kind eyes

Four spiritual love languages

Ai-generated images of the Buddha and a nun, in a colorful style that looks like a painting.

Yesterday on Mastodon, which is the only social media site I use at the moment besides the private online community space I host for Wildmind’s sponsors, someone shared a link to a “love languages” quiz.

I’d heard of this concept of love languages before. The blurb on the official website, based on the best-selling book by Dr. Gary Chapman, says,

The premise of The 5 Love Languages® book is quite simple: different people with different personalities give and receive love in different ways. By learning to recognize these preferences in yourself and in your loved ones, you can learn to identify the root of your conflicts, connect more profoundly, and truly begin to grow closer.

The basic idea is that we don’t all have the same ways of expressing love to each other, and therefore we don’t always recognize when someone is showing us love, or understand how to let them feel loved. And that fits with my experience.

For example, if my partner’s way of showing me love is giving small gifts, but I don’t value material possessions and in fact see them as annoying clutter, I might not feel that she intends to show love when she gives me some tchotchke or other. There’s a mismatch in how we interpret the action of giving.

See also:

Conversely, if my partner wants me to show affection with touch, but I’m not a particularly physical person, then she may not feel that she’s being shown love when I give her praise, even though I might consider that to be a clear expression of my love for her. If I offer help, but the other person interprets this as their competence being called into question, then again there’s a mismatch. It is indeed very much as if we were speaking different languages.

I took the quiz, and was told at the end that there were five love languages:

  • Quality Time™
  • Words of Affirmation™
  • Physical Touch™
  • Acts of Service™
  • Receiving Gifts™

I learned that my preferred “languages” were the first three in the list.

(And yes, the quiz included those oddly obsessive trademark signs, although hopefully we’re allowed to talk about things like “quality time” without getting sued.)

When I reflected on my own experience of being in loving relation to others, it seemed to me that the most profound expressions of love were not included in the five languages offered above. So I thought I’d say a few words about other love languages.

My intention isn’t at all to criticize Chapman’s work, but to offer a wider and deeper perspective on communicating love, for those who might find it helpful.

1. Looking With Love

Looking with love and being looked at with love are profound forms of communication. As Jan Chozen Bays wrote in her wonderful book, “How to Train a Wild Elephant,” in a chapter called Loving Eyes: “We know how to use loving eyes when we are falling in love, when we see a new baby or a cute animal. Why do we not use loving eyes more often?”

Not only do we know how to look with loving eyes, but we know what it’s like to be looked at lovingly. It’s one of the most important communications that goes on in loving relationships, whether between partners, or parents and children, or friends.

Looking with loving eyes has become an important part of the way I practice and teach lovingkindness practice. But it’s something we can do anytime.

Although looking with love plays an important part in showing love, it doesn’t fit into the five-fold schema of the love languages. However, it seems to me to be a love language in its own right. And it’s another place where mismatches in communication styles can take place. Some people are more sensitive to loving looks than others. Some people express love through their eyes more than others.

2. Giving Honesty and Showing Vulnerability

Like everyone, I have bad habits. I get irritable at times, for example. When I’ve behaved badly like that I try to apologize as quickly as possible — often within moments. I usually try to explain what was going on in my being as the irritability arose — “I was stressed and tired, I misinterpreted what you said, old conditioning from childhood traumas was triggered,” and so on. I often say she doesn’t deserve to be treated badly. I do these things as an expression of love.

And she is very good herself at doing the same time, letting me know what led to her acting in unhelpful ways. She too does this as an expression of love.

This, to me, is one of the most profound displays of love we can offer. Giving honesty and showing vulnerability involves a great deal of trust. It too is a kind of love language — Look, I love you enough that I will take this risk!  — yet it doesn’t seem to fit at all in the five love languages schema.

There can be mismatches in language. Some people don’t like apologizing, because they think it makes them look weak, and they’ll see another person’s apologies as a sign of submission. Some people can’t receive expressions of vulnerability because their first instinct is to try to “fix” things by making suggestions, rather than listening empathetically.

3. Showing Patience and Forgiveness

The expressions of love that I most appreciate from my partner are when she is patient with me and when she forgives me. When she does those things I really know I’m loved.

