jhana meditation

Keeping the mind on track

If you’re familiar with the way I teach meditation you’ll know that for many years one of the key things I’ve emphasized is having soft eyes.

“Soft eyes” means three things: letting the muscles around the eyes be relaxed; letting the focus within the eyes be soft; and being effortlessly receptive to whatever is arising in the entire visual field.

If we do those three things then the mind tends to become much quieter than usual, the body starts to relax, and the breathing starts to slow and deepen, so that it moves more into the belly.

And when we then turn our attention inward, to what’s arising in the body, then we’ll find that we can be aware of sensations arising from all over the body. The movements and ever-changing sensations of the breathing can be experienced all over the body. And the breathing then becomes a rich experience, so that the mind becomes calmer and remains that way for much longer than usual.

So this is a very easy way for us to take our meditation practice deeper. Rather than struggling, day after day, trying to fight through our distractedness in order to find a few moments of calm and concentration, we find that we can become calmer anytime, almost instantly.

And this usually works for me.

But sometimes it doesn’t! This is especially the case when I’m chronically tired, which has been happening over the last month or two. (Short version of the story: a new puppy we’ve adopted needs to go out to pee more than once during the night, and this is eating into the time I’d normally be asleep.)

So what to do?

What I’ve found helpful is to use a few phrases to help keep my mind on track.

  • “Soft eyes.” This is my reminder to let the eyes be soft. I say it just before I exhale.
  • “Body alive.” At the start of the next out-breath I’ll say this to myself, and as I breathe out I’ll notice the movements and sensations of the breathing, and particularly the warm, tingling sensations of my muscles as they relax. After saying the phrase I might simply observe the body for two to three breaths. Then I’ll say:
  • “Kind eyes.” This is my reminder to keep a sense of kindness and tenderness in the eyes. I say it just before I breathe out again. (If this practice of loving eyes isn’t something you’ve come across before, you might want to practice recalling what it’s like to look — at a beloved child, a pet, a lover, a friend, and so on — with love. Just notice the qualities of warmth and tenderness that arise in and around the eyes.)
  • “Meeting everything with tenderness.” As I exhale, I follow the sensations and movements of the breathing through the whole body, regarding everything that arises with kindness. Again I might continue to observe the body with kindness for two or three breaths, before once more starting the cycle of the phrases once again.

Distracted thinking directs our attention away from our immediate experience of the body, and into the world of imagination. The kind of thinking I’ve described in the list above instead directs our attention away from the would of the imagination and toward our immediate experience.

The timing of the phrases is crucial, and it’s something you’ll have to work out for yourself. If you repeat a phrase before every breath you’ll probably feel stifled, and your mind will feel too busy. You need to allow time for actually connecting with your experience, which means simply observing the sensations of the breathing rippling though the body — without you saying anything to yourself. So after saying the phrases “body alive” and “meeting everything with tenderness” you’ll find it helps to just stay with your experience of the breathing for something like two to three breaths, and maybe more.

How long is a matter of practicality. If you start to get distracted again, you need to tighten up the spacing of the phrases, leaving fewer breaths between them. If you feel things are going well, and you aren’t getting distracted, you might want to space the phrases out a bit more.

If things seem to be going really well, and you’re staying with the body without getting distracted, you might want to experiment with dropping the phrases “body alive” and “meeting everything with tenderness.” Just say “eyes soft” and “eyes kind” with a few “silent” breaths in between. How many is a practical matter—what works for you?

If you fall into a pattern of just repeating the phrases regularly in a mechanical way, you’ll find that it doesn’t work for long. Anything you do mechanically, you do unmindfully, and you’ll become distracted. So changing the frequency of the phrases and seeing what effect they have will help keep you alert, focused, and calm.

As part of this process of shaking things up, you can even change the order of the phrases. Sometimes I’ll say:

  • Soft eyes
  • Kind eyes
  • Body alive
  • Meeting everything with kindness

Again, I’ll play around with the number of “silent” breaths between these phrases to see what works best in keeping the mind quiet.

This practice is something I’ve integrating into my jhana teaching and practice. (See the “Letting Go Into Joy” course if you’re not familiar with what jhana is. But briefly, it’s the experience of meditative absorption.) In the first level of jhana there can be thinking present, and this seems to be one of the forms of thinking that is compatible with first jhana — thinking that directs us toward a deeper experience of the body.

