Basic Concentration Meditation
- The Samatha Jhanas
- First Jhana
- My First Jhana
- Soft vs. Hard Jhana
- Practical Jhana — Examples
- Jhana in the Movies
- Student Testimonial
- After First Jhana
- Further Reading
Learning basic concentration meditation might be the most important thing you ever do.
That is not just personal development blather — it really is that important.
Concentration is what allows you to achieve anything in life. Without it, you’re just going to flounder — and be big on ideas, small on execution.
Focus is just one piece of the puzzle — concentration also inherently feels good. Think about the feelings you get while in flow with some task. Concentration meditation is that times ten, as it activates the body’s opioid system — pain-killing and mood-lifting chemicals which are way more important than serotonin. In fact, unless you have actually experienced the states accessible via concentration meditation, you will not be able to understand their profundity just by reading that last sentence, or by extrapolating your existing idea of what “concentration” feels like — it’s actually its own ball game.
Concentration meditation is therefore an essential part of overcoming depression and anxiety without drugs, as it allows you to feel good whenever you want. In fact, with practice, you can generate as much bliss as you can take. Concentration meditation also allows you to focus away from negative thoughts quickly. In fact, with practice, you can learn to clear your mind within seconds — or with just a blink, if you really practise.
Concentration meditation is in fact so effective at suppressing negative mind states that it should be a first-line treatment for anxiety and depression — long before you try nonsense like serotonin pills, which are just glorified placebos anyway.
So, concentration meditation:
- Enhanced focus on any task.
- Feeling good whenever you like.
- Ability to clear your mind at will.
There aren’t many areas of life where these skills would not be helpful (or even essential). Can you see why learning this might be a turning point for you?
In Buddhism, the pure concentration states are called the samatha jhanas. All schools of Buddhism have samatha jhanas. All schools also understand that the concentration states in themselves, whilst feeling extremely blissful, do not lead to enlightenment. For enlightenment, you need an investigative practice such as vipassana (insight meditation). The concentration states are often used as a support for such practices as they focus and steady the mind, preparing it to be able to “see reality as it really is”.
On this website, I shorten samatha jhana to just jhana. Whenever I mention jhana, I am referring to the concentration states only. (“Jhana” is used for other things in Buddhism, which we won’t go into now.)
Directed thought, evaluation, rapture, pleasure, singleness of mind, contact, feeling, perception, intention, consciousness, desire, decision, persistence, mindfulness, equanimity, and attention.
This post will only focus on cultivating this state. It will give you all the benefits mentioned in the start of this post. (If you are a Buddhist academic or practitioner, you may wish to take a detour now to Soft vs. Hard Jhana to understand my definition of “first jhana” used in this post.)
You have the option of climbing upwards to higher jhanas once you reach first jhana, and I’ll provide links to further resources if you wish to explore that.
For now, let’s get right into first jhana.
Selecting an Object
You need an object for concentration meditation. This is the thing you place your attention on. This could be almost anything from the following groups:
- A physical, solid object such as a coloured disc, ring, cup — it could be anything, really. It would be convenient if you can carry it around with you, e.g. my stand-up comedian friend uses a ring with an image of the Buddha on it.
- A physical, moving object such as a candle flame.
- An internal, stable process such as the high-pitched tones in your ears, or the dark stuff you see when you close your eyes.
- An internal, repetitive process such as the breath.
- An internal, abstract concept such as one’s peripheral vision.
- An external, abstract concept such as “the present moment”.
That list has progressed roughly in order from most solid to most abstract. I definitely recommend starting with a solid physical object such as a coloured disc, until you have learned the basic process. Such an object is known as a kasina. You could just use a coin. Don’t fret too much over this, just choose something and begin. You could even just stick a drawing pin into the wall and stare at that.
Most guides use the breath as the object. To do this, focus on the feelings in the abdomen as you breathe, or, for a more specific focus, the sensations of air passing over the top lip just beneath the nostrils. The breath is useful because you always have it with you; other examples in this category are the high-pitched tones in your ears, or the dark stuff you see when you close your eyes.
The process of concentration meditation unfolds in the exact same way for every object, and for every person who practises. One of the great things about Buddhist meditation is its predictability, so you can always find out how far you’ve got by referring to the literature or asking someone.
