The Five Spiritual Powers ...Sarah Doering
IMS Dharma Talk / Three Month Retreat / October 1999

[Sarah Doering has had a long association with the Insight Meditation Society and with the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. On both boards for many years, she has been a devoted practitioner of insight meditation, and has been teaching at IMS for the past several years. Sarah is currently one of the resident teachers at the newly opened Forest Refuge.]

For forty-five years after his enlightenment, the Buddha wandered about northern India teaching. He spoke publicly as many as ten thousand times. But he was not teaching in order to argue philosophical theories. He was teaching for one purpose only: to bring to an end all the suffering which he saw around him.

The assumption underlying all his teaching is that we don’t have to be the way we are—that all the sorrow and pain and grief and fear that we all know is not necessary. It can be eliminated. New ways of being can be cultivated. He taught so that we may know not suffering, but happiness and peace. These teachings are trainings for a spiritual way of life. This means a way that is real and true, and beneficial for all beings, both now and in times to come.

Tonight I want to speak about five qualities of heart and mind which are known as the “five spiritual powers.” They’ve been called “five priceless jewels,” because when they’re well developed, the mind resists domination by the dark forces of greed and hate and delusion. When the mind is no longer bound by those energies, then understanding and love have no limits. These five powers are also called the “controlling faculties.” When they’re strong and balanced, they control the mind, and generate the power which leads to liberation. The five are faith, effort, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom.

When I first heard this list, I was puzzled. I come from a Christian background. Faith seemed, of course, exactly right to be there. Wisdom, too, belonged on the list. But the others—effort and mindfulness and concentration—sounded very clinical and psychological and dry. Where, I wondered, was love? I did not in any way understand then that the cultivation of these five factors leads directly to love. They’re all necessary. They all work together and interweave very closely.

Faith—which here means trust and confidence in the Dharma—inspires an outpouring of energy. When energy is strong, then the effort to be alert and pay attention is easy. Mindfulness prospers and becomes more and more continuous. The stronger the continuity of mindfulness, the more focused and steady the mind. Concentration grows. As concentration deepens, in the stillness of an attentive mind, wisdom emerges. It’s the wisdom of emptiness, whose only expression is love.


The first of the five faculties, faith, actually is a rather suspect word today. The most conspicuous examples of faith are in the various extremes of religious fundamentalism, where faith is often a coercive force, a force which is used to control insiders so that they’ll stay within the confines of the faith. It’s also a force that’s sometimes imposed upon outsiders in order to encourage them to believe. But faith in the sense that I want to speak of tonight has nothing to do with force. It has nothing to do with conventional belief. It’s an innocence of conviction, an open heart that is not afraid to trust, and so can move beyond the known. It senses the possibility of transcendence—that what seems to be, isn’t all there is. It senses that there’s some profound human possibility to be realized, even though it’s not immediately apparent.

Such faith is born in experience. It can’t be given. It arises spontaneously, out of seeing and knowing for oneself. From it flow devotion and gratitude and commitment. It’s a natural self-giving. It stems from knowing the problematic nature of life, from realizing that human existence is very imperfect. Because of this one is sensitive to what else might be, to some other way of being. Faith may arise from hearing the Buddha’s words that say there’s a cause for suffering, a cause that can be removed so that suffering comes to an end. It may arise from seeing someone whose presence, whose manner or words, are so compelling, that they suggest possibilities not at all understood. It may come from reading something that suddenly reveals a meaning that speaks to the heart. It may dawn through music or art or, as happened to me, from a glimpse of something seen in nature.

Each of us has our own story, which brought us here tonight. No one here is without faith. You came in response to an attraction to some wordless possibility—some possibility of discovery, of change, that’s implicit in these long weeks of silence. Faith is critical for a spiritual journey, for it’s through faith that we move from the known to the unknown. Without faith, not much is possible in any endeavor. If there’s no end goal which we particularly value, or if we lack faith in our own strength and ability to get to it, we tend to stay in a rut. We don’t go much of anywhere.

