I’d like to offer you a simple, four-step approach to cultivating jhāna. With a little practice and refinement, this approach makes it much easier to access first jhāna. And since the way to the remaining three jhānas is through the first one, it’ll help you access jhāna more generally, although I have to say that most people need to have a fair amount of one level of absorption because they can go any deeper.
But hang on! I haven’t explained what jhāna is!
What Is Jhāna? (Or What Is Dhyāna, If You Prefer Sanskrit)
Sometimes in meditation we find ourselves effortlessly absorbed in our direct experience — that is, not in thinking (which is always thinking about experience), but in the reality of observing our sensory experience itself. There’s a definite shift into a stable and more enjoyable state of being.
When this state of absorption arises, our distracted thoughts are nowhere to be seen. The mind is calm. We feel alive and vital. We’re deeply happy. And this is a stable experience, not a momentary one. We stay like that, effortlessly, for quite some time. It might be that we feel that the meditation session isn’t long enough. We want to continue!
This experience is jhāna (Sanskrit: dhyāna). It’s a word that just means “meditation” or “absorption,” 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 and random thoughts 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, quieter, and more fulfilling than the one preceding it. Collectively they constitute sammā samādhi, or right concentration in the eightfold path.
Some Buddhist schools place little emphasis on the jhānas. Some teachers dismiss them altogether as non-Buddhist. Some teachers have even said that they’re dangerous distractions from the spiritual path, because we’ll supposedly get “attached” to the pleasure they bring. 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. The Buddha’s enlightenment happened immediately after he realized that jhāna was the path to liberation, and that he shouldn’t be afraid of the joy and pleasure it brought.
If we’re serious about freeing ourselves and others from suffering, we should become serious about deepening our experience of jhāna.
Distraction is common, real absorption is rare
A lot of the time in meditation 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 not only relentless, but they’re dream-like, and as we “awaken” into a more mindful state they often slip away from us, as our do dreams when we wake in the morning. We commit ourselves once more to mindfully observing our experience, but we get distracted again. The cycle continues.
But once in a while there comes, as I’ve described, that definite shift in the quality of our experience. There’s a change of gear. Like a blessing, a natural joy and ease arrive. A lot of people only ever experience this on a meditation retreat, doing a lot of practice. Even then, it can seem like a random visitation. For some it’ll happen off of retreat as well, but again it seems to strike randomly.
There are some people who have an aptitude for jhāna. They find that it arises easily. But often they can’t explain how it happens, or their explanations might not be helpful. Sometimes the best person to explain something to you is someone who has struggled to learn it, rather than someone who never had any difficulties and who therefore doesn’t know how to address them.
Jhāna Can Be Cultivated Systematically
I suggest that the main reason jhāna is so rare and seems to strike at random is that very few people are taught anything specific about how to set up the conditions for absorption to arise. Most people are not taught that jhāna arises from a set of skills and attitudes. And they’re not taught in a systematic way what those skills and attitudes are. All they’re taught is to meditate, and to a lot of it.
So (with some honorable exceptions) teachings around jhāna are often not very practical. They don’t give you a step-by-step guide. Most times when you encounter teachings on jhāna, they basically just repeat information from a sixth century practice manual by a monk called Buddhaghosa, who was a scholar and who probably never actually meditated himself. They often simply enumerate the “jhāna factors.” I call this form of teaching “warmed-over Buddhaghosa.” (It doesn’t help that Buddhaghosa doesn’t even get the jhāna factors right.)
So how can we be systematic about cultivating these deeper, stable states of meditative absorption? How 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?
Four Progressive Stages
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. I’m going to explain it in four progressive stages, and tell you about the skills involved in each of the stages.
The four progressive stages are:
- Calming the mind (cultivating calmness)
- Opening to the body’s aliveness (cultivating pīti)
- Enjoying present-moment awareness (cultivating joy)
- Bringing it all together (allowing calmness, aliveness, and joy to form a self-sustaining feedback loop)
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. If you’re running around all day being critical and angry, for example, then you’re unlikely to experience much joy in your meditation. So sort that out first.
My approach is based on an adaptation of the traditional list of jhāna factors that’s found in the suttas (early Buddhist scriptures). This is different from the list that Buddhaghosa describes.
Buddhaghosa described five jhana factors, but in the suttas (the Buddha’s discourses) we find that there are just four.
