26. The Wide World of Jhana

25. Introduction to Part Three   |  27. The Concentration States (Shamatha Jhanas)

Typically, the word “jhana” is used to refer to the stages of concentration, unless you read the old texts very carefully, such as MN 111, and then you realize that sometimes it is used to refer to the stages of insight. This has caused endless confusion for at least 2,500 years, but it can end here today, or at least I dream it can. Basically, there is a very natural way that attention progresses as we develop our abilities to pay attention, shifting through very predictable ways of experiencing the world. The jhanas become more concentration-like the more we pay attention to the specifics, steadiness, sense of continuity, and positive mental qualities that strong attention generates. The jhanas become more insight-like the more we pay attention to the three characteristics of whatever arises.

To differentiate these two general flavors of the jhanas, I will here call them the shamatha jhanas, or “concentration states”, when those states are more seemingly stable, peaceful, pleasant, etc., and call them vipassana jhanas or “insight stages” when discussing those that are more three characteristics–heavy. There are individuals who dislike using the term “vipassana jhanas”, but hopefully by the end of this book and with good practice you will see why thinking of it this way can be beneficial and useful. Those who think they can and should avoid the shamatha jhanas may be annoyed that I use the jhanas to describe aspects of the stages of insight. Very traditional shamatha jhana practitioners with a love of the Pali canon and a disagreement with commentaries such as The Path of Purification and The Path of Freedom, will probably feel that by adding the concept of “vipassana jhanas” I am guilty of corrupting young minds and should promptly drink hemlock or some polite Buddhist equivalent such as over-steeped green tea. I personally feel that the use of this concept of “vipassana jhanas” is more integrative and in keeping with the spirit of the original texts, but I fully understand why some disagree with me on this and I believe I understand where they are coming from.

 Please note that I will not always specify what type of jhana I am referring to, as seeing “vipassana jhana” or “shamatha jhana” again and again in the same paragraph can be tiring, so sometimes I will just say jhana, and the context of the paragraph should always be enough to tell you which type I am discussing.

As the differences in emphases imply, these fundamental jhanic modes of attention can superficially appear quite different if they arise using different techniques, different objects of meditation, or if they occur at varying depths of development or with varying aspects being emphasized. Thus, jhanas that arise in relation to these various factors can appear to be so different that it may seem preposterous to think that they could possibly be related. If you pay attention to one aspect strongly, other aspects may be much less obvious or seem entirely absent.

Each of the jhanas is like a forest that may appear very different at night or in daylight, in winter or summer, as viewed with a magnifying glass or from space, from the window of a passing car or from the eyes of a bug crawling on the ground; same forest, very different experience. However, I can tell you definitively, having crossed up and down them thousands of times over many years and in many different contexts, using many different meditation objects and levels of concentration, that using the jhanas as a basic framework for understanding what is going on and how to advance is extremely useful, practical, and empowering. To know them well is to know something profound about the core mechanics of how attention works and develops, as well as the vast range of amazing things we can do with attention.

One of the issues that complicates using the jhanas to describe the wide range of meditative territory is that there is much confusion about the differences and similarities between concentration practices and insight practices. While I am going to take a moment to disambiguate the two, in practice things are not so black and white. While we may speak of the ideal of “pure concentration practice” or “pure insight practice”, what happens essentially involves some mix, or overlap, however subtle at times, of both concentration and insight factors, regardless of which one we are trying to do. Some natural degree of alternating between them even as we try to stay to one side or the other of this territory is par for the course, and thus we find that the differentiation between concentration and insight is more about shades of grey than it is black and white. Please forgive the number of times I repeat that point, as it is an important one.

Instead of talking about concentration versus insight as an axis, it may be more appropriate to speak of it as a two-dimensional plane, with the degree of concentration and insight each being separate perpendicular axes. When we have lots of concentration but not as much insight, things are more smooth and enjoyable and/or peaceful. When we have more insight without as much concentration, things are vibrational and analytical but often less pleasant. When both are present strongly, our practice may be both enjoyable and analytical and vibrational. When we have neither much concentration nor much insight, our minds are as they typically are. We can, at any moment, fall anywhere on that plane.