Please do play around with these tools and let me know how it works for you.

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From the burden of illusion to the joy of freedom

Photo by Josh Boot @joshboot, Unsplash, photo-1482164565953-04b62dcac1cd

I’m going to say something about the arising of insight that I’ve never heard any teacher say before, yet which I think is crucially important if you’re at all interested in where Buddhist meditation can take you.

But first I’ll have to offer you just a little background.

Traditionally, Buddhist meditation has been seen in terms of two different approaches: tranquility (or concentration) and insight.

Tranquility involves calming the mind, steadying the mind, and cultivating peace joy. The experience that arises is called jhana, or absorption. The vast majority of references to meditation in the Buddhist scriptures are about this approach to meditation. The Buddha in fact described it as “the path to Awakening.”

Insight involves looking closely at our experience in order, ultimately, to see that we have no substantial, permanent self.

Tranquility and insight are never described as being two different types of meditation, but as two synergistic approaches to meditation. They are meant to be developed together. They complement and support each other.

The relationship between them is usually said to be that we need to learn to steady the mind through developing tranquility so that it can then closely observe the nature of our experience through insight practice. An analogy would be that the light from an ordinary flashlight can’t cut steel. There’s enough power there but it’s not focused enough; the light waves are scattered and out of phase with each other, so that they cancel each other out. But turn the light into a laser — that is, take the same amount of light, line up all the waves so that they’re in phase and pointing in the same direction — and it now can penetrate metal. Tranquility, or concentration, is said to steady and focus in the mind in a similar way, so that it can cut through delusion.

This is the explanation that I’d like to challenge. I don’t think it’s wrong. It’s just missing something crucial.

What’s the missing element? It’s that tranquility is itself a way of completely changing the way we relate to our being. Absorption is in a sense a form of insight practice.

Here’s how.

In developing tranquility we’re learning to experience jhana (absorption). We learn to calm the mind so that we are no longer caught up in stories and are free to pay close attention to the body, its feelings, and the qualities of our emotional experience.

And what do we find?

We find that we experience the body less and less as a solid object. In fact we find no solidity. Instead we experience the body in terms of energy: a pleasurable tingling aliveness. Even what you would expect to be the most substantial physical experiences, like the contact the knees make with the floor, dissolve into twinkling pinpoints of sensation, constantly changing, vanishing as soon as they arise.

As we go deeper into absorption we “tune out” the body and become more fascinated by joy. Virtually everything else vanishes. In ordinary life we might be able to describe where joy is in elation to the body — it’s often centered on the heart, for example — but when joy becomes our whole experience we can’t even do that. Joy becomes everything. Joy is of course a very intangible quality, but it’s also changing moment by moment by moment. So our whole experience becomes one of constant change.

As we practice absorption our whole experience moves from the very ordinary sense we have of the body being a solid object, to experiencing ourselves as nothing an ever-changing, evanescent, flickering, constellation of physical and emotional sensation.

And then the question comes up: Where in this is there, or could there be, a stable, permanent self? Of course, such a thing is impossible. And at some point — BOOM! — our belief in such a self vanishes.

The normal sense we have of having a solid body is revealed to be a mental construction — part of our delusion of a solid self.

So this, I believe, is the main way that concentration and absorption aid the arising of insight. Yes, it’s got a little to do with us developing our ability to focus. But that’s only a small part of the story. The main benefit of absorption is that it dissolves away the solid self we assumed we always had, and reveals nothing but glittering points of sensation suspended in space.

In this disappearance we don’t actually lose anything except a burdensome illusion. And we’re left with a joyful sense of freedom.

In a few days I’m leading a 50-day online course that will lead you, step-by-step, into the experience of jhana or absorption. Jhana is not some mystical state that can only be experienced by elite meditators. Once you know how, jhana can arise quite naturally and easily. It’s just a question of knowing the steps. I invite you to join me on this exploration of absorption.

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Finding meditation’s intrinsic rewards

The mind is pulled in two different directions in meditation.

