Entering the Jhanas
by Leigh Brasington
Perhaps no aspect of the Buddha’s teaching has been both more misunderstood and neglected than right concentration. Yet right concentration is obviously an integral part of the Buddha’s path to awakening: the final item of the noble eightfold path, it is exemplified by, and sometimes even defined as, the jhanas. Before his awakening, the Buddha remembered an incident from his childhood when he had experienced the first jhana; upon further reflection, he concluded, “That is indeed the path to awakening.”
The word “jhana” literally means “meditation”; it comes from the verb jhayati, which means “to meditate.” Many times, the Buddha would give a dhamma talk and close it by saying, “There are these roots of trees, these empty huts — go meditate (jhayati).” From this usage of jhayati, it seems certain that what the Buddha meant by meditation was jhana practice.
The Buddha’s teachings can be divided into three parts: sila, samadhi, and panna (ethical conduct, concentration, and wisdom). Or to put it into the vernacular: clean up your act, concentrate your mind, and use your concentrated mind to investigate reality. Each practice the Buddha taught fits neatly into one of the three categories. The precepts and the brahmavihara practices of loving-kindness, compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity are ethical practices. The brahmavihara practices, especially loving-kindness (metta) practice, can also generate concentration, as do mantra and visualisation practices. But most everything else you think of when you hear the word meditation is a wisdom practice, intended to help you “see the way things are” (or, perhaps more accurately, “what’s actually happening”). The Buddha makes it clear that this examination of reality should be done with a concentrated mind. And the jhanas are the method he taught, over and over again.
The jhanas are eight altered states of consciousness, brought on via concentration, each yielding more concentration than the previous. As you pass through the jhanas, you stair-step your way to deeper and deeper levels of concentration — that is, you become less and less likely to become distracted. Upon emerging from the jhanas — preferably the fourth or higher — you begin doing an insight practice with your jhanically concentrated, indistractable mind. This is the heart of the method the Buddha discovered. These states are not an end in and of themselves, unlike what the Buddha’s two teachers had taught him shortly after he’d left home to begin his spiritual quest. They are simply a way of preparing your mind so you can more effectively examine reality and discover the deeper truths that lead to liberation.
The path to entering the jhanas begins with what is called access concentration: being fully with the object of meditation and not becoming distracted even if there are wispy background thoughts. If your practice is anapanasati — mindfulness of breathing — you may recognise access concentration when the breath becomes very subtle; instead of a normal breath, you notice your breath has become very shallow. It may even seem that you’ve stopped breathing altogether. These are signs that you’ve likely arrived at access concentration. If the breath gets very shallow, and particularly if it feels like you’ve stopped breathing, the natural thing to do is to take a nice deep breath and get it going again. Wrong! This will tend to weaken your concentration. By taking that nice deep breath, you decrease the strength of your concentration. Just stay with that shallow breathing. It’s okay. You don’t need a lot of oxygen when you are very quiet both physically and mentally.
If the breath gets very, very subtle, instead of taking a deep breath, shift your attention away from the breath to a pleasant sensation. This is key. You notice the breath until you arrive at and sustain access concentration, then you let go of the breath and shift your attention to a pleasant sensation, preferably a physical one. There is not much point in trying to notice the breath that has gotten extremely subtle or has disappeared completely — there’s nothing left to notice.
The first question that may arise when I say, “Shift your attention to a pleasant sensation” may be “What pleasant sensation?” Well, it turns out that when you get to access concentration, the odds are quite strong that, someplace in your physical being, there will be a pleasant sensation. Look at most any statue of the Buddha — he has a faint smile on his face. That is not just for artistic purposes; it is there for teaching purposes. Smile when you meditate, because once you reach access concentration, you only have to shift your attention one inch to find a pleasant sensation.
Pleasant sensations can occur pretty much anywhere. The most common place that people find pleasant sensations when they’ve established access concentration is in the hands. When you meditate, you want to put your hands in a comfortable position in which you can just leave them. The traditional posture is one hand holding the other, with the thumbs lightly touching. But you can also put your hands in all sorts of other positions — just place them however it appeals to you. After you’ve been in access concentration “long enough,” if you notice that there’s a pleasant feeling in the hands, drop the attention on the breath and focus entirely on the pleasantness of that sensation.
Another common place where people find a pleasant sensation is in the heart center, particularly if they’re using metta, or loving-kindness, meditation as the access method. Just shift your attention to the pleasantness of that sensation. Other places people find pleasant sensations could include the third eye, the top of the head, or the shoulders. It does not matter where the pleasant sensation manifests; what matters is that there is a pleasant sensation and you’re able to put your attention on it and — now here comes the really hard part — do nothing else.
It’s important to let go of the breath when you make the shift to the pleasant sensation. The breath (or other meditation object) is the key to get you in — ”in” being synonymous with establishing strong enough access concentration. When you come home from work, you pull out your key, you open the door to your home, and you go in. You don’t then wander around with the key still in your hand — you put it back in your pocket or purse or on some table. You’re not cooking dinner or watching TV with the key still in your hand. The key has done its job, and you let it go. It’s exactly the same with the breath or other meditation object. Totally let go of it, and focus entirely on the pleasant sensation. Of course, this is easier said than done — you’ve struggled for a long time to stay locked onto the breath, and now that you’ve finally managed to do so, the first thing you are told is to stop doing that. But that’s the way it is. If you want to experience jhanas, it’s going to be necessary to give yourself to fully enjoying the pleasantness of the pleasant sensation.
