The Mental Breath, Nursing the Breath, and Smile Jhana
In the last major post on concentration meditation, I had you fix your attention on a single point, the bridge of the nose, to the exclusion of all else, for sits of at least 30 minutes. This is not the whole story of how to reliably enter jhana, but I needed to give you something straightforward to do to begin stabilizing your mind. It is not an easy nor a pleasant thing, to sit there focusing upon a single point in spacetime, especially when you have been trained into constant distraction by television and Facebook — but it is necessary. Judging by the comments and emails I received, for a few of you this instruction was enough to reach jhana — and, in fact, it is enough, provided certain other conditions are fulfilled (which may occur by luck or by preparation).
This post however aims to take luck out of concentration meditation and is all about working with objects. This really gets into the heart of what concentration meditation is about, which is the creation of mental objects which appear to exist in and of themselves. So, for example, the breath can literally come to be seen as a wisp of smoke, a pulsing energy field, or a flowing river. It can become “seen-felt” — a phenomenon whereby the breath is experienced in a combined sensory modality of the feeling body and the seeing eye. Holding these objects in your mind will leave you dripping with ecstasy.
The Mental Breath
This phenomenon is the answer to the question, “What should I focus on when the breath slows or stops and sensations are hard to perceive?” This happens to just about every meditator, and is a question I receive often in emails and in the comments sections. In the previous post I was advising you to just maintain awareness on the bridge of the nose regardless. One suggestion was just to imagine that the sensations are still there, and to focus on those. This is the same as how if someone shone a laser pointer on a wall then turned it off you could still stare at that point even though the light had gone. At this moment your “object” is in fact an imaginary point in spacetime. It is as though someone gave you a coordinate to stare at, even though there was nothing at that coordinate. This is all good mental training. Concentration meditation is entirely about cultivating mind-made objects — even something as trivial as an imaginary point. Some people got jhana from that, which is completely possible if you mind becomes absorbed in that imaginary point.
As easier object to focus upon however is the “mental breath” — a name Mayath and I gave in some private emails to the following phenomenon. If you close your eyes now and breathe in, even with ordinary physical awareness on your body you should feel a kind of energy wave moving up you. Now, close your eyes again, and spend more time studying this wave — in and out, in and out. If you spend enough time just feeling this wave with each breath (say, a 30-minute sit), you will eventually begin to develop a mental impression of it. You can get to know it really well. You might start to get a visual impression of it moving through your body, expanding and contracting. Congratulations: You have just created a mental object. Now, even if you just sit watching this breath come and go exactly like this (which is called access concentration), if you can stay with it reasonably well you will eventually get a jhana.
This brings me to my first important point: Simply holding a mental object in awareness brings feelings of rapture and bliss, and eventually causes jhana to arise. We don’t know why it does; it just does. My theory is that the universe, at its heart, is a creative entity that draws satisfaction from experiencing its own creations. It operates in an infinite loop of: create→experience, create→experience, create→experience with each new iteration giving rise to a new set of possibilities for the next creation. Concentration meditation temporarily suspends the background noise of previous creations (a.k.a. “life”) and provides a space in which to create and revel in an object anew.
The initial phase, when you are holding the mental object in mind (in this case, the mental impression of the breath), is called access concentration. It feels good. Feelings usually rise quickly and suddenly. The initial feeling is usually one of elation or exaltation; this is known as “rapture” (piti). The time it takes for a full jhana to then arise is dependent upon:
- How clearly and stably you are able to hold the mental object in awareness, and for how long in an uninterrupted span of seconds or minutes. So, if you get a mental impression of the breath for just a second, you will likely feel a rush of good feelings. This can actually cause you to lose the image, as can other distractions. Because you lost the image, you won’t cross the threshold into jhana. But if you can maintain that mental impression of the breath for longer, your good feelings will amp up and up the longer you hold it in awareness. The good news is that losing the object does not start you again from zero — the next time it will be easier to create and hold a mental image of the breath, the image will last longer, and the good feelings will be stronger. The longer you can hold this mental object in awareness, the more absorbed in it you are said to be. If you are able to hold an extremely clear, stable, uninterrupted impression of the breath, it is possible to enter jhana within seconds.
