Rebuilding the Jhanas
I spent most of Saturday and Sunday rebuilding my jhanas, after losing them in a kundalini accident around a month and a half ago. This has put me in the fortunate and quite unusual position of having to learn a method again from scratch whilst already knowing what the destinations look like. This has allowed me to document very specific dos and don’ts and has resulted in the start of a new comprehensive guide.
On Saturday I reached hard first jhana, and up to soft fourth jhana. On Sunday I got hard second and third jhanas, and began to get elements of hard fourth jhana but could not stabilize it due to excitement (as hard fourth jhana is in fact the only jhana I care about, and is the main purpose of this exercise). After Sunday’s practice I also began to get elements of the formless realms, for example interesting space in my perceptions (fifth jhana) and the sense impression of consciousness extending on forever (sixth jhana) like the luminescent heavenly horizon in the picture above. However, these elements arose only in the periphery of my visuo-conscious field, and I became aware of them after my formal sitting meditation practice was over. I was downstairs watching James Bond, Live and Let Die on the television. I was completely engrossed in the film, seemingly picking up on the tiniest detail without even trying (such is the mind-sharpening tendency of jhana), and loving every minute of it. Surrounding the television set was some space (fifth), and around the very edges of my visual field was the sensation of things extending on forever (sixth) to an imaginary horizon with “lights from heaven”. I believe paintings and other depictions of heaven are largely based on the infinite consciousness experience of sixth jhana. Every breath tasted sweet, and I loved the film despite remembering it being ridiculously shit from past viewings. I was reminded of the Buddha’s words: “Jhana is a little taste of nibbana.”
When I have attained all the jhanas (one through eight) I will write the new guide. For now, here are my early observations, which should amount to an effective beginner’s guide for jhana. These points are numbered so you can easily reference them when asking questions in the comments.
1) Urgency has been dropped. My only goal with jhana practice now is to add some enhancement to life — in particular to attain the restful, healing, and extremely useful fourth jhana. I am not doing it to go after enlightenment or to fill some escapist need. That marks a strong change in orientation from my practice prior to losing the jhanas, which was largely based in trying to escape life or to get to a “better life”. I do not think this point can particularly be taught. I had to have a very humbling experience in order to accept life as it is. I also do not know how a sense of urgency will impact others’ practice (though I imagine it would be negative, since urgency in one’s thoughts are another obstacle to absorption). All I can say is that the jhanas are now far more straightforward and flow more easily from one to the next since I let go of all the need of “getting them”. It is one of these paradoxes of “the less you try, the more successful you are.” To help you clear this obstacle, I would simply advise: keep attention on the process, not on the results, needs or expectations. So, keep returning attention to the sense of flow within the breath.
2) Get out of bed, have breakfast, and shower first. There is no point doing jhana first thing upon waking. It just encourages a return to the sleep state. The lungs need to be filled up properly via moving around and being active. Having breakfast provides some neurotransmitters to work with during the jhana. Showering is also energizing. You want to have invoked quite a clear state-change from sleep before practising jhana. Additionally, caffeine appears to be an excellent inducer of jhana.
3) Prepare the lungs prior to practice. James’s tip here is very useful and should be done about three times before sitting down to practise:
when I want to relax, I take a deeeeeeep breath and fill my entire body, expaning my rib cage thinking of filling every inch of my body. You’ll feel muscle knots and all kinds of discomfort when you breath in this deep.
Then release slowly, relaxing your whole body on the out breath, you can feel the energy of “relaxation” happen, its a tingly pleasant sensation. Tune into it and make it deeper each time.
I find you don’t have to really “target” anywhere doing this – as long as you keep tuning into the relaxation response, you will go through tension layer by layer.
You really want to open up the lungs before practice. The reason for this is that the more blocks and knots removed before practice, the fewer distractions you will have during practice. When focusing on the breath the tendency is for the body to want to make the breath “clean” and it starts trying to clear these knots during practice which I find distracting. By the way, during practice, those knots and things are to be ignored completely, with attention being returned to the object always despite temporary physical discomforts.