When we accept each other as imperfect, and forgive each others’ missteps, we give each other permission to be ourselves, which is an enormous gift. We see ourselves and each other as works-in-progress, which liberates us both from being afraid we’ll never change and from having to pretend we’re perfect. And we also know that the other person is working on their stuff, which offers immense reassurance.

Patience and forgiveness are also languages through which we show love.

There could be mismatches here, too. One person might show patience and forgiveness as an act of love, while the other person takes it as a sign of having got away with something; they aren’t able to reciprocate with the humility and gratefulness that should accompany being offered forgiveness and so can’t benefit from it. Some people even see conflict as a sign of love, and think that patience is equivalent to not caring — If they really loved me they’d be angry. Some people fear being forgiving because they think it will encourage bad behavior, and so they resort to punishing, resentful behaviors, never letting the other person forget that they’ve transgressed.

4. Sharing the Path

The most powerful way I know for us to connect lovingly with each other is for us to talk about our lives and our relationships as a spiritual practice. This means sharing what we understand love to be, sharing the mistakes we’ve made and what we’ve learned, what our hopes and fears are, and in every way letting ourselves be known not just as a partner, but as a human being struggling our way through life.

It means sharing what we see our life’s purpose to be, and sharing how the relationship we have with the other person — and I’m thinking of partners here, in the main, but also some dear friendships — fits into that purpose.

This may be the deepest love language of all.

Through it, we come to see the other person in a deep way, and to see ourselves more clearly as well. We see the other person as a being who is on a spiritual journey. And we see ourselves in the same way. Sharing the path involves opening up in a deep way. It takes a lot of trust, as well as a shared commitment to growth.  Two people cannot share their paths unless they are both walking a path.

When we share in this way we become clearer about what matters most in our lives. We see ourselves in a very different way from our ordinary view of ourselves as beings who work and do chores and pay bills and relax in front of the TV in order to recuperate from all that.

Sharing the path in this way can lead to a profound sense of transcendence, where we no longer see ourselves and the other person as entirely separate, and where, even, our sense of self becomes tenuous. It is in fact a form of spiritual practice in its own right, as are the other three spiritual love languages I’ve described.

Mismatches here might arise when one person sees the point of such discussions as establishing who is “right” — who has the best philosophy, the most incisive insights, and so on. These kinds of mismatches are particularly painful, because what’s being shared and rejected is so central and important to who we are.

Four spiritual love languages

It’s possible that all this is contained in Chapman’s teaching on love languages — I haven’t read the book — but I saw not even the merest hint of it in the questions I was asked, which were all along the lines of, “It’s more meaningful for me when (a) my partner gives me a gift, or (b) my partner doesn’t check their phone when talking to me.”

It’s fine as far as it goes, but it seems to lack spiritual depth. Then again, not having read Chapman’s book, it may be I’m over-simplifying his approach.

Anyway, as someone who cares about the quality of my loving relationships, and who falteringly works at being a better friend, parent, and partner, I wanted to share a little of what I regard as important where it comes to communicating love.

These four spiritual love languages are areas where we need to learn to speak in ways that others who communicate differently can understand. And we need to learn to listen too, so that we can decipher others’ languages and realize that we are loved, and learn to respond to them, so that the other feels loved too.

Are there other things you would consider “love languages” that aren’t in Chapman’s book or in this article? Why not tell us about them in the comments below?

Read More

In lovingkindness practice, don’t look for love; look with love

mother looking lovingly at her baby

I remember one time, not long after I’d first learned to meditate, I was being guided through the lovingkindness (metta bhavana) meditation practice. And the instructor asked us to turn our attention to our hearts, to find the love there, and then to radiate that love to all beings.

Uh, oh! There was no love to be found in my heart! “Why is there no love in my heart?” I wondered “Is there something wrong with me? Maybe I’m a horrible person. I guess I must be,” I concluded!

Thus began a 20-minute spiral into despair and self-loathing. Probably not what the meditation instructor had in mind.

A few weeks later a friend described exactly the same thing happening to him. I’ve since heard the same story from others.

The central problem here is that we’re looking for the wrong thing, or at least we’re looking for it in the wrong place. We’re looking for some kind of feeling down there, in the body — in the heart, often, where we tend to experience feelings connected with love.

But we should be looking with love, not for love.

