Jhana and Contrast
My practice has for the most part been very sweet recently, with lots of rapid, unexpected progress.
I will now give my exact current method as a kind of snapshot of how it has been this last week. It is morphing so fast that in another week I may be doing something entirely different.
- Sit in any pose that’s comfortable. On a sofa is fine.
- Eyes open or closed to begin with; they will tend to want to close at some point anyway. Starting with them open can be useful to establish an initial sense of “what is” (see next points).
- Say the words in my mind, “What is.”
- Point attention towards “what is”. Simply experience what is. So, this is absolutely anything and everything arising within the sense field. It is existence itself, happening all around you – and including you.
- Allow attention to move between events as they arise and do not attempt to control it. Maintain this “roving awareness” the whole session, dropping any intention to control it. Attention may want to go to events inside or outside the body. Attention may also wish to expand or contract. Let it do as it wishes entirely. There are no goals in this meditation and you do not seek altered states of consciousness. The only direction is to experience what is, as it is, when it is.
So, in my mind at least, this is a strongly nondirective meditation (NDM) as there are no fixed objects and only experience itself is being tuned into, completely impartially (so, no events are deemed as inherently “bad” or “good” in this meditation). No doubt Arpan will jump in here and tell me I’m somehow still doing it “directively”, though. 😉
The sense field can be thought of as a cubic “volume” in which sensory events arise, with “you” in the middle. So, distant noises such as cars driving far away from the house or birds singing in the distance tend to appear at the “edges” of this volume in the beginning. However, this sense of a volume with a self at the centre observing that volume will tend to disappear before long, as the events that make up the sense of self become apparent as just that: events in their own right, arising and passing within the volume of awareness.
I start off by tuning into the volume as a whole, and I do this by first listening to distant noises to establish the “edges” of the volume. There is something really expansive and breathtaking about just softly tuning into the widefield, getting a sense of how far reality stretches out to the sides, and the audio system is perfect for doing this. With eyes open I will also look up slightly and get a sense of the “isness” of objects around me; how it is a wonder that they even exist at all, let alone that they are hanging right there in front of me. This will tend to induce a recognition of the spaciousness and the full awe of the reality that is happening all around me, all the time – happening “to” me, but also “through” me, being both what “I” am and what is being experienced, simultaneously.
One of two things will happen at this point, and I believe this is down to what stage of insight I’m in at the time. (Yes, “cycling” is back, and I now think experiencing these stages is quite normal when one is in the intermediary stages of Awakening.) I will either become awestruck and feel quite pulverized by all that is going on which is completely beyond my control, and give up the fight almost immediately (which brings on heavy bliss and a sense of total wonder at the world, with jeweltone sparkles shining within every point of space I am aware of)… or I “brace” against the onslaught of reality and instead withdraw into my head, and experience mental processes designed to maintain the sense of a separate self who suffers in a world of events that happen to him, usually unfairly.
Obviously if the former happens I’m golden. But if the latter happens I have no choice but to recognize what is going on as its own process that needs to play out in the course of Awakening. Inevitably it does “give itself up” and switch to the expansive “non-braced” state, often unexpectedly, but often after a long drawn-out period. Interestingly, while “braced”, my awareness of events tends to be consigned almost exclusively near the centre of the volume – right up inside my head, behind my face – giving a strong mental impression of a fixed centre of experience, a “self” who observes. In the “non-braced” state however my awareness is evenly distributed throughout the “volume” to the extent whereby the mental impression of a volume disappears entirely. Occasionally, better still, is that I “touch” the Self behind all that, which is kind of like a liquid mirror in which events are reflected. These are extremely brief moments however and cannot possibly be “forced” or gone for directly in my experience so far.
In the middle of last week I just sat on my bed with my feet on the floor and tuned into the “isness” of things. This gave way to the awestruck non-braced state and induced heavy bliss. My eyes closed and I just felt my awareness kind of softly dancing around whatever was going on. It moved between events on its own schedule of priority, moving from “outside” (some ambient sound or sense of spaciousness in the volume) to “inside” (some deep myofascial unwinding or other nerve process occurring in the body as part of meditation’s innate healing processes), then back out again, then back in, and it seemed to be fine going wherever it wanted.
