The far reaches of human experience
A few weeks ago we took a look at the jhanas, four altered states of consciousness which can arise through deep meditation practice, particularly when we emphasise the samadhi (focus/stillness/concentration) aspect of practice as taught in the early Buddhist approach to practice.
In that article, we followed the progression of deepening concentration as far as the fourth jhana, then shifted gears and moved into the world of insight practice.
However, it turns out that, if we stay in the realm of samadhi, we can go deeper still - and that's what we're going to do this week. We'll start with a brief recap of the first four jhanas, and reframe them as a process of successive letting go. Then we'll go further down the rabbit hole and see where we end up!
The first four jhanas, redux
Samadhi practice is really very simple at its core. Find a quiet place where you won't be disturbed, and set yourself up in a comfortable-enough position that you can be physically still for quite a while. Then pick an object - any object will do, there are pros and cons to each choice - and place your attention on it. When you notice your mind has wandered, let go of the distraction, relax the body, and come back to your object. Do nothing else!
Concentration is not something we force to happen - it's something that happens by itself, when we set up sufficiently supportive conditions. The instructions in the paragraph above get the job done for me. There's more that can be said about the process of getting concentrated - Leigh and I offer a variety of 'aids' to getting concentrated when we teach jhana retreats, like the one we're offering in June 2023 through Gaia House - but the core of it is simply allowing your mind to settle down around its object.
At a certain point, the mind-wandering diminishes, and, by shifting the attention to a pleasant sensation somewhere in the body, we can enter the first jhana, described in the early suttas thus:
Quite secluded from sense pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, one enters and dwells in the first jhana, which is accompanied by thought and examination, with rapture and happiness born of seclusion.
Now, the experience of the first jhana tends to be quite dramatic and striking for most people when they first encounter it. The 'rapture and happiness' mentioned in the old texts is often experienced as an energetic sensation, perhaps as strong heat or an electrical buzz throughout the body. Earlier in this article, I said that we could treat the jhanas as a process of 'letting go' - so maybe it seems weird that 'letting go' would lead to this kind of highly energised, 'up'-type experience!
Apparently, though, there's a physiological basis for this experience. I don't know all the details, but apparently there's a mechanism in the body which essentially generates the experience of bodily pleasure, and it's 'always on'. The reason that we don't experience bodily pleasure all the time is because there's another mechanism which acts as a kind of 'damper', suppressing the pleasure that we would otherwise be feeling. So it seems like what's actually going on as we enter the first jhana is that the suppression mechanism is shutting off while the pleasure-generator is still active, and so we get this very strong jhanic experience. Pretty interesting!
Anyway, from here onward the 'letting go' is much easier to see. As we move into the second jhana, the texts give us this:
With the subsiding of thought and examination, one enters and dwells in the second jhana, which has internal confidence and unification of mind, is without thought and examination, and has rapture and happiness born of concentration.
The second jhana is experientially much 'quieter' than the first jhana - the turbulence and mental activity of the first jhana passes away as the experience of bodily pleasure quietens down, and a gentler, subtler emotional happiness becomes predominant. When you get good at the jhanas, you'll start to notice that the emotional happiness was present in the first jhana too, but way in the background, because your experience was dominated by the energy stuff. As the energy recedes (and presumably that pleasure-generating mechanism starts to dial down), the emotional joy comes more to the forefront of consciousness.
Continuing the arc of quietening down and letting go, we enter the third jhana:
With the fading away as well of rapture, one dwells equanimous and, mindful and clearly comprehending, one experiences happiness with the body; one enters and dwells in the third jhana of which the noble ones declare: ‘That one is equanimous, mindful, one who dwells happily.’
The energy is gone at this point, and the joy has mellowed out into a quiet contentment. There's a very clear sense of progressively letting things settle down more and more - for many people there's even a somatic sense of things 'descending', like the first two jhanas are somehow centred in the upper body whereas the third is down in the abdomen. And as we continue down that slope, eventually we reach the end of the road for embodied experience:
With the abandoning of pleasure and pain, and with the previous passing away of joy and displeasure, one enters and dwells in the fourth jhana, which is neither painful nor pleasant and includes the purification of mindfulness by equanimity.
The fourth jhana is subjectively neutral, deeply peaceful, very stable and settled. That stable quality, combined with the profound level of concentration that's been developed to get to this point, makes it a great place to start doing insight practice, and that's exactly what the discourse we were following last time recommends. But other discourses invite us to go further still - so let's see what happens if we do!
Going deeper: the arupas (aka jhanas 5-8)
Sometimes you'll hear teachers (me included) talking about eight 'jhanas'. Strictly speaking, there are only four 'material jhanas' (the four 'rupa jhanas' described above), followed by four 'immaterial states' ('arupa ayatanas'), but all eight are concentration states and it works well to go from the fourth rupa jhana into the first arupa ayatana, so it seems reasonable enough to talk about what comes next as the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth jhana unless we're trying to be sticklers for textual accuracy.