- Your tolerance for the good feelings (also known as an increase in energy). So, this is training your mind and body to withstand an increased bandwidth of energy (perceived as rapture, glee and delight). If these feelings become too intense (which can be sudden), you should back off your attention a little from the object. Then concentrate again and the feelings will be able to go a little higher than last time. Eventually you will be able to withstand the energy level required to cross the threshold into full jhana, which is an event that will be fairly obvious when it happens. Jhana itself brings on additional feelings of deep bliss (sukha) which fill your whole being with peace and joy.
My second important point is: Even if physical breathing slows or stops, the mental breath can still be perceived. So, you always have a “breath” to place your awareness on. It is sensations that move through your body and mind as a flowing wave. Once you have developed a good mental impression of the breath from sitting and watching it in your practice, you can invoke the mental breath at any time: with eyes closed just imagine you are breathing in, and you should be able to perceive the mental breath flowing through you like an energy wash. I personally benefit from focusing on this energy wash flowing up through my nose and into my head. Now, when you sit to do concentration meditation on the breath, if physical breathing stops you can induce a mental breath and place awareness upon that instead. Interestingly, this usually causes the physical breath to start up again by itself.
This brings me to my final point: If you can synchronize your mental breath with your physical breath, this is a sign of strong absorption and you will find jhana begins to arise very quickly.
This concept of working with the mental breath alongside the physical breath is what Daniel Ingram is pointing to when he says the following in Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha (p.139):
If you are using the breath as an object, you might try purposefully visualizing it as sweet, smooth waves or circles that are peaceful and welcome. Try breathing as if you were in a garden of fragrant roses and you wish to experience the fullness of their fragrance. Perhaps these tips will help illustrate the kind of non-resistant and peaceful presence that can help one attain these states. Tune into sensations in and around the primary object that feel good.
Nursing the Breath
I believe the ability of a written guide to teach students how to enter jhana depends strongly upon the metaphors used to describe the technique. Metaphors are really important because they convey something emotional and perceptual which plain instructional words cannot do.
People respond in different ways to each metaphor. For example, all the Buddhist metaphors about making your mind “clear and bright like a full moon” appealed to me because I am very visual and poetic in my mind. (You can say stuff to me like, “Become the colour purple” and I would sit there and soon be bathing in the purple rain.) Other people however might not know what to do with that. Consider also Daniel Ingram’s metaphor above about visualizing the breath as “sweet, smooth waves”. Perhaps you could pick that up and run with it. I couldn’t, until I discovered the mental breath — then I could run with it, by making the mental breath flow like water up and over my head, rather than the physical breath. So, it’s not just the metaphors, but the order you teach them.
One of my goals is to give you lots of metaphors so that one of them will ring a bell within you and you will be able to do something with it. Also, by writing these out in post form, I can figure out which ones people are responding to well and use those more going forward.
The following metaphor is something I came up with recently after asking myself how I actually treat the breath in my mind to enter jhana. This is important because the style of attention you pay to the object is arguably the most important determinant of whether you will enter jhana (and the flavour of jhana you will enter, which is something you don’t need to worry about yet).
In the One-Pointedness post I had you affix your attention on a single point, the bridge of your nose. You may have noticed that if you went to the bridge of your nose very hard with your attention, then the sensations there would quickly vanish. It is like grasping at sand and having it slip between your fingers. This is because, in general, when you push attention on something, attention fatigues quickly and the object appears to fall back or disperse. The solution here is to pull your attention back a little just before this happens. So, you go towards the object, then back off just before it disperses. Backing off too much however will cause the object to vanish — so, the second half of the trick is to then put attention back on the object before this happens. Thus, you establish a rhythm of “towards, away, towards, away” in which the object is not allowed to disappear. There is a sweet spot within this rhythm where the motion back and away is so subtle that you no longer perceive it and the object begins to appear to exist in and for itself, within the back-and-forth sine wave of attention, as though you are holding it in a gravity field in your mind. This back-and-forth motion of attention is also known as “giving the object space to breathe”. It means you don’t grab at it. You let it exist gently in a space within your mind. The back-and-forth rhythm is not necessarily fast, either — in fact, smoothness is way more important, and the ideal rhythm might actually be quite slow, yet with such smooth transitions between the back and forth of attention that the change is barely noticeable. When you imagine the breath as flowing like waves, you are building this back-and-forth motion of attention into the meditation, so it is present from the start — that is why that metaphor is so powerful.