Each group on the above list has in common that they are stable, via either being static (a physical object; the (largely) unchanging high-pitched whines in your ear) or by being repetitive (the breath). The object needs stability for the mind to latch onto with its attention. An example of a poor object is watching television. The content is always changing, and leads to wandering thoughts. (Watching television for long periods does have some jhanaic qualities, which I believe are partly responsible for its addictive nature.). Another example of a bad object is a painting, as it’s “too interesting”.
I personally use the dark stuff behind my eyelids most frequently as my object, followed by the breath, then the high-pitched tones in my ears. The breath is good if I’m ever particularly stressed, as regular breathing has some cardiovascular and relaxation benefits. When outside the house, I tend to use my peripheral vision as the object. This has the added benefit of turning on the right brain. I can also use the entire present moment as my object which gives a kind of floating, “walking on water” feel — but this is somewhat advanced. Finally, I have my very advanced iPhone flashlight afterimage kasina. (I recommend coming back to that post in the future once your concentration skills are excellent, if you want to get into some really deep states of concentration with visual “special effects”.)
If you want me to give you an object, then just use the breath or a drawing pin stuck in the wall.
Set & Setting
The mindset for practising samatha jhana can be any, since the meditation has the effect of suppressing negative mind states both during and for some time after the experience. That said, being extremely tired does make it a lot more difficult to achieve the focus required.
You should not be on any drugs while practising (unless you are doing some crazy custom experiment with psychedelics or dissociatives, which is unlikely unless you’re me 🙂 ). Some drugs simulate elements of jhanaic states (e.g. tramadol, phenibut and modafinil). Practising while on these drugs may lead you to believe you have progressed further than you have. Additionally, those states do differ from true jhanaic states achieved with a mind free of intoxicants.
That said, if you are currently on antidepressants, keep taking them. Practise as normal while continuing your regimen. Yes, they will affect the practice (usually as a crutch, and usually obscuring some of the subtler aspects of the state). However, you will still see the benefits of the practice, which, along with my Basic Depression guide, will hopefully inspire you to eventually come off those pills under the supervision of your doctor.
When first practising, I recommend being totally alone, in silence, in a warm, comfortable room, free of distractions, for a set amount of time — say, 30 minutes.
Mild distractions such as being able to hear someone moving around downstairs are not that big of a deal. In fact, it won’t be long before distractions are actually helping you hone your concentration, since you will be forced to concentrate through them. Eventually you will be able to enter first jhana even in a noisy, hectic environment such as a bar or football game. This is achieved by intentionally introducing more distractions to your practice in order to build your concentration muscles, e.g. by taking your practice out into the street on walks. This process is covered thoroughly in my Basic Anxiety guide. The purpose of this post, however, is to cultivate basic first jhana in quiet solitude. So, for now, just get a quiet room on your own.
Regarding session time, you can start off with 15 minutes if you’re an excuse-maker, but the real gains in meditation come from sessions of 30+ minutes.
You can do concentration meditation while lying, sitting, standing or even walking. When first starting out though, I recommend sitting.
Sit in a posture you can maintain comfortably for 30 minutes, preferably with a straight spine. Sitting cross-legged is preferable but a chair is fine. I personally sit cross-legged on my bed with my back supported by pillows propped up against the headboard. No, it’s not very good from a purist perspective, but it serves my purposes. The point is, don’t fret too much: just get on with it.
If you are using the high-pitched tones in your ears, or your breath as your object, you are good to go. If you are using a physical object, put it somewhere you can rest your gaze on it comfortably for 30 minutes.
1. Make a resolution about your meditation. To do this, you say to yourself, “I am going to concentrate on this object for the next 30 minutes.” Actually say the words in your mind, assertively. This helps more than you could imagine.
2. Set your timer for 30 minutes and begin your meditation. Always finish a session you’ve started.
3. Place your attention on your object. Keep it there. If it wanders, just bring it back.
When you first start out, you will probably find your attention wanders quickly and often — maybe several times a second. You will just have to pull it back to the object each time (yes, even several times a second — this will make your mind fast, too). Eventually, your attention will “settle” and stay with the object. This is called access concentration. In this state, you may still have verbal thoughts, but they will appear distant, as though part of the background noise and they will not disturb the practice.
Each time you pull your focus back to your object, you are exercising that action like a muscle. With practice, you will be able to flex the action of focus like a muscle, too. That means you will be able to pull your attention onto any object and hold it there (access concentration) with just an intention, or a glance. This is how some people can “clear their minds” at will.