When faith first dawns, the mind is filled with brightness and love and devotion. But faith that’s new is vulnerable. If it meets a skeptic who doubts, and has many views and opinions, faith wants to run away and hide. At least I did, in those years. Because the source of faith is outside ourselves, we’re very dependent on its not changing in any way at all. But gradually faith is internalized. We see for ourselves that the teaching works. We discover that we can sit with physical pain and not be overwhelmed. We begin to taste the happiness of a concentrated mind. Faith deepens, and gives the courage to go beyond our former limits. We begin to allow ourselves to feel more of what we’re feeling. So much of what we feel, we close off, because we fear the pain will be too much to bear. But faith that’s been tested in the crucible of experience comes to know that even in the midst of suffering, there is calm.

When we meet difficulties, faith gives the courage to go on. It’s important to note, however, that faith is very different from hope. Hope is for a specific outcome. Hope is associated with expectation and desire. If hope is disappointed, sadness and fear or anger are the result. Faith is different. It’s trust in the ongoing process. It’s confidence that we can handle whatever comes—for in faith, we can. It’s knowing that each step we take is an unfolding of our life’s journey, even if we don’t know at all where we’re going.

Faith in the truth of the Dharma, by its very nature, implies faith that we have the ability to realize that truth. The whole movement of deepening faith is inward, toward more and more trust in ourselves, more and more trust in the understanding and the love within our own hearts and our own minds. Faith has a very great influence upon consciousness. That’s why it’s the first of these spiritual powers. It removes the shadows of doubt that are so debilitating. It gives a clarity to the mind, which is energizing


Energy, or effort, is the second spiritual power. These two words are linked, but they’re not quite the same. Energy comes first, and effort channels it, and puts it to use. Nothing happens without effort in any kind of endeavor, but especially, perhaps, in spiritual practice. This practice isn’t easy. The instructions are simple, but carrying them out isn’t simple. To be with the breath, feeling it, knowing it, and not identifying with it; to be with an emotion, a mind-state, feeling it, knowing, not identifying; to be with sensations, thoughts, the whole spectrum of experience, seeing it clearly and dispassionately—such work is not child’s play. A lot of energy is expended here just to get out of the pull of habit, the kind of gravitational pull of the mind that would get us and keep us in the grooves of habit that have been worn over years of time. The mind is used to wandering, just erratically wandering from one thing to the next, keeping itself busy with planning and hoping and fantasizing, fearing, complaining, judging. It doesn’t even know that anything might lie outside of its own limited scope.

Right effort is the effort to be mindful, and to bring the mind back when it wanders, so it knows what is happening right now. To do this is really a very delicate balancing act. On the one hand, hard work is needed, in the attempt to keep paying attention. On the other hand, there’s nothing to do, because awareness is already present. It’s just that we’ve been distracted. Right effort is not striving. Striving leads to clinging. It reinforces the sense of self, and can be very painful. Right effort isn’t trying to get anything, for there’s nothing to get. It’s not trying to penetrate something and go deeper and deeper. Rather, it’s the effort to listen with greater sensitivity. It’s a soft receptivity. Just total surrender, receiving and welcoming whatever is here.

When effort is balanced, without any strain, there’s no sense of, “I should do this.” Rather, there’s just a willingness to do. Out of that willingness there comes a more and more constant flow of energy. This quality of energy is bold and courageous. A Pali word describes it as “the state of the heroic ones.” It gives patience and perseverance in the face of difficulty. If pain arises, the heat of the energy burns away fear, and makes it possible to do what ordinarily is very difficult to do—to go right to the center of the pain.

There are many levels of effort. Like the gears of a car, one level leads to the next. But the key to them all is being willing to start fresh, to start all over again. At the beginning of each day, at the beginning of each sitting, at the beginning of each breath—to bring back the wandering mind and start fresh. As we become more skilled, effort becomes smoother and steadier, and mindfulness grows.


Mindfulness is the third of the spiritual powers. It’s the one factor of mind of which we can never have too much. Mindfulness is the observing power of the mind, the active aspect of awareness. Mindfulness means not forgetting to pay attention, not forgetting to be aware of whatever is happening within us, around us, from moment to moment to moment. It’s a very subtle process.

When first we notice something, there is a fleeting moment of pure awareness, before the thinking mind jumps in. It’s a moment that’s nonverbal, pre-verbal. It has in it no thought. It’s a moment of seeing with very great clarity and no thought. The thing noticed is not yet separated out, but is simply part of the whole flow of the process of life. Perception then fixates on the thing, puts boundaries around it and labels it. Then the thinking mind jumps in, and the mind is back in its everyday mode.

