Demystifying Jhana

One of my favorite meditative practices is Jhana. I typically use interval bells to divide my sits into four "quarters" of meditation. During the first quarter, I practice "Do Nothing" meditation. The relaxation of doing nothing provides a good backdrop for moving on to the second quarter of my sit, which features anapanasati or mindfulness of breath practice, which I do in the style taught in "The Mind Illuminated" (TMI). Having used anapanasati practice to develop exclusive attention on the breath, I then move on to the third quarter of the sit, which features Jhana practice as a way of further increasing my concentration, sensory clarity and equanimity. After emerging from Jhana, my mind is in a highly concentrated state that is quite conducive to insight practice, which then comprises the fourth and final quarter of my sit. As you can see, Jhana features prominently in my practice, since it serves as the transition or bridge from anapanasati to insight practices.
Jhana occupies an important place in my practice because, as I've explained previously here, I find Jhana practice to be extremely helpful along three dimensions. First, Jhana is often viewed, and I concur, as the paradigmatic example of "right concentration". Right concentration, as I'm sure many readers of the blog know, is one of the eight practices that the Buddha taught as part of the Noble Eightfold Path to liberation. As such, Jhana is a great way of getting a taste of the elusive meditative state of single pointed attention (Stage 8 exclusive and effortless attention on the breath, according to the TMI model). Second, Jhana practice is quite enjoyable, since it leads to profound stillness and peace, as well as to very interesting mental states. While the main point of meditative practice is not to enjoy oneself or to produce altered states, it is much easier to sustain a long-term practice if one enjoys it. Thirdly, once one emerges from Jhana, the post-Jhanic mental state is very conducive to fruitful insight practice.
Much to my dismay, many yogis either do not know about Jhana or dismiss Jhana as either unattainable or as a distraction. Dismissing Jhana is a mistake, I think, at least for those who practice in a tradition that, like Theravadan Buddhism, prizes concentration as an important meditative skill. I believe that the dismissal of Jhana practice by many practitioners is at least partly due to misunderstandings about the either the nature of the practice or its proper role in the context of a contemplative practice that aims at liberation from suffering.
In what follows, I will attempt to answer some of the most commonly asked questions about Jhana, with the hope that doing so will help to dispel some of the confusion surrounding this topic and encourage yogis to give this most important and enjoyable practice a try. In the interests of clarity and simplicity, I will use a "Frequently Asked Question" format.
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Jhana Frequently Asked Questions
1. I heard that mere mortals are unable to access Jhana and that only those who, like Buddhist monks, devote their whole life to meditative practice are able to access them. Is this true?
Depends on who you ask or what text you're getting your Jhana information from. An important 5th century Buddhist text, the Visuddhimagga, suggests that only very adept and accomplished yogis are able to access Jhana. In fact, as meditation teacher Leigh Brasington has shown, the Visuddhimagga seems to claim that only 1 in 1,000,000 meditators can reach first Jhana. So, if you're going by Jhanas as approached in the Visuddhimagga, then it is probably true that most of us will be unable to access Jhana. Today this approach is often identified with the Ven. Pa Auk style of teaching. For a westerner's contemporary rendering of the Visuddhimagga Jhanas, you can check out Shaila Catherine's "Focused and Fearless".
However, the Visuddhimagga understanding of Jhana is not the only one that is available. In addition to the Visuddhimaga Jhanas, scholars and teachers talk about so-called "pleasure Jhanas". Pleasure Jhanas were around at the time of the Buddha and continue to be practiced to this day. Unlike Visuddimaggha Jhanas, the pleasure Jhanas can be accessed by mere mortals with some practice and determination. In fact, I would hazard to guess that most lay meditators would be able to access pleasure Jhanas if they practiced well and hard enough. For an excellent and practical guide to the pleasure Jhanas, check out Leigh Brasington's "Right Concentration".
While less intense and deep than Visuddimaggha Jhanas, pleasure Jhanas are still extremely helpful to strengthen concentration. It is important to remember that Jhanas are not a end in themselves, but rather a means to achieve high states of concentration that can then be put to good use to produce insight. In my experience, the concentration that one gets upon exiting the pleasure Jhanas is more than enough to significantly enhance insight practices. As such, pleasure Jhanas are able to deliver the goods. And since us mere mortals can access these kinds of Jhanas, there is no reason to abstain from practicing them.
