jhana meditation

Open mind: focused mind

sky seen from the bottom of the courtyard of a rectangular building, looking straight up

One of my online students asked a really excellent question in relation to mindful eating, and in fact in relation to mindful activity more generally:

Should I focus on one specific sensation? But if I do so, isn’t it restrictive, replacing mindfulness of the whole experience of eating by concentration on only one of its aspects? In fact, I already faced similar questions when trying walking meditation. Walking involves so many movements, so many sensations… How to be mindful of all of them?

There are really two different modes of mindful attention, one of which is more narrowly focused, while the other is more open. Each is valuable in its own way.

Mindful, Focused Awareness
A narrow focus involves, as I’m sure is obvious, paying attention to (more or less) one thing at a time. So as you’re paying attention to the texture of what you’re eating, the flavor moves into the background (and vice versa), and you probably aren’t even noticing things like your breathing or the sensation of your feet on the floor.

The fact that you’re focusing on one thing to the exclusion of others doesn’t mean that you’re being unmindful.

  • Your attention to the focal point of your experience is deliberate.
  • You’re aware of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.
  • You’re probably aware of significant connections between the focal point and other aspects of your experience — like how you’re feeling.

These are the hallmarks of mindful attention. So we can be mindful and also have the mind focused.

Buddhist meditation techniques that lead to jhāna/dhyāna (what could be called “flow” states in meditation) employ this approach of focusing our attention predominantly on one thing. Jhāna meditation leads to a progressive narrowing of our field of attention, so that the mind becomes very one-pointed and still.

Which “one thing” we’re paying attention to in our meditation or in any other mindful activity may change. In a body scan, or walking meditation, or mindfulness of breathing, or in mindful eating, our attention will tend to pick out different experiences as they become more prominent, or simply as we seek them out. But this is all done mindfully.

It is of course possible to focus on one thing in a very unmindful way, and in fact that’s what we do much of the time. We’re not consciously aware that we’re focused on one thing, we haven’t made a conscious choice to do so, and we’re probably not aware of the connections between what we’re focusing on and other aspects of our experience — for example we may be focusing on a particular thought, and that thought is making us stressed, and we’re not particularly aware that we’re doing this to ourselves. And again the thing we’re focusing on may change. We’ll jump from one thought to another to another without even realizing that we’re doing this. This is what people call “monkey mind.”

Mindful, Open Awareness
Then there’s mindful attention that’s more open. Here we have a very relaxed attention, and your physical gaze may well be more unfocused as well. And you’ll not be making any particular effort to focus on anything, although there may be a lightly held focal point within a broad field of awareness. (This is like sitting with your eyes lightly resting on a focal point, but you’re simply being aware of everything that’s within your visual field.)

In open awareness we’re open to all and any sensations that arise within consciousness. It can happen in walking meditation or sitting meditation, and in my own experience it’s most likely to arise after a period of body scanning, or once I’ve settled into the practice. You’ve checked out your experience and now you’re content not to focus on anything in particular.

It’s not that your focused attention is running around, collecting up all the different sensations that are arising and collecting them into a sense of a whole. The way I think of it is this: every sensation that’s arising within your being is constantly being presented to the brain. Even if you’re not paying attention at all to the sensation of your clothing on your body, the nerves on your skin are constantly sending sensations up the brain. But these sensations are being screened out in favor of focusing on one thing at a time, so that we don’t notice them unless, perhaps, something changes.

In open awareness, what we’re doing is letting go of any effort to focus. And in doing so, we become aware of all the different sensations that are arriving in the brain but which haven’t been entering your conscious awareness because they’ve been screened out. We don’t make open awareness happen. We relax into it.

This isn’t to say that focused attention is willful, as opposed to being relaxed. We certainly can have a narrow and willful focus, but the point of jhāna meditation is to allow the mind to be effortlessly absorbed into a narrower focus. Jhāna is often called “absorption” for this reason.

Alternating our mode of attention
Even within a state of open awareness, though, you’ll find that from time to time some experience arises that requires your attention. So there may be a physical ache, or an emotional feeling, or a particular sound that you’re hearing, and you may want or need to mindfully focus on that. And when you do so, you’re back to meditating in a more narrow and focused way. Then once you’ve paid attention to whatever has arisen that’s demanding your attention, and you feel it’s time to let go of that, you can return to a more open awareness again.

So there can be this oscillation between open awareness and focused awareness.

With something like mindful eating, the nature of the exercise is that you’re paying attention to a particular experience, so it’s more likely that you’ll be in a state of relatively focused attention, with your mind tuning in to various experiences connected with the sensations involved.

With something like walking meditation or mindful breathing, though, you may find that after some initial “body scanning,” where you focused attention has explored the various sensations that are arising, the mind can relax into a more expansive state.