How long it will take you to reach repeatable access concentration is different for each person. It took me around two weeks, practising 2 x 15 minutes each day focusing on the breath. A student of mine however reached access concentration and first jhana on his first 30-minute sitting (also with breath as the object).
4. Now you are in access concentration, simply stay with the object and allow first jhana to arise. In other words, don’t do anything different. Just keep doing what you were doing anyway — staying with the object! Basically, concentration meditation is just staying with the object, and the rest takes care of itself.
For me, the first sign of first jhana arising is a kind of “drop” feeling inside me. It also feels like a warm wave passing through me, which is relaxing and pleasurable. Sometimes, if my eyes are closed, my field of vision (the dark stuff you see with your eyes closed) will suddenly light up brightly, and stay like that. I believe this is a neurotransmitter dump.
There is also a definite change in perception, which is hard to describe. It’s definitely an altered state of awareness.
It’s now even easier to stay with the object — it’s like I’ve “got” the object and I’m “holding” it in a gap in consciousness in front of me. So, let’s say my object is a cup. It now feels like I’m “holding” the cup in its own space in my mind.
If I look around the room at this point, it’s like I’m softly gazing at the whole scene at once. So it’s all there in that “gap”, like a picture, rather than my mind zooming in on specific objects and having annoying verbal discourse about them. Sometimes everything will have that “glass look” (drugs fans will know what I mean) and appear ultra-clear, with that “space around them” that Eckhart Tolle talks about (more about that shortly).
So, at this point, you have reached access concentration and just had the first wave of relaxing pleasure wash over you indicating first jhana beginning to arise. At this point, to have first jhana fully develop into rapture, you have two choices:
- Some sources (1, 2) say you should now make the pleasure itself into the object. So move your awareness entirely onto the feelings of pleasure, simply do not become distracted from those feelings, and you will automatically enter first jhana.
- Other sources (1) say you should simply maintain concentration on the object, and first jhana will arise and grow of its own accord as you do this.
I personally take a hybrid approach. I become aware of the pleasure and the object at once and allow the pleasure to grow while continuing to stay with the object. I find that the “pleasure wave” moves through my body towards the end of each out-breath.
I definitely “cycle” the pleasure wave each time it happens, meaning I give it attention which allows it to become regular and grow in strength each time, until rapture.
When I hit rapture, I tend to purposefully stay in that state for a while. The rapture eventually becomes “boring” and difficult to maintain and settles into just a very clear, effortless concentration. This is second jhana, which we won’t go into here.
Things Which Help Rapture
- Smiling and generally relaxing. Smiling makes everything flow so much more readily. Smiling even introduces some pleasure which can then be focused upon. Relaxing allows thoughts to “fall away”, meaning less effort is expended “fighting through” them.
- Getting into a flow, or rhythm. Okay, this is difficult to explain. You will find that your attention wants to move off the object in an actual predictable rhythm (yes, this is the kind of awareness I’ve brought to the whole thing over the years — even putting attention on attention). You can circumvent that by making your attention on the object also follow a rhythm, or a “groove”. Begin looking at this dot here: • Now begin moving your head towards the screen a little, then back a little (just tiny movements), in a regular rhythm, while continuing to look at the dot. You will find this makes it a LOT easier to stay focused on the dot. So it is with concentration meditation. There are rhythms within access concentration and first jhana. (In second jhana, this kind of applied effort falls away and you are able to stay focused without it, but we won’t go into that now.) You can get into a groove with your focus which makes it a lot easier to stay with the object.
When out and about, I will not typically enter full rapture, but rather dally with some initial spikes of concentration, pleasure and relaxation to enhance my experience of whatever it is I’m doing — whether that be drinking with friends in a noisy bar, walking to the shops, or hitting some balls out on the golf course. See Practical Jhana — Examples, below, for detailed examples.
In Star Trek: The Next Generation season 5, episode 6,”The Game”, there is a virtual reality headset device which an alien woman uses to get the whole crew of the Enterprise addicted, so she can take over the ship.
This “game” is astonishingly reminiscent of concentration meditation — so much so that I believe the writer probably had experience with the samatha jhanas. Here is the introductory clip (skip to 1:24):
After relaxing, which causes the disc to enter the funnel thing, the headset gives Riker a shot of neurotransmitter pleasure. “Mmmmmm,” he says. “What was that?”
“That’s your reward,” she says, “for clearing the first level.” (Or first jhana? Haha!)
