27. The Concentration States (Shamatha Jhanas)

26. The Wide World of Jhana   |  28. The Formless Realms

While our practice generally has some aspects of insight and concentration mixed together, in this section I will mostly talk more about what practice may look like when we try to stay towards the concentration side of things, that of the smooth, flowing, pleasant, more apparently stable states that concentration practice can produce. Later, I will discuss what the jhanas can feel like when we add in more appreciation of the three characteristics, but for now, as the Cajuns say, “Laissez les bons temps rouler!

Regardless of the tradition you are following, when you begin to gain some mastery of its concentration practices, you will go through these states in this order up to the level of your current ability, though some people can master skipping over jhanas and even doing them in reverse order, and the like. The specific object of meditation may limit the level of jhana that can be attained, as well as color the experience of these states. Such details are spelled out in various commentaries, such as the Visuddhimagga (Path of Purification, now available online as a PDF file) and the much more readable but harder to find Vimuttimagga (Path of Freedom, also known as Path to Liberation). Bhante Gunaratana’s A Critical Analysis of the Jhanas, included in his more complete work The Path of Serenity and Insight, is a scholarly work on the subject, as is Nyanatiloka’s The Buddha’s Path to Deliverance. Also check out Leigh Brasington’s Right Concentration: A Practical Guide to the Jhanas. On the light end, check out the works of Ayya Khema. On the hardcore end, check out the work of Ajahn Brahm and Pa Auk Sayadaw. 

Some of these texts (particularly the first two) go into long and sophisticated discussions about which posture and which object might be best suited to the proclivities of various types of individuals. It is unfortunate that this sort of information is not in common use today. I suppose that a suit off the rack will work for most occasions, but there is something about one that has been tailor-made. I am told that there are still a few monasteries that provide this sort of traditional training. Unfortunately, this topic is far too complex to treat comprehensively here, but I highly recommend that those of you who are serious about these subjects check out the original sources. They contain a vast amount of powerful information. If you are not up for often lengthy and occasionally laborious reading, start with Path to Deliverance and Path of Freedom.

Many traditions use the breath as the primary object of concentration initially and when the concentration is strong, shift to the qualities of the states themselves when they arise as the object. The quality of a jhana can either be “soft”, “hard”, or somewhere in between depending on how stably we are in the state. In soft jhana, the qualities of that state are recognizable in a way that is different from the ordinary experience of those qualities to the degree that we are confident we are in the altered state defined by those qualities.

In hard jhana, it feels as if our mind has been fused to those qualities and the object with superglue, as if we were nothing but a solid block or field of those qualities or that object, as if they and the object were the whole world with nothing else remaining. Getting into hard jhanic states dramatically increases the beneficial effects of practice, though it takes greater strength of concentration and usually requires more favorable practice conditions to do so. Taking the beneficial factors of the jhana solely as the object of concentration is helpful for getting into harder jhana, as they are attractive and reinforce themselves.

Skill in attaining soft-versus-hard jhana is just one of the various axes of development we can cultivate. Other axes are the speed with which we can access the various states, the objects we can use to access them, and the length of time we can stay in each state. Some traditions emphasize how long we can prolong each state, and others emphasize how quickly we can ascend from the lower to the higher jhanas. Some traditions emphasize the ability to skip around and access them out of order. We can also practice tuning specifically to various aspects and qualities of each jhana. Further, there is the axis of how well we can enter jhanas after a long, hard day of stressful work versus what we can do if we have been on retreat for a few weeks. Depths of concentration practice skill are prone to fading relatively quickly if not exercised often and regularly, though once some degree of mastery has been attained, many will retain at least some baseline skill that can be accessed at any time.

We can learn to combine aspects of various jhanas together that ordinarily might not be found in the standard formulations of the eight jhanas. We can learn to move intentionally back and forth between states that have a more samatha-esque or vipassana-esque feel to them. Beyond a certain point, many of these axes of meditative development might be considered relatively athletic, adventurous, or recreational, and why not? Still, very deep concentration practice has a profundity to it, and when that profundity is used as the basis for developing actual insight, it is extremely transformative.

This list of qualities above may also help you in describing your jhanic experiences to others so they know what you are talking about more clearly than just saying something like, “I was in the second jhana,” a statement that may mean little if you don’t explain it more clearly. Otherwise, you can run into the problem that people may have totally different conceptions of any jhana. For example, one person might feel a bit of bliss and rapture arise in their abdomen for a few minutes and correctly identify those as being second jhanic elements, and thus say, “I was in the second jhana.” Another practitioner might feel massive amounts of rapture and bliss pervading their body, see a strong white light beaming towards them, and sit in that state effortlessly for two hours, which is also second jhana, but clearly a very different level of that same jhana. Again, the range of what is possible in the wide world of jhanas is vast, and not easily encompassed by single terms such as “second jhana” without more explanation, unless you are working in a tradition that already has very narrow definitions of jhana and you are comfortable with those.