This method can all be quite ridiculous to memorize and attempt to carry out while meditating, which is why we use metaphors — simple language ideas that help us put such methods into practice without having to think too much. The metaphor I came up with when asking myself how I treat the breath in concentration practice is: I am nursing the breath.
So, I am sitting with eyes closed. I breathe in through my nose, and the breath enters my mind. I welcome it with a soft smile, mouth slightly open, and with kind eyes. I hold it gently in my mind, cradling it like it’s a baby. It’s free to move –coming in slightly as it wants, going out slightly as it wants — but I never really let it go. I am handling it very softly, playing with it, and caring for it. I am nursing the breath. I feel very warmly about the breath every time I find it here in my mind.
It is by bringing in such warm imagery and perspectives that the emotional systems are mobilized and the mind can breathe life into the object, having it become its own full-blown experience. All jhana is a creative act in this regard.
A tech Mayath and I were synchronistically playing around with recently is using the smile as the object in concentration meditation. A main principle of yoga is, “Where attention goes, energy flows.” In real terms this means that if you place awareness on a spot within the body, electricity will flow in the nerves at that spot. Different nerve activations produce different changes in emotional state and perceptions (hence the chakra system). The nose-bridge spot seems to produce a pleasant, invigorating stimulation, possibly due to a connection to the dopamine circuit as reflected in the phrase, “The sweet smell of victory.”
The nerves of the face which produce a smile are strongly connected to the reward circuit, especially those around the eyes. You are probably already able to effect a slight positive state-change just by smiling, but you might also find the feeling “fatigues” quickly. With the style of attention paid to the smile via concentration meditation however, nerve current flows linking into the reward circuit are able to be maintained far longer and more intensely than normally possible, leading to rapture and — as Mayath and I found — some of the fastest and most mind-blowing jhanas around.
Was just gonna email you because I also did the smile meditation and had a mind-blowing hard First Jhana too! I couldn’t even stay meditating. It was so blissful it hurt. I didn’t get it as quick as you but I got it within 30 minutes. I wasn’t even trying to go for Jhana. I was ignoring Piti but it just completely overwhelmed me. It was incredible. My whole visual field filled with light and sucked me in. I completely lost track of time. I felt like I was only in it for a few minutes but when I checked my watch 30 or so minutes had gone by.
We have slightly different techniques for using the smile as the object (which are actually the same technique, approached from different perspectives and using different language).
Mayath tends to smile and simply become aware of the mental breath flowing in the face around the smile. Breathe, smile, breathe, smile, as one awareness.
I tend to begin smiling slowly, imagining flow in my cheeks from two dots either side of my nose outwards underneath my eyes. All I am doing is smiling very slowly from those points outward, so that there is a constant nerve current flow there. Simultaneously, I become aware of my breath and notice how it has become cooler and more blissful. So, this meditation quickly becomes a hybrid smile-and-breath meditation (and I have yet to find a concentration meditation which is not hybridized with the breath in some way).
As your awareness reaches the ends of the arrows, start again at the dots (pictured below). This prevents “attention fatigue” and keeps the smile fresh. Also, become aware of any tension arising elsewhere in the face which attempts to “block” the smile, and simply let that tension go and return awareness to the nerves beneath the eyes.
Awareness applied to the smile in this way causes it to become its own object — the smile begins to exist as a thing in and of itself. Simply turning your attention to the smile object induces rapture each time.
On the night Mayath and I were discussing in the snippet above, I had practised the smile jhana only for 8 minutes before going out. It was so intense I was literally seeing stars. Then, on the night out, I found I could tune into the jhana again just by smiling then putting awareness on the nerves covered by the arrows in the above picture. Stars were literally visible in the periphery of my visual field. In fact, even just smiling regularly would draw me back into the jhana. It was like the jhana was calling me, trying to absorb me again. This is really powerful stuff.
Running nerve current flow as in the picture above is more of a kundalini practice, where energy flow is induced directly by will in a chosen body location. Mayath’s method of infusing the area with the breath is more of a straight concentration practice. Both methods achieve the same thing, just approached from different perspectives.
I predict that many people will find the smile a far easier object to work with than the breath in order to attain the first jhana, and that we will see quite a few positive reports shortly. Let me know your results in the comments below!