“How far does this game go?”
“As far as you can take it.”
In later scenes, the characters say things like, “If you sit back and relax, the game almost plays itself!” This is very jhanaic. Relaxing and letting thoughts go whilst staying with the object develops deep concentration.
I think the attitude they take towards “The Game” will serve you very well when going for first jhana in concentration meditation.
I started meditating about 6 years ago and had no teacher, and did not know any Buddhist terminology or concepts. I started with some breath and mantra meditation from a book called The Presence Process.
Within a couple of weeks I found that if I focused really hard on something, usually the breath, at some point the following things would happen:
- I would get a strong feeling of falling (I now believe this is just all muscles relaxing simultaneously).
- My eyes would roll back in my head and being flickering, like REM.
- The dark stuff I saw with closed eyes would light up brightly and become almost white.
- I began feeling ecstatic, and this feeling would last some time after the meditation.
I found I could “cycle” this feeling to get it to grow. I also found I would get “tired” of it eventually and settle into some clear-mindedness without requiring effort (second jhana). I found I could concentrate on something very effortlessly after this.
After studying Buddhism many years later, I identified this as entry to first jhana.
This section was primarily written with Buddhist students or academics in mind, who wish me to clarify the terminology and definitions I am using in this guide. However, there is important information in this section which ties into the rest of the guide, so everybody should read this.
If you hang around on hardcore meditation sites, such as the Dharma Overground, you will often come across arguments as to whether someone “really reached jhana” or not. The arguments tend to centre around (but are not limited to) the following points:
- The distinction between “momentary”, “access” and “absorption” concentration. So some will say it is only really first jhana if you are fully absorbed in the object.
- How “absorbed” you have to be. Some people say you have to have no other thoughts besides the object to class it as real first jhana. Others say thoughts can take place but are distant and do not intrude on the practice.
- How long it takes to learn. I’ve seen many students arriving on meditation forums who are working under the assumption that jhana takes years to cultivate. Some schools of Buddhism are happy to maintain that shroud of hardship and mystery (for various reasons) and do so with their other teachings, too. Yet other teachers, e.g. Daniel Ingram, are far more open and optimistic about progress, and basically say it depends on the student and the amount of practice they put in. I personally reached first jhana in two weeks. A student of mine reached it on his first 30-minute sitting. So my view is that everyone is different, but also that your expectations play a part — if you assume first jhana takes years to reach, it will probably end up taking you years! But if you see it as something accessible to everyone and not a big deal, you may achieve it very quickly.
- How faithful one must stay to the Buddhist texts. E.g. some people will insist solitude/withdrawal is necessary for first jhana to arise, and also that the “five hindrances” must be eradicated.
- Whether pleasure itself is included as an object of focus, or whether you must stay on the primary object for the duration of the meditation. My view is that both ways are valid, and the approach sometimes depends on the object (e.g. with “afterimage” kasinas concentration is probably best kept entirely on the object, and the pleasure/rapture takes care of itself).
- Whether a “nimitta” is required or not. A nimitta is a sign that shows you first jhana is arising. An example is seeing a bright light. Another is one’s mind creating a mental image of the breath whereby it is “seen” visually, for example as a cloud of smoke. (I’m very synaesthetic generally, so tend to “see” sensations anyway, as little pulses or waves. Not everybody is so inclined, however. Again — it depends on the student.)
To give an example of the kind of spectrum that exists in meditation circles regarding different people’s perceptions of what constitutes jhana, firstly consider Pa Auk Tawya Sayadaw’s prescribed methodology in Knowing and Seeing:
You should determine to keep your mind calmly concentrated on the white uggaha-nimitta for
one, two, three hours, or more. If you can keep your mind fixed on the uggaha-nimitta for one or
two hours, it should become clear, bright, and brilliant. This is then the paibhaga-nimitta (counterpart
sign). Determine and practise to keep your mind on the paibhaga-nimitta for one, two, or
three hours. Practise until you succeed.
At this stage you will reach either access (upacara) or absorption (appana) concentration. It is
called access concentration because it is close to and precedes jhana. Absorption concentration is
So, in Pa Auk Tawya Sayadaw’s model, it takes 2–6 HOURS potentially just to reach access concentration!!