Kindness (Love) Is About How We Relate

In lovingkindness practice we’re trying to develop kindness. (You can call it “love” if you want. I’ll sometimes use “love” and sometimes say “kindness.”)

Kindness is an attitude. It’s a way of relating in which we value others’ well-being. You could say it’s a way of regarding or looking — looking with respect, cherishing, and support.

When we relate, regard, or look with kindness, pleasant, warm feelings arise. But those feelings are not themselves kindness. They’re physiological sensations. They’re feelings. They’re nice feelings, but they’re just feelings. They can be important because they help us to value kindness but they’re not kindness.

See also:

But they arise because we’re looking or relating with kindness. If we try to look for those feelings without first relating or looking with kindness (again, call it love if you want) we’re putting the cart before the horse. It’s possible we’ll find those pleasant feelings, but only if we’re relating with kindness already. Or if we’re on the verge of doing so.

Kindness or love (in the sense I’m using those words) are not simply feelings. They’re active desires (or volitions): we desire the well-being of another, for example. We want them to feel happy and at ease, which is why we treat them with kindness and respect, and don’t say hurtful things to them.

Recall Looking With Loving Eyes

When we’re cultivating lovingkindness, what’s much more effective is to connect with the experience of looking with love: of having kind eyes. We can do this by remembering what it’s like to look with love or kindness.

It doesn’t matter what the memory is of, as long as it’s a loving memory. It can be a memory of looking at a child, or a pet, or a lover. Take your pick,

When you recall something like that, you’ll notice that your eyes become permeated with the qualities of love: cherishing, valuing, warmth, softness, openness, gentleness, caring, and so on.

Actually it’s not just your eyes that become filled with those qualities, but your mind. And when you turn your mind toward an awareness of your own being, those qualities become directed toward yourself. You find you’re regarding yourself with warmth, care, cherishing, and so on. Turn your mind toward another person, and those qualities (which are permeating your mind) become directed toward that person.

Looking With Love Rather Than For Love

When we’re doing lovingkindness practice in this way we don’t need to look for love “down there” in the heart. We’re already looking with love from “up here.”

And now, if we bring our awareness to the heart, we may well find that there are warm feelings there too. And that’s great.

Skip the whole part about connecting with kindness, and you’re liable to find little or nothing going on, heart-wise.

If you find that the “loving eyes” thing isn’t working for you, it may well be because you’re unconsciously doing something that’s blocking kindness from arising.

Unblocking Our Love

So you can gently inquire: What could I do, right now, to show a little more kindness?

Maybe that means relaxing physically. Maybe it means smiling. Maybe it means relaxing mentally, so that we’re not trying too hard, not judging ourselves for “not being good enough.” Maybe it means allowing ourselves to be at ease and to be playful.

Let go of those barriers to love, and you’ll naturally become kinder.

Summing Up

In lovingkindness practice, it’s often not a very good idea to go looking for feelings of love in the heart. Start by recalling what it feels like in and around the eyes when you look with love. Then when you turn your attention elsewhere, those feelings are likely to follow, because it’s your attention itself that’s permeated with kindness.

If those feelings in and around the eyes don’t arise, or if they do but they vanish when you turn your attention toward yourself, gently ask yourself what you can do, right here, in this moment to be kinder. Let your attitude soften, and you’ll find you’ve become kinder. And that’s what the practice is about.

Love is not what we look for. It’s what we look with.

Wildmind is an ad-free, community-supported meditation initiative, supported by sponsors. If you find this website helpful, you’ll love the access that Wildmind’s sponsors get to the meditation courses and other resources that I make available to them. Click here to learn more.

Read More

Self-compassion: lovingkindness squared

Self-compassion is the most radically transformative practice that I’ve stumbled upon in more than 30 years of exploring Buddhism. It’s helped me to cope with many difficulties I’ve faced, ranging from the mundane challenge of a child’s tantrum, to financial problems and even serious illness. It’s helped me to become kinder and more compassionate not just to myself but also to others. In fact I don’t know of any other practice that’s changed me so much. I’d describe self-compassion as “lovingkindness squared.”

Self-compassion is simply treating yourself kindly, responding to your own pain with compassion in the same way you’d respond to the pain of someone you care about. “Self-compassion” is a bit of a misnomer; we give compassion not to ourselves as a whole, but to any part of us that’s suffering.

