Methods of Awakening - Stop! Jhana Time



[Edited January 27th 2020: Corrected a few bits and pieces. At the moment, I am undecided as to whether to continue using the term, "jhana", to describe the concentration states I'll be discussing. Without going into detail, I would rather develop a more universal framework than confuse matters by appropriating Buddhist terminology, and particularly if the states are not in keeping with traditional understanding. An audio version of this post will be made available in coming weeks, so stay tuned.]

Stop! Jhana Time



In a previous post, I talked about access concentration as being the foundation of meditation practice, so I suppose it makes sense to continue the discussion by talking about what gets built on top of this fine, but very basic foundation. I will use the Buddhist framework to describe this as it’s a simple but incredibly accurate model, although I’ll try my best to describe any map-specific terminology in terms of actual practice and physical/mental sensations so as to avoid overcomplicating this. When it comes down it, all of these things are basically mental exercises that facilitate the process of recognizing the natural state as it is.

So, you’ve gotten into access concentration, you’re inside your meditative bubble, nicely focused on the breath and grooving on the pleasant sensations currently running through your body...BOINK...all of a sudden there’s something different; a change or a shift of some sort. The breath feels very stable and clear. You notice these lovely, subtle shimmering sensations beneath the skin but you just keep coming back to the breath. You might notice that your eyes have become focused on the area right in front of your nose, lazily resting in a downwards position but not in any way sleepy.  You may notice that, if you let your concentration flag, the eye focus comes back up and some of the pleasant bodily stuff goes away. Perhaps you’ll notice that if you shift the attention to the pleasant sensations themselves, they increase without having to “do” anything other than focus on them. Welcome to what some consider to be the 1st Jhana, as described by the Buddha in the early texts.

Just like access concentration, I thought that jhanas were something reserved for long-time yogis and adepts but, as I mentioned in the previous post, that turned out to be nothing more than unhelpful thinking. If anything, jhanic states are probably common for anyone who seriously practices meditation, and continued practice showed me that I already had access to jhana before even getting stream-entry. Once I understood what jhanas “were”, i.e. strata of mind accessed through focused attention, it became easier to identify when a jhanic state was accessed and thus easier to identify the various aspects of each one, to examine them again and again, gaining insight through the application of vipassana.


How Does I Jhana Good? 


If we take the basic instructions from my “Access Concentration” article and use that as a starting point, it will make it easier to cut to the chase and describe some of the phenomenological details, which should hopefully make the recognition of 1st jhana easier. It’s worth mentioning at this stage that my word should not be taken as final on any of this stuff; everything I describe should be taken away, tested empirically and not accepted at face-value. Put another way, don’t believe a word of it!
  • Assuming that you’re already familiar with the state of access concentration, see how long you can remain stabilized in that. Remain with the breath. It’ll still require a certain amount of effort to maintain, but the mental focus will remain essentially the same. Just keep the attention rested on the breath. There’s no need to go investigating the bare sensations or picking the entire in/out cycle apart bit-by-bit; insight practice is a different matter and is something I’ll go into another time, but for the moment try to understand that concentration practice, a.k.a. samatha, simply requires that one stay 100% focused on a specific object, be it breath, kasina [2], mantra or deity.
  • You’ll probably already be aware of very pleasant tingling sensations, or just this general emotional tone of everything feeling really nice. It feels very simple and clear; nothing spectacular but it’s evident quite quickly once you’ve been practicing for a while. It’s a feeling you’ll probably recognize quite easily once it’s been pointed out to you. It’s common in 'good' meditation practice but can go unnoticed, especially if, like me, you were expecting some sort of firework display of bliss and joy. Goose-bumps may be experienced at this point, or a sort of shimmering, tingling over the body. This is what Buddhists call “piti”[3], which translates as “rapture” or “joy”, words which may suggest something more substantial than their initial experiencing provides. However, this is merely the weak stages[4] of “piti” and it will become staggeringly clear why words like “joy” and “rapture” are more than sufficient to describe the experience.
  • If you gently incline the mind towards those sensations, without trying to change them or alter them in any way then you can allow them to become more apparent. With continued, applied attention exclusively to those sensation - but still returning to the breath should you become distracted - that sense of joyfulness will increase of it’s own accord. What will also become apparent is a sense of mental ease, of well-being and happiness which seems to occur by itself. This is what’s known in Buddhism as “sukha”, and along with “vitaka” and “vicara”, makes up one of the four jhanic factors, (See footnote [3]) which leads me to:
  • The occurrence of thinking in jhanic states is something that can throw people a bit, but those last two pali words, “vitakka” and “vikara” will allow us to develop a little more clarity on the matter. “Vitakka” roughly translates as “applied thinking”, basically where mind makes contact with a mental object, a.k.a. thought occurs. “Vikara” translates as something like “sustained thinking”, which is the continued application of thought leading to discernment of the object, so it defines the specific details and allows for identification. Essentially, we could say that “vitakka” means the thought itself at the moment it’s perceived, and “vikara” means the discernment of the qualities of that thought. What I’m trying to say is that thought and thinking continue to occur in 1st jhana, contrary to what some people may have you believe, however they can appear quite different to how they’re normally experienced.
  • When you actually hit 1st jhana, there will be a definite sense of being in an altered state of consciousness, usually preceded by some sense of a mental ‘shift’. That shift may be very obvious or very subtle depending on the depth of your practice, but when it happens you’ll recognize it. The senses may seem softened in some way, and there may be a sense of ‘light’ in the visual field which, if focused on, becomes ‘brighter’ or expands. This is what’s known as a “nimitta”, which means “characteristic” or “sign”. It’s a natural occurrence and shouldn’t be viewed as any more important than any other sensation, however dazzling it may be at first. The body can feel very relaxed, but you must remain attentive so as to avoid slouching as this will lead to sleepiness and distraction. Sounds may seem somewhat distant, as if they’re just happening elsewhere, only being recognized as “sound” and then let go of without further interpretation or mental narrative about it.
  • It really is as simple as learning to rest the attention on those pleasant bodily sensations. Doing this will lead to the arising of the other jhanic factors, each of which will only really be discerned through dedicated practice. Don’t get hung up on trying to identify any of this at first, just stick to what’s going on in the body and it will definitely become clearer with time. No amount of reading about it will cause it to make sense, it has to be experienced directly to be understood and, when it happens in your own practice, you’ll understand why I go on about that so much.