Since pleasure Jhanas are the most accessible kinds of Jhanas, the rest of this FAQ refers to "pleasure Jhanas".
2. I've read that accessing Jhanas requires "access concentration". What is access concentration and how do I know if I have it?
In my opinion, this is an unnecessary source of great confusion. Put simply, access concentration is the degree of concentration that is necessary in order to access certain states or insights. In the context of Jhana, access concentration is whatever level of concentration is necessary in order to attain first Jhana.
The more interesting question is how does a meditator know if they have reached access concentration. While there are no bright line rules here, I would say that access concentration features a mind that is (1) mostly free of distractions, and (2) mostly free of dullness. In terms of the former, the meditator must be able to have at least stable attention on their object of attention, meaning that distractions that take the meditator's attention away from the meditative object either fail to arise or arise briefly enough that the meditator is able to very quickly turn their attention back to the meditative object. In terms of the latter, the yogi should have as much sensory clarity as possible, meaning that there is no drowsiness and that the object of meditation is perceived quite clearly and vividly. Single pointed attention is more than enough to generate access concentration, but is not necessary. Lesser forms of concentration may suffice, as long as concentration is stable enough.
For fellow "The Mind Illuminated" friends, this typically means at least Stage 6 concentration (stable attention on the breath). While stronger concentration of the kind that is described in Stage 7 (exclusive attention on the breath) and Stage 8 (exclusive and effortless attention on the breath) will make the Jhanas even deeper, the kind of concentration that comes with Stage 6 is often enough to access Jhanas and, therefore, to be called "access concentration".
While these ways of determining if you have access concentration are helpful, the ultimate test for determining whether you have access concentration is to actually try to get as concentrated as you can and then try to access Jhana. Then you see what happens. If you were able to access Jhana, then, by definition you had "access concentration"! If not, then it's likely that you had not reached access concentration (or you also could've failed to follow the instructions for attaining Jhana!).
In light of this, I think it's a fool's errand to spend a lot of time asking oneself if one has access concentration or not. Instead of asking yourself whether you've reached access concentration, it's best to simply try to "access" whatever it is that access concentration is supposed to allow you to access. If you are able to do so, then voila, you have access concentration. If not, then you probably need to strengthen your concentration.
In practical terms, here's what this means. If you're a beginner meditator, it's highly unlikely that you can develop and sustain access concentration on command. If you're frequently distracted when you meditate, or often get drowsy when you sit, it's improbable that you can generate access concentration. If, however, you seldom get distracted when you meditate and you are most often alert and clear when you sit, then it is possible that you have access concentration. To find out, you should:
  • Get as concentrated as you can. Typically, this means spending some appreciable amount of time doing some kind of concentration practice, such as mindfulness of breath. You can also use Metta or mantra meditation, then....
  • Keep doing your concentration practice until you feel that you're as concentrated as you are going to get during the course of that particular sit, then....
  • Try to access first Jhana. If you can access first Jhana, then you had access concentration! But that leads to a further question.....
3. How does one access first (pleasure) Jhana?
The key to accessing first Jhana is to find a pleasurable sensation and shift your attention from your initial object of meditation (e.g. the breath) to the pleasurable sensation in your body. In the Pali language, the pleasurable sensation is called "piti". So the trick here is to find some "piti" and then shift your attention from the initial meditative object to the piti. After you've done so, keep your focus and attention on the piti. Try and sustain the attention on the piti for as long as you can. At first, you may be able to do so only for 10 or 20 seconds at a time. Keep trying. Eventually you will be able to sustain it for longer.
4. How strong does the pleasurable sensation (piti) need to be in order to access first Jhana?
Not strong at all. Any pleasurable bodily sensation, however light, will suffice to access first Jhana. Yogis have a tendency to look for really powerful sensations. It's cool if you can find them, but totally unnecessary to do so. Pleasurable sensations come in many forms. Some of the most common ones are tingling, pulsing and vibrating. The sensation can be located in a small part of your body. It doesn't matter. It can be as small as your right pinky finger, or even smaller. If you feel a pleasurable bodily sensation, no matter how small, simply shift your attention to it and ride it as much as you can. If you're lucky, the sensation will get stronger and off you go. Meditators often get pleasurable sensations as a by-product of meditating. If you're one of these meditators, simply shift your attention from your object of attention to the pleasurable sensation when it emerges. Then focus on it and try to ride it.
