Dirty Jhanas


Glee – It’s not just a TV show.

There are historical reasons that samadhi is a confused and downplayed topic in Theravada Buddhism.  What those reasons are is a topic for another day.  The first four jhana states are the traditional Pali Canon meditation attainments associated with samadhi.  Jhanas have long been considered an advanced technique that very few people can accomplish and that require years of intensive retreats.  In the last decade or two, meditators have been rediscovering that normal people doing normal amounts of meditation can experience the jhana factors and light versions of the jhana states.

I call the very light versions of the jhanas that I’m familiar with householder jhanas, or dirty jhanas.  Unlike the deep jhana states described in the commentaries, the householder jhanas I experience are unsteady, fade in and out, get interrupted by mental chatter, etc.  They are not particularly deep.  They can however, be rapturous, joyful, and equanimous.  They suppress the hindrances, which provides a steady and wholesome mental environment for sati, the eightfold path element of mindfulness and insight.  Not incidentally, they also train the mind to maintain wholesome states and avoid unwholesome ones more easily, helping with that critical eightfold path element of Right Effort.

I’ll state upfront for the record that the whole concept of “light jhanas” is much disputed in meditation circles, and plenty of people considered to be meditation authorities would say that I’m not experiencing the jhanas at all.  They would classify my experience as “access concentration” and a fairly poor version of it at that.  Everyone agrees though that the Jhana factors (elements of the true jhana states) can arise even in access concentration, so I’m totally good with calling it that.  You can change all my references to jhanas to be about access concentration and the jhana factors if you like.  I won’t mind.  Labels are a distraction.

So, I got interested in figuring out what the jhanas and samadhi were about because you trip over them everywhere in the Pali Canon —

Right Concentration
Jhana Sutta
The Factors of Concentration
Insight and Tranquility (samadhi) development

You get the idea, this is just a small sample of the most obvious references.  So jhanas seemed really important and sounded like something that would be very beneficial for me since I’m a fairly anxious person by nature, but none of my Buddhist books talked about jhanas.  So I went looking for information and over time found some helpful resources:

Beyond Mindfulness in Plain English (Bhante Gunaratana)
Focused and Fearless (Shaila Catherine)
Right Concentration (Leigh Brasington)
Brasington’s website: http://www.leighb.com/jhanas.htm

So now I had some information – how to begin?  I had been meditating for several years at that point, usually for 30 minutes a day.  I’d done metta meditation, so I was familiar with that sense of inviting or summoning loving kindness and the bodily feelings associated with it.  I decided to just pour on the sitting with what techniques I had gathered so far and see how mentally still I could get.  For several months I put in extra long meditation sessions, often two a day for 30-50 minutes, more on weekends.  I discovered that things started to feel different around the 40 minute mark.  I practiced letting my mind “settle” like a coin dropping to the bottom of a stream.  I began to have the impression that thoughts bubbled into existence “around” my mental position rather than from “underneath” and hence disturbed me less.

I had the sensation that once you had established a bit of stillness in one part of the mind, you could pull other layers of your mind together around it, as if you were an onion with the layers floating some distance apart and you could gently draw them back together and get them all on the same wavelength.  The etymology of samadhi is “joining together” and I wonder if this technique is where that name came from.  It is also the only good reason to refer to samadhi as concentration — the sense of bringing things closer together and unifying them.

It helped to remind myself that at least during my samadhi meditation, thoughts were just not worth thinking.  As Ajahn Sumedho points out, a thought only leads to another thought, you never reach one that’s a permanent answer.  Seeing all thinking as a useless distraction calmed the tendency to grasp at interesting ideas floating past.

An image from Gunaratana’s book, imagining the mind as just a light blinking on and off but remaining perfectly still as it noticed the breath going by, was quite helpful.  The Zen idea that our sense of “I” is just a swinging door that we can observe moving with the breath was similarly helpful.  I began to notice that when thoughts would arise, there was a sense of movement in the mind, as though thoughts involved the movement of mental muscles analogous to physical movements of the body.  I also became aware of the “mental space” within the body, the way the mind seems to extend throughout the body.  This gave me a new perspective for practicing, I could try to notice and quiet down that sense of mental movement directly instead of waiting for thoughts to arise.  As I worked with this approach,  I would have the feeling of the mental space within me “freezing” into complete stillness for short periods of time.  Eventually I didn’t have that distinct freezing sensation when calming my thoughts, but for a while it was very noticeable.