Peace, calm, and joy are the intrinsic rewards that meditation offers, and in theory that reward system should help keep you anchored in your direct, moment-by-moment experience. That can happen, and in fact that’s a good description of the experience of jhana (dhyana in Sanskrit). Jhana is a state of “flow” in which meditation becomes effortless because the rewards of joy, pleasure, and calmness keep you immersed in your present-moment experience. The rewards of meditation can pull you into your practice. That’s the first pull.

But it’s not always easy to experience those rewards. There’s another pull, which we’re all too familiar with: the pull of our distractions. This pull is much stronger. We’ve evolved to have minds that are constantly searching around looking for things that are wrong. Our ancestors’ survival (and thus our present-day existence) depended on a heightened awareness of anything that might threaten our chances of continuing to exist. And although our lives are pretty safe compared to the days when you had perhaps a one in three chance of dying violently, those circuits are still active.

So your ability to become absorbed in calmness and joy is hampered by the mind obsessing about some future event you’re anxious about, or a careless word from a friend that hurt your feelings, or some pleasant experience you hope will happen.

The parts of your brain that are responsible for those patterns of thought have been around for a long time and have had a lot of practice in getting your attention. They’re deeply wired into the rest of the brain and have the ability to hijack the brain’s “higher” centers, which are more recently evolved.

And so the powers of distraction are strong. You can let go of a distracted train of thought and return to your sensory awareness of your moment-by-moment experience, only to find you’ve become distracted again, long before you had a chance to get to the “rewards” of peace, calmness, of joy.

Two approaches I’ve found are useful for helping break out of this dynamic are these:

1. Really appreciate the experience of the breathing.

There is a shift in the quality of your experience when you disengage from a distraction. The shift may be slight, but it happens. It’s there. There’s just a little more calm, a little less tension.

Practice noticing those shifts. Really appreciate them. Allow yourself to feel that you’re coming home as you return to the breathing. You can even say words like “Yes,” or “Thank you,” or “Coming home again.”

Doing this will help to enhance your experience of the intrinsic rewards of meditation, so that they become stronger, easier to notice, and more compelling.

2. Disengage from distractions respectfully and empathetically

Treating your distractions as the enemy is a mistake. They’ve evolved to keep us safe and alive. Those are important tasks, and we should appreciate that they are what our distractions are trying to do. They’re not trying to mess up our meditation practice. They’re not trying to make us tense, stressed, upset, or depressed — even if that’s what they end up doing. From their point of view, they are crucial to our survival, and our happiness doesn’t even register to them.

So first, stop reacting to your distractions. This is common advice, of course, but accept that distraction simply happens. It’s no big deal. You can just let go and return to the breathing.

But before you do, say “Thank you.” Say “Thanks. I’ll deal with that at a more appropriate time,” or “Thanks. It can wait, though,” or “Thank you. Later.” Maybe you can come up with phrases that are better than mine.

If you’re signaling to those parts of the brain that their input is valued and will be attended to at the right time, they’re more likely to stop bugging you. Otherwise, they’ll think that their crucial role in keeping you safe is being ignored, which means they think you’re endangering yourself, which means they have to try even harder to get your attention.

This two-fold approach, of valuing but politely disengaging from distraction, while also savoring any increase in calmness, can help make our distractions less insistent and our moment-by-moment sensory experience more compelling. It can help us get more quickly to the rewards that meditation offers.

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Insight is not enough

These days there’s an increasing interest in gaining insight — accepting the loaded word “gaining” for now.

On the whole this is a good thing. For a long time many in the West have been doubtful about whether awakening is a realistic goal. “Maybe we’re too messed up,” and “Maybe the modern world isn’t conducive to awakening,” were common doubts. As the years have gone by, however, more and more practitioners have had insight experiences, and this has been very encouraging for others. More people now think not just that awakening is possible, but that they personally are capable of it. This is great! How can there be a downside to this?

One thing I’ve been concerned about recently is the narrowness of the goal we set ourselves. The ultimate aim of practice is often seen purely in terms of having insights into impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and non-self. And while those things are crucial to attaining the goal, simply having those insights doesn’t turn you into the kind of person that the Buddha suggested we should take as our ideal. The Buddha’s concept of the ideal individual is someone who not only has insight, but who is an all-round excellent human being.

