Concentration Meditation: The Pleasure Factor
A lot of comments and emails I’ve received have consisted of guys saying they fail to feel pleasure during concentration meditation. Since pleasure is one of the “jhana factors”, an important part of absorption which can also be built into rapture and bliss via focused attention, it is really important that you begin to feel pleasure during concentration meditation.
There are a couple of things to consider as to why you might not be feeling pleasure during concentration meditation. The first is that you are probably not breathing properly. The breath is supposed to be a wave that spreads through the entire body, including the limbs. The wave actually passes outwards from the centre of the body during the in-breath, and inwards through the whole body during the out-breath. That is probably inverted from how you have been brought up to think about the breath. Many things are actually the inverse from what you have been told.
Post-industrial life is one of largely sitting, which conditions the muscles to restrict this wave via tension, especially in the psoas muscle and the rest of the legs. To begin to remedy this, you need to practise breathing properly, and a good way to start is by lying down and, while breathing, imagining this wave passing through your entire body, including your legs. For many, this will result in immediate uncontrollable shaking. Shaking is largely to do with muscles coming back online which have, for many years, been firing in compensatory patterns. As someone who has worked on his posture for about 5 years, with outstanding results, I can tell you that the natural breath is practically the inverse of the conditioned “sitting breath” most of us suffer through. When the right muscles come back online to facilitate the proper propagation of the breathing wave, shaking is extremely common. The halfway house in this case is to adopt the Alexander Technique breathing pose. This is simply lying on the floor with a couple of books under your head and your feet on the floor so your knees point up:
This keeps the abdominal and psoas muscles loose enough that proper breathing can begin to be reconditioned with less uncontrollable shaking. It’s a really good multi-purpose pose and I definitely recommend spending 10 minutes or more in this pose every day, perhaps to unwind at the end of the day. This is the best pose in which to begin reconditioning the breathing wave. You should begin to notice that there is a very subtle sensation of pleasure while breathing, particular towards the bottom of the out-breath.
The second point to consider is that post-industrial life has reconditioned our threshold for pleasure. We’re part of the Facebook generation, subject to a dopaminergic onslaught of instant stimulation and sugary food. Your idea of what it means to experience “pleasure” has been conditioned towards this standard. I would however equate that kind of pleasure with “wanting” — Facebook is like an itch you cannot quite scratch. It keeps you coming back for more. When you eat a bag of potato chips, the first thing on your mind is to eat another one. That is the nature of dopamine. The kinds of pleasure found in meditation and concepts such as Eckhart Tolle’s “presence” however are more to do with “liking” — the opioid system. It is a kind of subtle contentment. At the end of the out-breath there is a subtle opioid release. Yogis exploit this fact via exercises such as the breath of fire. Cats exploit it by purring. We exploit it by laughing. These are all rhythmic pulses of the diaphragm. You need to be able to find that ever-so-subtle opioid release towards the end of every out-breath, and begin to purposefully notice it literally all the time. That is how you begin to recondition deep contentment. This is just one reason why all meditation schools and yoga place breathing as their central pillar.
So, my advice to you is to begin to find that simple pleasure in every breath, and to spend time in the Alexander pose every day rediscovering it. Then, when it comes to doing your 30 minutes a day concentration practice, while focusing on your object you will begin to be able to detect that pleasure sensation toward the end of every out-breath. When you become single-minded by focusing upon an object, such pleasure sensations are magnified considerably (which is one of the reasons I believe television is addictive). By purposefully experiencing this pleasure while focusing on your object, you can begin to “feel” the object as though it is part of your body: this is how absorption works. This is how you can become captivated by your object — your mind easily associates the pleasure sensation with your viewing of the object.
Here is how you then develop that process into rapture. By tuning into the pleasure sensations on each out-breath while viewing the object, you can fall into a rhythm whereby you begin to expect pleasure on every out-breath. Much in the mind is created by your expectations. The expectation of pleasure at the end of each out-breath actually increases the likelihood of your experiencing pleasure tenfold. A rhythm then begins to occur whereby your breath becomes synchronized with your experience of pleasure, in what then becomes a regular sine wave. Pleasure tends to facilitate more pleasure, and the sensations begin to amplify in a feedback loop. It really is extremely pleasurable. It is very comparable to the rhythm you get in when you’re about to reach orgasm. When you are about to reach orgasm, you naturally begin breathing with your whole body in a deep, regular rhythmic pattern which starts to amplify pleasure in a positive feedback loop. The pleasure process in concentration meditation is basically the exact same thing. It is a rhythmic pulsing of the dopamine-opioid circuit. This is the reason concentration meditation is often associated with sex and talked about in sexual language (and, in MCTB, Ingram even says concentration meditation involves “getting into a groove, like having sex”). In fact, if you actually have sex while making the sex the object of your concentration meditation, you arrive at tantric sex. That is all tantric sex is, and you should definitely practise it if you don’t already because nothing quite comes close to that level of rapture.
When you establish this pleasure rhythm during concentration meditation, as I said earlier, the object becomes associated in the mind as the source of that pleasure. Animals naturally gravitate towards and become captivated by sources of pleasure. This captivation is just one factor which results in absorption. The result in practical terms is that you will be viewing the object, your breathing will become rhythmic with pleasure building each time just as it does when reaching orgasm, and your captivation with the object will grow hand-in-hand with this process. You will literally be flooding your brain with dopamine and opioids as the result of just viewing an object and breathing properly and rhythmically. This is why concentration meditation, if nursed to this level (which is actually pretty easy given the right guidance, which is the whole purpose of these posts) is the best anti-depressant around.
The main thing to notice when practising concentration meditation is how the breath facilitates the pleasure and focus. I become obsessed with my breath. All concentration meditation is essentially a hybrid breath meditation, no matter what object you use. Synaesthesia is very common while experiencing breath-pleasure, even in those who do not ordinarily experience synaesthesia. It is common, for example, to begin literally “seeing” the breath as a wave or in some other visual representation, perhaps as light or a cloud of smoke (these representations being known as the “nimitta”). Sometimes, at the height of pleasure, my breath appears to me as a the richest, darkest black hole filling my whole abdomen. It is blacker than black could ever be, a gorgeous black hole pulling me in. Sometimes I begin to feel like I am blowing bubbles with my breath — as though the breath is a bubble which fills up then bursts at the start of each out-breath.
The most important point I am trying to get across in this post is that pleasure in concentration meditation often starts out as extremely subtle sensations, sometimes barely noticeable if you are particularly prone to monkey-mind. However, they are there and it is your duty in your practice to begin to notice them. By giving those sensations your focused attention, and having them fall into a rhythm with your breathing, you can quickly grow them into huge tangible rapturous waves. You need to give this time and practice. I am hoping that by my pointing you in the right direction you will find these sensations and be surprised at how quickly you can grow them. I don’t believe jhana is difficult, and I don’t subscribe to those old schools which insist it can take years to develop. I think it’s right there for you, right now in the present moment, and you just need to learn to see it and engage with it. These are natural faculties you possess and can definitely be trained to achieve whatever result you want. Often it is just a matter of assuming your body will take you there, and that the process it provides you with is the correct one, then just letting it do it. This kind of assumption that you have these innate abilities is the foundation of developing meditation skill, I believe.