How I Discovered Access Concentration and Jhana
In a recent comment, Kautilya asked for my thoughts on Culadasa’s “whole body breath” method (from The Mind Illuminated) which, I assume, is designed as a kind of bridge for beginners to increase their awareness in order to then proceed to full jhanas (which I would tend to call “actual jhanas”).
Well, I can’t comment on that I’m afraid, as I never used “whole body breath” to attain jhana (though I have no problem with it as a concept if it helps people attain the states they seek).
I only ever used one method to attain hard jhanas: the concentration muscle.
This is the core, unmovable central pillar to attaining jhana. It forms the “active ingredient” in my main methods, including:
- Breath at the bridge of nose (my personal “spot” which I still like better than the columella)
- Dark stuff behind the eyelids
I have talked about the concentration muscle in some posts, and in many comments. However, I have not really attempted to teach it directly because I’m not sure it can be taught directly. So, rather than try to teach this as a method, in this post I will just talk about how I use the concentration muscle and how I discovered it.
My method for jhana is always fundamentally the same. It involves sectioning off a small space in awareness then forcing attention to remain there. This part is done the same regardless of the object.
- For breath meditation, I will mentally draw a small circle around the bridge of my nose, and begin drawing breath in somewhat sharply so I can feel sensations there. (I suspect it is actually nerve current flow rather than sensations of actual air I am feeling there, since I’m not sure air even flows up that high – but that is irrelevant in the context of this post.) I force awareness to stay on the sensations within that small circle, and make sure I breathe in such a way that there are always sensations there. At the beginning this resembles something more like kapalbhati when seen from the outside, but that tells you nothing about what my attention is doing, which is entirely under my control and is very rigorously being maintained in that small circle at the bridge of the nose.
- For the “dark stuff behind my eyelids” meditation (which actually made up the bulk of my early meditation experience), I will draw a small circle in the middle of that dark stuff, and only look there. This circle actually falls over the same “bridge of the nose” area from the previous meditation, which is no coincidence. Also, breathing will regulate my attention and help keep it in this spot, and my attention in turn will regulate my breathing. The mind is, functionally, an expression of breathing, with the two being so linked that they basically function as one. This means that this meditation merges with the previous one in many respects, except that awareness being maintained visually (rather than on breath sensations) tends to create visual objects within the jhana (visions and so forth).
- For kasina meditation, e.g. looking at the afterimage of my iPhone’s flashlight, again I will section off a small circle in awareness and place the afterimage within that circle, and keep it there. This has the perceptual effect that I am creating a 3D “space” in which the object sits, then holding it there using concentration. The object then takes on 3D characteristics and can turn into mind-blowing visuals and, eventually, Formless Realms (though it has been a while since I have actually attained such states with kasina, as it takes a lot of dedication and I am rather out of practice).
In all of the above meditations, the central and absolutely key element is the small space sectioned off in awareness where attention is forced to stay. Attention is kept on this area using the concentration muscle.
The concentration muscle is an intuitive function of the mind which uses the breath to help it retain attention on a small area. So, thoughts are coming in from all sides, and distractions like body discomfort and emotions are arising at the periphery of the sectioned-off area of awareness. None of that matters because the concentration muscle just forms this rigid boundary around that sectioned-off area, and repels thoughts away at the edges. It is like the concentration muscle “knows” what is arising at the edges of the sectioned-off area and also knows exactly how to push those things away.
The concentration muscle automatically modulates the breath in order to help repel the distractions. So, if it detects that a major “thoughtform” is arising – which, looking back, is almost certainly an unmanifested formation – it may draw in a breath sharply which disperses the formation before it can manifest as a full thought. The thoughtform may have some verbal or image content manifesting during the early stages of the meditation but the concentration muscle, often using a sharp breath in, just destroys the content and keeps attention in the small circle.
This is why, when discussing concentration meditation, I have never endorsed “letting thoughts be” or “acknowledging the thought and returning to the breath” as a method of developing concentration. Considering that maintaining clear, stable attention is so critical to developing concentration, allowing such things to arise is simply madness. It literally angers me and stirs up my passions when I read someone on the internet talking about concentration meditation and “noticing and acknowledging thoughts and letting them go” in the same sentence – it is a signal to me that they basically have no idea what they’re talking about and have probably never attained genuine concentration or jhana in their life.
Now, here is the story of how I discovered the concentration muscle. I actually learned this skill while learning to drive, when I found that my eyes would automatically section off the windscreen as the “awareness area” which attention must be confined to, and the frame of the windscreen was the boundary of that area. I noticed thoughts attempting to manifest at the sides of awareness and that these thoughts would create eye movement access patterns which would attempt to draw my eyes strongly to the sides, away from the windscreen. These eye movements are strong and compelling “micro-movements” which are completely involuntary and last only for a microsecond. These movements correspond directly to the brain either accessing memories or creating new content, better known as thoughts. To understand this further, look into NLP – these movement patterns have all been mapped and are called eye access cues:
By maintaining my eyes looking forward however, and resisting the eye access cues, I found that my attention could be centred on the section of awareness framed by the windscreen. This started to feel really good, and I knew I was onto something. I had just started rookie meditation at the time using Shinzen Young’s The Science of Enlightenment and was learning a lot, but knew nothing of the jhanas or that concentration meditation was a “thing”. However, from this practice of suppressing the eye access cues and holding awareness on the centre of the visual field that I was doing on my driving lessons, I began to notice that attention could be strictly controlled, with striking effects on the clarity of perception and the sense of mental space, and I therefore kept up this practice during my lessons.
