The following post is based on an email exchange I had with a Skype student the other day. I have added some extra information and clarification to the below text, and some of this was taken from similar replies to other students, as this is a question I receive a lot.
The question concerns, directly, how to reach jhana, and the magic ingredient that makes jhana happen, and which is the real difference between mindfulness meditation and concentration meditation. The following information will also be in the new jhana guide, and it is good to constantly be feeding you the same information again and again so it starts to sink in.
The single factor that turns a general mindfulness meditation (e.g. mindfulness of breath, “body scanning”, being aware of thoughts, and all that other good stuff) into a concentration meditation with jhana is: one-pointedness. This is where you take your focus from being broad and inclusive and make it very narrow and exclusive. So, rather than trying to be aware of the whole breath at once, instead you focus exclusively on one tiny aspect of it, e.g. the sensations in the bridge of the nose (my personal favourite).
Quick question: When I switch to concentration meditation do I inhale AND exhale through my nostrils? As you can see from today’s notes I found this difficult …
With all meditation I will breathe in and out through the nose. I also tend to have the mouth open very slightly, though. My tongue is usually gently placed against the roof of my mouth, and the tip will rest against the gum behind the top front teeth.
For concentration meditation my awareness is entirely on the bridge of my nose, as though there is a singularity (a single point) there which my attention HAS to stay within. This will tend towards a focus on nose breathing for most of it. However, with my mouth slightly open, there is always air moving in and out there, too, which takes the “pressure” off of only nose-breathing.
What exactly do you focus on when you focusing on the bridge of your nose?
The sensation of the breath? Why the bridge. I find it hard to find a sensation to focus on (unlike the belly or breathe at your mouth)
And why do you put your tongue on the roof of your mouth again?
I focus on a point in spacetime — a singularity — located at the bridge of my nose.
You already do this with your attention often anyway: if you look at a dot on the wall, you are focusing your attention on a single point in spacetime. If you hear a bird behind you and to the left, your attention goes to that single point without you having to look with your eyes.
Attention can be directed towards objects without using the obvious senses such as eyesight or hearing. If you just THINK of a point in spacetime, your attention is already going there.
So, I think of the bridge of my nose. This often starts out with breathing, since it is easy to get a location as air passes through the bridge of the nose. However, what about in between breaths, or when the breathing slows down? At that point you use SENSATIONS at the bridge of the nose.
In any part of your body, at any time, there are sensations. The reason the breath is used for concentration meditation is that it creates obvious sensations at points it passes through. So, when you breathe in through your nose, you should be able to feel sensations at various points within the nose, and be able to focus on a specific set of sensations, e.g. within the bridge of the nose, as the breath creates those sensations there. However, as you have probably realized, the breath tends to change by itself at various points, sometimes slowing down and sometimes becoming completely still. The tendency here is to lose track of the sensations in the point of focus, since they are now no longer being so strongly generated.
However, there are always sensations in those points, available just by thinking about those points.
“Where awareness goes, energy flows.” (Primary principle of yoga)
If you think about the bridge of your nose, sensations appear there. They are subtle but can be found. You just keep bringing attention back to the bridge of the nose again and again, many times a second if needs be. Eventually you “lock in” and can keep attention there, and this is known as access concentration. Now, if you send enough attention into that single point, it eventually “explodes” and becomes a jhana. Some people get distinct explosion effects; others get a slower yet still prominent arising of jhana, noticeable by sudden bright lights, and intense feelings of happiness and exaltation.
These feelings can also sometimes arise slowly but noticeably and must be nurtured into a jhana. This is done by maintaining exactly what you were doing to create those feelings in the first place! The factor that creates those feelings is one-pointedness: the act of maintaining attention upon that single point, the bridge of your nose. It can be tempting to get distracted by the good feelings when they start to arise, especially during access concentration which is when they will start to arise. However, this will take your focus away from the one-pointedness that is creating those feelings. You should instead therefore choose to stay with the one-pointedness, even though the good feelings are coming and you are getting excited. The reward is that by remaining one-pointed the good feelings reach a critical mass and explode into a jhana, which is far more powerful than the good feelings created by access concentration alone.
