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How to get into jhana

A lot of the time in meditation our experience is of distractions relentlessly colonizing our attention. We set off to follow the sensations of the breathing, but after some time we come to realize that we haven’t been paying attention to the breath at all. We realize that we’ve been caught up in some inner drama, or that we’ve been turning over thoughts in the mind. What were we thinking about, exactly? Often it’s hard to say. Our distractions are often dream-like, and as we “awaken” into a more mindful state they often slip away from us, as do our dreams when we wake in the morning. We commit ourselves once more to mindfully observing our experience, but the cycle goes on.

But once in a while, like a blessing, come joy and ease. We find ourselves effortlessly able to stay with our experience. Our distractions are nowhere to be seen. The mind is calm, and we’re deeply happy. We feel alive and vital. This kind of experience is called jhāna (Sanskrit: dhyāna), and it arises when the five hindrances of ill will, sense desire, restlessness and anxiety, sloth and torpor, and doubt have been dispelled. The turbulent emotions that normally fill our consciousness are gone, and we find that the mind is naturally joyful and focused.

There are four levels of jhāna, each one deeper than that preceding it, and collectively they constitute sammā samādhi, or right concentration. Some Buddhist schools place little emphasis on the jhānas, and some teachers dismiss them altogether as non-Buddhist, but any objective look at the earliest Buddhist teachings shows that in the early Buddhist tradition they were regarded as tremendously important, and as indispensable for enlightenment.

So if we’re serious about freeing ourselves and others from suffering, we should be serious about deepening our experience of jhāna. How, then, can we move beyond having jhāna as an experience we sometimes stumble into accidentally, and make it more of a regular occurrence in our meditation? Getting into jhāna is easier than you might think. I’m going to outline an approach that I’ve found to be useful in cultivating jhāna. Before we begin, I’m assuming that outside of your meditation practice you have trained yourself to be reasonably ethical. After all, you meditate with the same mind that you carry around in the rest of your life. My approach is based on an adaptation of the traditional list of jhāna factors that’s found in the suttas (early Buddhist scriptures). In the suttas we find that there are four “jhāna factors” described.

First, there’s pīti, which is often translated as “rapture,” but which is better thought of as physical pleasure and energy. Pīti can manifest as a feeling of ease, warmth, and relaxation, as localized tingling, or as currents of energy flowing in the body. In everyday life, pīti is experienced when we’re startled, or when we listen to arousing music, or when we’re relaxing (e.g. when we’re having a massage).

The second factor is sukha. This is joy. While pīti is physical, sukha is emotional. It’s the emotion that arises when we’re free from the distractions and turbulence of the hindrances, and when the mind is undisturbed by the world around us. Joy is something we’ve all experienced outside of meditation.

The third and fourth jhāna factors are vitakka and vicāra, which are both forms of thought. In the first of the four jhānas, there is still some thinking going on. This is not “monkey-mind,” with our attention leaping from one thought to another on a whim, like a monkey swinging from branch to branch. Vitakka is called “initial thought,” and it’s when a thought simply pops — or is dropped — into the mind but doesn’t go anywhere. It doesn’t start off a train of random thoughts. Initial thoughts may pop into the mind, as when we think “Gosh, this meditation is going well” and we simply leave the thought there without pursuing it. Or we may introduce an initial thought into meditation, as when we drop in the words “May all beings be well” and simply notice what happens. Vicāra is called “sustained thought” and is a mindful train of thought. The counting in the mindfulness of breathing is a form of sustained thought — a series of connected thoughts that doesn’t deviate from its course. The important thing to note about initial and sustained thought is that they’re the kind of thinking we do when the mind is calm.

In my approach to cultivating jhāna, I start with developing the calmness that supports initial and sustained thought. There are many ways to do this, including paying attention to two separate sensations in the body, or paying attention to the outbreath, or paying attention to the movements of the abdomen. All these things tend to quiet the mind. It’s important, in calming the mind, to keep coming back to the sensations in the body, and to let go of any unnecessary tensions, so that the body relaxes.