It’s certainly an interesting exercise to sit and take one sensation from the breathing and allow yourself to pay close attention to it, and then to relax back into a more open and expansive state. And then after a while you can go back to a narrower focus, and then back to expansive awareness again. It’s kind of like a gentle “workout”!

Anyway, the main point I want to make is that we can have a mindful attention that’s either focused or open, and both have value. Neither is really “better” than the other, and in fact they complement each other and we need to practice both modes of attention.

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Words of equanimity; wordless equanimity (Day 84)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

So far in this 100 Days of Lovingkindness I haven’t said anything about the phrases we use in cultivating equanimity on the cushion, although in the guided meditation I posted the other week I suggested the words “May all beings find peace.”

In his “A Wise Heart,” Jack Kornfield suggests some beautiful phrases:

“May you learn to see the arising and passing of all things with equanimity and balance.

May you be open and balanced and peaceful.”

These remind us of a number of things. We’re reminded that equanimity includes an element of wisdom, which is where its peace comes from. Our deepest suffering comes from an inability to deal with impermanence, and from craving to have things they way we want them to be, and to having aversion to how things are. In equanimity we’ve accepted the coming and going of difficult experiences and have neither craving nor aversion.

We’re also reminded that in a way what we’re wishing for in cultivating equanimity is that other beings — all beings — have equanimity. Really we have the aspiration that all beings become awakened and experience the deepest and truest form of equanimity. We’re wishing that they have the openness, and balance, and peace of the awakened state. When I say “May all beings find peace” I don’t mean “peace and quiet” but enlightenment! We wish that the blessing of liberated equanimity (one of the uses of the word “equanimity” is as a synonym for enlightenment) arise in us and become manifest in others as well.

Sharon Salzberg has suggested the following phrases, although it would be a bit much to try to use all of these in one meditation, so feel free to pick and choose:

  • All beings are the owners of their karma. Their happiness and unhappiness depend upon their actions, not upon my wishes for them.
  • May we all accept things as they are.
  • May we be undisturbed by the comings and goings of events.
  • I will care for you but cannot keep you from suffering.
  • I wish you happiness but cannot make your choices for you.

The traditional descriptions of the upekkha bhavana (the meditation practice in which we cultivate even-minded love) don’t contain any suggestions for phrases to use. In fact, both the meditation manuals I’ve been drawing on — the first century Path of Freedom and the 6th century Path of Purity — suggest that equanimity isn’t really established until the third jhana, which is a state in which verbal thought has ceased. Even in second jhana, there’s no thought, and because thinking has stopped, there’s no possibility — if we take these two commentaries literally — of there being equanimity phrases.

There are two things I’d say about this. The first of these is that I don’t think that the commentaries (which aren’t always reliable) do need be taken literally here. As I’ve pointed out before, there are different forms of equanimity. These include:

  • “Ordinary” equanimity, or mental stability, where we don’t get thrown off balance by pleasant or unpleasant feelings; we don’t, for example, lose our temper when someone says something hurtful.
  • Equanimity as a brahmavihara (what we’re mainly discussing here) which I see as mental stability combined with lovingkindness and an insightful awareness into impermanence, etc.
  • The equanimity of third and fourth jhana, where mental stability is experienced in combination with deep concentration and mental stillness.

I suspect that the commentators took the second and third of these and imagined that the equanimity of jhana and the equanimity of the brahma viharas are necessarily the same. And I don’t think they are. I think it’s possible to experience equanimity as a brahmavihara (even-minded love) in states of concentration below the third, or even second, jhana. It can be experienced in first jhana and even in access concentration. And it’s possible to experience the equanimity of jhana without having any lovingkindness to speak of.

Too great a desire for systematization is one of the besetting sins of Buddhist commentators!

The second thing I’d like to say is that although I believe that (or my experience is that) equanimity, or even-minded love, can be developed in access concentration and first jhana, it can also be experienced in second, and third jhana too. So here, all three forms of equanimity that I’ve just mentioned are experienced together: we have the mental stability of ordinary equanimity, which is pervaded with love, and which is experienced in a wordless and deeply focused mind. So this is a state of loving equanimity which is wordless and deeply concentrated.

I’ve been experimenting with allowing this wordless, jhanic, loving state to emerge while walking, and finding that it is possible just to be equanimous in this way without using any phrases at all. In fact, when a wordless and deeply calm mental state arises, it’s not possible to use phrases without dropping down to a less focused state of awareness.

The arising of this state of walking equanimity (and I’ve done this while driving, too) depends on the practice I described the other day of becoming aware of both the inner world of bodily sensations, thoughts, and feelings, and the outer world of light, sound, space, etc., and resting in this open and receptive state. Thought quickly falls away, and a loving gaze can be introduced, leading to an equanimous and loving state.