The Four Jhāna Factors
Quite secluded from sensuality, secluded from unskillful (mental) states, one enters and remains in the first jhāna, with 1) aliveness (pīti) and 2) happiness (sukha) born of seclusion, accompanied by 3) initial and 4) sustained thinking. This is the first jhāna.
Again, in the discourses there are four factors enumerated for first jhāna. A thousand years later, Buddhaghosa lists five, the extra one being one-pointedness. That’s not in the original teachings, and it turns out that Buddhaghosa’s view is unhelpful.
Here’s an explanation of the four factors.
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). I call this aliveness.
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, and probably in it as well..
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. You can’t experience both forms of thinking at the same time, so really there’s just one factor: thinking. But it’s not just any old thinking that goes on in jhāna. It’s different from the normal inner talk that we do so much of the time.
Thinking That Helps; Thinking That Doesn’t
Most of our thinking, including in meditation, is monkey-mind thinking. Monkey-mind thinking takes us away from our direct experience of the body, feelings, and mind. It inhibits us from becoming absorbed.
But we can also have thoughts in meditation that are helpful. At the very least they don’t take us away from our direct experience, but often they help us stay with our experience, and can even enhance our connection with our direct experience.
Vitakka is “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 “sustained thought.” It is a mindful, connected train of thoughts. If we count our breaths in the mindfulness of breathing practice, this is a form of sustained thought — a series of connected thoughts.
One important thing to note about initial and sustained thought is first, that they’re the kind of thinking we can only do when the mind is calm. Otherwise monkey mind steps in.
Another important thing is that they are often forms of thinking that direct our attention toward our experience. To give you an example, let’s say you connect with your breathing, and with the out-breathing in particular. And then on every out-breath, or every other out-breath, you drop in the words, “Releasing, resting, revealing” — one word on an out-breath. And you keep on doing this for a while.
If you do this attentively, then the word “releasing” directs your attention toward the sensations of relaxation and letting go that take place as you exhale. “Resting” directs your attention toward the fact that the body is coming to rest as you breathe out, and that the mind too is calming and coming to rest. And “revealing” helps you appreciate whatever is arising, including pleasant sensations of energy and aliveness that arise as the body relaxes and the mind calms.
Do you see how this kind of self-talk can help you connect more deeply with your experience, as opposed to the normal monkey-mind drivel that hijacks our attention? This is thought, consciously applied as a tool to direct your attention toward your experience, and to help it stay there.
Anyway, those are the four jhāna factors that the Buddha taught. They’re the factors of first jhāna, which is the start of deeper absorption. Let’s just take first jhāna as our goal.
My method involves taking the four traditional jhāna factors not just as signs that we’ve arrived, but as things to be cultivated. There’s just one slight twist, which involves the thinking factors — vitakka and vicāra. First, we lump them together. Second, we’re not so much cultivating thinking (although we can certain do that by employing useful, helpful thinking). It’s more that we cultivate calmness. The two jhāna factors that are forms of thought only happen when the mind is calm.
So here’s the practical stuff.
1. First, Calm the Mind
In my approach to cultivating jhāna, I start with developing the calmness that supports initial and sustained thought. So the first thing we have to do is to calm the mind.
“Wait,” you might be thinking. “Calming the mind is hard!”
Actually, it’s not as hard as you might think.
There are many ways to radically calm the mind. Two key principles are “soft eyes” and “using thought to quiet thought.”
The most important thing to begin with is to let the eyes be soft, which means relaxing the muscles around the eyes, and letting the focus within the eyes be soft, so that the eyes are slightly unfocused. With the eyes slightly unfocused, you’ll notice that you can be aware of your entire visual field, effortlessly. You no longer focus narrowly. Your attention is more relaxed, open, and receptive.
Having soft eyes helps us with two things. First, it instantly calms the mind, so that the amount of thinking we do is drastically reduced. Second, it triggers a more open mode of inner attention. Often in meditation, people use their inner attention like a flashlight, narrowly focusing their attention. on just a few sensations With the eyes soft, our attention becomes more like a candle or an oil lamp. It’s less directional. It’s more open. You find you can effortlessly observe sensations arising all over the body, so that you are aware of the breathing in the entire body.
This is nothing like the idea of “one-pointedness” that we pick up from Buddhaghosa. Remember, he says that that’s a jhāna factor, although it isn’t.
Being aware of the whole body is very different from what most people do in their meditation. Typically, with their flashlight of inner attention, most meditators focus on one small part of the breathing, where there are just a few sensations. The mind gets bored with this very quickly, because it seems that not much is going on. Actually, a lot is going on, but you’re excluding it.