Under ordinary circumstances, that first pristine moment of awareness is very brief, and it goes unnoticed. What this practice of mindfulness does is to prolong the moments of pre-verbal knowing. The effect of doing that, over time, is profound. It’s a kind of deep knowing which changes the way that we understand the world.

When mindfulness is present, it’s like an empty mirror. It sees whatever appears before it with no distortion. Mindfulness has no likes and no dislikes. There is no passion or prejudice to color what is seen. It knows things in the round, as it were—in their totality, just as they are.

The question, of course, is, “How can we come to such clarity?” “Interest” is the answer. Get interested in what’s going on. Krishnamurti once said that the way to watch thoughts is the way that you would watch a lizard crawling on the ceiling of a room. This seemed to me a very odd recommendation when first I heard it. I had no connection with it at all, until a few years later. Then I found myself on the island of Antigua, in the Caribbean. I had just arrived. It was late at night and I was half-asleep, but too tired to go to bed. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed something moving on the wall. Attention woke up. It was galvanized. Now, what was moving was a lizard. It was a big one, maybe between nine and ten inches long from the tip of its tail to its nose. It was a dull, mottled brown. Nothing remarkable; it looked very ordinary. I sat, attention just riveted, as it climbed the wall, slowly crawled across the ceiling, down the other side, and then slithered out an open window.

The intensity of that brief little moment was so great that I can see every detail in my mind’s eye right now. Interest was amazingly total. Awareness was complete. There wasn’t a thought, an emotion, to disturb what was seen. All that was there was the seeing of each movement of this little creature from the moment it appeared to the moment it disappeared. Krishnamurti’s words came back into my mind then, and I knew exactly what he had meant. Interest makes the difference. When interest is there, awareness is total, and it’s effortless.

Now, the breath may not have the same compelling quality as seeing a lizard crawling on the ceiling, but the more careful attention we pay to it, the more we get into the habit of paying attention. Interest grows. Careful attention in itself creates interest, for it brings us close to experience—increasingly close, so that we see the texture, the detail, the remarkable wonder of experience. In the doing there comes a brightness and a vividness to things.

Emily Dickinson knew this quality well. She lived a very quiet life, saw few people, and spent most of her time alone in her room. Yet she was so attentive, and saw with such sensitivity and precision, that she could only sum up her experience in this way: “To live is so startling, there’s little time for anything else.”

Close attention opens the heart. When there is interest, real interest, there’s no judgment. Whatever appears is welcome. Acceptance is unconditional. Awareness has a benevolent quality, a friendly quality, about it, which leads to bodhicitta. This welcoming acceptance allows whatever comes to reveal itself in its fullness. Ultimately, mindfulness opens into the realm of the sacred. To speak of knowing things as they are, as they really are—what is that but spiritual talk?


Faith… effort…mindfulness…The fourth spiritual faculty is concentration. Concentration arises naturally out of the effort to be mindful. It gives the power which makes mindfulness so effective. Concentration is often defined as “one-pointed attention.” In the context of insight meditation, it is steady, one-pointed attention upon a succession of changing objects. Concentration keeps attention pinned down upon whatever object mindfulness is noticing. As mindfulness moves from, say, the breath to a sound, concentration moves with it, and again keeps attention focused and steady. In each case it lasts for just a moment, because the mind moves so quickly. But it begins again in the next moment, with the same intensity. This so-called “momentary concentration” provides the power for the work of our practice.

The key to developing concentration is one word: effort. It’s the effort to pay close attention, to keep coming back. Usually the energies of the mind are scattered in a thousand different directions. The mind is all over the place, and its energy is simply frittered away in random thoughts and desires, hopes, fears, feelings. All the huge potential power that it has is wasted. But as the effort to be mindful becomes more consistent, these scattered energies come together and converge around a single point, and the mind becomes focused, like a lens. If parallel rays of light fall upon a piece of paper, they won’t do much more than warm the paper. But if the same amount of light is focused through a lens, the paper will burst into flame. In the same way, concentration focuses the energy of the mind, and gives it the power to cut through surface appearance.