4) Sit upright. Worrying about posture is counterproductive. “Upright” here does not imply tension, but rather the spine being somewhat vertical. This is more energizing and conducive to jhana than lying back too much. Sitting on a standard couch or armchair is a workable pose. Relax, then be still for the duration of the practice.
Now we get into the nuts and bolts of the practice. This is my specific practice. This is exactly how I got to fourth jhana this weekend. I will be very detailed.
5) Close your eyes. Eyes remain closed lightly for the whole practice. “Lightly” means they are able to move, to enter REM, to roll back in the head if they desire, and so forth.
6) The object is the breath. Quality of breath (depth and/or regularity of breath) has some importance, and this was the purpose of the lung opening exercise (point 3). What is more important than this however is: opening and maintaining a clear channel in the breath, from belly up through chest and throat up to crown of head. This was one of my main failings prior to this relearning of jhana: I was allowing things like jaw-clenching to close the channel. Moving around the “origin of breath” (i.e. the imaginary point on the spine where the breath is drawn in) from belly to chest etc. was also ruining the practice. Finally, worrying about the quality of the breath — whether it “felt right” — was another major source of distraction and inconsistent practice.
Therefore, the following four points are dedicated to teaching you how to open and maintain a clear channel in the breath.
7) Drop the jaw. Never have the jaw clenched during practice. If you have a tendency to clench the jaw you should spend as long as it takes removing this habit from your life anyway. I talk about that here.
8) Place only the tip of the tongue on the roof of the mouth, just behind the front teeth. This will mean your mouth is slightly open. This, combined with the above point, keeps the throat open.
You are to stay in this facial configuration for the whole practice. You are allowed to smile if the practice is pleasing. You can also swallow if saliva is a problem or lick your mouth if it gets dry.
9) The “origin” of breathing is the belly. So I breathe in from the belly/diaphragm area. It is a gentle “draw”. I feel like a pump is drawing breath in via that area very naturally. I do not suck hard or make a big deal of it. Just draw breath in through the nose, and let it filter out through the mouth (which is slightly open as per the above point). It is a soft, consistent, flowing draw of breath.
10) However, my awareness of the breath is in the head — always. Jhana is a “head” exercise. This means that, once the drawing breath is established via the belly, awareness is to sit squarely in the head, behind the eyes.
Now, the following is probably my most important point in this whole guide:
11) Let each breath fill my mind with delight. I draw in breath using the belly (diaphragm). The breath draws up easily through the clear channel we have created and passes behind my eyes, filling my mind with delight.
Let the breath pass up into your head, behind your eyes, filling your mind with delight each time. This, right here, is your “process”. This is what you are to return to every damn time you get distracted.
12) I personally get visual disturbances at this point. The most obvious is light, coinciding with when the breath pass behind the eyes. With a little more time there is also the visual impression of water flowing — kind of like a “film of water” flowing over the stuff behind my closed eyelids.
13) Now, CORRELATE. Mentally link the action of breathing with the perception of flow of the stuff behind your eyelids. You can make the (otherwise random) electrical impulses of the stuff you see with your eyes closed begin to flow with the breath just by imagining it flowing. It is really easy. The mind is very keen to link things together into causality. It also very much enjoys doing this. Jhana is all about linking a concept (the breath) to sensory impressions which are taking place anyway. It is in this exact way that the breath becomes a flowing, visible mental object (or a flowing audio object if you are listening to the sound instead). This is also how dreams occur.
Now, just continue to do this. Let the breath continue to flow in tune with the visuals. Keep the two linked. Attention is now hybridized between breathing and visual effects, which such unusual combinations being normal in jhana. The sense impressions combine into one flowing, continuous experience. Absolutus, in his guides, uses the audio of the breath rather than the visual. Although I have made this work (giving rise to the sense impression of a continuous flowing sound) I have always been a more visual person so find myself naturally inclined towards using the visual system for jhana. Another system you can correlate is kinaesthetic (the feeling sense). So you can link the act of breathing to a flowing sensation in the feeling body. This will begin to feel like you are being carried away by a tide, or the experience is “taking you”. Use the system you find easiest. Don’t make this harder than it is.