Eventually the attention settled somewhere in my body on the left side, an unwinding feeling along possibly the left thoracic or phrenic nerve, and it stayed here for quite a while. Suddenly I became aware of a high-pitched audio tone just in my head, growing rapidly in volume, perhaps similar to when your ears are about to pop on an aeroplane. I just let the tone do its thing, as I now have the attitude that everything happens for a reason and the best thing to do when something unexpected occurs is to surrender to it. At the peak of its volume, the audio tone suddenly completely stopped. And, with it, all mental noise also stopped. This is similar to working in an office where someone has had a noisy fan on all day. When they turn it off, the ensuing silence, despite being an absence of something, is so profound that it almost feels tangible – like the silence is a solid “thing” you can reach out and touch. It is a bizarre auditory illusion, this sense of something happening despite the opposite being true.
In this case however, not only had all thoughts stopped, but all the static popping and electrical energy of “pre-thought forms” had also ceased. The quiet was so profound that it would have been eerie, had I had the capability of experiencing discordant states such as “eeriness” at the time. In fact, nothing could disturb that quiet. It was like a mental flatline. At first I thought I could no longer hear outside sounds either (since that has happened to me in the past). So I listened for ambient noise. I heard a car in the distance. Now, usually, when you hear an ambient sound, a crude mental impression of what that sound might be forms in your mind, followed by thoughts about it, which lead to more thoughts, in a causal chain. It is like throwing a stone into a lake and having ripples emanate for eternity. Well, within this mental quiet, I just heard the sound, then that was that. The sound appeared “out there” but it did not reflect itself and cause events “in here”. It was a bit like throwing a stone into a lake and, rather than causing ripples, the stone just sinks and disappears immediately, and the lake goes back to being completely still.
I have had states of extreme quiet like this in the past but I have usually had to fight for them using objects such as the breath or energy currents, and seemingly having to push through layers of consciousness before arriving there. This time however I was amazed by the apparent rapidity and ease with which the state had descended upon me, without my having a prior “will” for such a thing. It made me think that probably this “do nothing” approach is how the jhanas were practised in, say, the Pali Canon, the earliest written recording of the Buddha’s teachings. Here, the monk is said to fall into jhana born of seclusion, rather than through highly directed effort of the sort I was used to applying towards breath, energy, or kasina objects.
I stayed in this state for a while because it was rather like taking your shoes off after a hard day’s work, and it was effortless to maintain. In fact, I remember trying to arouse myself via some wrathful thoughts only to find they created no ripples in the lake. The silence could be tuned back into just by noticing the gap between thoughts at which point I would be plunged back into it.
The next day my state was largely back to normal, except for the memory of the silence, to which my mind now inclined itself reflexively. While walking to work, without prompting nor desire, my awareness pointed itself toward the gap between thoughts. Suddenly, this gap opened up like a gaping chasm, and I experienced the mental flatline of inner silence again for several minutes. I got to work and began talking to people. Mental noise was back but, simultaneously, I was aware of a quiet behind it all that could be tuned into should I so desire. This knowledge was enough to pacify me all day.
That night my meditations were gripped with a desire to return to this silence, and the “braced” mode was the result. This was a highly contracted state of perception with an apparent disinterest or boredom with “what is” as it pertained to experience coming in through the sense doors. This persisted until Saturday, during whose afternoon I decided simply to accept the braced mode as an insurmountable object slapped bang in my path, and observe it completely as such. This now tuned me back out to the awareness behind that perception, and this awareness hung in the background and periphery like a transparent presence. Noticing this instantly switched my state to non-braced; bliss and jeweltone sparkles appeared and I was now smiling. Soon, my mind flatlined again and I just sat in total silence for some unknown time.