Once the body begins to relax, pīti (pleasure, energy) tends to arise naturally. The release of tensions from the body is experienced as pleasurable. And as we observe the body, and especially sensitive parts of the body like the hands, we notice a sense of tingling, or of flowing energy.

Sukha (joy) can be encouraged simply by paying attention to pleasure and energy in the body. However we have to simply accept pleasure, and not grasp after it. We can also encourage the arising of joy by smiling, by imbuing our experience with a sense of lovingkindness, and by appreciating the present moment as something miraculous. (There’s nothing like taking our experience for granted for killing joy).

With a calm mind, pleasure and energy in the body, and a mind imbued with joy, jhāna begins to flow naturally. At this point we’re not simply observing the sensations of the breath, but noticing the breath accompanied by the experience of pleasure and joy.

Although it’s not enumerated as a jhāna factor, continuity of awareness becomes a prominent experience at this point. We’re able to stay with our meditation practice quite effortlessly. Our experience is generally very pleasurable at this point, and so the mind has no motivation to go wandering. If calmness, pleasure, and joy are present, but continuity of awareness isn’t yet established, then what is needed is a gentle effort — an effort that seeks to perceive the object of concentration more vividly.

Calmness, pleasure, joy, and continuity of awareness can be regarded as a practical set of jhāna factors, not simply seen as milestones showing us that we’ve reached jhāna (as the traditional jhāna factor list tends to be used) but as tools to help bring jhāna into being. At any point in your meditation you can assess the balance of calmness, pleasure, joy, and continuity of awareness. (You can even give each factor a score out of ten!) If one or more of these factors is less developed than the others, you have a clear sense of what you need to be working on in order to bring jhāna about. Jhāna ceases to be an accident and simply becomes what happens in meditation. And by repeatedly establishing the mind in jhāna you turn your mind into a powerful tool for reflection, and for cultivating insight.

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About Bodhipaksa

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Bodhipaksa is a Buddhist practitioner and teacher, a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order, and a published author. He founded Wildmind in 2001. Bodhipaksa has published many guided meditation CDs and guided meditation MP3s.

He teaches at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in Newmarket, New Hampshire. You can follow Bodhipaksa on Twitter, join him on Facebook, or hang out with him on .

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Comments

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Comment from Joy
Time: June 17, 2011, 8:02 pm

Just discovered your site the other day. I have found the posts and techniques so helpful. Thanks for your generosity in sharing this information with the world.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: June 17, 2011, 9:00 pm

Thanks for your generosity in taking the time to say thank you!

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Comment from Aniruddha
Time: July 1, 2011, 6:24 am

Hi
Thanks for the article on Jhana. I found it quite helpful. Look forward for more such articles.
metta
Aniruddha

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Comment from Kenyon AncientMan McDonald
Time: October 21, 2011, 6:02 am

Blessings Bodhipaksa,

The Bahamas, where I live, is a small chain of islands off the coast of Florida, far from any retreat. As a result I have had to get most of my teachings from books and online. Thanks for your guidance. I am like the student you have not met yet.
My concern is about a flash of light that I have been experiencing for more than ten years now. I am unable to control(call) it, however If I am thinking of something, and I pose a mental question sometimes I would experience a flash of light ranging in brightness from that of a candle flame (or the floating puff of cloud-like smoke that I experience when meditating), to that of a lightening flash in the sky. If it flashes in my right eye, I have come to learn/accept it as positive and if it flashes in my left eye I have come to learn it as negative. An example would be, If I am preparing for an event and I think to myself “I need to hurry”. All of a sudden, a(the) light would just flash in one of my eyes. If it flashed in my left eye I would say 80%(however it seems like 100%) of time my hurrying would have been a waste, due to either the event starting late or it being cancelled. If it flashed in my right eye, and I hurried, 80% of the time my arriving would be just in time for something important, which had I not hurried, I would have unfortunately miss.
My issue here is that this strange light flashing started about the same time I started to learn meditation. During one of my sitting I experienced something similar to a jhana. The feeling was so enjoyable that I recall smiling to myself, then the feeling went. I had never experience that before and sadly I have not experience it since. Just Once.
Is it possible to experience a jhana at the very beginning of learning to meditate and find out that after months or years of effort one is unable to re-experience it. And secondly, does anyone know of anyone else with an unexplained ” light flashing issue”?

