Altering your state of consciousness, responsibly
One of the central teachings in early Buddhism is the practice of 'jhana'. Jhanas are altered states of consciousness accessible through meditation which confer various benefits on the practitioner, such as bliss, joy and equanimity. They're an excellent way to cultivate samadhi, and also a lot of fun. So in this week's article we're going to take a look at what it means to practise the jhanas.
The jhanas in context
The core of early Buddhism is the practice of the Eightfold Path - teachings on the appropriate view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and samadhi which lead a practitioner to freedom from reactivity. The final item in this list - often translated as 'right concentration' - is often defined in terms of the jhanas. Indeed, the Pali Canon (the collection of the earliest records of the teachings of the historical Buddha) is replete with references to the jhanas - we can infer from those texts that jhana practice was considered a major part of the path in the time of the Buddha. These days, it's not quite so common, for reasons we'll get into a bit later.
The jhanas are often presented in the context of samadhi - cultivating a stable, penetrating attention which can then be turned to 'knowing and seeing', i.e. insight meditation. It's very common to encounter the recommendation that meditation practice should start with a period of samadhi practice (jhana practice if you know it), followed by insight practice. It's difficult to see clearly what's going on if your mind is darting around all over the place, so if you start by cultivating some stillness, the clarity will follow much more easily.
So the jhanas are clearly an important part of early Buddhism - but what actually are they?
Classical descriptions of the jhanas
In the Pali Canon, the jhanas are described as states of consciousness characterised by the presence of certain 'jhana factors'. Here's the standard description, taken from SN45.8:
And what, bhikkhus, is right concentration? Here, bhikkhus, secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, a bhikkhu enters and dwells in the first jhana, which is accompanied by thought and examination, with rapture and happiness born of seclusion. With the subsiding of thought and examination, he 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. With the fading away as well of rapture, he dwells equanimous and, mindful and clearly comprehending, he experiences happiness with the body; he enters and dwells in the third jhana of which the noble ones declare: ‘He is equanimous, mindful, one who dwells happily.’ With the abandoning of pleasure and pain, and with the previous passing away of joy and displeasure, he enters and dwells in the fourth jhana, which is neither painful nor pleasant and includes the purification of mindfulness by equanimity. This is called right concentration.
Breaking this down, we can see that the entry requirements for the first jhana are that the practitioner should be 'secluded from sensual pleasures' and 'secluded from unwholesome states'. The jhanas are subtle states of mind, so it's helpful to be removed from the coarse distractions of sense pleasures - if half your mind is thinking about what you're going to have for lunch, you're probably not going to settle enough to reach the jhana. It's also really important to be in a generally wholesome state of mind - the jhanas are basically subtle states of wellbeing, and it requires quite a bit of openness and flexibility of mind to find your way into them when you're first learning them, so if your mind is tightly contracted and miserable, the jhanas will probably elude you. For this reason, my teacher Leigh Brasington recommends starting every meditation with metta, to put you in a positive frame of mind. If metta isn't your thing, don't force it, but it's absolutely crucial to have some wellbeing going on when you're working with the jhanas, so you'll need to figure something out sooner or later. Don't skip this step!
Having set up supportive conditions for the practice, the practitioner now 'enters and dwells in' the first jhana - oops, no instructions about how that's accomplished. (This is pretty typical of the Pali Canon.) But don't worry, we'll get around to some instructions later on.
Anyway, having arrived in the first jhana, we find it to be a state characterised by 'rapture and happiness'. The Pali words here are 'piti' and 'sukha'. Generally speaking, piti is experienced as a physical sensation - but, rather unfortunately from the teacher's perspective, different people experience it in different ways. For some people it shows up as a kind of tingling, an electrical feeling, or a sexual sensation; for others, it can manifest as heat. People who've done qigong or kundalini yoga often say it's the same kind of energy that those practices work with. For many people it's a pleasant experience, but not always - it's often extremely intense at first, and not everyone has pleasant associations with experiencing a sudden flush of tremendous heat. Sukha is usually regarded as a kind of emotional happiness - anywhere from mild happiness to full-blown joy. Typically speaking, the first jhana is too energised to be a really stable, tranquil state, and this 'unsettled' quality is captured in the traditional language with the observation that 'thought and examination' may be present. (Don't take this too literally - people sometimes stress about whether they're really experiencing a jhana if a stray thought wanders through their mind from time to time. Thinking sometimes does stop completely in the jhanas, but not always, so don't worry about it.)