Anyway, in order to enter the arupas, we continue that process of letting go that we've already been following. But what does that look like?
With the complete transcending of perceptions of [physical] form, with the disappearance of perceptions of resistance, and not heeding perceptions of diversity, [perceiving,] 'Infinite space,' one enters and dwells in the dimension of infinite space.
People who spend a lot of time in the fourth jhana often start to notice that the awareness of their own body is getting kinda vague, or even that the body seems to vanish entirely. Actually, the perception of the body can get weird well before the fourth jhana - as the mind begins to settle and the body remains still, little by little our brains may stop doing some the stuff they usually do because it isn't needed right at that moment. Proprioception (the sense of where the body is in space) can get a bit weird - people may feel very light or very heavy, or that their hands have become huge, that sort of thing.
Continuing this process still further, after a while the mind simply stops 'painting in' the body into experience. This is a really interesting thing to observe, because it's a first-hand insight into emptiness - or at least it can be, if we're paying attention! Most of the time, our experience feels like it's a perfect 1:1 representation of an objectively real external world, as if our eyes are windows looking out onto a world which is obviously just the way we see it. But actually everything we ever experience is a kind of mental projection, our mind's best attempt to render what's going on around us in a way we can understand. So when we get very concentrated, our experience gets very 'weird' because we're actually starting to change the way that mental projection is being constructed - we can, in effect, see its constructed nature for ourselves. Very cool!
Anyway, the transition from the fourth jhana to the fifth - which is probably the trickiest of the whole lot - requires us to let go of material existence itself. Not just the body, but actually all perception of physical form, boundary or resistance. (One way to do this is to introduce a sense of 'expansion' into your experience and then simply follow the expansion, bigger and bigger, until eventually all perception of limitation and boundary drops away and boom, there's the limitless space of the fifth jhana.)
Interestingly, in the fifth jhana we still have the sense of space itself - it's just that there aren't any objects in the space any more. There's a subtle sense of an observer who is aware of the space, but otherwise the space is devoid of objects of any sort. It's just a really, really big space. Personally, I find this really cool, because under ordinary circumstances it's actually really hard to notice the space in a room rather than being drawn to the things in the room - the keyboard, the screen, the windows and so forth. But, in the same way that the happiness of the second jhana is present in the first jhana too but buried under all that the energetic pleasure, it seems like the space is present but buried under all of those things - so when the things empty out, the space becomes apparent.
A big empty space is cool enough, but we can let go further still:
With the complete transcending of the dimension of infinite space, [perceiving,] 'Infinite consciousness,' one enters and dwells in the dimension of infinite consciousness.
The shift here is a pretty subtle one - a kind of 'turning back'. We've already let go of all the stuff in the space - next, the mind lets go of the sense of space itself. So what's left? The knowing of the space - the 'consciousness' of the space. The space was limitless, so the consciousness of the space is limitless too. We 'watch the watcher' - we become consciousness of the limitless consciousness itself. If that sounds weird, well, come on a retreat with me and learn how to do it, then see if you can describe it any better!
At this point we've let go of pretty much everything, right? No body, no things, no space - just pure consciousness, knowing itself. Surely this must be the end of the road! But no:
With the complete transcending of the dimension of infinite consciousness, [perceiving,] 'There is nothing,' one enters and dwells in the dimension of nothingness.
Sometimes, translators will render 'nothingness' as 'no-thing-ness' in an attempt to help the reader understand what's going on. Honestly, though, it's a tough one - like most things, until you've experienced it, it's hard to get a sense of what it's like. Whatever you're imagining, it probably isn't that.
The best I can do is to say that, when I open the fridge to get a bottle of milk, and the milk isn't there (usually because my partner has taken it and not yet put it back), there's a moment of 'nothingness' - I was expecting something (the bottle of milk), instead of which I'm confronted by absence. There's nothing there. It isn't any kind of 'something' - I'm not seeing the space where the milk should be, or even the consciousness of the missing milk. In that moment I'm simply touching into no-thing-ness - I was expecting a thing to be there, but there ain't no thing. There's nothing.
Well, it turns out that this experience of nothingness/no-thing-ness can actually be sustained, and the mind can learn to rest there for extended periods. And that's the 'seventh jhana' - the 'dimension of nothingness', as the translation above puts it.
Now we really have reached the end of the road as far as perception is concerned. Nothingness seems to be the subtlest (non-)object that we can experience whilst clearly knowing that that's what's going on. And yet we aren't done with the arupas yet - there's still one more:
With the complete transcending of the dimension of nothingness, one enters and dwells in the dimension of neither-perception-nor-non-perception.