A few hours later I got ready to go out as I had arranged to attend the local pub quiz with my friends. While my mind was no longer quiet, instead filled with projections of what the night might bring, I did however feel “full” inside. I have been enjoying steady progress since adopting nondirective meditation these last few months and one result is that I now have that “bright-eyed” look when I catch my reflection in the mirror. I also have more power in my stride and, as I reported on the forum, my eyesight is better than ever. Since starting meditation ten years ago, my eyesight has improved from a prescription of -1.25 / +4.00 back then to today’s prescription of 0.00 / +2.50, as confirmed by a recent eye test. So, things are becoming easier.
I met up with everyone at the pub and we walked around to the back area where the quiz takes place in order to look for a table. The quiz was not starting for another half-hour and people were still eating food at the tables there, so we discussed where we should try to sit when it did begin. Hearing our conversation, one of the regulars offered his assistance. He appeared to be of Malaysian descent (which is quite odd for the UK) and we had seen him there every time we had visited this pub, drinking alone stood next to the bar. He seemed to have “special needs”, but also clearly meant well and had a big heart. I felt intensely sorry for him, as I got the impression that he was trapped in a repeating existential pattern of being an outcast desperate to fit in, and that those very behaviours isolated him even more as an oddball.
“You can sit at that table over there when the quiz starts,” he said, pointing.
“Isn’t that where the quiz master will stand?” I asked.
Before he could answer, a woman in her sixties eating dinner with her husband at a table immediately next to us shrieked, “I’ve had enough of this! Could you please stop moving people around and telling them where to sit? You’re not a member of staff. You’ve been doing this all night. People are trying to eat here. Just go back around there and stand next to the bar. Boys, park yourselves at a table and don’t hover!”
She appeared to be performing this rant at an audience in her own mind. It was clear she was not quite in this world. The entire unfolding was totally surreal. I thanked the Asian man anyway with, honestly, a heart filled with sadness for him. We walked off and found a table in the other end of the pub. I looked over a little later and saw the huge barman squared off against the tiny Asian man, telling him off.
Human experience is utterly weird. This sort of thing happens all the time. On any other night out however it would be perceived within the ordinary flow of human oddity and brushed off as such. However, having just been immersed in the extreme mental quiet of what we might assume was fourth jhana, this contrast between sublime inner stillness and the craziness of the human condition – with its emotional responses going from nought to sixty in 0.01 seconds, and sending those shock waves through everyone else in the vicinity – was a stark and depressing contrast. I was in fact completely aghast at my own unshakeable hatred of the woman and the desire to see her kicked half to death and cast upon a bonfire. Simultaneously, I was moved by the sympathy I felt for the man and his futile quest to fit in. Later on, during the quiz, he would insist on carrying the prizes from the quiz master and presenting them to the winners, even if the quiz master was stood right next to the winner at the time. At one point he also shouted out an answer so everyone got that question right, therefore defeating the purpose of the question. This was eye-rolled by the quiz master, who said something like, “Thank you, Jon…” – as if he does this every week.
This and a few other events really riled me that night. I won’t go into them now. They were just things that happen on any night out involving humans and/or alcohol, which we’ve all seen a million times. But compared to the quiet of jhana these actions came through as completely tainted functions of ego, a self trying to survive by wiping out the competition. Sickeningly I also realized that my distaste for such scenes was coming from my own ego’s sense of being under threat; so, the exterior and interior were reflections of one another. I could not find distaste at these people without also finding distaste in my own responses to them.
A few years ago Absolutus taught many men that they would attain superpowers if they cultivated the jhanas. The reality however is a mixed bag. While having jhanas is quite tangibly superior to not having them, until one is fully Awakened one is left comparing “reality” to the various mental states able to be experienced within those jhanas. Frequently, reality does not live up to those states of peace or rapture, and this is always a sign that more work is to be done. Thus, it is perhaps in the intermediary states of Awakening that the contrast between peace and discord, order and chaos, is most clearly perceived. And from there the desire to transcend the whole damned lot becomes the primary signal.