Once you’ve found the pleasant sensation, you fully shift your attention to it. If you can do that, the sensation will begin to grow in intensity; it will become stronger. This will not happen in a linear way. At first, nothing happens. Then it’ll grow a little bit and then hang out and grow a little bit more. And then eventually, it will suddenly take off and take you into what is obviously an altered state of consciousness.
In this altered state of consciousness, you will be overcome with rapture, euphoria, ecstasy, delight. These are all English words that are used to translate the Pali word piti. Perhaps the best English word for piti is “glee.” Piti is a primarily physical sensation that sweeps you powerfully into an altered state. But piti is not solely physical; as the suttas say, “On account of the presence of piti, there is mental exhilaration.” In addition to the physical energy and mental exhilaration, the piti will be accompanied by an emotional sensation of joy and happiness. The Pali word for this joy/happiness is sukha, the opposite of dukkha (pain, suffering). And if you can remain undistractedly focused on this experience of piti and sukha, that is the first jhana.
So to summarise the method for entering the first jhana: You sit in a comfortable upright position and generate access concentration by placing, and eventually maintaining, your attention on a single meditation object. When access concentration is firmly established, then you shift your attention from the breath (or whatever your meditation object is) to a pleasant sensation, preferably a physical sensation. You put your attention on that sensation, maintain your attention on it, and do nothing else.
The hard part is the “do nothing else” part. You put your attention on the pleasant sensation and nothing happens, so you might think to yourself, “He said something was supposed to happen.” No, I did not say to make comments about experiencing the pleasant sensation. Or you might put your attention on the pleasant sensation and it starts to increase, so you think, “Oh! Oh! Something’s happening!” No, don’t do that — that will only make it go away. Or it comes up just a little bit, and then it stops, and you sort of try and help it. Nope, none of this works. Just simply observe the pleasant sensation.
You must become totally immersed in the pleasantness of the pleasant sensation. By this I mean the quality of the sensation that enables you to determine that it is pleasant, rather than unpleasant or neither. It’s not about the location of the pleasant sensation nor its intensity or duration. It’s not about whether the pleasant sensation is increasing or decreasing or staying the same. Just focus entirely on the pleasant aspect of the pleasant sensation, and the jhana will arise on its own. Now, admittedly, the sensation will be located in a particular area, and your attention will be aimed at that area. That’s fine. Just don’t get caught up in the location; stay with just enjoying the pleasantness of the pleasant sensation.
All you can do is set up the conditions for the jhana to arise by cultivating a calm and quiet mind focused on pleasantness. And then just let go — be that calm, quiet mind focused on pleasantness and enjoy it — and the jhana will appear. Any attempt to do anything more does not work. You actually have to become a human being, as opposed to a human doing. You have to become a being that is simply focused on a pleasant sensation, and then the jhana comes all on its own.
Imagine that your mind is like a still pool — still because of the access concentration. Now drop in a pebble of pleasure. The ripples go out to the sides of your skull, bounce off, and come back together. When they come together they reinforce each other, generating taller waves. But because this is not a real, physical system, if you don’t disturb the system, the ripples stay taller and don’t die out; they keep bouncing off the sides and reinforcing each other more and more. This is what we are after. But it requires that you not stir the water in the pool; doing so would spoil the bouncing and reinforcing effect, and the system would not keep generating higher waves.
The suttas describe the first jhana as being “accompanied by thinking and examining” and “filled with the rapture and happiness born of seclusion.” These four qualities are often identified as factors of the first jhana: thinking and examining, rapture and happiness. The thinking and examining are translations of the Pali words vitakka and vicara. The commentaries interpret these words to mean initial and sustained attention on the meditation object. Now, it’s true that in order to do any sort of concentrated meditation, you need initial and sustained attention on the meditation object. However, this doesn’t appear to be what the Buddha is talking about: in the suttas, vitakka and vicara always and only refer to thinking. When you generate access concentration and sustain it, there may still be a bit of thinking in the background, which can basically be ignored. This background thinking persists in the first jhana and is what is being referred to by the words vitakka and vicara.
As stated earlier, when you move from access concentration to the first jhana, you’re shifting your attention to a pleasant sensation and staying with that as your object of attention, ignoring any background thinking. If you can stay with your undistracted attention on the pleasant sensation, then piti will arise. The piti, being the physical release of pleasant, exhilarating energy, could be anywhere from mild to quite intense. It can be finger-in-the-electrical-socket intense; it can be so intense that it’s not even pleasurable. And hopefully the piti is accompanied by sukha, which is an emotional state of joy and happiness. Both piti and sukha are required in order for the experience to be classified as the first jhana. And most likely, the experience brings a big grin to your face. The first jhana is enough of an altered state that if you think some experience might be the first jhana, it probably isn’t; there’s an unmistakable quality to the arising of piti and sukha that lets you know for certain that something quite different is happening.
