Jhana: Waves and Breathing
I have to overhaul the Basic Concentration Meditation guide — a lot of people aren’t getting it. Ultimately, that’s my fault as a teacher. Your feedback has been essential in this matter. Thank you. 🙂
I’m now going to provide two methods of doing concentration meditation, with the breath as the object, which I think will blow the whole thing wide open for many of you. These methods will come at things from a completely different angle to the one described in the guide.
Firstly, you have to understand that concentration meditation is an active process. It is not passive like insight meditation or “watching the breath”. You are as much involved in concentration meditation as it is in you.
So, on to how to get involved.
This meditation can be done literally anywhere following enough practice. To practise however, I recommend the following, to be done once per day (preferably in the morning):
- Set a timer for 35 minutes to give yourself 5 minutes to faff around getting comfortable etc.
- Sit down cross-legged with your back straight. Get as comfortable as possible, then make the formal resolution: “I will now practise concentration meditation with the breath as the object for the next 30 minutes.” After this resolution is made you are not allowed to adjust your pose or fidget (this is part of the training). That doesn’t mean stay perfectly still; obviously you will move gently while breathing. It does mean however that you are not to make serious changes to your posture, or scratch your nose, or otherwise let yourself become distracted by thoughts and sensations which will go away on their own.
- Close your eyes. They should point upwards slightly (looking upwards during meditation makes you feel happy). They are also NOT “staring” and you do NOT hold them in place using any muscle force (concentration is NOT “staring”). In fact, the eyes should be loose and able to move as they wish, entering rapid eye movement (REM) as they wish, and so forth.
- Begin one of the exercises below, and continue it uninterrupted for 30 minutes. Choose one beforehand and do not change halfway through. Stick with the one you have chosen.
- You are allowed to smile and change facial expressions as they come to you.
Provided you now just follow one of the below exercises, you won’t have time to worry about your posture or any of the “goals” of the practice (which unfold by themselves via the practice), e.g. a blissful, powerful mind. Those things will happen if you just stick to the exercise.
1. Find Waves and Synchronize Breathing with the Waves
There is a steady up/down wave pattern taking place within your body, from head to toe, at all times. Your breathing is supposed to be synchronized with that wave, but things like education have desynchronized them. For example, you are holding your breath while reading this sentence. Attention via verbal thought necessarily pauses the breath. If you are out socializing and feel “locked-up”, your breath will almost certainly be held – while your verbal thoughts analyse the hell out of the situation.
Forget all that. The whole point of jhana is just to whitewash all of that, and it’s completely learnable and trainable and can be used literally “in the field” to bring calmness even in the most chaotic situations.
Despite the desynchronization of “up/down wave” and breathing, the up/down wave is still there in your body, operating at all times. It’s just extremely subtle. You need to watch out for it. Just close your eyes right now and see if you can feel a gentle up/down movement within yourself.
Spend some time looking for this.
Even if, after an hour, you cannot find that up/down wave within yourself, simply imagine it is there. The mind-body link is extraordinary. As soon as you think of it, it will appear.
At this point, you need to begin synchronizing your breathing with this up/down wave.
So, if the wave is moving up, you need to force your breath to mirror it exactly. Is the wave going up? Then you should be breathing in with it. Is the wave going down? Then you’re breathing out in perfect synchrony with it. If the wave appears to stop, then just treat it as a “still point” and stay with it, stopped – it will start to move again in its own time.
If it changes chaotically — which it will, in line with your emotions and conditioning — that is no problem. If the wave suddenly starts going down, breathe out slowly to match it. Then you might find it suddenly stabilizes, at which point you stabilize your breathing. If it suddenly shoots up, breathe in with it. Just follow it diligently for 30 minutes, and focus on nothing else.
This is simply an active process of synchronizing your breathing with natural processes. It takes your time, your attention, and your concentration. It might be the most intensive (and enjoyable) mental training in which you have ever participated.
2. Notice Breathing Waves and Flatten Them Out
Sit and watch your breathing for a while.
You will notice that there are definite points where an in-breath ends and becomes an out-breath. And on the opposite end of the sequence, there is a definite moment when the out-breath becomes an in-breath again.
Simply sit and notice this for a while. Breathing makes a kind of sine wave in this respect:
In this approach to jhana, your goal is simple:
By controlling your breathing, try and make the “turning points” of the breath as flat and unnoticeable as possible.