You can experience peace, and silently wish this peace for anyone you see.

Now some people assert, quite confidently, that jhanic levels of concentration can’t be developed in the midst of activities like walking. But the Buddha seems to have been quite clear that they can:

But whoever —
walking, standing,
sitting, or lying down —
overcomes thought,
delighting in the stilling of thought:
he’s capable…

And one of the rewards of walking meditation, the Buddha said, was that “the concentration (samādhi) he wins while doing walking meditation lasts for a long time.” Ajahn Brahm, in one of his books, also mentions that he has attained deep states of samādhi (concentration) while walking.

And one of the clearest descriptions of walking meditation including the overcoming of the hindrances and the entry into jhāna is this:

“If a bhikkhu has gotten rid of longing and ill will while walking; if he has abandoned dullness and drowsiness, restlessness and remorse, and doubt; if his energy if aroused without slackening; if his mindfulness is established and unmuddles; if his body is tranquil and undisturbed; if his mind is concentrated and one-pointed, then that bhikkhu is said to be ardent…” (AN II 14)

(I give these examples because a lot of effort has gone in to trying to “prove” that walking meditation and jhāna are incompatible.)

People tend to assume — and I think this is their self-doubt speaking — that even first jhana is out of their grasp, let alone third jhana. But I don’t think this is the case. I’d suggest trying the practice I’ve just outlined above. Basically take the approach I suggested in the guided meditation a few days ago, and try it while walking, or even while sitting with the eyes open in some spot, like a park, where you can see other people. You might be surprised how far you can go.

PS. You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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Compassion, bliss, and beyond (Day 40)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

People often think of compassion as being a sombre, even depressing experience, but that doesn’t have to be the case. In fact when our compassion is sorrowful, this is just a sign that we have attachments to work through. (Which is fine, by the way. This is work we all have to do.) We might be attached to the idea that suffering shouldn’t exist, or that it’s “unfair” for it to affect someone we know, or that it shouldn’t reserve its attentions for those we deem to be bad, sparing the good, or that we shouldn’t feel discomfort. But those kinds of thoughts fly in the face of reality, and simply lead to our suffering.

With practice, the development of compassion can become very joyful. In fact it’s possible to be in jhāna, which is a focused, easeful, relaxed, joyful state of mind while doing this practice.

Here’s one of the Buddha’s teachings on this.

“When this concentration [lovingkindness] is thus developed, thus well-developed by you, you should then train yourself thus: ‘Compassion, as my awareness-release, will be developed, pursued, handed the reins and taken as a basis, given a grounding, steadied, consolidated, & well-undertaken.’ That’s how you should train yourself.

“When you have developed this concentration [compassion] in this way, you should develop this concentration with directed thought & evaluation, you should develop it with no directed thought and a modicum of evaluation, you should develop it with no directed thought and no evaluation, you should develop it accompanied by rapture… not accompanied by rapture… endowed with a sense of joy; you should develop it endowed with equanimity.

For those who don’t recognize these terms, this is an abbreviated description of moving progressively deeper into the experience of jhāna. In the first level of jhāna there’s still some thinking going on, and this is accompanied by feelings of pleasure (rapture) in the body, and joy.

Later, thought dies away, and there’s simply pleasure (intensified because we’re paying more attention to the body now that we’re not thinking), joy, and compassionate intention.

Then we focus more on the feeling of joy that accompanies our compassion.

And then we simply experience compassion, accompanied by equanimity (which you can best think of as deep, refreshing peace).

So it’s clear from these traditional descriptions that it’s possible to experience deep joy alongside compassion. In fact we’re encouraged to do so.

It’s not a good idea to strive for this, however. This joy comes about from letting go and relaxing into the experience of meditating, rather than from striving.

But at the same time, don’t freak out if you feel joy while bearing people’s sufferings in mind. This isn’t a sign of callousness. In fact it’s a sign that you’re letting go more deeply, and becoming better able to be comfortable with discomfort.

PS. You can see a complete list all the 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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Compassion can be joyful (Day 39)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

For most of the 25 days in which we focused on Metta Bhavana, I felt like I was swimming in joy. About two thirds or three quarters of my meditations were positively blissful, and in my daily life I felt cocooned by lovingkindness, as if I was inside a bubble of joy that stress was unable to penetrate.

Then, on day 26, I switched to the karuna bhavana (developing compassion) and that all ground to a halt. I didn’t find the practice actually depressing, but it did feel sober. There was a feeling of having a weight in the heart.