5. I can sustain attention on the pleasurable sensation (piti) for some time, but it doesn't feel very strong and doesn't get much stronger. I thought first Jhana requires very strong piti, so this must not be first Jhana, right?
WRONG. This is probably the most common misunderstanding I've encountered when I talk to people about Jhana. While it is true that some people experience strong, even overwhelming, pleasurable sensations when in first Jhana, many others experience much lighter piti when in Jhana. This is perfectly fine!
First Jhana can be very strong or very light. If it's very strong, then you probably don't want to spend much time there and should probably go to second Jhana. If it's lighter, then you probably want to spend more time in first Jhana before moving on to second Jhana.
In my particular experience, first Jhana often presents itself as mild to moderate tingling in different parts of the body, most often my right side. Sometimes the tingling starts to come in "waves", as if the pleasurable sensations are "showering" parts of the body. But sometimes first Jhana presents itself more subtly, as light vibrations, tingles and pulsations. Some people report that first Jhana is so intense that it feels like their head will explode. Good (or bad!) for them! That's definitely part of what's on the Jhana menu, but it is by no means the universal experience. It certainly is not mine.
6. I'm only getting mild piti and I worry that it's just piti and not first Jhana. How can I be sure it's first Jhana?
This is a very common source of anxiety amongst yogis. Doubt is such a hindrance to our practice! But doubt is also quite common, so here are my tips for dispelling doubts regarding whether one has attained first Jhana
  1. Remember that Jhana is simply a means to an end and not an end in itself. We practice Jhana not to become good at Jhana or to have blissful states, but rather to punch up our concentration so that our mind is ripe for insight practice.
  2. With this in mind, compare your concentration prior to your attempt to enter first Jhana (pre-Jhanic concentration) with your concentration after having attempted to enter first Jhana (post-Jhanic concentration). Now ask yourself the following question: was your mind more concentrated right after your attempt to enter Jhana than it was before you attempted to enter first Jhana? Expressed differently, is your "post Jhanic" concentration stronger than your "pre Jhanic" concentration?
  3. If you answered the previous question affirmatively, then congratulations, as you have entered first Jhana! After all, as I explained in the first bullet, the point of Jhana is to get more concentrated. If you were able to (1) shift your attention to the piti and sustain it, and (2) emerge from this practice more concentrated than before, then you succeeded in using the technique to enhance your concentration. And since that's what the technique of Jhana is supposed to do, then you, my friend, have entered Jhana. 
It's possible that a very pedantic meditator may read this and claim that it's wrong and that first Jhana requires a more stringent litmus test, such as being able to sustain the attention effortlessly or being able to fully subdue thoughts, or having very intense pleasurable sensations. To that I would merely say that I don't want to play definitional games with my meditative practice. If the pedantic meditator wants to call what I just described above as something other than Jhana, then that's alright. You can call the mental state that I described "banana" or "whatchamacallit" for all I care. Ultimately, what we should care about is not the name that we give to the technique, but the effect that the technique has on our practice and, ultimately, on our lives. First Jhana entails the use of pleasurable sensations as a way of enhancing concentration. The practice I just described does just that. And if it does that, then arguing about whether the technique satisfies this or that definition or test of Jhana seems pointless.
7. I think that I've got this first Jhana thing down. Now how do I access second Jhana?
The trick here is to identify that in addition to the piti there is an emotional component of joy or happiness that accompanies the piti. When you are attending to the pleasurable sensations (piti) in first Jhana, you are likely to feel happiness, elation or joy. After all, you've reached a point in your meditation where you can basically manufacture pleasurable sensations in at least some part of your body. How awesome is that!?
Now in order to access second Jhana what you want to do is shift your attention from the pleasurable sensations (piti) to the feelings of happiness, joy or elation. In pali, these feelings of joy and happiness are called sukha. When you shift your attention from piti to sukha, the sukha should now be in the foreground and the piti in the background. For those versed in "The Mind Illuminated", attention should now be on the sukha and awareness on the piti.