In truly hard jhana, I have at times found all the above senses (visual, audio, feeling) linked with the breath into a single flowing experience.
14) Continue the process. This point could also be called: “Do not worry about which jhana you are at!!” So, in order to progress into deeper states of absorption, and climb into higher jhanas, rather than looking to make a logical switch (“Hmmm, now let’s move into second jhana!”) — which can only be done when great skill is attained — instead simply continue the process you have started. To go deeper, or to climb higher, you do not “do” anything different. Just continue doing point 11 above. The jhana levels climb themselves. The mind has inclinations towards greater depth, or new jhana levels, and the vehicle for it doing this is your continuing the process you have already started.
It is this formal resolution — to continue the process you have started, of creating a flowing experience of the breath — that will have you returning to the breath when, say, you have an itch, or when “something happens” (a jhana event), or when some other distraction occurs. When a jhana event happens, like a sudden change in emotional state due to the jhana deepening or changing, it can be very easy to pull out of the state slightly and begin making verbal discourse about it, thinking things like, “Oh, I just crossed into second!” or “That feels like rapture!” I will not begrudge anyone for doing this, as the jhanas are very interesting, especially when you first start encountering these factors. However, if you want to go deeper or progress through the levels (which is going to become your choice as you get better) then you just have to return to the process. That is really all there is to it.
Now will follow some general notes.
15) Using metaphors such as, “The breath fills the mind with delight” is important. A jhana is nothing more than a bunch of sensory events strung together into a chain of causality. For example, if your visual field fills with light, you could interpret that as a “neurotransmitter dump”. You could write it off as something else entirely. You could not even notice it at all. However, Buddhist texts are filled with metaphors for jhana, such as “the mind filling with delight”, “the light of a million stars”, “clear and shining like a coin”, and so forth. These are not there by accident and are not senseless poetry. You can choose to interpret mental/sensory events however you choose. In jhana, you are an artist, and the mental/sensory events (such as the random pulses of light that occur behind the eyelids of every human) are your palette. My point here is that you must be creative in interpreting mental/sensory events as being connected with your object (e.g. the breath). You must link the two, and then take that linking as being a sign that things are working in your favour. Are you sitting around waiting for a sense of flow to happen connected to the breath to suddenly plunge you into jhana? Why not create that flow yourself? Pick some swirl of stuff behind your eyelids and have it move at the same rate as the breath. It will begin to link by itself before long and you then have the breath as a visual object. By simply staying with that object, you will begin naturally to rise through the jhanas. Like everything in life, jhana is 50% circumstance, 50% creative interpretation.
EXERCISE: Google some metaphors for samatha jhana now and choose pleasing ones to notice during your practice. “The mind filling with delight with each breath” is a personal favourite of mine. To get the watery sense of flow which creates really hard first jhana, I also purposefully imagine that the breath is fluid and that breathing in causes the stuff in my visual field to begin to flow in coordination with that breath.
16) The jhanas are indeed fractally stacked. They are nested within each other like Russian dolls. That means that all the jhana levels are within each jhana. For example, a hard first jhana contains soft versions of jhanas 2–8. However, at this level, jhanas 5–8 can barely be seen (as they are very tiny Russian dolls), hence why I only detected subtle elements of fifth and sixth jhana during my Sunday practice.
This also explains why jhanas cannot be “skipped” — they are always a continuum. However, with practice, earlier stages can certainly be raced through to reach a desired state. For example I find it easy currently to race through soft first and second jhanas to reach soft third jhana.
Back in the days of my more disorganized practice however, and particularly during the kundalini experience, I found that I often appeared to “skip” straight to fifth jhana — or perhaps I simply raced through the first four very quickly. I will need to investigate diligently what happened here. I currently do not have the answers. My current structured practice is producing the standard (unskippable) jhana continuum reported in the texts.