Now, compare this to Kenneth Folk’s “parlour trick” of cycling up through all EIGHT jhanas in less than two minutes(!!), in his interesting article Jhana and Ñana:
In fact, there is a thing I sometimes do for my dharma friends that I call my “parlour trick,” in which I sit down and cycle through all eight of the material and immaterial jhanas in less than two minutes. It doesn’t look like much; I just sit there and shake and roll my eyes up into my head, holding up fingers to signal jhana numbers. (Although in the higher jhanas, I always forget which fingers to hold up and the signal system breaks down.) So they have to take my word for it that I attained all those jhanas. But I began doing it as a way to show people that jhanas aren’t something abstract, or something for other people, but rather for ordinary people like us; they can be learned and cultivated to high levels and called up instantly, even during daily life. Also, I must admit, I began doing it as a way to rebel against a western Buddhist culture that teaches that it is wicked or shameful to admit that you “have the power of jhana.” What rubbish.
You can hopefully now see my dilemma in setting out to write a basic guide for attaining first jhana: the arguments regarding what even constitutes that state rage on. In fact, consulting with various experienced meditators in researching this guide highlighted these arguments and actually provided many of the sources and insights I have shared with you here.
To bring some sanity to proceedings, and to clarify what I mean by “first jhana” in this guide, I am happy to refer to Daniel Ingram’s distinction between “soft” and “hard” jhana found in Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha (p.136):
Many traditions use the breath as the primary object initially and
then shift to the qualities of the states themselves as the object of
meditation when they arise and the concentration is strong. The quality
of a jhana can either be “soft” or “hard” depending on how solidly one
is in the state. In soft jhana, the qualities of that particular state are
definitely recognizable in a way that is different from the ordinary
experience of those qualities to the degree that we are confident we are
in the altered state defined by those qualities.
In really hard jhana, it feels as if our mind has been fused to those
qualities and the object with superglue, as if we were nothing but a solid
block or field of those qualities or that object, as if they and the object
were the whole world with nothing else remaining. Getting into really
“hard” jhana states dramatically increases the beneficial effects of the
practice, though it takes greater strength of concentration and usually
requires more favourable practice conditions to do so. Taking the
beneficial factors of the jhana solely as the object of concentration is
helpful for this, as can be using an easily identified external object such
as a candle flame or coloured disk.
So, with regard to the above, we can roughly place jhana on a spectrum ranging from “soft” to “hard”, with soft generally taking less time to enter, but having less absorption and less intense “jhana factors” such as rapture. Hard jhana is obviously at the opposite end of the spectrum and generally takes longer to enter, has extreme absorption (the feeling of being “stuck like superglue” to the object), and the most intense jhana factors, e.g. a rapture that can last for days (I can attest to this; my iPhone afterimage kasina meditation resulted in several days’ elation and fascination with the world, and is a solid example of very hard jhana).
Jhana in This Guide
In more formal spiritual practice, e.g. insight meditation (vipassana), jhana is used as a support to steady the mind and allow deep investigation into the nature of the object. In this respect, it is easy to see why students are encouraged to cultivate truly “hard” jhanas, with long meditation times and deep absorption in the object that is to be investigated. Hard jhana is basically a requisite for insight practice on the path to enlightenment. Jhana also provides a strong foundation from which to practise morality.
This guide however is directed mainly towards personal development. I am taking the time to teach you how to reach first jhana as it is going to be a pillar of my next guides, Basic Anxiety and Basic Depression. First jhana is also invaluable for practising new skills requiring focus and stable emotional states, and for following the techniques and methods of other personal development authors. For example, Eckhart Tolle’s “being present” can be seen as entering first jhana using the environment as the object.
With this in mind, first jhana in this guide is mainly going to refer to a “softer” jhana which, with practice, you will be able to enter in a matter of seconds while doing chores, out on walks, in social situations, or performing tasks requiring focus such as work, sports or hobbies. It is a “toolkit” technique to quickly bring stability, equanimity, pleasure and directed attention to almost any area of life you choose.
My definition of first jhana in this guide is therefore as follows:
- One’s attention must be able to be kept with the object, uninterrupted by distracting thoughts, for several seconds.
- One must encounter a tangible pleasant sensation somewhere in one’s body, perceptions or emotions.
- A noticeable “altered state” is also desirous to qualify for first jhana. The above two factors are indicative of an “altered state” in their own right, so I am willing to allow (soft) first jhana based on both of those appearing. However, the following are also useful signs to show you are on the right track:
- A falling away of anxiety, “threat assessment”, ill-will towards others, and other negative emotions.