Some traditions emphasize developing the axes independently, and other traditions emphasize developing both together. In this section, I will describe the axes as distinct, but as we saw in “The Seven Factors of Awakening”, they only really differ by one factor, that of investigation, which we emphasize when we wish to develop insight, and de-emphasize when developing concentration. Both insight and concentration practices, done well, develop all the other six factors of mindfulness, energy, rapture, tranquility, concentration, and equanimity.

At least in theory, concentration practices are meditations on a concept or a seemingly continuous aggregate of many transient sensations, whereas insight practice is meditation on the transient sensations as they are. When doing concentration practices, we consciously focus our attention in a specific concentration state. While reality cannot be frozen in this way, the illusion of solidity, continuity, and stability certainly can be cultivated to still attention. This is concentration practice.

The various progressive states that are then obtained by doing this are called “absorptions”, “shamatha jhanas”, or “dhyanas”. Early English translations of the Pali canonical literature used the term “trances”. The term “samadhi” is used by some traditions to express any of the concentration states, with some terms added to qualify the degree of samadhi, while other traditions use the term only to refer to very high attainments that contain elements of both concentration and insight. I personally use “samadhi” to mean concentration states, but, if you run into people who use the term the other way, hopefully there will now be no confusion or conflict.

As stated in Part One, insight practices are designed to penetrate the three illusions of permanence, satisfactoriness, and separate self, that is, to realize the truths of impermanence, dissatisfactoriness, and non-self to attain the various irreversible perceptual transformations that are in this tradition referred to as “awakening”. Insight practices (various types of vipassana, Dzogchen, zazen, etc.) lead to the progressive stages of insight, though various emphases may color how these present in relative terms. Insight practices tend to be difficult, disconcerting, and at times destabilizing, as they are designed to deconstruct our deluded and dearly held views of the world and ourselves, though they can sometimes be outrageously blissful for frustratingly short periods.

Concentration states are generally some permutation of great fun, extremely fascinating, seductive, spacious, blissful, peaceful, spectacular, addictive, etc. There is no limit to how interesting concentration practices can be. Insight stages and revelations can also be very interesting, but are not potentially addictive the way concentration states and side effects can be. Insight practices tend to be hard work most of the time even if that work is just surrendering to and perceiving sensations as they are (a fact that highlights one of the oddest tensions in the world of insight).

One of the factors that add to the confusion is that the concentration state terminology (jhanas) is used in the Pali canon to describe both the progressively more advanced concentration states and the progress of insight, with little disambiguation. This was solved to some degree about one to three hundred years after the earliest texts in the Pali canon were written down when the stages of insight were articulated in the Abhidhamma and commentaries to the canonical texts, but the original problem was not explicitly mentioned. It was only in the second half of the twentieth century that the problem was sorted out to some degree by Burmese scholar-monks, particularly Sayadaw U Pandita. Bill Hamilton and some of those whom he influenced, such as Kenneth Folk and myself, have developed this more in the last twenty years or so, such that we now have a robust, rich, phenomenological lexicon detailing clearly and deeply what came before.

Concentration practices develop concentration but they don’t on their own yield insight or wisdom except sometimes by accident. The problem is that concentration states can easily fool practitioners into concluding that these states constitute the end goal of the spiritual path because they can be so blissful, spacious, and even formless, and thus can closely resemble some imprecise descriptions of what awakening might be like. Being extremely pleasant as the shamatha jhanas are, the results of concentration practices can, as mentioned, have a sticky or addictive quality to them. It is easy to get stuck in the habit of dropping into them and staying there for very long periods of time, such that if you wish to shift to insight practices you find the draw of blissful concentration practices preventing that.

When we are very clear about which side of our experience is more related to concentration practice and which to insight practice—an understanding that is not so easy to come by—
focusing on the concentration practice side of practice can be helpful for the insight practitioner. In fact, some schools of meditation, such as many from Sri Lanka, consider strong concentration skills to be essential prerequisites for insight practices. I didn’t happen to initially train in one of those schools, but they are out there and have valid points to make about the benefits of the concentration-first approach.

All the concentration states strengthen, stabilize, steady, and calm the mind, and this has four primary benefits. First, just as a video camera that is shaking wildly cannot produce a clearly visible video, so a mind that can’t remain settled on an object will not clearly perceive its ultimate truth.