For detailed instructions in practices that use certain types of external objects called “kasina”, Bhante Gunaratana’s The Path of Serenity and Insight, and Buddhaghosa’s Path of Purification chapters four and five (extremely useful and highly recommended) provide such a good treatment that you should obtain and read those sources if you want to familiarize yourself with this material. However, the basic instructions are these: stabilize your concentration by gazing steadily at an external object (such as a kasina) until you can perceive a mentally created version of it with your eyes closed or when you are not looking at it. The mental image may not look quite the same as the external kasina object, and is often more refined and simplified. Take that mental image as the new object and stabilize your attention on it until your concentration is like a rock, and then gradually expand that image out as far as it goes for as long as you can.

Mentally created images and colors are great for practicing concentration, as they provide you such immediate and obvious feedback on how you are doing, like having your own extremely clear and automatic jhana meter. If concentration flags even a little bit, you can see it in the faltering of the image, and if concentration gets stronger, the image stabilizes within seconds. This rapid and well-defined reinforcement can really help develop strong concentration much faster than most other objects. I have a researcher friend who initially began with a million-dollar fMRI as a device for measuring concentration, managed to get that down to an $80,000 research-grade EEG, and is working on a commercial product for far less than that. However, a $1 candle used as a kasina object will do the same thing and is easier to carry around. Similarly, a free video of a candle on your phone or its LED light will cost you nothing and work just fine.

The basic pattern we go through with the jhanas is as follows. First, we develop enough concentration to attain the jhana. Then the mind sees/feels the jhana, moves towards and into it, with almost all such state shifts occurring between the end of the out-breath and the beginning of the next in-breath, sometimes accompanied by the eyelids flickering. Then there is the honeymoon period, where the jhana is fresh but unsteady—its blooming phase. Here we get into subjhana terminology a bit. The initial phase I term the first subjhana, and I typically think of this as j.j1, where the first “j” stands for the jhana in question, and .j1 refers to the first subjhana. So, the first part of the first jhana would be j1.j1, for example, and the first part of the second jhana would be j2.j1.

After the mind finds the jhana, there is the maturation period, when the jhana really comes into its own more solidly and shows its true glory, known as j.j2 in this simplified notation. Then the faults of the jhana tend to become noticeable, as well as the proximity of the state to the state below it, and the ease of falling into that lower state, known here as j.j3. Next, the concentration deepens, and some sort of equanimity about the good and bad aspects of the jhana sets in, here known as j.j4. However, when talking about jhana explicitly, I sometimes drop the js so, for example, in the third jhana, we would progress through 3.1 (the fresh phase), 3.2 (the well-developed phase), 3.3 (the seeing-the-flaws phase) and 3.4 (the equanimity with that jhana phase) as part of its natural progression of development.

Further expansions of these concepts and the terminological system that describes them will come later, but for the moment, this general concept is enough. When the concentration grows strong enough and the current jhana is no longer desirable, the mind will naturally shift to the next higher jhana and the cycle goes around again within the limits of the humanly attainable states and your current skill level.

The First Shamatha Jhana

The first shamatha jhana arises after the practitioner has gained the ability to steady the mind on some object, that is, after a state called “access concentration”, meaning the level of concentration needed to access the first jhana or insight stage.

[I realize that various teachers define “access concentration” differently, and if you like some other definition, that’s fine, but avoid “term wars” and realize that we lack a sufficient number of ancient terms to describe this vast terrain.]

Notice that if we are spinning lost in thought, decent concentration is basically impossible. If you wish to attain this, I would try to stay as completely as possible with a chosen meditation object for perhaps one minute. When you can do this, try for ten minutes. When you can do this, try for an hour. For instance, if you were using the breath as an object, try to be aware of every single breath at least in part for a full ten minutes, and then for an hour. This is possible, and a reasonable goal. Try not to pay too much attention to the individual sensations themselves, but conceptualize the breath as a coherent and continuous entity, with many different types of sensations all being thought of as being the breath. It is important to know that really getting into a sense of the breath as a continuous entity for ten seconds will do you more good than being with the breath on and off for an hour.

Tune in to the illusory smoothness of things by purposefully and calmly working with illusions of solidity or fluidity. There is a certain “into it” quality which helps, sort of like really getting into a slow groove when playing an instrument, having sex, playing a sport, or just sinking into a well-deserved warm bubble bath. That, “Oh, yeah, baby, just like that!” vibe is exactly what you are looking for, at least initially. When doing concentration practices, anything that feels good generally should get more attention and be gently expanded into something more developed. Merely concentrating is not necessarily sufficient to get us into jhana, though it helps and may cause it to arise naturally; but for some it takes inclination in the direction of jhana, intending to go that way, so knowing the general qualities you are looking for helps with that inclination.

Sensations that feel good naturally reinforce concentration, so use that feedback loop of feeling good leading to paying more attention, which leads to better concentration, which leads to feeling even better, which leads to paying even more attention. Being in a silent and safe place is also very conducive, as is giving yourself permission to relax, put the cares of the world behind you, and enjoy. Concentration practice benefits greatly from optimal conditions. That said, some of us, like myself, are more aversive types, and pleasure, while fun enough, doesn’t hold my attention as well as it does for some others. I personally find that secluding the mind from disturbing or unpleasant sensations by tuning attention away from them and towards stillness and stability of attention can sometimes be a good strategy for working with my more aversive nature, as that turning away from everything that is not jhana is also a way into jhana. You will have to see what works best for you and your personality makeup.