When you've achieved this foreground-background shift, the piti should become less intense because it is not being fed by the energy of your attention. The piti should not, however, subside entirely. Instead, it should continue in the background, but with less vigor than in first Jhana. In my own experience, the background piti in second Jhana often feels like pleasant but subtle pulsations or vibrations that shift around in the body.
8. In the context of second Jhana, what do you mean by shifting attention to the "sukha" (i.e. feelings of happiness/joy/elation)? I can't really feel or find these feelings, so how can I turn my attention towards them?
This is an extremely common question. Fortunately, I've developed a hack for it that you may find helpful. The move here is to forget about attending to the sukha and instead focus on shifting the piti to the background. The goal is to deliberately attempt to make the piti less intense. You do this by simply paying less attention to the piti, thus allowing it to move to the background. After you've successfully shifted attention away from the piti and reduced its intensity by moving it to the background of your experience, try and sustain and rest in this state for a while. This is second Jhana.
The next step is to once again deliberately attempt to reestablish the stronger piti of first Jhana. You do this by once more directing your whole attention to the piti. Once you do this, the piti should move back to the center of attention. As a corollary, the piti should get more intense.
What you do now is you play with this by going back and forth from first to second Jhana. You start by placing your attention on the piti and making it as intense as you can (first Jhana). Once you've done so, deliberately try to make the piti less intense by paying less attention to it. Allow it to reduce in intensity and shift to the background. Now rest in this state (second Jhana) for a while. Initially, you will only sustain it for short periods of time. That's OK. After resting here for a while, attempt to go back to first Jhana by deliberately trying to intensify the piti. You do this by devoting your complete attention to the piti once more. The piti should now get more intense and move clearly to the center of attention. Stay here for a while. Now go back to second Jhana by once again trying to make the piti less intense and have it fade to the background. Stay there for a while. Rinse and repeat.
You may be asking what does this process have to do with figuring out what is the "sukha" of second Jhana that you should be attending to. Well, the sukha or feeling of happiness of second Jhana is simply whatever residual feeling or emotion is left in attention when you successfully have moved the piti to the background and it has lost much of its intensity. It doesn't really matter if whatever remains in attention feels like happiness or sukha to you. What matters is that you've successfully managed to move the piti to the background and reduce its intensity. What your left with in attention is the elusive sukha of second Jhana. Now stay in it for a while and bask in it so that you get an experiential sense of what this sukha actually feels like.
9. This is awesome. What about third and fourth Jhana (and all the other Jhanas)?
This post is already too long, so I won't go into third and fourth Jhana here. But I promise to do it in a future post! I once more refer you to Leigh Brasington's book, where you can find instructions on third and fourth Jhana. My sense is that if you've already managed to get into second Jhana, third and fourth will come without much difficulty.
The formless Jhanas that lie after the fourth Jhana, however, are a different beast. To be honest, I haven't accessed these formless Jhanas, so I can't provide guidance there. Suffice it to say that my meditation teacher asked me to abstain from playing with the formless Jhanas until I'm on retreat with him, since going from fourth to fifth is as hard or harder than going from access to first Jhana. The worry here is that you may develop unskillful tendencies when trying to reach the formless Jhanas that will then need to be unlearned in order to actually access them correctly. So I'm waiting for my retreat to work on these formless Jhanas!
This being said, it seems to be the case that the concentration that you get upon exiting from fourth Jhana is more than enough to generate good insights once you shift to insight practices, such as open awareness or Shinzen or Mahasi style noting. That's most definitely been the case in my practice.
Actually, the concentration that you get upon emerging from any of the first four Jhanas is typically more conducive to insight than whatever concentration you had prior to entering Jhana. So, what are you waiting for? Go get yourself some Jhanas!

Comments

  1. Thank you for this post! I found it very helpful.

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    1. I'm really glad you found it helpful! If you have any questions, feel free to get in touch. Mucho Metta!

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  2. Just found this and read your Jhana posts which are great. They have been my focus as I do a sort of at home retreat. I really like Leigh Brasington's book and a few of his talk. If you haven't found it yet the December 2019 retreat by Rob Burbea is online at dharma seed and if you search there is also a transcript of it available. It's beyond extensive and I think he has a similar fluid approach that you are speaking about. I think from what you said you hadn't gotten past the 4th Jhana but his talks on that might help (I don't know as I"m not that far yet). Keep up writing as I look forward to hearing more of your Jhana thoughts.

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