- A change in visual perception. Broader? More narrow? More “centred”? “Softer”? More “space”?
- Emotional feelings of “absorption” in your object.
- A noticeable decrease in intensity of verbal thought. So, thoughts could reduce in frequency, or simply appear more “distant”.
- A change in one’s perception of time. Typically time appears to slow down, “stop”, or you “become present”.
Practice is the key to noticing and cultivating these factors.
I will write about cultivating “harder” jhanas, moving up to higher jhanas (second, third etc.), and using jhanas in spiritual, contemplative and investigative practices, in other posts.
So, let’s put all this together with some examples.
Example 1: Walking to the shops, you place your awareness on the sounds in the environment, e.g. the birds singing and the gentle sound of the wind. You keep your awareness with these sounds. A pleasant wave passes through you, accompanied by a sense of your awareness either deepening, expanding, or otherwise changing. Diagnosis: Access concentration. You then keep your awareness right there, staying with the sounds, and begin to experience an all-pervading sense of “everything being all right” and a deepening of the state. Diagnosis: Soft first jhana.
Example 2: While sitting, meditating with the breath as the object, you suddenly find yourself absorbed in the breath to the point of “seeing” the individual sensations that make up the breath. Moving this awareness to other sensations in the body, you find that you now have this magnified, “high-resolution” perception of those sensations, too. Diagnosis: Hard first jhana (or higher).
Example 3: While sitting, meditating with the dark stuff behind your eyelids as your object, that random “fuzziness” suddenly coalesces into something resembling solid waves, and you watch with fascination as they move or flow, the event unfolding seemingly of its own accord. You feel like you are bound to these waves like glue; the thought to look away does not even cross your mind. A sense of rapturous elation permeates you, sometimes lasting for hours or even days after the meditation is over. Diagnosis: Hard first jhana (or higher).
Example 4: While sitting in a bar waiting for friends to return, you look down and, gazing at your drink, begin to feel the “lock” of access concentration accompanied by a warm, pleasant sensation. As you allow that pleasant feeling to cycle and grow, you simultaneously maintain your awareness on your drink as your primary object. Suddenly you find yourself fascinated with its colour and texture and the shine of the glass. You almost feel like you could “step into” one of the bubbles! Looking up, you now find that the scene has become bolder and brighter, colours are more vivid, and it has a “smoothness” to its look. Objects are now clearer and have a kind of “glow” around their edges. What’s more, the scene now rests centrally and softly in your vision, as though you are gazing at a unified “whole”, rather than chaotically picking it apart with annoying verbal chatter like you were just moments ago. Anxiety and threat assessment have fallen away entirely. Your friends return and, with a brightness in your eyes, you find yourself only able to smile and offer them goodwill.
I also have this note to share with you from my stand-up comedian friend who I mentioned earlier in this guide:
The method you describe with the peripheral vision, sound and wave of pleasure is something I’ve been doing too — I learned it from an unbelievably intelligent kung fu teacher about 15 years ago and it’s how I go on stage or into any sort of social event. It’s called “stopping the world” in shamanism. So, like you, when I read about it taking years to achieve jhana then the state described being the one I could reach in about 3 seconds I thought, “What the fuck? These hardcore Buddhists like it rough.”
I personally believe the world is speeding up. Compare the bodies and techniques of boxers or footballers of just 50 years ago to what today’s athletes look like and can achieve. I’m sure the same is true of meditation — maybe it just took longer when those ancient books where written, in the days before neuroscience and easily-accessible information. I don’t buy the whole “you don’t get enlightened until you’re ancient” horseshit.
I’ve also got my doubts about the “this is officially first jhana and this is the official way it’s achieved” attitude some dharma teachers have. I’ve been studying jhana a lot lately and there’s a fair bit of difference between how it’s achieved and what it actually is.
You’re bang-on — it’s the best meditation method/state to treat depression and anxiety. People need to know how to do it in the quickest way possible and your writing is accessible, clear and some of the best out there.
1) Matt Damon sees “the Field” (The Legend of Bagger Vance).
This movie is about meditation and spirituality, and its plot is based roughly on the Hindu sacred text the Bhagavad Gita. Watching this film is directly responsible for my becoming halfway decent at golf literally overnight (after years of lessons and screwing it up). I now enter first jhana before and during every shot. The objects I use are “the Field” before the shot (to line it up); the breath as I form my stance; and my breath, body, swing and the ball all as one during the shot.