I’d like to outline five steps that are involved in practicing self-compassion.

1. Drop the Story

The mind generates stories around our suffering. These may be stories in which we blame others, or tell ourselves that the discomfort we’re experiencing is unbearable or shouldn’t be happening. They may be stories of revenge, or stories that we are bad, or worthless, or are doomed to suffer. They may be stories about ways we can numb or escape the pain.

These stories themselves cause us further pain, and so as we notice them arising it’s wise to disentangle ourselves from them, just letting the words echo away into the mind.

See also:

Our stories are what the Buddha called, in a famous analogy, “the second arrow.” He pointed out that we’re all subject to discomfort and pain, whether it’s having our feelings hurt or having a toothache or experiencing loss. This is the “first arrow,” which arrives unexpectedly. This kind of suffering is inevitable. But our response to being hit by this arrow is often, the Buddha said, to indulge in the kinds of thoughts I described above, which he summarized as “sorrow, grief, and lamentation.” It’s these responses—our second arrows—that cause most of our suffering. Each thought like, “This is terrible!” or, “Why is this happening to me!” is a self-inflicted stab with the second arrow.

It can take a lot of practice to become mindful enough to stop these stories from arising, or even to catch them in the early stages. For a long time it may be that the first time we notice that something is up is when we’re in the middle of a reaction, having already created a full-blown inner (or outer) drama. So the first thing we do is to recognize that through our stories we’re creating unnecessary suffering for ourselves, so that we can drop the story line and become mindfully aware of the first arrow.

2. Recognize That Pain is Present

In order to practice self-compassion we have to notice that we’re in pain. But this may not be easy, because we have unhelpful habits such as taking our own suffering for granted, or denying our pain—perhaps seeing it as a sign of weakness—or just failing to notice it because pain is so common in our lives. We also may be so quick to jump to emotional reactions and stories—attempts to protect ourselves against suffering—that we don’t really acknowledge the suffering.

But whenever we’re frustrated, or angry, or lonely, or anxious, or longing, or when our feelings are hurt, we’re suffering. Every sub-optimal state we experience is a form of suffering. It’s important that we recognize this pain, otherwise we can’t practice self-compassion.

Let’s take an example: a friend saying something that hurts our feelings. First we hear the words and interpret them as an insult, even though they may not have been intended that way. Then the brain flags up the comment as something potentially harmful to you by creating a sensation of pain in the body, probably in the solar plexus. This is the mind’s way of saying “Here’s a threat! Pay attention to it!”

Another common place for painful feelings to arise is around the heart. The heart and gut are areas of the body rich in nerve clusters, and the brain generates sensations in those places as a way of catching our attention and provoking us to action. Sometimes feelings of hurt can be so strong it’s like we’ve been punched in the gut. No wonder we react strongly.

One fascinating thing that’s recently been found is that feelings such as the ache of isolation become less intense when we take pain-killers such as Tylenol. What we think of as “emotional” pain is just a special form of physical pain, induced in the body by the mind.

The kinds of internal sensations I’ve been discussing are what Buddhism calls vedanas. Vedana is a technical term referring to the pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral sensations that are generated to accompany every perception we have.

The mental processing that leads to the arising of these feelings takes place in parts of the brain that aren’t accessible to conscious awareness. We can’t, for example, choose not to be hurt. We do, however, have some ability to chose how to respond to the perception of hurt.

3. Turn Toward the Pain

We can choose to respond to pain with acceptance. In practicing self-compassion, it’s important that we learn to accept our pain—that we allow it just to be there, without having aversion toward it. To respond skillfully to suffering we have to be prepared to turn toward it.

Taking a mindful approach to our pain means recognizing that it’s OK to experience suffering, and even to take an interest in it. It’s especially helpful to notice, as precisely as we can, where the pain is located in the body, and to observe its size and texture, and how it changes from moment to moment.

Accepting our pain in this way means that we’re no longer stabbing ourselves with the second arrow—no longer creating stories that intensify and prolong our suffering. Instead, we’re simply mindful of the first arrow. If we find that the stories start to creep in again, and that thoughts are arising, we keep letting go of them, just as we do when we’re meditating.