But after just over a week of karuna bhavana I started finding the joy starting to return to my meditations. I’m not the only one. One of the participants in 100 Days of Lovingkindness wrote about experiencing a rush of blissful energy (pīti) as he cultivated compassion for a “neutral person”:

What’s startlingly odd about this is that it was only a few days ago that in the same step merely looking at others’ lingering hurt utterly flattened me, filling me with a deep, yawning sorrow. Yet, this morning I was witnessing the arising of p?ti when looking at the same thing.

He was rather perplexed by this, and concerned that it might be the result of decreased compassion. After all, why feel pleasurable sensations when contemplating someone’s suffering?

But as I said to him at the time, “Interesting things happen when you turn toward your fears.” When you find you can’t contemplate others’ suffering without feeling sorrow (which an early Buddhist commentator called “failed compassion“) but keep on looking, then the fear and aversion can drop away. And this can be experienced as liberating — even blissfully liberating — and the tension that’s released in the body can be experienced as pleasurable energy.

In fact there can be many joyful experiences that arise while cultivating compassion. It can feel both serious and light at the same time. Last night I chose to focus on someone I know who has terminal cancer, and to wish her well, in the sense of wanting her, in her final months, to experience mindfulness and evenmindedness, and to know that she is loved and that her life has been meaningful. And there was a feeling of warmth and joy. I was aware of her condition and the physical and mental suffering she must be going through, but my sense of love for her was enough to be able to balance up the sober feelings that were arising in the heart.

And I had no sense that I needed to “fix” anything. I can’t make her better. I can’t save her. There’s no point thinking that she “shouldn’t” have cancer or that life is “unfair,” or that suffering shouldn’t exist. These things just happen. People get sick. People die. The important thing, it seemed, was just to see myself as a compassionate and supportive presence for her. With an acceptance of impermanence and no attachment to the idea of her getting better (although that would be welcome!) there was no sorrow.

In fact it’s possible to experience joyful, even blissful, states of jhāna in the karuna bhavana practice. The Buddha discussed this often, and that’s something I’ll write about tomorrow. So rest assured that if you find experiencing compassion to be pleasurable, this doesn’t mean something’s wrong. It doesn’t mean you’re lacking in compassion or empathy. So don’t try to block or suppress pleasure or joy. These experiences are perfectly normal; compassion can joyful.

PS. You can see a complete list all the 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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The Buddha, meditation, and householders

colorful Buddhas in front of a cityscape

The other day I posted some commentary on a study showing that mindfulness practice improved students’ working memory and boosted their grades by 16% in just two weeks.

Yay, for meditation! You’d think Buddhists would generally be happy to see that their practices can be shown to be effective. But not everyone’s happy about this. On one of the social media networks, someone criticized the study as “misuse of Dhamma” because meditation is being used for to “make people continue the usual [worldly] ways.”

Furthermore, I was told the “The Buddha even did not teach meditation to ordinary laymen.”

So there are two things here: the use of meditation for “worldly” ends (as opposed to getting enlightened), and whether the Buddha taught meditation to householders. Let’s deal with them one at a time.

The Buddha was quite happy to stress the worldly benefits of meditation. For example, with walking meditation he said the benefits were: “He can endure traveling by foot; he can endure exertion; he becomes free from disease; whatever he has eaten & drunk, chewed and savored, becomes well-digested; the concentration he wins while doing walking meditation lasts for a long time.”

And the benefits of lovingkindness are enumerated as follows: “One sleeps easily, wakes easily, dreams no evil dreams. One is dear to human beings, dear to non-human beings. The devas protect one. Neither fire, poison, nor weapons can touch one. One’s mind gains concentration quickly. One’s complexion is bright. One dies unconfused and — if penetrating no higher — is headed for the Brahma worlds.”

These are largely worldly benefits, helping us to be happy (but not necessarily enlightened).

One has to start somewhere. People don’t generally start to meditate because they want to attain Buddhahood. They generally want to become less stresses, or a bit happier. Having started there and found that the Dhamma works, they may then find that they wish to explore further.

Next, is it true that the Buddha didn’t teach meditation to householders?

The Buddha taught the Eightfold Path (which includes Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration) to householders and monks/nuns alike. Additionally, there were many hundreds of householders who were stream entrants, as well as householders who were once-returners and never-returners. I’m pretty sure they didn’t become enlightened without meditating.

And if you want something more explicit, here’s the Buddha talking to a householder:

As he was sitting there the Blessed One said to [Anathapindika], “Householder, you have provided the community of monks with robes, alms food, lodgings, and medicinal requisites for the sick, but you shouldn’t rest content with the thought, ‘We have provided the community of monks with robes, alms food, lodgings, & medicinal requisites for the sick.’ So you should train yourself, ‘Let’s periodically enter and remain in seclusion & rapture.’ That’s how you should train yourself.”