Second, as concentration states cultivate deep clarity and stability on content, albeit very refined content, they are very useful for promoting deep healing and psychological insights. In other words, if you want to become aware of your stuff, do concentration practices, particularly with a focus on mental objects such as mantras rather than physical ones such as the breath, not that breath-based meditations can’t also bring up our psychological issues.

Third, concentration states can be a welcome and valid vacation from stress, providing periods of profound relaxation and peace that can be an extremely important part of a sane, compassionate, and healthy lifestyle. Concentration states temporarily suppress the hindrances, all of which are stressful. Temporarily suppressing the hindrances in this way is considered extremely skillful. The Buddha highly praised those who had mastery of the concentration states, and this should serve as a reminder to those who dismiss or underestimate their great value or mistakenly feel that enjoying our life is somehow “unspiritual”.

Fourth, concentration practices can help insight practitioners maintain powerful mental stability as old habitual concepts about themselves and all existence are dismantled and razed by insight practice. However, if these concentration states end up blocking our ability to gain insight, by solidifying a sense of self, or creating aversion to experience suffering clearly, then they can become a significant and dangerously lofty kind of hindrance. Pleasurable hindrances that come from spiritual practice are traditionally referred to as “golden chains”.

This is a very tricky balance. As the insight-first schools rightly point out, if we cling to stability, fluidity, or the positive qualities that concentration-heavy practice develops, we will not make progress in insight. However, as the concentration-first schools rightly point out, by plunging straightaway into the fast and harsh vibratory experiences of insight practice without the mental strength, stability, and soothing effects of concentration practice to help stay grounded, we can become what are referred to as “dry insight workers” in the old commentaries. Dry insight workers have an unfortunate tendency to become uptight, irascible, emotionally brittle, and occasionally insufferable to be around, as if they were on speed or having a bad acid trip.

In recent years and by participating in online forums of hardcore practitioners, I have seen literally hundreds of examples of those who simply ran too dry too hard for too long and completely fried themselves. Please do everything possible to avoid this. You won’t reach your goals quicker or at all if you can’t pace yourself or handle the territory. Forcing is not only imbalanced but also dangerous, as it can cause a person to give up practice for a long time or perhaps for the rest of that lifetime. Take in the implications of that for a moment. I have also met plenty of people who just got stuck in the concentration states, as these were just such a great high that they lost all motivation or incentive to look for anything else, much like those finding themselves in the poppy field in The Wizard of Oz, a fancier high but also a dead end with possible repercussions for your longer term evolution. Therefore, I refer to practitioners stuck in concentration states as “jhana junkies”. 

Sometimes spiritual openings can be extreme and dramatic, and being able to intentionally slow our practice down and calm ourselves can be very useful and skillful if we must deal with being actively engaged in the “real world” and also with these openings at the same time. In short, if you want to temporarily postpone your insight practice because you need to collect yourself so as to be able to get on with your life or not completely flip out, such as to study for medical school boards, one way to do this is to train well in concentration states, and this can be a very skillful postponement that can also become a period of crucial integration. Adding to this some formal resolutions to first stabilize the mind with concentration before overdoing it in insight practices is a very skillful and wise long-term investment.

That said, I ran pretty dry for a long time, and it made for very fast, if jarring, progress. It is not that I didn’t learn and practice the jhanas, as I did, but most of my practice was very focused on the three characteristics. It is likely that during that period I traded some degree of development on the axis of emotional maturation and psychology for rapid development on the axes of phenomenology and insight. While I am happy with my personal choices, it is not easy as an author to know how best to advocate for any individual practitioner-reader, such as yourself, particularly how to advise on the wet-versus-dry approaches and how to balance and alternate between them.

This is best done by you in close coordination with those who know your practice and who know well the path for themselves as well as how to skillfully navigate the pros and cons of more insight-heavy or concentration-heavy practice. A mix of your own sense of how things are going and what the pros and cons of a more wet-versus-dry approach coupled with skillful external human supports is often required to optimally balance these complex issues in real-time, as things change all the time in our practices. Back to the jhanas …

Each of the jhanas has its subparts, as mentioned briefly in the previous chapter, referred to here as subjhanas. These subjhanas can be further sliced into subsubjhanas, etc. Because I am not at all beyond extreme geekery, at points I will go there when I feel it helps explain various phases of practice and various experiences that can arise. Hopefully, you will come to appreciate the elegance of this system of classifying experience.