One driving lesson – on perhaps my third attempt at maintaining this style of awareness – suddenly the eye access cues stopped, and so did all thoughts that were attempting to arise peripherally. This felt totally amazing and was the first time I had ever had zero thoughts and a clear feeling of space in my mind. Additionally, my visual acuity improved noticeably, and both the visual and mental clarity was astonishing. I was – both literally and figuratively – seeing clearly the road ahead.
Looking back, I now recognize this state as being access concentration. Once the initial hump had been climbed over, of maintaining attention on a small visual area until thoughts stopped, I found that this state was far easier to maintain, and I stayed in it for five or ten minutes, only consciously turning away from it when my driving instructor asked us to stop for a cigarette. We both climbed out of the car, and I noticed that the clarity of the state persisted without requiring any specific effort. We were parked a few miles away from an airport, and saw a small passenger jet taking off. We both stopped and watched it. I found that I could literally feel the weight of the plane as its engines hauled it into the sky. My driving instructor turned to me and said, “Remarkable, isn’t it? That something so heavy can fly.” I knew he had had the exact same thought as me when he saw that plane.
Interestingly, that driving instructor was a Hindu from India whose father, a master yogi, had taught him pranayama, hatha yoga and raja yoga from an early age. He used to practise pranayama literally all the time while I was driving, and it was hearing him make the strange grunts of kapalbhati that first got me asking about the practice. He taught me the basic technique, and I began practising it all the time, too. At the same time, I was working with another Hindu, a younger guy who was tall, slim, yet powerfully built. One lunchbreak I saw him practising alternate nostril breathing at his desk in the office. I asked him if it was pranayama, and his eyes lit up. He had also learned the pranayama–hatha yoga–raja yoga package as a child in India, and practised hatha yoga every morning, thus explaining his awesome physique and imposing stature. He told me that as a child his school had taken him on regular yoga retreats. During one stay at a monastery, he claims he witnessed a female yogini (who had been in deep meditation for several days) begin to levitate. Upon request, he taught me the alternate nostril breathing method, and I added that to my daily practice, too. I was very lucky to have had two genuine Hindus to teach me yoga when I was just starting my own meditation practice.
After the driving lesson in which I had attained access concentration, I went home and immediately meditated, sectioning off a small area of the dark stuff behind my eyelids, just like I had done with the windscreen frame in the car. I exercised the concentration muscle, resisting the eye access cues just like I had done before. After several minutes, thoughts spontaneously ceased. At this point, the section of consciousness I was focusing upon developed depth, as though there was a volume of physical, three-dimensional space within that circle, turning it into a sphere. I stayed with this volume of space with the same vigorous attention I had applied thus far, and it was not long before the dull black stuff that formed the boundary of this sphere suddenly erupted into swirling, luminescent waves – and my emotions exploded into ecstasy.
I stayed with this state for anywhere between five and thirty minutes – time had little meaning there, and it was only the emotional intensity that eventually brought me out of it. Walking around, I noticed that the centre of my field of vision retained the same thought-free awareness and clarity I had experienced in the meditation, as though I was looking through a hole in reality. It was not long after that moment that I attained the Arising & Passing Away. By practising this jhana each morning, the “hole in reality” persisted, through which I could perceive objects like I had never done before. One day while walking home from work, I placed attention on my central field of vision and excluded distractions from its periphery using the concentration muscle I had been training for the last several days. Suddenly, that hole opened up again, and it was like I could see the air. I stopped to look at a nearby hedge, as its green colour had drawn me in. Suddenly, the leaves exploded into energy. It was like matter itself was suspended within an infinitely fine mist, and I felt as though I could move my hand right through it.
And that is the story of how I passed through the first four Theravadan stages of insight, and gained what appears to be six jhanas (!), in just a matter of weeks, and without knowing what any of those things were. While I did write about these experiences a fair bit on the old PPM forum, the focus there was almost entirely on the two subjects of taking drugs and picking up girls. I therefore took a massive detour into those areas for the next several years, during which time I managed to completely derail my life. Had I realized the importance of the meditative experiences I had had at the time, and pursued them vigorously to the exclusion of such distractions, not only would I most likely be fully enlightened by now, I would probably also be able to fly.
While I have not taught you directly “how to concentrate” in this post (although maybe I have?), I have hopefully given you some ideas of the intuitive processes that can come online once strong intent and dedication is turned towards the suppression of thought, and the clear-seeing of objects (and therefore reality), through concentration. By discovering the concentration muscle and therefore developing jhanaic states so early on, this is the reason why I have never been a strong proponent of “watching the breath” or other roundabout, passive, and apparently luck-based methods of developing concentration and jhana. They have just never landed on my radar, and seem rather idiotic given that concentration can be shot for directly.
You do not even need to sit to develop strong concentration. While out and about, just turn your mind towards the centre of your vision. Create a circle that takes up roughly the inner third of your field of vision. Resolve to push away thoughts at its edges, and to bring the objects you see in the middle into a sharp clarity. Breathe while doing this. In time, a clear visual centre will “drop in” to the middle, and sounds and other ambience such as the air on your skin will suddenly become clearer. Then, by holding this clear visual centre, it will rapidly expand to encompass the entire scene – at which point time will cease, thoughts will cease, and your meditation “object” will become the entire present moment.