So it’s quite clear here that the Buddha thought that householders should not restrict themselves to donating to the monks and nuns, but should “periodically” go off and meditation. By contrast, my correspondent said that “All he stressed was dana, gratitude and hints to lead a good householder live.”

“Seclusion and rapture” is jhāna, or meditation. “Seclusion” is the word the Buddha used, in the standard description of meditation, for first jhāna: “A monk — quite secluded from sensuality, secluded from unskillful (mental) qualities — enters and remains in the first jhāna: rapture and joy born of seclusion, accompanied by initial and sustained thinking.”

Rapture is mentioned here as well, but piti (rapture) is particularly associated with the second jhāna, and so the Buddha was probably suggesting that householders not just meditate, but seek to experience both first and second jhānas, which — with practice — are not that hard to experience, even for people who have busy lives.

Another famous, but often overlooked example, is the Kalāma Sutta, which is most well-known for being where the Buddha said to rely on experience (and the testimony of the wise) rather than on scripture, hearsay, speculation, etc. After the Buddha clarifies what the Kalamās should rely upon, he goes on to explain the Brahmavihāra meditation practices, and he doesn’t say that these should be done by monks, but by “one who is a disciple of the noble ones” (ariyasāvako). Bhikkhu Bodhi explains the ariyasāvaka as “any disciple, monastic or layperson, who has learned the teaching and earnestly takes up the practice.” So these meditations are meant to be practiced by all sincere followers of the Buddha, not just monks and nuns.

Not only are there clear signs that the Buddha encouraged householders to meditate, he even singled out one particular woman, Uttarā Nandamātā as “the foremost of my female lay followers among meditators.” I think we can safely assume from this that householders did not merely dabble in meditation but could attain distinction.

So we’re dong something very traditional, those of us who live a household life, and who meditate. And there’s every reason to assume that high degrees of spiritual insight are open to us, if we make the effort. And let’s start people young. Teach them meditation in school — even elementary school. And for some it will just be stress management, or a way to increase their grades. But for some it will be the beginning of a path — a path than might lead them all the way to awakening.

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Stepping into timelessness

Sometimes in my meditation practice, time and space have vanished.

There are passages in the early Buddhist tradition that encourage us to let go of past and future, and to remain in the moment. For example, the following verse is found in the Bhaddekaratta Sutta:

You shouldn’t chase after the past
or place expectations on the future.
What is past is left behind.
The future is as yet unreached.
Whatever quality is present
you clearly see [vipassatī] right there, right there.
Not taken in, unshaken,
that’s how you develop the heart.

In another verse, in the Attadanda Sutta in the very ancient Sutta Nipata, not clinging to past, present, or future is linked to letting go of our sense of selfhood.

What went before — let go of that!
All that’s to come — have none of it!
Don’t hold on to what’s in between,
And you’ll wander fully at peace.

For whom there is no “I-making”
All throughout the body and mind,
And who grieves not for what is not,
Is undefeated in the world.

For whom there is no “this is mine”
Nor anything like “that is theirs”
Not even finding “self-ness,” he
Does not grieve at “I have nothing.”

This implies that changing our perception of time (or our attitude to time) can help us to reduce our clinging to self. This makes experiences of timelessness very significant.

These experiences of timelessness in meditation are very hard to describe! It’s not the same as the phenomenon where “time flies when you’re enjoying yourself,” although when that happens in our meditation practice it’s of course a good sign.

In experiences of timelessness the entire concept of time seems to dissolve, and we find ourselves in an eternal present moment. The notion of the past and future is let go of, and we recognize that the present moment is all there is.

I’ve noticed in my own practice that a sense of timelessness is related to a changed perception of space. Here are some findings from science that help to explain the connection:

  • Researcher Andrew Newberg has found that in meditators who achieve a state of timelessness, there are two changes. There is, on the one hand, increased blood flow to the frontal lobes. These are associated with attention, and so this change corresponds to heightened mindfulness and focus. On the other hand, there is decreased blood flow to the left parietal lobe. This part of the brain is involved in visual-spatial orientation, which includes maintaining our orientation in physical space, judging distances, and keeping track of time. The decreased parietal activity suggests that these activities are winding down. This can result in the loss of a sense of distinction between inside and outside, bringing about an experience of non-duality, and also the experience of timelessness.
  • Related to this is a finding from neuroscience that involves the brain’s “default network” and “external network.” The default network is the anatomical system that the brain defaults to when it’s not engaged in external activity. It’s involved in self-monitoring, daydreaming, and reflecting. The external network comprises those parts of the brain that are active when we’re caught up in external activity, such as watching a movie. Normally these two systems are opposed to each other. If you’re thinking, you disengage from paying attention to external activity (e.g. you’re daydreaming in meditation and you don’t even notice where you are), and when you’re caught up in external activity you don’t particularly notice what’s going on internally (e.g. You’re typing on a computer and you don’t notice your neck’s getting stiff). In experienced meditators who do non-dual meditation, however, both networks are active at the same time. Both the inner and outer worlds are being monitored simultaneously.