As concentration deepens, the mind becomes calm and centered. It’s less reactive. It comes into greater emotional balance. We can more easily let go and let things be. The mind has a spaciousness which gives room for pain and anger and fear all to arise and pass, without our being broken by them, or needing to act them out.

Concentration is very powerful, but it’s only a tool. Despite its astonishing power, it cannot of itself lead to wisdom. When it’s balanced with mindfulness, the two together cut through conventional reality, and understanding unfolds by itself.


Wisdom is the last of the spiritual qualities. It is ongoing inspiration for the work of the other four, and also their fulfillment. Wisdom is not knowledge. It cannot be learned from books, for it is intuitive understanding that arises from close observation of experience. It is insight into reality, into the nature of things as they are.

One aspect of wisdom is seeing the omnipresence of anicca—impermanence. Wisdom knows that nothing in this conditioned realm will last. It knows that everything that arises passes away. It knows that change occurs at every level from the cosmic to the microscopic. A star, a civilization, a tree, a thought—each arises, evolves through time, disintegrates and disappears. Timetables differ of course, for every phenomenon and event. And change can be so rapid—or so slow—that it is not ordinarily seen at all. But the trajectory is always the same. Whatever is, will be was.

We may think we know this truth, and perhaps we do. But is it living wisdom? For each of us, the mark of impermanence reveals itself most intimately in our inescapable mortality. We all are going to die. However unwelcome that thought may be, death is at the end of every life. You and I are no exception. Everything that is born will die. But because we do not live our lives from this place of understanding, we suffer.

There is a constant clash between the nature of existence and our desires. In a world of radical change, we want permanence and security and enduring happiness, and they cannot be found. We live in an imaginary world, and grasp and cling to the way things used to be, or how we want them to be, and find it hard to accept the way they actually are. The result is dukkha—suffering, all the dissatisfactions and sorrows of the human heart. Dukkha is the second truth, which wisdom more and more deeply comes to know.

But the deepest lesson that wisdom has to teach is the fact of anattà—the fact that nothing is inherently substantial and real. We think that we are separate, solid entities, and struggle to protect and satisfy and gratify our precious sense of self, not understanding that at the closest level of examination, no permanent, unchanging self is ever to be found. The constituents of mind and body are, in fact, in constant flux. Body, sensations, thoughts, emotions, arise and disappear, arise and disappear, moment by moment by moment. Keen observation reveals that mind and body are an ever changing process, a moving energy field. There is no permanent being behind phenomena to whom it all is happening. There is no one here to suffer. A Sri Lankan monk summed this fact up very simply: “No self. No problem.” Yet this truth is baffling, and eludes us until the mind is purified.

The doors of perception are gradually cleansed as the spiritual powers gather strength. Mindfulness sees ever more deeply, and greed, hate and delusion diminish. Our endless likes and dislikes thin out and fall away. The confusion that clouds perception begins to dissolve. We glimpse the interweaving laws of impermanence, suffering and selflessness, and the knowledge is transforming. The way that we understand ourselves and live our lives begins to change.

We don’t hold on so much, and make fewer demands upon existence. We begin to relax, and ease more into the flow of things. We can delight in the good things of life when they are present, and accept change without protest when they end. The heart opens wider as it learns there is nothing to lose…

The sense of self lessens. We become less selfish, less self centered. As mindfulness reveals our dukkha and we experience its pain, we begin to feel the suffering of others. Boundaries disappear, and we turn to the needs of others as if they were our own. Gradually the delicate art of loving without possessing becomes apparent—the art of how to care, yet not to care. There is a growing sense of similarity, of oneness, of communion with all—which more and more means that the only possible response is concern and care for all.

Wisdom is very hard won. It comes from facing our own suffering and learning the profound lessons that suffering has to teach. The lessons are all about letting go. Not holding on to desire, but letting it go. Wherever we hold, the sense of self is present together with suffering. When we let go, self vanishes and suffering dissolves into lightness, ease and peace.

It is in the deep understanding of suffering that compassion comes to full bloom. For when the heart/mind no longer holds to anything, it is fully open. There is no self-centeredness and so, no separation. No I, no you. Love then is boundless, and ceaselessly responsive.