At first, it’s really not easy to tell the piti and sukha apart. This experience, this energy, this state comes over you and grabs your full attention. It is not readily apparent that there is an emotional component apart from the physical component, nor is it necessary to do so yet. The experience may be much more one of pervasive piti-sukha than one composed of intermingled distinct piti and distinct sukha. As mentioned above, you may also find that there is a bit of thinking going on in the background. That’s okay — it’s the vitakka and vicara, the thinking and examining, which are still lurking in the background of the first jhana. Don’t get distracted by the background thinking; stay focused on the experience of piti-sukha. Maintaining this piti-sukha experience and the focus on it constitutes the first jhana.
For each of the first four jhanas, we have a simile. For this first one we find:
Suppose a skilled bath attendant or his apprentice were to pour soap flakes into a metal basin, sprinkle them with water and knead them into a ball, so that the ball of soap flakes would be pervaded by moisture, encompassed by moisture, suffused by moisture inside and out and yet would not trickle. In the same way, one drenches, steeps, saturates, and suffuses one’s body with the rapture and happiness born of seclusion, so that there is no part of one’s body that is not suffused by rapture and happiness. (DN 2.78)
This picture matches quite well the frenetic energy of the first jhana. The first jhana is not a calm, peaceful state. Its energy is pretty intense, and this simile gives a fairly good idea of the lack of calm and of the frenetic energy that is present. There’s an effervescent quality to the first jhana that can also be gleaned from the simile. The particulars of the simile are that the soap flakes are like your body, and the water is like the piti and sukha, which go throughout the body so that they are fully everywhere; this occurs as you become more skilled. Your first goal should be to get the piti and sukha going, and then sustain them.
The length of time you’ll want to stay in the first jhana is inversely proportional to the intensity of the piti. In other words, if the piti is very strong, you probably won’t want to stay there very long. Half a minute or so might be sufficient, maybe even less than that if the piti is seriously intense. If the piti is not so strong, you might want to stay there five to ten minutes. The timing depends on the strength of the piti.
Piti comes in a number of “grades.” It can show up as momentary piti, which is like a shiver and then it’s gone. It can be minor piti, which is a little tingly feeling that’s sustaining but not very strong and is more or less in the background. Minor piti can also show up as gentle, involuntary rocking as you meditate. You might experience showering piti, which is when you get a burst of piti and then it’s gone, another burst and then that’s gone — the piti is arising but not sustaining. It can be uplifting piti that makes your hair stand on end. It can give you a sense that you are levitating when it’s really strong. I have had several students report opening their eyes to see whether they were indeed levitating. I’m afraid no one has ever reported getting off the ground. However, uplifting piti can make you sit up very straight. The fifth kind of piti is what I usually refer to as full-blown piti. The correct translation is “all-pervasive piti.” This is the piti that is everywhere. It’s present, it’s sustained, and you experience it throughout your body. It’s the piti necessary for the first jhana; the other four types are pre-jhana piti, and they may or may not show up as you progress toward access concentration and then to the arising of the first jhana.
Piti can manifest as rocking or swaying, or it can be intense so that you are actually vibrating to the point where it is visible to others. It can manifest as heat and get very, very warm. Hopefully it has a pleasant aspect to it. Most often, it manifests as an upward rush of energy, often centered up the spine. I’ve talked with people who practice kundalini yoga, and it seems that piti is the same energy. I’ve talked with people who practice tummo, the Tibetan practice of generating heat, and I was told that this practice also involves generating the same sort of energy. It’s a known, widespread phenomenon that is used in different ways. Here, it is used to grab your attention and take you into a concentrated state. The arising of piti also has the nice side effect (for most people) of generating sukha, and, as one comes to see, sukha is the principal component of the second and third jhanas.
So, you hang out in the first jhana for a bit, depending on how strong the piti is: if it is very strong, a half minute or so; if it is weaker, then maybe up to five or ten minutes. It should also be mentioned that when piti first arrives, you may not have any control over the strength of it. It may come on ridiculously strong, or it may come on weak. Just go with whatever shows up. The reason it can come on very strong the first time is somewhat like a can of soda pop. If you shake it for four or five days and then pop the top, it goes all over. The good news is that the next time piti comes on, it won’t have built up so much pressure. If the first time you experience piti is in the evening before going to bed, you will probably have trouble getting to sleep. It will wire you up. That’s okay. You’re learning, and missing a little bit of sleep is worth figuring out how to work with these valuable mental states.
These are the instructions for entering the first jhana. But don’t expect the necessary concentration to show up anytime soon. In fact, don’t expect anything! Expectations are the absolute worst things you can bring on a retreat, and they are equally detrimental when practicing while not on retreat. Simply do the meditation method. And when access concentration arises, recognise it, sustain it “long enough,” and then shift your attention to a pleasant sensation. Don’t try to do the jhanas. You can’t. All you can do is generate the conditions out of which the jhanas can arise. Recognise when you’ve established these conditions, then patiently wait for the jhana to come find you.