In my practice, I’ve noticed that sustaining this dual awareness (inner and outer) leads to non-dual perception, and to an experience of timelessness.

Dialing down activity in the parietal lobes seems to come about via a non-discriminating awareness of both “external” and “internal” sensations. (The quotes are because in a sense all sensation is internal, which is why we need the parietal lobes to tell us which are inside and which are outside.) So we’re activating both the default and the external networks of the brain, and it’s this that seems to shut down the parietal lobes and allow a sense of timelessness to come about.

Timeless experiences are connected with what are often called the “formless jhanas,” which are four meditative states that in the Pali scriptures are called the “formless spheres.” (Only in the commentaries are they called jhanas.) These are states of meditation that are entered from a state of equanimity. They can be entered from fourth jhana, but also directly, without going through jhana. They are non-dual states of experience, where our sense of inner and outer, self and other, begin to fall away. And it’s in those states where a sense of timelessness can become particularly prominent.

In my own experience, the step from being in time to experiencing timelessness is connected with a change in my spatial relationship to time — not surprising if the parietal lobes, which are responsible for our sense of space and time, are going off-line.

Change our perception of space, and we change our perception of time. We tend to use spatial metaphors to express our relationship to time. So we have “time lines” on which the future is “forward in time” and the past is “back in time.” This is a metaphor we take very seriously. In fact studies have shown that if you ask someone to think about the future, they physically lean forward, while if you ask them to think about the past, they lean backward! And because we think about the past being like a place we have left and the future as being like a place we are about to visit, we think of the past and future as being like physically existent places. The concept of time travel seems natural to us (if not actually possible, for technical reasons) because we think of the past and future as being places we can actually visit.

I don’t know if the physicists agree with this, but the Buddha reminds us (and I concur), that only the present moment exists. Thus, time isn’t really a “line,” with the past behind us and the future in front. There is only this moment. But this moment is continually changing. In the phrase from the Bhaddekaratta Sutta that’s translated “Whatever quality is present you clearly see right there, right there,” the repetition of “right there” (tattha tattha) suggests to me this recognition that the present moment is here, but changing. It’s as if these words are saying, “look now” and “look now” and “look now” in response to the change. But the change is “right there”. We’re not looking anywhere but the present moment. Nothing in our experience is going anywhere

In my own experiences of timelessness time is no longer experienced linearly, as a journey from past to future. Instead, it’s experienced as an unfolding. The present moment is “right there, right there.” It’s not going anywhere. But it’s changing.

Rather than seeing things (an object, experiences, myself) as moving along a line from past to future, changing as they do so, I’ve seen things as remaining “on the spot” (right there!) with change unfolding from within. If you were to think of this in terms of the experience of, say, a rose blooming, in the linear way of seeing things we’d think of the blooming rose like this:

Rose bud > half-open bud > rose > withering rose > dead rose

Another way to see the rose changing is almost as if you were simply watching the rose from above. The rose isn’t going anywhere. It’s simply unfolding, from within. We simply have:


with the parentheses representing the unfolding-from-within.

Intellectually, this may not sound like much. It may sound just like an idea — perhaps not even a very interesting one. But when applied to our experience, the results can be a profound shift — at least for a while — in how we experience ourselves and our world.

  • We let go of the past.
  • We let go of the future.
  • We simply be in the present moment, fully. It’s kind of like surfing the wave of the present moment…
  • We observe what’s in the present moment as it unfolds, according to its own nature, from within.
  • There is simply this eternally unfolding present moment.
  • There is just a timeless present.
  • There is nothing to grasp.
  • There is nothing to resist.
  • There is a profound sense of perfection, and of peace. The present moment cannot be anything other than it is, and so it’s accepted totally, without reservation or resistance. Everything is experienced as being perfect.

Every aspect of our experience — each sound, sight, smell, physical sensation from the body, feeling, thought, emotion — is seen as unfolding in this eternally unfolding present moment.

When memories arise, they are not seen as a window into the past, but simply phenomena emerging in the present (which is what they really are). And when we imagine things that may happen, this is not seen as a preview of the future, but again simply as thoughts arising right now.

There’s nowhere to be. Nothing to do. No one to be.

And everything is perfect.