If you can’t find sensations at the bridge of the nose, then you have to imagine that they are there. In reality, putting attention on the bridge of the nose itself creates subtle sensations there. You just need to keep looking harder and harder and for longer each time (this ITSELF is concentration). Whether you are looking for sensations, or finding them and experiencing them, you are CONCENTRATING. This is what concentration is: strict control of attention upon a single point. People don’t realize that it is the act of concentrating itself that creates the jhana. Even if nothing appears to be happening, the concentration itself is “charging up” the jhana and it can suddenly appear.
Concentration itself is a steady flow of attention towards a single point. You should imagine that that single point is something you “charge up” by pouring your attention into it. Eventually it reaches a supercritical mass and explodes and becomes a jhana. If you get distracted because it starts to feel good, you won’t cross that threshold. Once you are in jhana you can in fact allow yourself some distraction to enjoy the good feelings. Or, you can maintain one-pointedness and progress to the next jhana. It is the one-pointedness that carries the progression the whole time.
I use the bridge of the nose because I find that it is the most stimulating centre and links into the dopamine centre, the “sweet smell of victory” reward circuit connection with the nose, and this leads to the quickest way to get rapture, the “exaltation” feeling indicating the start of the progression to full jhana. Other points on the nose or body have different “flavours” of emotion and I have found the bridge of the nose the easiest one to work with for beginners because the effects can be rapid and noticeable. Other yogis agree with me — Yuki on the comments section here has practically an identical method to me; it’s worth searching out our discussions on the blog.
The tongue is placed in the roof of the mouth to keep it still and thus reduce verbal thoughts. Thinking is just very quiet speaking. Your tongue and other speech apparatus twitch when you have verbal thoughts. If you keep the tongue still, verbal thoughts get quieter, since every circuit in the body is two-way. The Buddha also practised this method.
So, here is a quick recap of what I have just said:
- Mindfulness of breath is used initially because it “smooths” erratic thoughts and emotions. It begins to train broad concentration and get the mind flowing as one. I recommend 15 minutes of mindfulness before going for jhana.
- To switch to concentration meditation, make your area of focus much smaller, e.g. a single point at the bridge of the nose. Pour all attention at this point.
- The single factor that creates jhana is one-pointedness of mind: attention directed at this single point.
- This point can be imagined as collecting your attention energy and charging itself up. When it reaches supercritical mass it will explode into a jhana. However, this process can also be slower with a definite noticeable charging of energy before jhana arises. The speed at which jhana presents is determined by a combination of things including technique (i.e. how much attention you can pour into that single point in a given time) and how well you prepared your body and mind beforehand, e.g. with the 15 minutes of mindfulness of breath to promote the correct conditions for jhana.
- As supercritical mass approaches, good feelings will arise (access concentration). It is important to maintain one-pointedness and not be distracted by those good feelings, as it is the one-pointedness that will have you cross the threshold into full jhana, whose feelings are far superior to access concentration’s. So, you must delay gratification even as the good things are starting to happen! Wait for more — it is worth it.
- To progress to higher jhanas, return to one-pointedness and this will carry you through to them.
Now, there are some apparent inconsistencies in the above with what I have written about entering jhana in the past. These are specifically:
- The idea of working with a “flowing breath”, whereby you actively control the breath into streams flowing through a single point e.g. in the nose. This creates the illusion of flow and stability in the object indicative of jhana.
- Working with pleasurable feelings to amplify them and create the “supercritical mass” required for jhana intentionally via those feelings.
These practices are not at odds with the principle of one-pointedness I wrote above. In fact, these things will tend to occur by themselves as part of the mind’s “jhana process” — the rhythm it falls into while entering jhana, since this is something it already knows how to do once the external world is let go of.
However, the skill of one-pointed awareness must take precedence. Without it, you won’t get jhana. Once you are good at it, though, you can use things like a flowing breath, and tuning into good feelings, to accelerate jhana entry, and even to customize the jhana (for example, by selectively tuning into bliss more than the other factors, etc.).