In one conversation about the ideal person, the Buddha outlines qualities such as: having calmness; being free from craving; being free of attachment to preferences, being free from fear, anger, and pride; being restrained in speech; having no longings about the future and no regrets about the past; having honesty and transparency; being free from envy; having no disdain for others; refraining from insults; and not thinking in terms of being superior, inferior, or even equal to others.

Elsewhere the Buddha talks of this ideal individual very much in terms of gentleness, kindness, and compassion. He encourages us to be the kind of person who doesn’t act in ways that cause harm to others in any way, not even indirectly, if that can at all be avoided. He also encouraged us to be good friends to each other — see the Culagosinga Sutta, for example. And part of the Buddha’s conception of spiritual friendship was a heart-connection with the wise — a sense of devotion and reverence that opens the heart to being influenced by the good that lies in others.

Over and over again, the Buddha encouraged us to develop jhana — a pleasurable state of focused awareness and of joyful absorption in the present moment. Jhana is deeply nourishing, and is also an excellent preparation for insight — not just because it trains the mind in focused attention, but because it helps us to see our experience in terms of intangible qualities of energy and joy, and in so doing gives us more of a sense of the insubstantiality of ourselves.

These are the kinds of things that we should be thinking of as the purpose of our practice.

Inherent in the Buddha’s view of the goal is that it’s not just about losing the delusion of self, or even of “gaining” insight. It’s also about cultivating ethical, skillful qualities—especially positive emotions. This is why the Buddhist path is usually taught as starting with training in ethics, then in meditation (including the active cultivation of kindness and compassion), and only then, finally, culminating in the development of insight.

For a small number of people, insight experiences are upsetting or even devastating, leading to a loss of meaning, a sense of despair, and a depressing and anxious state of depersonalization. It’s clear that joy and compassion don’t inevitably follow on the heels of insight arising.

Cases where serious suffering arises as a consequence of insight are rare. I don’t personally know anyone for whom this has been more than a passing disorientation, after which the positive aspects of insight have revealed themselves. But in the cases I’ve heard of where some kind of insight experience has lead to long-term problems, it seems to me that there has typically been a narrow focus on mindfulness and insight, and a lack of emphasis on lovingkindness and compassion meditation, and usually no emphasis on jhana. Whether there’s also been a lack of emphasis on spiritual friendship, spiritual community, and ethics is something I don’t know. But I suspect that in some cases these things are lacking as well.

One of the benefits of modern neuroscience is that we now know that as we learn a new skill, the brain physically changes. Areas associated with that skill become larger, just as a muscle grows with exercise. The goal of practice doesn’t just involve a cognitive insight into impermanence or non-self, but requires that we strengthen our “muscles” of kindness and compassion. I’d encourage you, then, to develop these qualities on the cushion and in daily life. If we do that, then insight, when it arrives, is more likely to be an astonishing, liberating, and joyful surprise, and less likely to be a disorienting, upsetting, and painful shock to the system.

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The body-wide wave of breathing

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

When I’m teaching a refresher course on meditation, I’ll often ask people first of all just to meditate for a few minutes to arrive, paying attention to the breathing as they normally do. After letting them settle in to their meditation practice for a few minutes I’ll ask that they take one hand and — as they continue to pay attention to the breathing — “draw” in the air over the body the outline of whatever it is they identify as “the breathing.” You might want to try that right now, before reading further.

I wonder what kind of shape you drew on the body, and where? Most people end up inscribing a very small area. Sometimes they show that they are paying attention to a column of air moving up and down their airways. Most often they draw a small oval, perhaps the size of an open hand, in the center of their chest.

It seems that many people, when they hear the suggestion to observe “the breathing,” take this as a suggestion to observe “the breath.” But the breathing and the breath are two very different things. The breath is air (or the sensation of air) flowing in and out of the body. The breathing is all and any sensation connected, however indirectly, with the process of air flowing in and out of the body. This potentially includes sensations from the whole body, since indirect sensations connected with the process of breathing can be experienced even in the hands and feet. But it at least involves the whole of the trunk of the body: the front, sides, and back of the chest and abdomen, sensations on the skin that covers those parts of the body, the shoulders, the spine — and of course air flowing through our airways.