Here’s a guided meditation that can help you move in the direction of experiencing timelessness (the quality isn’t great, since it’s from one of my Skype classes and not professionally recorded). Timelessness isn’t an experience that’s going to come about through one meditation. It takes repeated practice, and probably some time on retreat doing more intensive meditation. So try integrating some of the following pointers into your daily practice. In a few months, or years, you may find that you start to experience time in a very different way:

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Making meditation practice your own

When you first learn to meditate, it’s appropriate and helpful to take on structured practices. There are plenty of such practices available – ones for cultivating absorption, such as mindfulness of breathing, or for ‘positive emotion’, such as metta bhavana, or general overall mindfulness, such as systematically cultivating awareness of the ‘four foundations’ – body sensations, hedonic feeling-tone, mental activities and dhammas or ‘ultimates’.

Structure is usually very helpful for learning the ropes. All Buddhist practices are pragmatic – the main question to bear in mind is ‘is this working’? Is it effective in cultivating the quality that it’s intended to cultivate? If it is, then it makes sense to continue pursuing this approach as long as it is effective. If not, then it’s necessary to review our approach and try another.

For example, we may have learned the mindfulness of breathing as a way of settling the mind. If we’ve never tried anything like meditation before, it’s very likely that the first thing we notice is that the mind wants to do anything but settle! Pragmatically speaking, it’s often useful to give the thinking mind a simple ‘task’ to do, so that there’s less likelihood of it getting carried away with endless thoughts. Hence, it’s often recommended to start the practice using counting of breaths – this can be very effective in keeping the mind from wandering while focussed attention is being paid to the sensations of the breathing itself.

Note that we’ve got two quite distinct things going on here. First, there is the counting, which is a conceptual activity. Second, there is the directing and settling of attention (i.e. awareness) on the sensations of the breathing, which is non-conceptual. Being unclear about this basic distinction is where unhelpful views can appear. For instance, the thinking mind can subtly take over and make it into ‘mindfulness of counting’ rather than ‘mindfulness of breathing’. Or it could ‘usurp’ the function of awareness so that we are attending to thoughts of the breathing rather than the immediate tactile sensations of the breathing itself.

See also:

These views may be unhelpful but nevertheless, if we recognise them, they represent a great opportunity to learn something about how the thinking mind functions. It functions by taking over! That’s to say, it literally thinks that it is experiencing the breath (and everything else that we experience through our senses). In fact, all the mind can do is abstract from our direct experience. We can think of the taste of a strawberry or an orange and, in imagination at least, there is some ‘sense’ of what that taste is like. This is presumably how we recognise the particular flavours of those fruits when we eat them. However, the memory of a taste is completely different to the immediate experience of the taste when eating a juicy strawberry or orange right now. Similarly, we can think of the sensation of the breathing without realising that this is just a mental activity and not the actual experience of the breath.

Clarifying this distinction between mental activities and immediate sense impressions is crucial to learning to meditate. In fact, it’s always crucial, however long we’ve been practising. Attempting to focus on thoughts won’t lead to very much real tranquillity or absorption because thoughts are, ultimately, precisely what underlies our lack of tranquillity. All we have to do is notice the difference – ‘this is a sensation’ and ‘this is thinking’. We don’t have to eliminate thinking in order to become more absorbed – all we need to do is to let it fall into the background as we recognise the actual object – the immediate tactile sensations of the breath arising in awareness.

Another unhelpful view comes from an attitude of ‘should-ism’, e.g. ‘I’ve been taught the practice in this particular way, so I should always do it in just this way’. This kind of view can be insidious as there’s often a positive basis – e.g. respect for the tradition, method or teacher. ‘lf thousands of people have meditated in this way for thousands of years, who am I to do it differently?’ Well, if such thoughts do arise, rest assured that the only people who meditate according to exactly the same structure for their whole ‘meditation career’ are those who give up before very long! And they probably give up because they don’t seem to be getting anywhere with their meditation.

Structure enables us to learn more effectively, but the implicit question we always have to bear in mind is, as I mentioned above, is this effective? We learn what’s effective by doing it, and by making mistakes. ‘Mistakes’ is a misnomer really because we’re simply learning from experience. This experiential and exploratory attitude is fundamental to the Buddha’s teaching. According to one sutta (discourse), he tells a group of lay followers not to depend on what they’ve heard, or on tradition, or revered texts, or views, or reasoning or what seems to work for someone else, or what’s said by a respected teacher. Rather, he says, when you know in direct experience that an approach is good, blameless and wise, and leads to benefit and happiness, that’s self-evidently how to practice.