That said, there is a vast range of strange and interesting experiences that can occur spontaneously and/or because of strong mental development that may not easily fit into any system, so beware of trying to fit every single experience into any model, which can be tempting when people begin to learn a new way of thinking about things. One of the “four imponderables” (or the acinteyya, as described by the Buddha in the Acintita Sutta, in the Anguttara Nikaya [AN 4.77]) is “the depths of meditation”, meaning that ultimately the depths of jhana are beyond mapping. That said, the maps still have a lot to offer.

[The other three of the four imponderables are the breadth and scope of the mind of a Buddha, the precise workings of karma, and conjecture about the origin of the universe.]

I will start with a basic description of each of the jhanas in their more generic aspects, identifying their essential characteristics so that they can be recognized regardless of the type of meditation being done. I realize that some practitioners are not going to like my descriptions, as they have come to think of these things some other way. Please hear me out and hopefully you will see why this system has its uses.

While all this theory can get a bit complicated, and people looking for something simpler may find all this off-putting, I have found that meditation is a specialty that responds well to edifying content and to deep, rich, accurate, and nuanced dharma theory. The detailed description of meditative territory is worthwhile, and its practical mastery many times more so. Thus, I will not hold back in letting fly technical lingo and theory, and for those who wish to gain true technical mastery of the wide range of what is possible, you have come to the right place.

The First Jhana

The first jhana in its fundamental aspect is about the application of effort, the beginnings of phenomena, and the center of attention. You direct your attention to any of the six sense doors, and when you do this you perceive an object of meditation arising where you looked for it. You direct your attention again, there is another impression of something, which you are encouraged to perceive as being the same discrete object if you are trying to develop concentration, or as the ever-changing set of sensations if you are trying to train in insight. During each moment in which you direct your attention, you can perceive something.

Thus, effort pays off in the first jhana. You can finally meditate. There are the things you are supposed to be paying attention to. You turn attention to the breath, there is the breath, and you can keep your attention on it. You turn attention to thoughts, there they are. You turn attention to the feet, there they are.

There is something really nice about our concentration finally being this strong and reliable, and this can cause a sense of happiness and contentment, though if we are using nonphysical objects, such as a visualization, or very abstract objects that are far removed from physical sensations, you might not notice the physical sensations of happiness, well-being, or bliss that can accompany the first jhana if you are focusing on objects other than those qualities. This can be very confusing for some people trying to map progress in the jhanas who yet may be deeply into jhana. For example, if you are focusing entirely on the color white, your attention might be so tuned away from your physical body that bliss and rapture might be absent from your experience, even though you might be solidly in the first jhana. This applies to the later jhanas as well. Regardless of whether you feel anything blissful, it is nice to no longer be mucking about in the early stages of meditation and instead finally be getting somewhere.

The first jhana is not particularly fast, nor is it broadly inclusive, generally. If you are visualizing a red dot: there it is, bright and clear. If you are noting, you note the breath second after second; you can stay with it while attention is focused on it. If you are reciting a mantra, you can stay with it while effort is directed to it. That said, the first jhana tends to be unstable initially, reverting to the pre-jhanic, less stable mode of attention until we get good at it. This is a formal list of its flaws: it requires effort, it can easily revert to pre-jhanic attention modes, and it is relatively narrow, being just about the object of attention (rather than things like the space the object occupies, the background sensations, and the sensations that seem to form the sense of “subject”). However, it beats the pants off the mode of attention that preceded it.