17) To qualify as jhana, the jhana factors must be present. The table here clearly shows the jhana factors of jhanas 1–4: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rupajhana#Characteristics_of_the_Meditations_of_Form
Jhana is not just about “having a clear mind” (although the mental state will almost certainly appear more clear than you ever believe possible prior to jhana). The rapture and bliss must be present before you can qualify the state as jhana — and, luckily, the presence of these factors also makes it somewhat obvious that you are indeed in jhana. The jhana factors of “rapture” and “bliss” are not easily correlatable with everyday emotions, and are rough translations at best. In short, if during your meditation you suddenly feeling extremely “interested” in what is going on, and that this interest also feels really good, then there is a good chance you are in jhana. (Equanimity as a sensation is even harder to describe by comparing it to everyday experience, and I will return to this shortly.)
The arising of the jhana factors also means that if you feel bad emotionally before the meditation, when you hit jhana that emotion will quickly be replaced by bliss and rapture (and finally equanimity) which will totally replace the previous emotional state during the meditation, and which will continue to provide an improved mood afterwards, too. I found that during soft fourth jhana (equanimity) for example that I was able to think about any subject which would ordinarily bother me and have it not bother me, and in fact be open to investigation during the meditation. It was quite striking that a subject that had seriously pissed me off a few minutes beforehand would now elicit no emotional response at all. Exiting the meditation however would largely bring back the previous responses to that subject. I believe it is possible that, the longer a subject is held in mind during fourth jhana, the more the emotional response to that subject will diminish post-meditation — but this is something I will have to test considerably before making any verdicts on it.
Note that the ability to enter jhana is affected by the existing mental, emotional and physical state at the time (hence my section on preparation, earlier) — and one’s own skill/ habituation of jhana practice. My point here is that one should not be eyeing jhana as an “escape mechanism” (despite its ability to achieve this, once cultivated), as jhana is conditional on those states I just mentioned. This brings me to the following…
18) No more jhanas “in the field”. The good mood impressed upon the mind which persists after jhana is one thing, as is the “jhana hangover” whereby elements such as infinite space and infinite consciousness continue persist on the periphery of awareness in the hours after the meditation. In fact, these things have a life-affirming quality to them. However, prior to this more diligent, systematic approach to the jhanas I am now cultivating, over the last few years I had taken to using jhana to escape reality whenever any small thing I didn’t like appeared in awareness. This is much the same way an alcoholic would just have another drink. It amounts to non-engagement with life. Jhanas are for designated times of formal practice only, now, and the new guide will strip out mentions of purposeful engagement of jhana in the field.
19) Entry into fourth jhana correlates with a sudden, noticeable drop-off of bliss and rapture and a sudden profound sense of equanimity. To me, fourth jhana feels like suddenly being plunged underwater. There is now a muffled tone audible. The breath itself sounds very muffled and bassy, like someone just turned all the treble off on a stereo using the equalizer knob. There is a sense of total immersion in the breath. I feel like an animal who has been chased suddenly finding shelter and getting down to the business of deep recovery.
The fourth jhana state is so profoundly different from anything in normal life (and even drug life) that it is, in my experience, the most unmistakable jhana state. This however is most likely due to my being someone who has greatly lacked equanimity in his life (existing largely in a nightmarish survival mode), which makes the contrast between this state and “normality” extremely profound, for me. This state is incredibly healing, and is in fact the primary reason I have begun recultivating the jhanas. I can take or leave the other states (as interesting as they are). When I was more interested in hedonics however (which accounts for most of the last 10 years), jhanas 1–3 were far more alluring. I see this change in perspective and aspiration as a natural life progression.
An important observation I wish to make here is that training fourth-jhana equanimity in formal practice has, for me, reconnected that response back into my life outside of meditation. So, following moments of stress, I will now find equanimity suddenly arising at times, along with that now familiar “muffled breath” tone in my nose. This response had been absent from my life prior to meditation training. It is interesting to think that this is probably a normal animal response and one I had been previously conditioned to suppress; and that there are people who handle stress easily as a result of having the equanimity response still intact. I had a conversation with Bliss during our New York trip and he explained that he has an equanimity response which occurs often during times of stress which spontaneously terminates the stress response and which then allows him to make a correct decisios. I think the absence or the presence of the equanimity response is probably the defining factor of whether someone is stuck in survival mode or not, respectively.