This means that when the in-breath is about to turn and become an out-breath, you instead control it with your muscles and drag out the turning point as much as possible so the wave is almost flat. You slow down the turn to an out-breath consciously, intentionally, to the point where you don’t even notice it turn. The breath will become an out-breath, but you have controlled it to the extent that you can no longer pinpoint when the turn took place.
Repeat for the out-breath becoming the in-breath. Simply do this for 30 minutes.
First Jhana is an Active Process
In both these approaches you are very much getting involved and controlling the jhana process. “You” are doing it. This is the whole point of jhana: It is something you intentionally do.
In the same way that, when you are hard at work typing on the computer, you are completely involved in the process of thinking and typing, in both these exercises you are completely involved in breathing.
You ARE your breathing.
You are absorbed in it.
Because in these exercises breathing is entirely a matter of interfacing with the body, relying on modulating the breath intentionally, there will be few if any verbal thoughts while you are attending to this breathing. You may only notice this afterwards. You might suddenly realize, “Hey – I didn’t think while controlling that breath!” And then suddenly a whole new world has opened up to you whereby you are no longer defined by your verbal thoughts, but can in fact create definite time periods without them.
In time, with practice, you will be able to maintain that body-engagement “no-thought” state for as long as you wish.
While attending to this process, neurotransmitter dumps are ensuring you feel ecstatic and amazing. However, I do not want you to think about that while actually doing it. All I want you to do is either synchronize the breath with the up/down body wave, or flatten out the in-out wave intentionally. All the magic of jhana happens when you’re not looking.
You can then literally do this while outside the house to eliminate anxiety entirely by attending to the breath in one of these two ways. It becomes a de facto way of coping with any situation.
Little Me: “I’m reacting emotionally to this situation!”
Big Me: “Attend to the breath and find an equanimous viewpoint.”
This is exactly the kind of verbal intercourse you want to be having with yourself. The jhana of attending to the breath cools the heat of any situation.
Meditation and the Frontal Lobes
All of meditation can be summed up, from a certain point of view, as dominance and victory of the frontal lobes over the “lower brains” (for example, the limbic system). The frontal lobes are the huge swathes of extra grey and white matter that make up the throbbing, oversized human brain. The limbic system is the “lower brains”, the reptilian and mammalian brains in the Triune Brain model – the ones that make you feel bad for no reason, are obsessed with self image and status, ego and greed, and so on and so forth.
The frontal lobes inject time (left brain) and distance (right brain) between you (the observer) and the situation (the observed). There is a reason most Buddhist schools instruct cultivation of compassion: Compassion is a product of the frontal lobes, a result of taking time and distance to place yourself in another’s shoes. Compassion is a strong trigger for the frontal lobes.
But jhana itself is another direct manifestation of the frontal lobes. By consciously attending to the breath in the ways instructed in this post, you are saying YES to time and distance and NO to the immediacy of the situation. You are literally bringing the power of the frontal lobes to bear against the aggressive self-serving “little me” that comprises your animal instincts. Jhana also facilitates compassion by introducing this time and space.
Trained as a habit, continuously through both private meditation and attending to the breath while in public and living your life “out there” in the real world, you can learn to inject time and distance into literally any situation you wish. The shamans called this “stopping time”, and it can be done even in the most chaotic situations following enough practice.
One of the strange benefits of using the frontal lobes is that they are inherently pleasurable. If you think of any time you have been in “flow” with work, a hobby or a sport, you will recognize that in that moment you are exploring time and space within the frontal lobes. Reality is literally infinite in this form of consciousness, giving a feeling of both timelessness and spaciousness. That is because both time and space are created by the frontal lobes.
Performing the breathing practices above injects time and space into your experience by suspending the immediacy of the survival habits of the organism. It is a literal saying of NO to urgency, and YES to space and time — and thus options. For some reason, which I don’t understand scientifically, there are certainly neurotransmitter events which lead to great pleasure within the exploration of this time and space. Jhana is inherently drenchingly pleasurable. When the Buddha spoke of a “bright, glowing disc” upon entering jhana, he was not talking about a literal visual phenomenon, in my opinion (although seeing brightness with eyes closed is common): he was describing the sense of vividness, glow, mindfulness and equanimity, pleasure and understanding, with which all objects, people and events are viewed through the frontal lobes. This is literally what public jhana is like: consciousness appears as a dome or “disc” in which vivid, hard-edged and totally realistic objects and events appear, attached to which are all the meanings you could ever hope to comprehend.
Jhana is literally what separates us from the animals. Practise well! 🙂