So first, notice that the previous arupas all included a phrase like '[perceiving,] "Space/Consciousness/etc. is infinite,"' - in other words, there's still a clear knowing of what specifically is going on, it's just a pretty strange, rarefied thing that's happening. In the eighth jhana we don't get that clarity - we simply enter and dwell in the dimension of neither-perception-nor-non-perception.
This is a nightmare to describe because, by definition, any concrete description of it refers to a specific perception, and there isn't a specific perception in the eighth jhana - we've let go of perception now. At the same time, though, we're not unconscious - there's something going on, it's just that it's nothing in particular (not even 'nothing'!).
The best I can do is to say it's like that moment where you see something unfamiliar out of the corner of your eye and your mind scrabbles around trying to figure out what the heck it is. Usually that process only takes a fraction of a second before your mind either latches on to something specific and says 'Oh, it's this!' (even when it's wrong) or gives up altogether and says 'Not important, forget about it'. Well, the eighth jhana is like taking that in-between state where it hasn't landed on anything at all and staying there. (It's a bit like the joke about learning to fly - all you have to do is fall over and miss the ground.)
Deeper still - cessations of consciousness
The eighth jhana is as far as we can go with conscious experience - but some intrepid meditators have gone further still, developing a whole taxonomy of types of cessation of consciousness. By their very nature, these are not really experiences that you have, so much as 'gaps' in experience, where you realise that time has passed and you weren't there to experience it.
The simplest kind of cessation of consciousness happens to most of us every day, when we fall asleep. (I'm told that it's possible to train oneself to remain conscious in deep dreamless sleep, but I haven't done that. I like my sleep just fine the way it is!)
Perhaps more interesting from a meditation standpoint, some teachers offer a take on the jhanas which is so deep that consciousness appears to shut off while the practitioner is in the jhana. It's only after emerging from the jhana (often after several hours) that the practitioner can 'look back' to see what just happened. It's difficult to reconcile that approach with the descriptions of the rupa jhanas in the early texts (e.g. the description of the third jhana talks about experiencing happiness in the body, which is hard to do when you're not having any experience at all), but nevertheless it's a fascinating practice that shows just how far these practices can be taken.
Cessation of consciousness can also happen through insight practice. At certain moments, we can go through a kind of 'reboot', in which consciousness momentarily seems to shut off and then come back online, generally feeling greatly relaxed and refreshed. These moments can sometimes be profoundly significant and herald a shift in our practice, or at other times they can simply be something that happens and leaves us feeling pretty good for a while. (These types of experiences are explored in vastly more detail in the Mahasi tradition. It's not a style I've worked with myself to any great extent, and I have some reservations about the approach, but if you want to know more, check out Mahasi's Practical Insight Meditation.)
The creme-de-la-creme of cessation experiences is 'the cessation of perception and feeling', sometimes called 'nirodha samapatti' (the attainment of cessation). Purists will argue that the cessations I've listed above are only 'apparent' cessations, and that, when examined closely enough, a subtle object of consciousness can still be found (deep dreamless sleep in the first case, the nimitta and/or jhana factors in the second case, nibbana in the third case), whereas in nirodha there's nothing at all - zero, zip, zilch. I don't believe I've ever experienced nirodha samapatti myself so I can't speak from (non-)experience here, but you can find living teachers who claim to have done it, and I find it interesting to read their accounts and see what lines up and what doesn't between them. If you're interested in this stuff, good luck to you, and let me know how you get on!
I just came here for some stress relief, why are you talking about all this weird stuff?
If your interest in meditation is limited to doing a bit of practice every now and again to help you chill out, then sure, this kind of material is probably not going to be terribly relevant to you. Hit up my Audio page, try some of the guided meditations, and maybe take a look at my book, Pathways of Meditation.
That said, I do make a deliberate effort to expose the 'deeper' end of the meditation world as well. I first got interested in actually doing the practice rather than just reading about it when I came across a book which did talk very explicitly about the deep end of the swimming pool and gave clear, detailed instructions for how to approach it. I figure that if people don't know what's possible, there's a real risk of missing out on something that could otherwise have been incredibly valuable to them - so it's my duty to shine a light into the darker corners of the meditation world and do my very best to let people know what's lurking in there. If it isn't your cup of tea, that's cool, but at least you've had the option and chosen to take a different path.
For me, it's also inspiring (and frequently humbling) to hear about the farthest reaches of the human experience. Any time I start to think I'm pretty hot stuff, I can remind myself that I'm still in the foothills of a vast mountain range stretching on to the horizon. There's so much to explore, so many wonderful practitioners with astonishing skills, and so much kindness and compassion in every generation of teachers going back thousands of years in their willingness to preserve and disseminate what they've found. If I can be a part of that tradition, even in a small way, then I believe my life will have been well lived.
May your own explorations bring you joy, wonder and peace.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!