20) I believe jhana should be accompanied by visual phenomena to qualify. These visual phenomena are specifically as follows:
- There is a “thin watery film” over the visual field accompanying, say, the conceptualization of the breath as an object. This is hard to describe but is fairly unmistakeable. LSD users will recognize it as the “fluid appearance” which starts to wash through consciousness and literally give a liquid look to physical objects with eyes open. Users of other drugs (e.g. phenibut, but many others) might recognize this slightly as “that glass look” physical objects begin to take on, as though they are becoming impossibly clear.
- There is a sense impression of being able to “see through your own eyelids”. Again, LSD users may recognize this description.
The harder the jhana, the more profoundly this latter phenomenon manifests. For example, in very hard fifth jhana (which I remember primarily from my kundalini experience), I was literally in outer space. There was a starfield in the distance, with stars spaced evenly. In between “me” and the starfield was infinite space, with infinite clarity. How can you “see” space? Jhanas are paradoxical. This is one reason they are so impressive. I could “see” all of this through closed eyelids, as though I did not have eyelids at all and was actually in space, looking out through my own eyes.
In first jhana it is more like looking through closed eyelids at something akin to fireworks or jewel tones or a flowing river of “stuff” — first jhana, it seems, is less specific than the higher jhanas, as the mind finds it easy to organize the visual phenomena into a variety of forms. However, the point remains that, whatever you “see”, there is still a sense impression that one is looking “through” closed eyelids.
On entry to second jhana, which is a more refined state, 50% of the time I will “see” objects near to me. E.g. I will have the mental impressions of objects in my bedroom, if I am in there, such as my bedside table, the borders of the bed, my legs in front of me, and so forth. If practising outside I will suddenly be able to see the landscape as though my eyes are open. Second jhana correlates with the Arising & Passing Away ñana so this is not surprising, as seeing nearby objects with eyes closed is common in that stage also. The other 45% of the time my object will simply become better defined, e.g. the breath will appear more as a flowing river. 5% of the time I will spontaneously have some kind of vision. I have had future prediction visions in the past, such as the one documented in the Silver Bracelets post. I find these distracting more than fascinating now, as I have been meditating a long time and am no longer interested in such things. If such visions occur nowadays, I will immediately pull my attention back to my object in an effort to bypass the vision. I am not sure how common visions are, and if you have one I would not blame you for wanting to explore it a little since they are interesting. Personally, however, I am finished with them.
On entry to third jhana the “seeing through closed eyelids” phenomenon lessens considerably as attention pulls to the far sides of the visual field and the centre becomes extremely dark and murky. In this state my head will sway a little as I experience a “giddy high”. The normal sense of what it means to be a conscious entity or animal falls away at this point, for me. It is a sense of being carried away by bliss. There is a kind of “drunk high” bliss to it like I am not in control of it any more. It feels distant in a way.
On entry to fourth jhana I personally have little of the visual phenomenon, instead with the sense impression of being deep underwater in darkness, and with the breath itself as my sole and total point of absorption.
The visual phenomenon returns with entry to fifth jhana. However, I need to corroborate this with a lot more experience using the method set out in this post, as I am now bringing in reference points of fifth jhana from my kundalini experience which was done with a strikingly different method (and which I will be sharing in my book).
21) A steady, consistent method brings steady, consistent progress. I found I had a natural talent for concentration meditation early on in my meditation practice, before I even knew what jhana was. This led to flights of fancy — mixing in energy work, for example. Often this would lead to “turbo-charged” jhanas I had little control over, and “trips” at the level of LSD or beyond which took on a life of their own, often for hours, including things like out-of-body experiences, visits to other realms which I did not plan, and so forth. These trips would also leave me feeling very “high” and ungrounded often for more than a day afterwards.
By instead diligently following a set method — the one described in this post — I have made steady progress I have been able to both repeat consistently and document, and the after-effects have been entirely pleasurable and no more ungrounding than, say, elation at some success one might achieve in “normal life”.
I am looking forward to pushing into the higher jhanas and documenting them in the same way I have done so here.