So, to summarize, firstly we get into access concentration and then turn the attention towards those pleasant tingling, dynamic sensations wherever they are in the body, however subtle or obvious they may be. If you’re practicing correctly, these sensations will appear without a doubt so you don’t need to go looking for them, or sit there waiting for them to happen. Stay present and attentive, and don’t drift off into a mental reverie...but if you do there’s no need to beat yourself up about it. As you did when cultivating access concentration: Bring the attention back to the breath if you can’t notice any of those sensations since becoming distracted. If you’re still aware of them, however subtle, simply tune back in to them again and continue as before.

What I’ve written above should be a fairly reliable way to incline the mind towards what some consider to be the 1st jhana. It’s very straightforward but does require consistent and dedicated practice. It’s possible to get into what could be called 'jhana-lite', which is like a weak state of absorption in those sensation, and this itself is quite sufficient to begin applying vipassana to the experience. Jhanas, like all other states and stages, are as empty and transient as any other and can be investigated via bare attention. Which brings me to...

  
How Not To Become A Jhana Junkie


As I just said, jhanas are as empty and transient as anything else you can experience. They’re ultimately no different to the sensations which make up your little finger. No sensations, states or experiences last. None exist apart from awareness and none can be found outside of their own experiencing. The Buddha layed out The Three Characteristics and they are undeniably evident in the moment-by-moment experience of every human being: Impermanence (Anicca), Not-Self (Anatta), and Suffering or Dissatisfaction (Dukkha).

They represent three seals of experience in that, regardless of where we look, how we look or who’s looking, all phenomena are subject to change, none contain or can be said to be a Self, and none are able to provide any real or lasting satisfaction. I defy anyone to look closely and sincerely at their own experience right now, their bare sensate experience as these six streams of sense-consciousness, and find anything permanent or anything which contains or could be a Self. There is literally nothing which is not constantly changing at some level. Even mountains are subject to erosion, but this is something we can experience directly for ourselves by simply looking at the way in which reality is perceived, on the bare sensate level, on a moment-by-moment basis.

The problem with jhanas is that they’re incredibly seductive and can give one the impression that they’re more realized than they actually are. They can be mind-blowing sometimes, but they can also just be a pleasant break from the stresses of everyday life. However, the Buddha taught insight and morality as well as concentration, so this should be borne in mind.