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: October 21, 2011, 11:07 am

Hi, Kenyon.

That’s all very interesting. To deal with your questions in reverse order, it’s probably not uncommon to experience jhana at the beginning of our practice and then find that thereafter we don’t experience it again for a long time. In fact this happened to me. Not long after I learned to meditate I had some experiences that I didn’t understand, and which I took to be distractions. Actually, they turned out to be signs that my meditation was on the verge of moving deeper. And then one time I had an experience that was what I didn’t learn until much later was fourth jhana. I knew it was a more refined experience than I’d had before, and when I talked to the person who was teaching me he said it was a greater state of concentration than he’s ever experienced, but evidently he didn’t know what was going on either.

Suzuki Roshi calls this ‘beginners’ mind.” There’s a really interesting discussion related to this on a Radio Lab podcast on The Placebo Effect (you’ll find it on Google). A young doctor who had learned hypnosis decided to hypnotize away a bad (really bad) case of warts. He was very successful. It turned out, though, that the case wasn’t warts at all, but a completely incurable condition. He reckoned that he had the brash confidence of a young man; not understanding that this was an incurable case, he had no expectation of failure to hold him back. And so somehow he pulled it off.

Anyway, this happens in meditation as well. It sometimes seems as if the mind resists meditative states, and early on it hasn’t yet learned how to stop you from getting into jhana. It quickly learns, though, and then there’s a long slow climb back to where you were.

On to the flashing. It’s not entirely familiar to me. In fact I’ve never come across that exactly phenomenon. But it sounds like a visual form of intuition. I find that intuitions are simply communications from one part of the brain to others. Much of our knowledge and information processing goes on outside of conscious awareness, and the results of some of this information processing appears in the mind as “remembering” to do something, or as gut feelings. So you’re in the supermarket, for example, and you’re on the way to the checkout, but have a feeling there’s something you’ve forgotten. You can’t remember consciously what the feeling was, but parts of your brain not accessible to consciousness have stored the memory of that extra item you needed, and have also been monitoring what you’ve already put in the basket. And that part of the mind generates a feeling in order to slow you down. If you pause, you’ll “just remember.” An image of the product, or the sound of the name, will just pop into your mind.

So I think that’s how intuition works. And I think that’s what’s going on with you, except that your internal communication is taking place via an inner experience of light.

Meditation changes us — including the brain — in various ways. It helps us be more aware of the body, and of feelings. In other words it helps facilitate communication within the brain and body, and thereby makes us more intuitive. Meditators are better than average at spotting liars, for example.

How you know to hurry or not to hurry is a mystery. But often we’re picking up on subtle cues that we can’t even identify consciously. I’d imagine that’s what’s going on in your case.

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Comment from Prajnanatha
Time: January 7, 2012, 11:22 am

Hi there, Lovely clear exposition here. Thankyou. I like that you use inclusive language to describe these experiences and not words that create distance and exclusivity.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: January 7, 2012, 12:15 pm

Thanks, Prajanatha. I’ve been continuing my explorations and should post an updated version. With the help of a slightly refined version of this, many of my students are getting into jhana without much difficulty.

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Comment from Appamada
Time: November 12, 2012, 6:02 am

Hi Bodhipaksa,

Informative article!

I think you are on right the track with your explanation of jhana and its purpose in the Buddha-Dhamma practice. What you describe is obviously based on personal experience. Do you know of the Anapanasati Sutta? This is the Buddha’s instructions on how to practice mindfulness of in and out breathing which cultivates jhana. I have tried to talk about jhana/anapanasati with Thervadan monastics but the majoirty are unwilling to talk about it or teach it which I find baffling as it at the core of the Buddhas teaching on meditation.