A digression about the jhanas: various people and schools of practice have widely varying standards for what they consider the first jhana (and the rest of them), and thus different ways of describing and diagnosing it and the others. I realize that high standards can be very useful at times, just as low standards can be useful at times. I remember an interview with a meditation teacher who is known for her natural, deep concentration abilities and high standards for the jhanas. During that very brief and quite tense (for me) interview, she said, “What [famous jhana teacher] would consider the fourth jhana, I wouldn’t even consider access concentration!” I can see what she was getting at, but I think that having the attitude that the jhanas are something fundamental about attention that can be taken to wildly different depths of development but still retain their essential jhanic qualities is more helpful than drawing what are ultimately somewhat arbitrary lines and saying, “Only this very specific thing is this jhana and the rest of the concentrated meditative states are not.” Said another way, I prefer a more dimensional than categorical classification of jhana.

For instance, some would suggest that a certain jhana should last for a certain, arbitrary period to be classified as that jhana, or should be developed to a certain, very specific, ultimately arbitrary degree of depth or focus to be classified as that jhana. However, I think this misses the basic point that the jhanas are very large baskets in which we can develop practice in all sorts of wonderful and amazing ways while retaining the core nature of being some basic jhana. Thinking this way requires the ability to accommodate shades of grey along multiple axes of development, and that sort of agile, nuanced thinking is not something everyone does well, including some deep jhana practitioners and extremely intelligent dharma scholars.

I have spent considerable time in both very light, superficial, relatively short-lived jhanic modes of attention, as well as very deep, rock-steady, long-lasting, and extremely refined jhanic modes of attention using a wide variety of objects. While superficially these experiences couldn’t have seemed more different, and descriptions of them would seem dissimilar to the uninitiated, there is much to be said for being able to recognize their shared elements. Doing that helps us to navigate in worlds of experience that otherwise can be significantly more confusing. It also helps us understand others’ descriptions of their own experiences. Lastly, it is worth getting good at recognizing the gross and subtle core elements of the quality and depth of attention that characterize the jhanic baskets across a wide range of objects, as this helps us to become more mindful of them, which in turn helps us investigate them and understand their true nature directly for ourselves.

The Second Jhana

The second jhana is an improvement over the first in that significantly less effort is required to keep the attention on the meditation object, and clarity is increased. The descriptive phrase in the tradition is, “with the dropping of applied and sustained thought or effort [depending on the translator], one abides in the second jhana,” but it does take some little bit of attention to stay with it, depending on how solidly it is developed and exactly which phase of the second jhana you are in (more on subjhanas in a bit). The second jhana is the phase where jhanic qualities and side benefits begin to show up on their own, and meditation seems much more something that happens than something you must make happen.

This significant decrease in the mental processing power required to keep the attention on the object of meditation makes it a lot easier to perceive clearly, such that details of the object that previously may have been unclear tend to appear much more clearly, and the object tends to seem more interesting, rich, nuanced, and complex. In fact, in the second jhana the center of attention is the clearest of all the jhanas, with the most fine-grained resolution and greatest brightness of mind. You would think it would be the higher jhanas about which this is the case, but strangely it is not. The later jhanas add elements that the second jhana lacks, such as space, background, and the like, but the second jhana is the star when it comes to centralized, focused clarity and ability to discern subtle details with respect to the meditation object itself.

Attention in the second jhana is generally just a bit broader than that of the first, but this phase is still about characteristics in the general area of the center of attention, in contrast with the third and fourth jhanas, which are much broader and more inclusive of the periphery of attention. This description could confuse some people, as bliss and rapture might fill your body diffusely in the second jhana, making some people think this jhana’s attentional strengths are wider than they are. However, one paying careful attention will notice that the total volume of that bliss you can notice in any instant is much smaller than in the later jhanas, a fact that also applies to the first jhana. Phase-wise, whereas in the first jhana focus is naturally a bit more on the beginnings of objects, the second jhana’s natural strength is from just after the beginning to near the end, meaning the middle of each sensation’s brief, transient occurrence.

The increased ease of staying with the object of meditation and the general increase in clarity of the broad middle of each object’s occurrence make this stage much more enjoyable than the first jhana and, in terms of rich enjoyment, tends to be the best of the first four. The later jhanas have other redeeming qualities but, at least in terms of fun and pleasure, the second jhana is generally the best of the standard eight (extended, compounded, and unusual jhanas excepted). However, if you are using some very non-somatic object, such as a visualization or mantra, you might not notice the pleasure much or at all, just that something about the meditation feels better, clearer, more stable, easier. Just as with the first jhana and the rest, this can be developed to a huge range of depths.