The Buddha pointed out that another way we turn away from pain is to pursue pleasure. Often we’ll do that through numbing ourselves with food, or alcohol, or busyness, or television. We may not actually get much pleasure from these activities—it’s the pursuit of pleasure that’s the distraction. As long as we’re leaning into the future, seeking pleasure, we’re no longer being with the pain of the present moment. So, just as we need to drop our stories, we need also to drop our avoidance. The most effective way to deal with discomfort is to turn toward it.

It can be hard to turn toward pain in this way. In evolutionary terms, pain evolved as a protective mechanism. The whole point of pain is to alert us to the fact that something is wrong, so that we can escape the painful situation. The way I think about turning toward our pain is this: imagine that a friend has turned up on your doorstep in a state of distress. What do you do? Well, hopefully you won’t respond with aversion, trying to get rid of the discomfort by slamming the door and running into the house. Ideally, you’d invite your friend in, sit them down, and take a kindly and compassionate interest in what’s going on with them.

Sometimes it can be useful to say, “It’s OK to feel this. Let me feel this,” just to remind ourselves to stay with our discomfort.

Being mindful of our feelings in this way creates what we call “the gap.” This is a pause—I think of it as a sacred pause—in which we can choose not to let our normal reactions kick in. Instead, we create an opportunity for compassion to arise.

4. Give Your Pain Compassionate Attention

Having accepted a painful feeling mindfully, the next stage is to give it your compassionate attention. This means treating your pain with the same gentleness and kindness with which you would treat a friend who is suffering. Sometimes I think of my pain as a small, wounded part of me that is in need of love and comfort—like a small animal.

To relate to your pain compassionately, regard it with love. Look at it with your inward awareness in the same way that you would look at a child that is in pain, offering it comfort, reassurance, and the knowledge that it isn’t alone. Remember that your pain is not an enemy. It’s a part of you that’s suffering, and that needs your support.

Wish your pain it well. Talk to it. Soothe it. You can use the same phrases you would use in lovingkindness or compassion meditation, saying things like, “May you be well; may you be happy; may you be free from suffering.” But sometimes those words can seem hackneyed, so I’m more likely to say something like, “I know you’re in pain, but I’m here for you,” or “I love you, and I want you to be happy.” With intense suffering I’ll sometimes resort to the deep trust expressed by St. Julian of Norwich: “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.”

You can also lay a hand compassionately on the part of your body where your emotional pain is manifesting most strongly. This is usually the heart or gut.

5. Respond Appropriately

As you become more skilled at recognizing and accepting your pain, and with responding to it compassionately, you’ll find that it’s easier to respond in an appropriate way to situations that give rise to pain in the first place.

There are no rules for how to respond. It depends on the situation, on your skills in communication, etc. But when you’re mindful of your pain and cultivate compassion toward it, you’ll discover you have more creativity at your disposal than you’d imagined possible. You’ll probably find that having responded with empathy and compassion toward yourself, you’ll quite spontaneously behave the same way toward others.

These five steps can be worked through very quickly. I’ve run through them while driving at 65 miles per hour on a highway: Someone cuts me off, I start up with an angry storyline “Idiot! How dare you!” I realize that this is causing me to suffer, drop the story, notice the pain that (it’s usually fear, located in the solar plexus), accept it, and then send it some compassionate thoughts (“May you be well; may you be free from suffering”). And my having done that, the anger vanishes and I find that I’m not only compassionate toward myself, but to the other driver as well. This may take just a few seconds.

I’ve found it useful as well when I’m stressed. For example while I’m cooking and being bombarded with demands from my children. I’ll notice a knot of tension building up in my gut, give it a moment’s compassionate intention, and find that the desire to snap at the kids has gone. It works for sadness, depression, and anxiety. Self-compassion is the Swiss Army Knife of spiritual techniques.

One myth I’d like to dispel is that if you’re reacting to a situation, it’s too late to find the gap. The pain of the first arrow doesn’t disappear just because you’ve started reacting to it! Every time you let go of your stories and drop your awareness down into the body so that you can notice your initial feelings of hurt, fear, etc., you are bringing the gap into being, and with it the freedom to respond creatively.

It’s only through treating my pain compassionately that I’ve realized the extent to which the way we treat ourselves is related to the way we treat others. Once we are able to respond to our own pain with compassion, we find that compassion for others flows freely. It’s lovingkindness squared.

Read More

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.

Read More
Menu