When we’re paying attention to the breathing in this more expensive way, the practice becomes much more interesting. Focusing on just a small area of the breathing just doesn’t give the mind enough to do, and because the mind doesn’t like being under-occupied it invents distractions for itself. When we pay attention to many different sensations the mind has plenty to do, is less likely to go wandering, and is more engaged and absorbed.

This absorption can go even deeper than simply noticing lots of different sensations. Once we open ourselves to noticing sensations of breathing over the entire body (or at least a large part of the body) we can notice how those sensations are connected with each other and move together.

After all, the breathing is one process. No matter which sensations we observe, they’re all part of a single wave of movement driven by the movements of the diaphragm. Air flowing in and out of the nostrils, the rise and fall of the shoulders, the ever-changing pattern of sensation where our clothing moves over our skin, the movements in the spine, and of course the movements of the rib cage and of muscles in the abdomen — all of these are part of a wave of sensation, surging back and forth through our entire being.

Paying attention to the breathing as a body-wide, dynamic, rhythmic flow is far more engaging than observing just one small area of the breathing, and even more fascinating than observing several sensations at the same time. It brings about a deep level of absorption in which we can be content, calm, and fully engaged with our sensory experience.

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Do less, notice more, accept distraction

lgijThe purpose of “Letting Go Into Joy” is to help you cultivate what’s called “jhana.” Jhana is a Pali word that literally means “meditation.” The Sanskrit equivalent is “dhyana.”

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.

With love,
Bodhipaksa

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.

Guided Meditation

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.

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Learn to go deeper into stillness

letting go into bliss

Letting Go Into Joy: A Step-By-Step Guide to the Experience of Jhana (Aug 1–Sep 19) is a 50 day meditation event in which we will explore jhana — a state of calm, focused, and joyful attention. Jhana is what modern psychology calls a “flow state,” where we’re effortlessly and joyfully absorbed in our experience.

This flow state is not something we make happen. It’s something we let happen. This course will help you to let go of unhelpful thinking, emotions, and physical tension, so that you can experience more calm, energy, pleasure, joy, and focused attention — both in your meditation practice and in your daily life.

Register today to learn to go with the flow!

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The core skill of meditation is showing up

bodhipaksa quote: core skill of meditationOne of the biggest myths about meditation is that it involves experiencing blissful or “spiritual” states of mind. It doesn’t. It’s about experiencing and accepting the very ordinary states that present themselves to us, and working with them, gently and kindly.

Now it is possible to experience beautiful, calm, joyful states of mind in meditation. There are delineated lists of these, complete with traditional accounts of the various factors that constitute those experiences. Those traditional lists correspond closely to the actual experience of contemporary meditators of many spiritual traditions—not just Buddhism. They’re real. They’re attainable.

But if we think that this is what meditation essentially is, then we probably won’t meditate, because most of the time those states don’t arise, even for people who’ve been meditating for a long time. And so we’ll get despondent and give up.

The chances are that when we meditate—especially when we’re first learning—we’re faced with an unruly mind that doesn’t want to experience what’s arising, because it’s unpleasant or boring. The mind assumes that happiness lies elsewhere, and so it keeps creating fantasies into which it tries to disappear. And our task is to keep turning back toward our actual experience again and again, even when that experience doesn’t seem like it’s going to be a source of peace or joy.

The core skill of meditation is showing up. Showing up is not something we do once. It’s something we do over and over again.

It’s not always easy to do this. In fact it rarely is. Many people try meditating, experience the unruliness, and think “I’m obviously not cut out for meditation. I didn’t experience anything special. All I got was frustration.”

And that’s why we need to practice coming back to our experience over and over again. In doing this, we start to develop the capacity to accept our experience, and to accept ourselves. We discover that it’s not the kinds of experiences we have that determine whether we’re happy, or at peace, or content, but the way we relate to those experiences.

So we find that the mind is restless, or that there’s something unpleasant going on in our experience, and instead of reacting to it we find we begin to accept it. The mind is less inclined to run from our core experience. It’s more likely to surround it with mindfulness, kindness, and curiosity.

And although this may not sound radical, it is. It’s radically different from the normal reactive state in which we keeping running from our experience.

And if we keep doing this, we may find that we start to experience some of the special meditative states I mentioned earlier—which are characterized by calmness, joy, and ease. But those states are not the essence of meditation. They result from showing up, over and over again. They result from our continued gentle efforts to experience and accept our ordinary unruly mind.