So, with the mindfulness of breathing (though this applies to any practice), there comes a point sooner or later when it’s appropriate to diverge from the way it’s been taught. It’s not indispensable always to start by counting the breaths. How the practice goes is contingent upon many factors – you might be doing the mindfulness of breathing before or after a busy and hectic day, or you might be doing it in the middle of a meditation retreat. In the first instance, counting breaths is likely to be helpful, in the second, it could well be unnecessary as the mind is already quite settled and tranquil. If your intention is to enter the absorptions (jhanas), any structure will naturally drop away. In fact, if you ‘religiously’ keep to the structure or cling limpet-like to instructions like ‘cultivate one-pointed effort to stay with the breathing continuously’, deeper absorption will be prevented from arising even if the conditions are otherwise very supportive.

Once the basic structured practice has been explored sufficiently (what is ‘sufficient’? Adapt the Buddha’s advice above!) you can make it more ‘your own’ by approaching the various stages you’ve learned as ‘tools’ that you can use as appropriate, rather than as an invariable format. Keeping to the basic practice is a bit like a piano player never playing anything but scales – to discover our potential we have become competent at the basics and then be prepared to let go, explore, make ‘mistakes’, learn, and eventually discover how to improvise, letting go of the form altogether.

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How to get into jhāna (or dhyāna, if you prefer Sanskrit)

Circle of sky seen through a round skylight. The skylight is surrounded by radiating wooden beams.

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:

  1. Calming the mind (cultivating calmness)
  2. Opening to the body’s aliveness (cultivating pīti)
  3. Enjoying present-moment awareness (cultivating joy)
  4. 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.”

Soft Eyes

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.

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“The Attention Revolution – Unlocking the Power of the Focused Mind,” by B. Alan Wallace

The Attention Revolution

Available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

The Attention Revolution is a thorough outline of the stages leading to the achievement of shamatha—full mental stabilization—according to Indo-Tibetan Buddhist traditions. Anyone buying the book in the hope of a quick fix, though, is fairly soon put right. The achievement of shamatha, Wallace tells us, is liable to involve “five to ten thousand hours of training—of eight hours each day for fifty weeks in the year.”

At this point I nearly stopped reading. I live in a meditation retreat centre, but even my lifestyle allows for nothing like this amount of meditation—and how much more so for people who have “normal” lives. But I’m glad that I persevered. The book is, in fact, a useful and stimulating resource for experienced meditators, while for those newer to meditation it gives an interesting and sometimes inspiring overview.

See also:

I’m aware from personal experience that the shamatha states of “access” concentration and “the first meditative stabilization” (dhyana) are more readily accessible than the book suggests. The extraordinary levels of shamatha to which long-term full time training can give rise are beyond the scope of all but a very few, but I’d contest that a level of shamatha consistent with effective cultivation of insight is accessible to those with a regular, but not full-time practice, especially if this includes regular periods of meditation retreat.

The book is structured around each of Kamalashila’s ten stages of meditation, with interludes outlining important supportive practices such as the Brahma Viharas. There are also some instructions on how to achieve lucid dreaming as a basis for dream yoga—making the dream state a basis for insight. In fact, it becomes obvious as the book proceeds that shamatha and insight (vipashyana) are increasingly inseparable.

Bearing in mind the reservations above, there is a great deal of valuable material packed into a relatively short book. While the full path that it describes would require extensive practice under a qualified teacher, the book contains much that could enrich the practice of anyone who already meditates regularly.

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“Meditation: The Buddhist Way of Tranquillity and Insight,” by Kamalashila

Available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

This book is a comprehensive guide to the methods and theory of meditation. Written in an informal and accessible style, it provides a complete introduction to the basic techniques, as well as detailed advice for more experienced meditators.

In 1979 Kamalashila helped to establish a semi-monastic meditation community in North Wales, which has now grown into a public retreat centre. For more than a decade he and his colleagues have been developing approaches to meditation that are readily accessible to people with a modern Western background, but firmly grounded in Buddhist tradition. Their experience – as meditators, as students of the traditional texts. and as teachers – is distilled in this book.

The book introduces mindfulness of breathing, lovingkindness practice (and the rest of the brahmaviharas), visualization, meditation posture, and more. It also covers the hindrances and how to deal with them, and the levels of meditative experience known as the dhyanas, or jhanas. This is not so much a book for reading cover to cover and a manual for learning meditation. And to say this is praise and not disparagement. The book is easy to read, but you’ll probably find that you want to spend quite some time on a given chapter so that you can really put the instructions into practice.

The result is a practical handbook with a wealth of helpful detailed advice, complete with troubleshooting guides and maps of the places our practice might take us. But it is also an inspiring exploration of the principles underlying Buddhist meditation, and of its real aims: heightened awareness, emotional positivity, and – ultimately – liberating insight into the true nature of reality.

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