Moving into the second jhana (how? Again, we'll come back to this), there's a settling down, represented in the traditional language as the subsiding of thought and examination. We still have the piti and sukha, but the mental disturbances of thinking and examining have gone, and we have 'internal confidence' and 'unification of mind'. Things are settling down; we're getting some good samadhi at this point. Experientially, the piti tends to calm down a lot, while the sukha predominates; for most people, the second jhana is a state of emotional happiness or joy, with some energetic activity in the background.
As we move into the third jhana, the energetic stuff comes to an end, and we're left in a much more peaceful place. It's still emotionally positive, but generally speaking the whole system is calming down, so whereas the second jhana was happy or joyful, the third jhana is more a place of contentment. As we sink deeper into the stability of samadhi we also find ourselves becoming more imperturbable - equanimity develops, and our mindfulness tends to become really strong because most of what usually distracts us has fallen away by this point.
Then comes the fourth jhana, which takes us fully into equanimity. Even the contentment of the third jhana now drops off, and the resulting experience is one of quiet stillness. The fourth jhana is usually described as emotionally neutral, but the total absence of any negative physical or emotional sensations is actually a pretty good place to be, so the fourth jhana can still be considered a state of wellbeing.
(Often the classical descriptions stop here; sometimes, they go on to describe four further states, sometimes called the 'formless jhanas', but we have plenty to be chewing on already!)
So how do we actually do this?
Learning the jhanas can be a tricky process, in all honesty. If going on retreat is an option for you, then a 10-day retreat with a teacher like Leigh is a good approach, and if you can manage longer, so much the better. (A month is ideal.) It takes many people a few days of retreat time just for their minds to settle down enough for the jhanas to become accessible. That being said, however, I know quite a few people who've learnt the jhanas off retreat, so it's definitely possible.
Getting into the jhanas for the first time is often a process of trial and error. There are various sets of standard instructions (a couple of which I'll give below), but different approaches work for different people, and the standard instructions might not work for you at all. You're trying to get your mind to go somewhere that it doesn't usually go, and if you aren't yet familiar with the jhanas, you don't know how to do that yet. Fortunately, the jhanas are nice, stable states that the mind actually likes to visit, so if you set up good supportive conditions (which is what the standard instructions are trying to do), it's likely that your mind will find its way there all by itself. Once you've been there enough times, you'll start to get an intuitive sense for how to return whenever you want.
There are two major approaches to entering the first jhana. One is to focus your attention on a relatively narrow point, and then stay there. Focusing the mind in this way seems to build up the energy of piti, and if you allow that energy to keep building and building, sooner or later it will erupt (usually suddenly and dramatically at first), taking you into the first jhana.
Leigh's instructions for entering the first jhana can be found in detail here, but in a nutshell:
A totally different approach is to work not with a narrow area of focus but with the sensations of what Rob Burbea called the 'energy body'. Rob described this practice at length in his 2019 jhana retreat, but in short, you're aiming to get a sense of the whole field of physical sensation in your experience, including the whole space occupied by your physical body but also extending a little beyond it. (If that seems weird to you, just try it!) For some people, it's much easier to rest the mind on a broad space rather than a narrow one, and if this is the case for you, the energy body approach might work better than focusing on the breath. In any case, resting your attention on the whole energy body, you now stay there until you locate a feeling of wellbeing somewhere in the energy body, and then stay with that feeling of wellbeing until it develops into the jhana. Often this will be a slower and gentler experience than when using the 'narrow focus' technique.
