I had another mind-blowing experience the Friday before last, and I wanted to write it up while it was still (sort of) fresh in my mind. This was the first time in a while I had encountered something in my meditation which really knocked me for six and reminded me how broad the horizons can become through strong concentration practice. It occurred during the Best Meditation for Sleep experiments, but it deserves its own post (plus it’s not particularly suitable for sleep).
Around a year ago I had an email exchange with Mayath where he was talking about using metta (Buddhist loving-kindness meditation) to attain hard jhanas. At this point, I had dabbled with metta meditation, usually as a contingency for fixing issues with people who had really pissed me off in some way.
Standard Buddhist metta practice goes something like this:
- Visualize someone you like. Access and amplify the warm feelings you have for them.
- Mentally recite a phrase such as, “May they be happy. May they be peaceful,” while intending those feelings towards that person.
- Increase difficulty by then repeating the above with someone you are indifferent to, until you feel the same level of love for them also.
- Repeat for someone you are hostile towards, until you love them also.
So, I was using these instructions to spread love towards a visualization of someone who had upset me in some way, in order to heal the rift in my mind (which tends to create powerful effects “out there”, too, healing the relationship “in real life”). This method works extremely well and I recommend it.
My main problem with this meditation however was that I felt there was too much going on to get absorbed into any aspect enough to bring on full jhana. Switching between feeling, visualizing, self-talking and intending, seemed like a lot of “faffing”. Looking back, I was probably doing it completely wrong and skipping stages, which I tend to do when I grab an idea and run with it without properly researching it first. So, metta meditation in this sense became another tool in the box, but nothing “wow”.
Fast-forward to the Thursday before last. I had continued reading The Direct Means to Eternal Bliss by Michael Langford and finished the chapter “The Loving All Method“. So, this post can be seen as Part Three in a series of posts about meditations found in that book, the others being: Part One and Part Two.
The Loving All Method can be summed up as follows: Love everything that you perceive exactly the way it is. Love everything you experience exactly the way it is.
I tried it for a little bit, just lying there in bed trying to love anything that came into my mind, and got some warm tingles. I found it pretty easy to direct love at various aspects of my experience, including my own thoughts. I left it there though and went to sleep.
The next day I walked to work trying the Loving All Method on everything I came across, both internal and external aspects of experience, including any person I saw. I found this to be a highly effective active meditation for inducing positive feelings towards myself and others, and continued it for most of the day (when I remembered to do so).
When I got home, I decided to see how far I could push it, as I tend to do when I get my hands on something new. I had become aware earlier in the day that even just saying the word “love” in my mind was enough to generate some warm tingles in my body, and that I didn’t even need a “target”. So, I now sat and closed my eyes, and repeated the word “love” to myself once every five seconds or so, while simultaneously scanning for any change in body sensations. I found that the warm tingles were predominantly arising in the left side of my chest – the left vagus nerve, which is where we would expect the right brain’s empathetic love to manifest.
I placed my attention directly on this spot and kept it there for the rest of the meditation. Each time I said the word “love” in my mind, I could perceive the warm tingles arising on this exact spot on the left side of my chest. Perceiving those warm tingles so acutely amplified them and quickly turned them into a regular, coherent “love signal”, which could be felt powerfully each time I said the word “love” in my mind. This signal started spreading up into my face, causing me to smile warmly, and down into my body, making it feel warm and “open”. Because this felt so good, I began to love saying “love”, which caused a feedback loop. The pleasure then escalated rapidly and exploded into first jhana so hard it nearly knocked my socks off. The warmth was in every part of my body, and I could feel my face flushing strongly with heat. I felt like I was drowning in a sea of love – almost sick with pleasure and happiness, almost blind.
I did not count the jhana levels or analyse the meditation in any way, but rather let it do its own thing (which is the best way to gain lots of “beginner’s luck”). I came out of it around half an hour later. The first thing I noticed is that I felt as euphoric as any hard drug. I looked in the mirror and looked mental; wide-eyed like an MDMA fiend, smiling from ear to ear. But this is the bit that really blew my mind: my vision was literally rose-tinted. Meaning, the whole world manifested in shades of pink-red. And no, my eyes were not bloodshot – I checked. It was like I was looking at love itself.
Finally, the world had a kind of “powdered” look, like it was made from rose-coloured confetti blown in on a pink-white wind. This is a post-jhana phenomenon and is the impermanence characteristic of the Three Marks of Existence presenting strongly. The only time I have seen this powdered look combined with strong colour distortion was back in 2014 when I took the dissociative drug methoxphenidine, which caused shades of pink, yellow and white to overlay on objects, making the whole world look like it was made from liquorice allsorts. Ah, the memories! And all through saying the word “love” in my mind for a few minutes.
The rose-tinting and euphoria lasted around an hour, making me feel like a box of chocolates. While reminiscing, I was reminded of the power of concentration: you can wake up as one person, do a short ritual, and become someone else – at least temporarily. Most people will never experience quite how arbitrary their current “personality” is. I was also reminded quite how unnatural all of this is, if we’re honest about it: concentration seems to manifest via feedback loops which seem unlikely to arise by themselves without specific practice (or, alternatively, psychedelic drugs).
One reason I was inspired to write up this experience is that I felt the love/metta meditation might provide an alternative path to jhana for those struggling with breath concentration currently. I will therefore now include a summary of the steps I followed, plus some additional notes I made following the experience.
- Sit and close your eyes.
- Say the word “love” in your mind.
- Scan your body and emotions to see if anything changed. Hopefully you can find a good feeling, even if the feeling is very faint. Stay with that feeling.
- Repeat the word “love” once every five seconds while trying to zero in on the exact location where the good feeling arises. For me, it was in my left chest.
- Put your awareness on that exact spot and keep it there for the rest of the meditation. Repeat the word “love” so that the feeling continues to arise and amplify at that spot.
- Really get into that feeling and enjoy it. Let it wash over you. Smile. Let it grow. Stay at the spot, keep saying “love”, keep getting into that feeling. Repeat for 30 minutes.
If you struggle to get a feeling from only the word “love”, picture someone you have warm feelings for and use that as your trigger instead. Notice where those warm feelings arise, and put your awareness right on that spot. Stay with the feelings while retriggering them and allowing them to grow for 30 minutes.
- All concentration seems to utilize feedback loops. So, attention triggers pleasure, which makes it easier to maintain attention, which makes it more pleasurable, and so on. Jhana seems to be the culmination of that feedback loop, and is something like an “overloaded circuit”.
- There is so much wisdom embedded in our language. “Viewing the world through rose-tinted glasses” means someone once identified that love and happiness subtly tints vision red and turned it into a phrase. “Unwinding after a long day’s work” is the equivalent phrase for the natural myofascial unwinding that occurs during rest. There are thousands of these little idioms describing the subtleties of everyday experience. I have been thinking about doing a post on it for some time.
- The vagus nerves seem to be the “seat of jhana”, and are probably also the source of the yogic “nadis”, ida and pingala (left and right vagus nerves, respectively).