It’s much more effective instead to observe the breathing in the entire body. When we’re aware of the whole body breathing, there’s a lot for us to pay attention to. Our experience is rich, and this allows the mind to be fascinated. And that fascination and the mind being full of an awareness sensations leads to yet more calmness to arise.
You can read more about the practice of soft eyes in the flashlight and the candle.
Using Thought to Quiet Thought
We can even use initial and sustained thought (vittaka and vicāra) to help calm the mind. We introduce thinking that quiets thinking. I gave an example above when I talked about, “Releasing, resting, revealing.” We can also say (on different breaths), “Soft eyes, kind eyes, open field of attention, meeting everything with kindness.” In each case the words direct us toward our immediate experience, guiding us toward calmness, to the point where we can drop the words.
As the mind quiets, our thoughts can even act as mindfulness bells, calling us back to a more open and calm state of awareness.
2. Second, Connect With the Aliveness of the Body
As the mind calms, so do our emotions. Because we’re thinking less, we are stirring up less anxiety, aversion, self-doubt, and so on. Since those emotions cause physical tension, their disappearance leads to a sense of relaxation. In this way, as we become calmer and more at peace with ourselves the body begins to relax more deeply.
Moreover, we are observing the breathing in the entire body. We’re observing not just “the breath,” but “the breathing. The breath is the sensation of contact that air makes with the body as it flows through our airways. The breathing is much more than this. It is any and all sensation connected, however indirectly, with the process that causes air to flow in and out of the body. The breathing includes the breath, but it also includes sensations in the arms and hands, the legs and feet, in our hips and buttocks, in the shoulders, on the skin, amongst other things. The breathing involves the whole body.
Moreover, as we observe the breathing in the whole body we see that it takes the form of soft waves of movement and sensation sweeping through every joint, muscle, tissue, and organ in the body. We can sense a soft wave of letting go on the out-breathing. We can sense a soft wave of energizing on the in-breathing. We can sense the soft wave of the in-breathing turning into the soft wave of the out-breathing, and vice verse, in a constant process of change, moment by moment.
The aliveness of the body really begins to reveal itself if we’re observing not with a cold, clinical gaze, but with a warm, appreciative one. I call this combination of kindness and mindfulness, “kindfulness.” I often think of a technique that psychologists use to induce stress, which involves participants talking to an interview panel who show no approval or recognition, but who maintain strictly neutral facial expressions. This neutrality is perceived as hostile. I believe our bodies react in the same way. If we regard them neutrally, they are slow to relax. If we regard them with kindness, they respond positively. Love yourself, and your self will love you back. Observe the soft waves of the breathing with a kindly gaze, and you’ll start to feel all kinds of pleasurable tingling and energy.
This tingling energy may be located in certain sensitive parts of the body, like the hands, or it may flow with the breathing, or it may pervade the entire body. This “aliveness” is pīti, which some translators render as “rapture” or “joy.” I think “aliveness” is a much more down-to-earth and accurate term.
The fact that the body is giving rise to these fascinating and enjoyable sensations means that our attention is more likely to remain rooted in our present-moment experience. After all, it’s so rich, fascinating, and pleasant, why would be want to think about anything else? Well, we might at first get very excited by what’s going on, and start wondering if enlightenment is about to happen, and so on. But you get over that. On the whole, your mind is much more interested in the body than in thinking, and so the calmness you developed is consolidated further,
3. Third, Develop Joy (Sukha) By Enjoying Your Experience
A certain kind of joy, pāmojja, often arises as the hindrances die away and the mind settles. Pāmojja is delight; joy; happiness. The way I understand pāmojja is that it’s the pleasurable relief we experience when something unpleasant ends. Think of when you get home from work, get into comfy clothes, and look forward to a restful evening. Ah! So nice!
Realizing that the hindrances have gone is a pleasant relief. We feel happy. Also nice! But this kind of joy is very conditional. It depends on something unpleasant having ended. That experience naturally fades away, and you can’t just repeat it over and over again. So we need to give rise to a different kind of joy: sukha.
- Enjoy the aliveness of the body. Sukha (stable joy) can be encouraged simply by paying attention to the pleasurable aliveness of in the body, and by enjoying it. To en-joy means to give rise to joy. And we give rise to joy by recognizing what’s wholesome and by appreciating it.