The Third Jhana

The third jhana is significantly different from the first and second in many ways, and is probably the most important jhana to understand, since it basically turns everything you think about meditation and progress on its head, thus causing endless confusion and frustration for meditators who don’t know what it is about and what to look for, and even for plenty who do. From a certain perspective, understanding the third jhana is the key to mastery, whether that mastery is of concentration practice, insight practice, or a fusion of the two.

Some of you might ask here, “But what about the fourth?” Well, if you attain the third, the fourth strangely is no big deal in comparison, and if you don’t discern what is so different about the third, you are unlikely to attain the fourth, particularly if you are the sort of person to force things into narrow boxes and categorical ways of perceiving things. If you are naturally able to broaden and relax into it, rather than forcing it, then the third will probably not be a big deal for you. But if you can’t relax into it, then giving a lot of attention to this section will pay off in large ways and is essential for real progress into the higher modes of attention.

The problem with the third jhana is that it is broad, and not just broad, but sensations at the center of attention also tend to be the least clear of any of the jhanas. This can be extremely confusing for those who wish to keep looking at the center of attention for answers since, in the third jhana, that is not where the party is. The party is in the periphery of attention, those areas around the center of attention, but we may tend to think of “good attention” as being “one-pointed”, “tightly focused”, and the like. Because that way of working served us so well in the first two jhanas, and because we generally are woefully underdeveloped at paying attention as broadly as the third jhana demands, most people have a lot of work to do to learn how to get what the third jhana is about, either phenomenologically or conceptually. I have often wondered if many hours of watching a screen rather than walking in forests listening to and watching what is all around us might contribute attentional conditioning that makes the first two jhanas easier and the later two harder.

In addition to the spatial or geometric problem of the breadth of the third jhana, there is also the phase problem in it, which is more of a subtle perceptual and even temporal problem. Specifically, attention seems out of phase in the third jhana, such that those who were seeing things arise and manifest with great clarity in the second jhana may now notice that everything seems to be just vanishing when you are most looking for it, as the third jhana’s natural strength involves clarity regarding the end of sensations, which is the direct antithesis of the first and second jhanas, in which every time you look for something, there it is or, even better, it just shows up clearly without much or any work at all.

When faced with these unexpected attention and phase problems which, by their nature, are not generally clear to most practitioners beyond a sense that something is attentionally different or wrong-feeling, most meditators regress and attempt to apply the first jhana way of working, involving strong effort, to a problem that requires even more the reverse of that than the second jhana did. In the second jhana, you could relax, or at least not be nearly as effortful, and jhanic qualities and the object of attention would just manifest. However, in the third, you must let phenomena in the center of attention not quite be there, not really be clear, not really be present, and allow the phase problem to just do its weird out-of-phase thing, since if you try to force it to be something it is not, then like a Chinese finger trap that just gets tighter as you pull harder, it won’t let you win that way. It would be like trying to calm a pool of water by patting down each ripple. This very subtle, broad, gentle way of working is counterintuitive for many, and hard for most even when they are told about how to adjust their attention until they get the hang of it. After the glory of natural, easy, focused, centralized clarity that is the second, the third jhana’s broad, diffuse, and out-of-phase vagueness can really be an adjustment. The third jhana’s tag-line might be, “Go broad or go home!”

Despite our ideals of steady, focused one-pointedness, the third jhana is a significantly more sophisticated form of attention, and learning how to pay attention in it is the necessary set-up for the fourth jhana. We learned a lot about the center of attention and about objects “over there” in the first and second jhanas, but the third jhana begins to include spacious elements, however initially vague, and peripheral and background elements, however initially unclear. Without learning about spacious sensations and the background, you won’t be able to put your whole experience field together in the way the fourth jhana does and thus won’t get the complete picture of what is going on. For those of you who read and practice from John Yates aka Culadasa’s material, the first two jhanas teach you a lot about what he terms “attention”, the third jhana teaches you a lot about what he terms “awareness”, and the fourth jhana teaches you how to combine these together in a balanced and complete way.