As far as your method is concerned I think it is close in some respects to the 16-step method set out the in Anapanasati Sutta. There are some missing/incomplete steps though from your description and I thought you might like to take a look at the Sutta in question to see how it tallies with your method.

Best regards,
Appamada

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: November 12, 2012, 11:00 am

Yes, I’m familiar with the Anapanasati Sutta although I’ve never used it as a basis for practice. I have noticed the similarities, and it’s heartening to see how the internal dynamics of one’s practice lead to convergence with the tradition. It would be a fun project for me to lay my own approach out alongside the sutta in order to see the similarities and differences.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: November 12, 2012, 11:03 am

I forgot to mention the reluctance of your monks to comment on jhana. This could be due to a number of reasons. Sometimes people just don’t have experience of the jhanas and so they can’t comment or, in some cases, may be reluctant to admit to their lack of experience.

Sometimes people don’t want to encourage an attitude of grasping for meditative experience.

And certain people (usually from an insight meditation background) are anti-jhana.

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Comment from Appamada
Time: November 13, 2012, 6:40 am

Dear Bodhipaksa,

Thanks for your reply. I would encourage you to do that exploration as I think you may find it to be of ‘great fruit and great benefit’:) I think the key is to not have preconceptions about what the instructions are saying, which is easier said than done.
I think the other difficulty that those monks have is that they are burdened with continuing a tradition which is founded on the commentaries (primarily the Visuddhimagga) which is markedly different form what is found in the suttas especially as regards the function and place of jhana.

Kind regards,
Appamada

I think the diffilculty that

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Comment from david stringer
Time: January 14, 2013, 6:50 am

It is so good to read of other Buddhist practitioners experiencing Jhana. I practised Zen (Shikantaza) for 12 years before realising it just wasn’t “doing it” for me, even after 6 week-long retreats or “sesshin” under a wonderful sensei. I thus began studying the Buddha’s own teachings in the sutras and after reading the descriptions of Jhana I very soon found my sits increasing naturally from the usual Zen 35 minutes to an hour and longer. Piti and sukha and a sometimes blinding white “nimitta” became regular friends and now, two years later, I practise 2 hours daily, in addition to trying to stay “mindful” also throughout the day. I am astounded and disappointed that so many “Buddhist” teachers disrespect Jhana (I have personally encountered this) and am sure it is simply because they have not been able to experience it. Once you do, you would never diss it. I have now completely left behind the Mahayana teachings with their heavy North Asian cultural influences, and am completely happy with the the Dharma in the Buddha’s own words. I wish you every success in your goal of disseminating the true Dharma.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: January 14, 2013, 10:58 am

A few people (including David Chapman and Bhikkhu Sujato) have written about how jhana came to be dissed in the Buddhist world. The modern insight meditation tradition, which really dates back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, regarded jhana as being mystical and unBuddhist, and was looking for something that was purely rational. So out went jhana.

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Comment from Vimokshadaka
Time: January 14, 2013, 6:36 pm

Interesting, I’ve also encountered a surprising amount of this dissing among Buddhists, and I put it down to things like confusion in one’s thinking, jealousy, or anger at being shown one’s own inability.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: January 14, 2013, 6:42 pm

There’s definitely a strain of “can’t be done, not even going to try, in fact it’s wrong to try” that goes around.

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Comment from David Stringer
Time: January 14, 2013, 10:48 pm

