But there’s a more specific and technical meaning of the word. Jhana, in Buddhist terms, is an experience, or range of experiences, where meditation becomes effortless and enjoyable.
Jhana is seen as important in the Buddhist tradition for three reasons. First it helps to calm the mind, temporarily ridding it of disturbing mental states such as anxiety, craving, and ill-will. Through repeated experience of jhana, these mental habits become less likely to recur, and the mind becomes more positive. Second, the experience of being at ease with ourselves shouldn’t just be a peak experience. It should percolate into our daily life as well. Jhana affects who were are, and how we function. Thirdly, the calmness of mind that jhana creates makes it easier for us to look closely at our experience, and this in turn helps us to bring about spiritual insight. Just as it’s possible to look deeply into still water, it’s possible to look deeply into a still mind.
In terms of modern psychology, jhana is a “flow” state. Flow is where a person performing an activity becomes fully immersed, with a feeling of energized focus, undistracted presence, and enjoyment. When you’re enjoying your experience in jhana, it’s easy to become absorbed in paying attention to it. When you’re absorbed, you appreciate your experience undistractedly. When there’s nothing to distract you, you remain in a state of happiness. This feedback loop keeps you in a stable, calm, alert, pleasurable, joyful, and focused state of mind. That’s what jhana is: a self-sustaining flow of positive states.
Letting this flow state arise is going to be a process; there’s no switch in your brain that you can flip so that you can instantly be in jhana. There are skills to be learned. You need to learn to calm the mind, to drop deeper into your experience of the body, to accept discomfort without reacting to it, to accept pleasure without grasping after it, and to allow joy to arise. Those are some of the skills we’ll be focusing on. There’s no rush. Ultimately you have your whole life to work on this.
Jhana can be cultivated in a variety of practices, including mindfulness of breathing, and development of lovingkindness meditation. I’m going to assume that you’re familiar with those practices, but if you’re not, then please follow the links and start learning them.
I have a guided meditation for you today. It’s a form of mindfulness of breathing in which I’m going to encourage you to do three things:
1. Do less in your meditation. As you go into meditation, allow yourself just to be with your experience. Relax your effort. Let your body be relaxed. Find ease through doing less.
2. Notice more. Be open to whatever is arising. We all have habitual patterns where we pay attention to certain sensations and ignore others. We go into meditation and—boom, boom, boom—we’ve fixated on a small subset of sensations. So as you relax your effort, allow yourself to notice what’s going on in the places you don’t usually pay attention to. Whether you’re doing mindfulness of breathing, metta bhavana, or some other meditation practice, be open to everything that’s arising before you begin actively working with your experience.
3. Accept distraction. Relaxing your effort may, in the short term, lead to more distraction. That’s OK. Just be kind with yourself. Let go of any idea of getting anywhere in your practice. Just allow yourself to be with whatever is arising, as fully as possible.
You could also try integrating these three principles into your lovingkindness practice, and into any other form of meditation you’re doing. Just keep following these three suggestions for the next few days, and see how it goes.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this preview of the first lesson of our “Letting Go Into Joy” online course, which starts August 1, 2016. For more information, or to enroll, visit this page.
Bellow you’ll find the first guided meditation from this event.
Here’s Meditation #1, a guided meditation on just resting with an awareness of the breathing. It’s about 30 minutes long in total, including the introduction.