Either way, once you get into the first jhana, just stay there. Eventually you'll come out. Then get back in again. Keep doing this until you can get in and out reliably. This is generally good advice for all the jhanas, with one exception: if the first jhana is super-strong for you at first, it might be too intense to stay there, so you might be better off moving straight to the second.
To move from the first jhana to the second, take a deep breath, and as you exhale, let out some of the piti energy. (Just have a sense of letting things calm down - that's usually enough.) You'll typically find that the piti calms down a lot and the emotional happiness becomes more prominent. Boom - you're in the second jhana.
Once you get the knack for this, the same basic trick works to get from the second to the third (this time letting out all the piti, so you're left only with the happiness, which is probably fairly subtle at this point) and from the third to the fourth (this time letting out all the emotional happiness too, leaving you with just quiet stillness). There's often - though not always - a sense of moving 'downwards' as you move from one jhana to the next, so look out for this as well.
This is about as far as an impersonal article on a website can take you - ultimately, your jhana explorations are personal to you, and a good teacher will be able to personalise the instructions to you in a private interview. It can be helpful to approach this practice with an attitude of experimentation, or even play - again, whatever helps you to maintain a sense of wellbeing and openness. Explore!
Jhana controversies and 'dangers'
So far I've presented the jhanas as if they're universally recognised, valued and agreed upon. They aren't!
One major point of debate is that there are many different altered states of consciousness, and since the jhanas are pretty loosely defined in the Pali Canon, you can make those definitions fit quite a range of different states, especially if you're willing to redefine some of the key terms. (The words translated as 'thought and examination' above, vitakka and vicara, are often instead translated in a Buddhist context as 'initial and sustained application of effort', and consequently used to associate the jhanas with much, much deeper altered states in which mental activity ceases almost entirely.)
If you're really interested, you can find a detailed analysis of the four most commonly encountered sets of jhanas in this document by Culadasa. (For reference, the jhanas described in my article are what Culadasa characterises as 'lite jhanas' in that document.) The basic trade-off is between depth and accessibility. The deeper the state, the more profound the concentration and the more removed from ordinary consciousness you are, but also the harder it is to learn and the more finicky the conditions required to access it. The jhanas Leigh teaches are accessible enough that most people can learn at least the first one on a 10-day retreat, and deep enough that they make a noticeable difference to your insight practice, so I'm a pretty big fan, but to each their own.
You might also encounter a pretty negative anti-jhana vibe in some parts of the Buddhist world. Sometimes people will tell you that they're totally impossible for normal people to practise, and it's just a waste of time - this is usually because the person giving that advice has encountered a super-deep form of jhana which probably really isn't accessible to most people.
Another objection to the jhanas is that the historical Buddha spent some time studying deep concentration states, but found that they didn't lead to enlightenment - and therefore we shouldn't spend any time practising concentration states at all. The irony is that the source of this story about the Buddha is the Discourse on the Noble Search, MN26, which concludes with instructions to the monks to practise the jhanas!
One final objection - pretty common among people who've been brought up in a Christian tradition where having fun in a spiritual context is considered to be pretty suspicious - is that there's a danger that practitioners will spend all their time 'getting high' on the jhanas and never actually do their insight practice. As Rob Burbea points out repeatedly in his talks, however, it's vanishingly unlikely that spiritual practitioners working in a Buddhist context are actually going to do this - and even if you do, there are plenty of worse things to get high on! My own experience has been that the jhanas are fun and exciting at first but quickly become just another practice in the toolbox, and the insights that come from having a mind made quiet and powerful through jhana practice are vastly more compelling than simply hanging out in a positive emotional state.
So don't worry too much, and don't let the nay-sayers put you off. If you're interested in jhana practice, give it a go - ideally, get on a retreat with a teacher like Leigh, and see for yourself what it's all about!
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!