Yes Bodhipaksa, I do believe you have hit the nail on the head: I have noticed that much of the dissing of Jhana originates from meditators connected to Insight traditions, particularly Goenka. This is a shame, as no wise Jhana meditator would ever diss insight practise? It almost the beginnings of a “schism” within Western Buddhist thought, and some of the dissing of Jhana, particularly from Western Zen people can get quite nasty (see commentary on, I think, Jhanananda’s web site, Great Western Vehicle).
Concomittently with this dissing of Jhana, I have had modern Western “Buddhist” teachers tell me that so long as one is practising “Mindfulness” throughout the day, then one is enlightened!! I believe this attitude originates from Dogen’s teaching of “Practise is Enlightenment”. These people conveniently pick and choose just which of the Buddha’s sutras they believe, and it doesn’t suit them to believe in the teachings on Jhana because they doubt their ability to do it, hence they pretend that “mindfulness” itself is enlightenment. Thannisaro Bhikkhu has written a remarkable critique of this bereft kind of Buddhist teaching in two wonderful essays: “Mindfulness Defined” and “Samvega and Pasada”. In the first one above, he points out that Mindfulness cannot be enlightenment because it is conditioned and Nirvana is not. I have even had a well established and well credentialled American Buddhist teacher tell me that the Kalama Sutra implies that we shouldn’t believe all of the sutras, but choose only those which “make sense” to us. So much for faith in the first two of the Three Jewels! (In fact the Sutra tells us to base our beliefs on our experience of a teaching, whether it is good, praiseworthy and leading to happiness — surely all applicable to Jhana?).
So, do continue your good work of spreading the true Dharma; people who diss Jhana are actually teaching a “7-Fold Path” rather than an “8-Fold Path”, this in turn negates the 4th Noble Truth and thus the whole of the Buddha’s Dharma. Metta, David.

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Comment from Appamada
Time: January 15, 2013, 4:58 am

The very same thought has occurred to me on several occasions when talking to Theravadan monastic and lay teachers: “they are practicing a seven fold path!”.

Over the years I have personally tried a variety of different approaches and to be honest I don’t think I’ve found the ‘right method’ completely as there is always room for refinement. One thing which I am confident about though is that the Buddha was Awakened and that he did teach a Noble Eightfold Path. If you reject this as a working basis then you are essentially practicing “something else”.

In the suttas there were monks who didn’t fully understand the teachings or misinterpreted them. In the intervening centuries the BuddhaDhamma has fallen into neglect and was forgotten and revived on several occasions so it should not come as a surprise that there are multifarious practices and interpretations. The Theravadan Thai forest tradition which was re-established (Ajaan Mun et al) the prominence of meditation as a part of the practice (as opposed to just book learning and precepts) is a relatively recent occurrence in the history of Buddha sasana. It is ironic though that that very same tradition has given rise to present day Ajaans from the same tradition who teach in contradictory ways concerning the relevance of jhana. Another major factor for discrepancies concerning the place and function of jhana is the effect of cultural tradition. This is particularly seen in the Burmese and also to some extent Thai Buddhist traditions which base themselves on the commentarial interpretations as found in the Visuddhimagga.

Personally I think it takes a degree of courage to try on work with the teachings on there own terms. By teachings I mean the Suttas because of course there are many legitimate and worthy/worthwhile teachings which are not from the suttas. The problem with that approach though is that there are not that many teachers around who are actually teaching jhana as found in the suttas. This is a major problem for a training which traditionally relied (as in the Buddha’s time) on a apprentice/master kind of relationship when undertaking the training. If you are striking out on your own with only the Suttas for guidance is doubtful process in many ways (like going into the jungle with a map and no experienced guide).

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: January 15, 2013, 8:43 am

I think it’s very wise to base our understanding mainly on the suttas. The commentarial tradition has to be read very carefully. It’s a synthesis of, at best, meditation manuals from genuine meditative traditions, along with material from a scholastic tradition in which meditation had long been abandoned. And because it’s the scholars who preserved the commentarial tradition, their voice is dominant. There are distortions that creep in, particularly to do with the jhanas. The “standard” list of jhana factors I was taught turns out to differ from what the suttas say. The “formless jhanas” are nowhere called jhanas in the suttas, and can be accessed without going the jhanas. There are no “samatha practices” and “vipassana practices” in the suttas. In the sutta tradition jhana and vipassana are not opposing, but combined. Jhana is attained and then used as the basis of insight. Insight aids the attainment of jhana.