One thing I didn’t do was follow the commentary instructions to ignore the body and focus only on the breath as it passed the nostrils.  I’ve always done whole-body awareness when meditating; that is the technique usually taught by the Thai forest tradition when discussing samatha or samadhi meditation.  The few times I’ve tried to limit my awareness to the breath it seemed very unnatural, like I was suppressing my natural awareness.  It was very uncomfortable and felt ungrounded.

I never saw the nimitta so much discussed in commentaries, and Leigh Brasington notes that many people don’t have that sort of visual experience.  After several years, however, I started sensing a natural focal point at that spot above the lip, so it must be something that shows up whether you intentionally focus on it or not.  Perhaps ancient practitioners spontaneously discovered this focal point and then started teaching new meditators to focus on that spot to try and help speed things along.

My breath also never  became shallow, and certainly never seemed to “disappear”.  The classic description for entering the jhanas talks about the breath becoming so subtle that you don’t know whether you’re breathing or not.  This has never happened to me, I must need a lot of oxygen to stay conscious.

At any rate, after some months of this intense (for me) practice, things shifted rather profoundly.  I’m a naturally anxious person, the professionals call it anxiety disorder.  What happened was that when I meditated, my usual sense of tension and anxiety would change it’s nature and become a stream of joy, of rapture even, a visceral feeling of happiness and excitement.  That was pretty astounding.  As I practiced over time, that feeling sometimes steadied into a full on glee, as Brasington calls it, the sort of bodily happiness that forces your face into a smile.  That level of intensity eventually dropped a bit, but glee is an excellent word to describe the rapture part of samadhi.  It begins as a bodily feeling which then gladdens the mind.

Discovering that one of my greatest struggles, my constant sense of anxiety, had switched from devil to angel, had become a source of happiness was, shall we say, a significant encouragement on my Buddhist journey.  As others have described, the more you sit with these happy feelings, the more they bleed over into your daily life.  It gets easier and easier to feel that breeze of joy wafting through the back of your mind in daily situations.

As my samadhi steadied, I noticed that my mental state took on a particular tone.  My feelings during meditation were always quite uplifting.  It was much easier for me to stay awake, alert, and in a calm, pleasant mood when I meditated.  When thoughts arose, they tended to be about wholesome topics, usually Buddhist ones.  I eventually realized that this was the suppression of the hindrances.  Well I’ll be damned.

There is a downside however, one that many teachers point out.  Once you know how to reliably enter such a happy state, the little aggravations of life can appear onerous.  Coming out of samadhi and into the workaday world can make you surprisingly irritable when things hit you the wrong way.  This downside is actually an upside however, because it means you are more sensitive to dukkha, you are better at noticing when you are suffering.  The great secret to mindfulness meditation is that you don’t have to do anything once you become aware of painful and disturbing thoughts and feelings.  Just being aware of them non-judgmentally is all it takes to soften them and diminish them.  Under the heat-lamp of awareness they melt away over time.  Before they can dissolve in the light of mindfulness, however, you first have to see them.  The quiet of samadhi provides an excellent microscope to find these mental visitors.  You learn to not grab them with the fingers of the mind, you can step back and let them pass through without reacting to them.  As I learned to understand and let go of all these new micro-irritations I was finding, I was better able to deal with everyday struggles than I was before.  Buddhist techniques tend to be three-steps, so in this case:

Meditative bliss -> Increased awareness of worldly irritations -> Increased acceptance and serenity

If someone asked me what I’ve gained from meditation, I would describe the benefit of both mindfulness and samadhi practice as learning to avoid picking up hot coals, and putting them down when I find that I’m holding them.

Over the next several years I discovered my own light versions of the four rupa-jhanas, the body jhanas.  But, I’ll stop here for now.