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Self-consciousness versus self-awareness

flow

In meditation we can slip into a flow state — that is, one where we’re un-selfconsciously and happily absorbed in an activity. What we’re focused on in a state of meditative flow are the experiences that are arising in meditation itself. So in a meditative flow state we’re focused on the experience of flow itself.

This is puzzling if we assume that “un-selfconsciously” means “unmindfully.” After all, isn’t meditation supposed to make us more self-aware? The thing is that self-awareness and selfconsciousness aren’t the same thing — at least not in the way those words are being used here.

When we’re selfconscious, and therefore unable to be in a state of flow, what happens is that a stream of anxious, irritable, or grasping thoughts is arising. Those thoughts place us in an antagonistic relationship with our experience: we don’t want our experience to be what it is. There’s awkwardness. We mentally trip ourselves up. There’s no flow, because we can’t become absorbed in an experience that we’re unwilling to accept.

Mindfulness reduces this antagonism in a couple of ways.

First, we learn to allow experiences to be present, so that we’re no longer trying to push away experiences we don’t want, or to grasp after those we desire. This leads to more of a sense of internal harmony.

Second, as we continue being mindful of our experience, antagonistic thoughts become less frequent. We’ve chosen, in effect, not to feed them, and so they begin to die away. Eventually they can stop arising (temporarily, at least) and we enter a deep flow state, which in Buddhism is called jhana (or dhyana in Sanskrit).

At the same time, mindfulness is by definition a state of self-awareness. We’re not just having experiences, but we’re aware that we’re having those experiences. So instead of just being stressed or angry, we’re aware that stress or anger are present.

So mindfulness is self-aware, but unselfconscious. Even though we’re more than usually aware of our experience, there’s a reduced sense of ourselves being in opposition to our experience, and thus there’s a reduced sense of self. We’re allowed to forget about ourselves while simultaneously being more aware of our experience.

Flow states can emerge in daily life as well. When we’re immersed in some pleasant activity like baking bread or writing, we’re also unselfconscious because there’s no antagonistic thinking. There’s no emotional or cognitive barrier between us and what we’re doing, and so this too is a flow state. At such times we’re probably not deeply mindful, because we’re more focused on the task than on ourselves — our bodies, thoughts, feelings, etc. — but we’re not totally unmindful either. There’s some kind of awareness that we’re happily engaged, for example, but we may also be doing some pleasant daydreaming in the background — thinking that’s unrelated to the task we’re performing.

As we practice, we learn to bring more mindfulness into such activities. In a way all we’re doing is deepening the flow state. Irrelevant thoughts are less likely to emerge, and so we remain more deeply engaged in what we’re doing.

Our mindfulness can also help integrate more parts of us into the experience. When I’m writing, for example, I’ll become more aware of the feelings I’m having with regard to the words as they appear, and this gives me a qualitative sense of the quality of my writing. I can more deeply enjoy the experience of writing.

I’m also more open to subtle cognitive connections that my mind might make, so that my writing’s more intuitive. It’s as if, as I’m writing, parts of my mind outside of consciousness are quietly whispering, “Here’s something relevant you might want to add.” The more mindful I am, the more likely I am to notice these whispers. And so in a state of flow I’m no longer writing. It’s as if the writing is flowing through me.

In the kind of flow state I’d describing, the sense of there being a “me” fades into the background. We’re mindful, self-aware, but un-selfconscious.

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Letting Go Into Bliss: an exploration of “jhana”

yogd2015-jhanaLetting Go Into Bliss (Aug 12-Oct 30) is an exploration of “jhana” — a joyful state of focused attention that can arise in meditation. We’ll be learning how to allow jhana to happen.

On this 80 day meditation event, you’ll learn to:

  • Notice and counteract the various ways your mind suppresses joy
  • Calm the mind, using a variety of techniques
  • Deeply relax the body, allowing physical pleasure to arise
  • Tap into an innate sense of joy
  • Develop the mind’s ability to focus undistractedly

Signing up for this event gives you access to:

  • Emails (roughly every other day) with practice suggestions
  • Access to guided meditations
  • Support in our online community

This event is suitable for people with an established meditation practice, including a familiarity with mindfulness of breathing and lovingkindness meditations.

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