I do consult the commentaries (Vimuttimagga and Visuddhimagga) to find what’s of use there, but I give precedence to the suttas (although they have to be read carefully too — they too were curated by the scholars), and read both in the light of actual meditation experience. The interplay of experience, sutta, and commentary can be very creative and productive.

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Comment from david stringer
Time: January 16, 2013, 3:34 am

Appamada I hear you, but I think perhaps it would take more “courage”, of a sort, to face life without Buddha’s teachings! Myself, I have never feared going in any direction in my mind, and still do in my exploration of jhana. I tend to follow the Buddha’s direction not to rush things(like a foolish cow) and let higher states come when and as they may. Most of the time I am sure I am only experiencing a very strong “Access” state, but that can last over an hour and then the pitisukha can last several hours more after that, so I’m content with where I’m at for now. There is at least one very very good teacher of Jhana (sutta-style) here in Australia, he is Ajahn Brahm a student of Ajahn Chah. You may access his writing on Google and he has lectures you can listen to on AccesstoInsight.com.
As Bodhipaksa says, the way to go is to moderate your reading by your own experiences. I feel it’s a given that if you are experiencing pitisukha, and you are “secluded” from sensory perception and thoughts, (ie your awareness has settled one-pointedly upon the breath-nimitta), then you are now in a state of consciousness totally “alien” to normal human consciousness, and so you explore that, you see what results you get from that. If as the Buddha suggests, it is praiseworthy, blameless and conducive to good, then you do it as much as you can!! It can be “read between the lines” in the sutras that the Sangha then spent pretty well all day doing it, after alms-round early in the morning. There is a sutra where Sariputta settles down to do jhana after his alms round, and then it continues, “after his day’s abiding”… and he runs into Ananda who comments upon how bright and fresh Sariputta looks. So I say, do not have any fear. Your mind will naturally seek the jhana state, and so long as your sila is of a fairly high(lay) standard, you will not come to any harm.
The sutras and commentaries seem to disagree on exactly “when” one should attempt to use Insight, the Buddha’certainly seems to imply that one can look with insight into the Three Marks of Existence, especially anatta, while within the jhana state. Even Ajahn Brahm seems to differ from this in that he feels the re is no movement of awareness within a genuine jhanic state, which would appear correct, however I’m of the opinion that the Buddha is actually referring here to creating a virtual “super-jhanic state” where there is just enough observing going on to ‘see’ the anatta involved in the jhana factors. He refers to ‘as a man standing might look upon a man sitting down’, which implies an objective, over-looking view, but within the jhana state. My interpretation is that the Buddha definitely intended jhana and insight to work hand in hand.

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Comment from jhanaeducation.com
Time: February 9, 2013, 5:30 am

These are very profound states and they need that degree of effort. Not immense effort, but that constant effort. So you take your goal and keep it in mind. That is the chandasamadhi and that generates energy to achieve the goal, and it generates the application of the mind onto that goal and the investigation of dhammas which go along with the desire for success. This investigation of the Dhamma is the vimansasamadhi, which is like the investigating and maintaining that demonstrates that the path of samatha is not apart from the path of vipassana. But in order to gain success in meditation you have to use wisdom. You have to use the desire, the energy, the application of the mind and the wisdom faculty generated through vimansa. In order to gain success all of these need to be functioning and need to be maintained throughout the meditation. When I define the word ‘samadhi’ as the sustaining of these things, you can see that if you sustain these iddhipada, these roads to success, these functions of the mind, then your meditation will be successful. If you do not maintain these, that is why the meditation does not succeed – one forgets.

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Comment from Michael Roe
Time: January 30, 2014, 9:43 am

I found this page through a link on Dhamma Wheel. A very nice article and good discussions that follow. It’s great to see Sutta Jhana discussed in clear, correct and friendly terms, so that this (IMO important) practice can develop into the mainstream of practice for folks that really want to practice what the Buddha actually taught. Jhana seems to me more challenging than what might be generally understood, but this article is illuminating. Sadhu!

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Comment from Bruce
Time: July 19, 2014, 8:59 pm

Very refreshing to find this site where I can find good discussion and answers in plain english, thanks

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