There is another great scene near the end of the movie when he makes that final putt. Using jhana, he merges with the hole as his object and everything else just fades away. With practice you can use jhana to create exactly this sort of perceptual tunnel vision at will:
2) Suggestions wanted!
I thought about including Luke Skywalker destroying the Death Star and training concentration with Obi-Wan and Yoda. Jedi is basically a rip-off of Buddhism and other mystical traditions.
I also thought about Neo from The Matrix in his various “letting go” and concentration states, such as in fighting scenes when he “starts to believe” and also when he bends the spoon in his mind. In one sense, he is beginning to see things in the Matrix as objects in his consciousness rather than being separate external entities.
However, both these memes are rather hackneyed, and are not really representative of jhana in a practical sense. Bagger Vance however captures jhana elegantly. So, if you have some suggestions in that vein, please provide them in the comments section, preferably with YouTube links set to the correct time index!
A student of mine provided the following report on his progress with concentration meditation after he began practising in summer 2014, with zero prior meditation experience. This report is a helpful way to show you how you can begin a practice from scratch and successfully integrate it into your life, and quickly begin experiencing benefits.
I generally meditate in the morning, soon after I wake up, and soon before going to sleep. Sometimes I will meditate at any time of day if I have free time and feel the need. I set an alarm for around 15–20 minutes, though I have set it for longer. I use the breath as my object, and so far always have.
I started practising in mid-August. I noticed immediate benefits, and that concentrating on my breath even for just a small amount of time while out in the world would bring about a positive change in mood. Around October, I noticed the mood-lift after a meditation session getting stronger, and my posture would improve when I had recently meditated (though my posture is decent anyway.) As of the beginning of November, I have been noticing the mood lift after a meditation session is very strong, lasts throughout the day, and my concentration while meditating is higher. I recently noticed in one of the newer PPM articles where you wrote something like, “Ruthlessly return your attention to your breath,” and for some reason that phrase resonated with me and seems to have helped my ability to concentrate.
In life I now feel much lighter, as if pressure has been lifted off my entire body. I feel warm, tingling sensations. My mind seems to slow down and then finally stop, and I feel very content. The practice allows me to keep a lighter, more relaxed mood throughout the day. I feel more inclined to talk to people and be friendly. I’m pretty sure I have noticed women checking me out, too.
Meditation doesn’t eliminate bad emotions, but they hurt less and negative thought patterns have a harder time gaining momentum.
Later correspondence with PP has shown me that, based on his descriptions, I can fairly safely say he has now mastered first jhana (to “hard” level) and probably higher jhanas, too. This correspondence was received in December 2014. So, PP mastered first jhana in just over four months, with 15–20-minute daily sittings (in the last month increasing his time to 30 minutes upon my recommendation).
That’s pretty impressive. And it just goes to show that this stuff is not just for monks sat meditating in temples 18 hours a day — with a little daily practice, concentration skills can be learned by anybody.
After achieving first jhana, there are several options available to you should you wish to go further in your practice.
Continue Mastery of First Jhana
- Keep practising, and learn to deepen the concentration state while sitting to reach a “hard” jhana where you are more and more absorbed in your object.
- Learn to call up the (“soft”) concentration state in shorter and shorter times. Challenge yourself by practising it in more difficult environments, e.g. while out in public. How quickly can you focus your attention and start to feel good, even in distracting or emotionally-charged situations?
- Try it on new objects. If you have mastered first jhana on the breath, now try it on environmental sounds, or on visual objects. Get creative and try it on awareness itself, or on “the present moment”.
As a reference point, I can now access first jhana in practically any situation, on practically any object, in a matter of seconds. (Access concentration is attained with pretty much a glance at the object, accompanied by the “drop” and warm pleasant sensation; staying with both the object and the pleasant feeling results in first jhana arising a couple of seconds later.)
Move on to My Other Guides
My Basic Anxiety and Basic Depression guides use first jhana as a central pillar, due to the emotional stability and equanimity the state brings. While the guides will utilize a daily sitting meditation to improve ability to access the concentration state, and also as a “recharge” or “refresh” exercise, they will also make use of quick “soft” jhana in daily activities when one’s mood needs rapidly stabilizing — particularly the Basic Anxiety guide, as first jhana is extremely useful for letting go of anxiety in the moment. Decent jhana skills are therefore a prerequisite for being able to use those guides. If you’re there already, and feel you could benefit from guidance for anxiety or depression, feel free to explore those guides now!