- Smile. We can also encourage the arising of joy by something as simple as smiling. Your mind takes smiling as a sign that all is well. Smiling creates joy. Smiling offers reassurance to your being, allowing it to relax.
- Have kind eyes. Joy also arises from lovingkindness. I talked earlier about having a kindly gaze. That attitude of self-kindness not only helps the body relax, but it helps gladden the mind.
- Appreciate impermanence. Appreciating the present moment as something miraculous and unrepeatable is another factor that gives rise to joy. (There’s nothing like taking our experience for granted for killing joy). Appreciate that this moment you’re having will never return. You only have one shot at appreciating it, and then it’s gone. Adopt that attitude, and each moment becomes something precious and wonderful. And knowing that makes us happy.
The more we have the habits in our everyday lives of being kind and of being appreciative, the easier it is to bring those qualities in to our meditation.
In summary, to be joyful: appreciate aliveness and anything else that’s wholesome; smile; be kind; be appreciative; and recognize that your experience is a miracle.
One more thing that gives rise to joy: don’t try to give rise to joy. This sounds paradoxical, and in a way it is. If you try to be joyful, grasping often arises. So just focus on appreciating the present moment lovingly, and let joy take care of itself.
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 aliveness and joy.
Our awareness senses the whole body breathing. And our awareness if permeated by aliveness and joy, and so aliveness and joy permeate the entire body.
4. Fourth, Bringing It All Together
I call calmness, aliveness, and joy the “jhāna foundations” to distinguish them from the scriptural “jhāna factors.”
We’re in jhāna when calmness, aliveness, and joy are well-established. That is, the mind is stable enough that we’re able to stay with our meditation practice quite effortlessly, our experience of the body is pleasurable, and we’re happy. But this is only jhāna when it’s a stable experience.
Sometimes it’s not. It’s possible to have very brief experiences of the three foundations coming together. We might think jhāna has arrived, but a minute later it’s “de-cohered.” One of two of the jhāna foundations are still present, but the three aren’t all working together in a sustained way.
At any point in your meditation you can assess the balance of calmness, aliveness, and joy. (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. Just look at the steps I recommend above under the headings for developing calmness, aliveness, and joy. Those are what you need to focus on in order to balance up the three jhāna foundations.
But what can really help the three foundations of calmness, aliveness, and joy settle into a stable experience is finding a lightly held focal point that ties everything together. What I usually go for is the sensation at the rims of the nostrils.
Note that this isn’t one-pointed awareness. You’re not trying to focus exclusively on the nostrils. Instead, it’s a lightly held focal point in the midst of a wider context of a whole-body awareness of the breathing, including calm, aliveness, and joy.
Imagine you’re looking at the sun setting over the ocean. The sun is your lightly held focal point. But the lovely thing about the experience is how the light of the setting sun affects the sky, the ocean, and the other elements of the wider landscape. You’re not trying to focus exclusively on the sun. The sun ties everything together.
Similarly, the lightly held focal point of the rims of the nostrils — clear and vivid — ties together the experience of calm, aliveness, and joy as you observe the whole body breathing.
At this point, jhāna is more likely to become stable. The three foundations feed into and support each other. Calmness helps you to access the body. Your awareness of the body’s aliveness helps you to stay calm, because it absorbs the mind. Calmness is enjoyable — it releases joy. Joy helps the mind to stay calm, because the mind is happy and doesn’t have any need to go elsewhere. The body’s aliveness is enjoyable — it releases joy. Joy helps the body to relax, and so the body remains fully alive.
We have a series of interacting positive feedback loops, which is why this experience of calmness, aliveness, and joy becomes stable enough to last for twenty, forty minutes, or more. This is jhāna.
With this systematic approach, jhāna ceases to be an accident and becomes the natural consequence of your practice.
One More Thing
We’re back to paradox here.
At all times, let go of the idea of “attaining” jhāna. The idea of attaining it easily becomes grasping, and grasping destabilizes the mind and kills jhāna.
So we simply notice and enjoy each moment, and let it take us where it will. Do notice whether or not you seem to be moving in the direction of greater calmness, aliveness, and joy, but without having an “are we there yet attitude.” Yes, you are “there.” You’re in the only there that matters: the present moment as it unfolds beautifully to reveal what it contains. Just be present with the unfolding.
Take care of the present moment, and the present moment will take care of you.
The most direct route to jhāna is not to try to get into jhāna.