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying concentration states. Learning to abide in them is a skill in itself, but when it begins to interfere with your practice and become the be all and end all, then it’s time to bring in some insight. Worse still, continuing to get deeper into meditative states can sometimes interfere with, and impinge upon, your daily life. This is more of an issue for advanced practitioners who’s concentration skills are more highly developed, but it’s possible to experience hallucinations, altered states or things which seem to be outwith rational explanation.[5] At all times, the sincere practitioner should bear the Three Characteristics in mind and experience them directly. Even in the most elevated states, since even those are not exempt from the dharma seals. To cling to any state, no matter how glorious or beautiful it seems, is a grave error which will not lead to liberation. Every sensation experienced at every sense door can be seen directly to be without any ultimate source, without a beginning or end; just a process of change. It is all empty of meaning and devoid of information until the mind begins to construct a story around it, turning it into an “I” and creating a subject to this fresh, new object.

All that said, it’s not like there’s not considerable benefit to be had from cultivating concentration states. Even getting into 1st jhana leads to the temporary suppression of the “five hindrances”, and higher states eliminate conscious thought entirely, revealing something fundamental about the nature of reality. It’s just a case of using them with moderation. Some of the experiences possible through strong concentration, especially while on retreat, can be incredibly seductive and can even convince you, for a while at least, that you’re completely awakened. Jhana is an excellent baseline from which to do insight practice. The mind is stabilized and the natural focus of 1st jhana is conducive to the sort of targeted investigation required when practicing vipassana. The optimal jhanic strata to begin with for insight practice is, in my opinion, 4th as it offers a completely different mental focus or frame which allows for  deeper, more open and effortless investigation into whichever sensations present themselves.

I’ve ended up writing more than I thought would be required for this, but I’m trying to ensure that I’m communicating the nuts and bolts of the practice clearly and how to actually do it. What I’ve written is just my opinion, based on my experience, and is subject to change at anytime. Hopefully what’s there is sufficient to allow you to improve your practice, identify the first jhanic strata and avoid some of the potential pitfalls of strong concentration practice.

Thanks for reading and the very best of luck in your practice, may you and all sentient beings end suffering in this lifetime.



Peace & Practice Well,

Tommy


[1] According to certain models, there are actually 15 concentration states as well as other attainments possible beyond this point.

[2] Kasinas are basically just some external object you can use to focus on, but there’s a whole range of objects with specific meditations dependent on which tradition you’re working with. At their most basic level, removed from the specifics of traditions, anything can be used as a kasina, but in practice it’s found that basic geometric shapes are usually best to begin with. Plates, bowls, cardboard shapes like triangles or squares, anything you can sit up against a wall and fix the eyes on.

[3] “Piti” is one of, what are known as, the “factors of jhana”, a set of phenomenological characteristics which are present in each jhanic strata and allow for their identification.

[4] According to some sources, there are five levels of “piti”, with only the last two, “exalting rapture” and “fulfilling rapture” being truly considered “piti” proper. The levels of bliss and joyfulness possible with strong practice can become overwhelming, which is when it comes time to bail out of 1st and move into 2nd jhana.

[5] Magical powers, also known as siddhis, are developed using concentration practice but require a LOT of practice to even begin to understand. This is another story for another time, but suffice to say that the siddhis are not required for awakening to occur.


Comments

  1. Thanks Tommy, very clear, concise and readable. Newbie-friendly, too.

    A question/comment comes to mind. First jhana is relatively little fuss to achieve, and suppresses the hindrances. However, I've never heard a teacher recommend just developing concentration to the point of being able to get what you called jhana-lite, and from there using that as a base for insight meditation in a way that is more pleasant than just dry vipassana, i.e. insight meditation using access concentration only. It seems to be a case of either an encouragement to develop all of the jhanas strongly or to ignore them entirely. Any thoughts on this?

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  2. Bugger, looks like I deleted my initial comment by accident!

    Anyway, what I'd basically said was that the suggestions above about getting into "jhana-lite" are based on what's worked for me. I know what you mean though, and a real teacher would probably go for either 'wet' or 'dry' insight, but in my experience it seems that insight develops concentration naturally, and vice versa if done correctly. There's no distinction in the suttas between insight and concentration, which seems to be the case in my own practice and so I don't tend to lean in either direction.

    Also, thank you for taking the time to comment and I really appreciate the feedback.

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