Master Higher Jhanas
If you have practised concentration meditation for some time and been able to reach highly absorbed states, chances are you’ve already moved into second jhana or even higher at some point during those sittings — perhaps even regularly, without you even realizing it. There is an “automatic” element to moving upwards through the jhanas — the longer you sit, the more likely it is the mind “gets bored” of maintaining the current jhana and “latches onto” the jhana immediately above it. The most simple example here is the automatic upwards movement from first to second jhana: if you have sat in first jhana for some time, you will be aware that it takes effort to maintain the concentration on the object. When that effort becomes tiring, one of two things happens: you either “lose” the concentration and have to start again from access concentration, or your mind “stops trying” and is able to rest on the object without further effort. This is second jhana. At this point, the meditation kind of runs itself.
While this “automatic” element does come into play with regular practice and long enough sits, knowing the processes via which the mind shifts upwards from the current jhana to the next is absolutely invaluable if you wish to master the jhanas more quickly and purposefully. Guidance at this point will show you what to look out for, so you can see when a jhana is about to “mature” to its next stage and allow it to do so. Two resources I can recommend for this are Daniel Ingram’s book Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha and Kenneth Folk’s article Jhana and Ñana (his “chicken-herding” analogy is particularly entertaining and insightful!).
For those inclined towards practising New Age methods such as “intention-manifestation” (also known as “Law of Attraction”/”The Secret”), “psychic” powers and abilities, and other “woo”, please note that for millennia these have been known as “magick and the powers” or “siddhis” and were traditionally performed by the meditator while in fourth jhana. And yes I use them, and yes they work. 🙂 But there is a cost. Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha does a fair treatment of the powers and their potential repercussions (p.144).
Begin Insight Meditation
Another advantage of mastering the jhanas is that they act like a magnifying glass for examining the sensations that make up your reality. Such investigation is known as insight meditation, or vipassana.
I recently noticed that when I attempt to concentrate on my breathing, I feel the physical sensations caused by the breath much more acutely. As I concentrate on these sensations more, I also feel other physical sensations get stronger, almost like a tingling all over my body.
This is one of the signs that told me PP has mastered jhana: his awareness of sensations has been magnified. Investigating these sensations and noticing the Three Characteristics (impermanence, no self, and inability to satisfy (suffering)) inherent in every one is called insight meditation. Jhana alone cannot lead to enlightenment. Only investigation of sensations via insight meditation can.
However, insight meditation is no walk in the park. It can take years to move through the stages of insight via this diligent investigation. While there are certainly high points and “Matrix moments” (seeing reality “as it really is”), these realizations can trigger periods of extreme negative emotion and distress as your conceptualization of reality and your place within it is profoundly reorganized (“death of self”). This difficult period is known as the Dark Night and can last for years (or perhaps forever if you do not receive the right guidance, or stop practising) once you have crossed into it.
I cannot do the Path of Insight justice in just a few small paragraphs. Luckily, Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha is entirely dedicated to walking you through that Path in a most open and straightforward way.
The point is, beginning insight meditation is not something to be taken lightly, and I advise that any decision to do so is made consciously when you feel you are ready. Some of you will already be in the Dark Night, having crossed into it inadvertently via drug experiences or by meditating without proper guidance. If you find yourself trawling the Internet constantly looking for answers, and/or obsessively thinking about the Universe and the true nature of reality, then these are signs you might already be in the Dark Night. It is best to assume you’re not, read the book, then make an educated assessment of where you are.
These guides take a lot of time to write. I’m self-employed, so I have to take time away from paid client work to write them.
If this guide has helped you, to show your appreciation consider donating. This will also expedite the writing of my other guides as I will be able to dedicate more time to them.
Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha (Daniel Ingram). Detailed descriptions of the jhanas, the Path of Insight, and modern Buddhist culture — with all the techniques you need.
Jhana and Ñana (Kenneth Folk). Great description of the process of cultivating concentration, using an amusing “chicken-herding” analogy.
Samatha jhanas (Dharma Overground). Nice summary of the jhanas in the DhO wiki.
Anupada Sutta: One After Another. Original Buddhist text on the jhanas from the Pali Canon.
iPhone Flashlight Afterimage Kasina. My article about getting truly “hard” jhanas one through four, with amazing visual special effects.