take great courage. At other times, effort is easy and delightful. You may feel like you’re on a raft carrying you down a gentle stream. Of course, you have to steer around the eddies and avoid the hanging branches, but even this can have an effortless quality.

The next faculty is mindfulness. Inspired by confidence, we make wholehearted effort and become more awake and attentive to the present moment, better able to track our experience moment by moment. Mindfulness is the simple capacity to track what is happening in the present. We learn to recognize what is happening without resistance, conflict, holding, or clinging.

At times in meditation practice, we experience a strong counter-force to being present. We need to be wise about that counter-force, to not take it personally or see it as a failure, and to have confidence that with time mindfulness will develop. Judging the mind’s tendency to wander or becoming discouraged is not helpful. Be patient and just keep showing up. Sooner or later the mind calms down. It stops running off in all directions, and is simply here.

Strong mindfulness has a cognitive element to it, an alert clarity. When mindfulness is well-developed, you know you are awake. This clarity has a quality of energy, a delightful, clear effortless effort. We no longer struggle to be present; the mind is settled in the present moment. The mind becomes an instrument of awareness.

As the attention becomes more stable and the forces of distraction weaken, we can develop the fourth faculty, concentration. With concentration, the mind is less fragmented. It becomes increasingly composed, focused, and unified. We are like a musician absorbed in playing a score. Concentration helps mindfulness to penetrate beneath the surface chatter of the mind to see what’s going on at a deeper level.

A mind that’s confident, engaged, mindful, and focused can develop discernment, the fifth faculty. Discernment helps us determine which movements of the mind and heart, which thoughts and feelings, are useful. What can we let go of? What should we develop further?

Discernment may seem challenging, or perhaps more active than you think meditation should be. But with mindful discernment, you will see that the busy mind doesn’t know what it needs. With discernment, we begin to take responsibility, not just for our behavior, but also for our mind and what it does. We notice what is or is not conducive to greater peace. If the way a person practices creates stress, then mindfulness and discernment will show that. As the mind settles down, we begin to learn how to let go of unskillful thoughts, feelings, and motivations. The process of practice is self-correcting: it guides the mind to greater peace and freedom.

To learn a skill you have to apply yourself and practice regularly. You learn most quickly when you practice every day. So too in meditation. And in meditation, as with any craft, we learn from our “mistakes.”

The five faculties—confidence, persistent effort, mindfulness, concentration, and discernment—are skills that we all already have to some degree. Recognizing and cultivating them as part of our meditation practice can help us develop our meditation and also manage our life experience to benefit ourselves and others.