Further, for those who get the feel of the third jhana, the vague diffuse out-of-phase-ness gives the third jhana its best elements, which are equanimous, subtly blissful, cool, and restful. That said, these elements are not as easy for most to detect as the positive aspects of the first and second jhanas, which tend to be more obvious, since they are coarser. For those who can appreciate the third jhana’s strengths, they are found to be preferable even to the fun elements of the second.

The third jhana in its more shamatha form is marked by a pervasive, restful, deeper, more open, easier, and calmer bliss than the second, like being submerged in a pleasantly cool pool at twilight. However, for the who are in more of an insight mode, these classic jhanic factors so often associated with the third jhana in the texts may seem a million miles away. Here is one of the more pronounced areas where the insight and concentration maps diverge. More on that later when we talk about the stages of insight generally referred to as the “Knowledges of Suffering” aka the “Dark Night”. Also, if we are using objects that are not somatic, such as visualization objects or a refined object like the breadth of attention of that jhana, the cool, restful bodily bliss may be subtle or even absent, as the mind is focused elsewhere.

The Fourth Jhana

As stated earlier, the fourth jhana is where everything coalesces. The ability to clearly perceive the center of attention is combined with the ability to perceive the periphery of attention, and then a volumetric or spacious element is filled out in a way that it wasn’t before and, more than that, an integrative element as well as a very direct element. While the third jhana generally involves more appreciation of volumetric aspects of our experience than the first two jhanas, the fourth jhana improves on this substantially. The fourth jhana is inclusive, accommodating, and much broader and more even in its treatment of experience in general terms than any of the previous jhanas. It is not that attention can’t focus narrowly in this jhana, as it can, but its natural spatial shape is very different from this.

The fourth jhana has a more through-and-through vibe to it, through the center where the subject seems to be, through the outside where objects seem to be, and in general is more even in its treatment of anything that arises in experience: in particular, emotions, the sense doors, and everything that seems to be “us”. That said, it lacks the fine resolution of the second jhana, and those who go looking for that in the fourth are likely to miss the opportunity to see that the fourth jhana is a substantially more sophisticated way of perceiving sensate reality than everything that came before it. Just as in the second jhana, where things were clearer as less effort was required, the more the fourth comes into its own, the less we seem to be doing anything, and thus the whole field of attention can show itself directly to us in some substantially less-filtered, less-processed, more direct way.

The hallmark of the fourth jhana is equanimity, though certain emphases in practice may not play up this quality as strongly as in others, and when equanimity really develops, it may not be all that noticeable. Bliss, rapture, happiness, as well as pain and strange occurrences may all stand out in the earlier stages, but equanimity may just feel normal and undramatic, making it subtle at times, or so unremarkable that people may miss it. It is generally described as having a neutral feeling tone (vedana), though paradoxically there can be something really nice about the flavor and tone of that neutrality. Why is it that very pure water can taste great even though it has no obvious taste at all? That is the sort of pleasant neutrality that we find in the fourth jhana.

The issue of mindfulness in the fourth jhana is an interesting one, and the old texts (The Saccavibhanga Sutta: The Analysis of the Truths (MN 141), for example) say that mindfulness is considered present, but may not predominate in the way it did in previous jhanas. Just as when watching an engrossing movie there is a natural attention to the movie but we might be so lost in the story that to call ourselves mindful might be somehow inaccurate, the same applies to mindfulness in the fourth jhana.

Fourth is integrative in a way that the previous jhanas are not, in the sense that it points to everything being encompassed in the same mode of attention—all the sense doors, space, attention itself, and what I call “core processes”, things that really seem to be “me”, such as the application of effort, the recognition of what is going on, the sense of questioning, the movement of attention. The fourth jhana consolidates these in a more volumetric, seamless, and complete way than in previous jhanas. In this sense, it is a set-up for many wondrous attainments, being like the Grand Central Terminal or Heathrow of the attentional world. If we accomplish the fourth jhana well, we have a large range of options that we can explore that are based on it and issue from it, such as the next four jhanas. However, before I talk about the next four jhanas (the formless realms), which are in many ways just specialized ways of looking at the fourth, I am going to talk more specifically about the jhanas in concentration practices, which are cultivated for developing stability and positive mental qualities and experiences.

25. Introduction to Part Three   |  27. The Concentration States (Shamatha Jhanas)