[There is a fascinating list of the various types of people, which meditation subjects they should and shouldn’t practice, and why, found in the Vimuttimagga, VII, “By Way of Person”, pp. 68–70.]

Comfort in posture is important also, as pain makes getting into these states more difficult. A strongly concentrated mind can overcome and eventually entirely block out pain. While it is possible to get into blissful and peaceful states while in painful physical positions, I don’t see the point in doing that most of the time, since many practitioners won’t be able to fully appreciate what the jhanas offer if they are in a lot of physical pain. Further, it is possible to hurt your body if you push through pain and then learn to ignore it entirely, because you shut off valuable feedback mechanisms that might be telling you something important.

Continuity of practice is very important for cultivating jhanas. The more consistent and consecutive practice you do, the better. Concentration states are much easier to get into on retreat or at high doses of daily-life practice. There are those who, having attained real mastery, can drop into concentration states just by a gentle inclination to do so. However, for most, concentration abilities can fade quickly off-retreat, which can be a real surprise for those who are not expecting this.

A note about concentration practice on retreats: while most retreats involve a relatively strict schedule, when I am on retreat and doing concentration practice, I don’t look at the clock much at all. Instead, I practice until my seated posture is too tiresome to maintain or my reclining posture is making me too restless. I then do very mindful walking practice just until I feel I can go back to a more concentration-friendly posture, and then sit or recline again until I feel I must walk again, so that way I take into account what my body is telling me rather than some fixed schedule (beyond meals and when to get up and go to sleep). This allows me to maximize steady concentration time while also avoiding pain, as pain makes this much harder. Yes, you will likely have to deal with some pain in meditation, but minimizing it helps with jhana practice. There is also something about not having a clock that tunes you in to what is going on in your body and world in a more organic and natural way. You will likely find that sits gradually lengthen naturally as a retreat progresses and our bodies and minds get used to the practice and jhana deepens.

Regarding reclining postures, as mentioned earlier, sleepiness is the most common side effect. However, certain stages of practice, as well as not moving much all day long, and just being a certain type of person (such as my naturally wired self) can make restlessness an issue when reclining. So, when I give personal anecdotes, you should take those in context and consider the specific person talking about their own practice. Reclining might just make you sleepy that day rather than restless and so, if it does, sitting is likely better. If reclining makes you restless, walking may help burn off some energy and give the body the movement it wants, and mindful walking is a great practice itself and extremely underappreciated.

Those monks and nuns hundreds of years ago had no clocks and apparently did just fine regulating their schedules to the movement of the sun and so on, and if you try this approach and have some discipline, I think you will appreciate it. That said, if your discipline is weak, and without a clock you do ten-minute sits whereas with it you can do forty-five-minute sits, perhaps a clock has value. You, the empirical explorer, must sort that out wherever you find yourself in that moment, as what works best for you will likely vary a lot with time. That sort of practical self-assessment is very helpful when working through the exercises found in this book.

Back to the instructions: if you are using the breath as your primary meditation object, you might try purposefully visualizing it as sweet, smooth waves or circles that are peaceful and welcome. Try breathing as if you were in a garden of fragrant roses and you wish to experience the fullness of their fragrance. Perhaps these tips will help illustrate the kind of non-resistant and peaceful presence that can facilitate attaining these states. Tune in to sensations in and around the primary object that feel good. Harbor no guilt, anxiety, or fear related to the depths of pleasure, ease, and well-being. The spiritual life need not be a relentless, austere grind, particularly when doing concentration practices.

As concentration improves, it is as though the mind “sees” the first shamatha jhana and grabs on to it like you would grab on to a slowly moving bus you were trying to hop onto. Having an idea of what you are looking for—something enjoyable and steady—can be helpful. Formally, the first jhana has the five primary factors of:

• initial application (bringing the object to mind)

• sustained effort (keeping attention on the object)

• rapture

• happiness (also translated as joy and other terms)

• single-pointedness

Thus, it is great fun, feels good, but takes repeated effort to sustain. This state can be quite a relief from the pain and discomfort of sitting meditation and can temporarily quiet the mind somewhat (or a lot, if you take it deeper). The mind is considered secluded from hindrances, but they may be close by if the first jhana is not strongly developed. As with all the concentration states, it is generally quite easy to concentrate on something that is very enjoyable. Thus, our concentration skills may improve rapidly and easily after attaining the first jhana, and tend to flounder until we have done so. Therefore, attaining the first jhana is extremely important (but see the qualifier later in “Mind and Body” for you insight-oriented practitioners).

In the previous section on the generic jhanas, I mentioned that the first jhana is narrow, in terms of the extent of a given object you can appreciate clearly at any one moment. This typically translates to objects that are narrowly perceived, and, if mind-generated, such as a visualization, relatively small. That is generally true, unless you happen to be focusing on an unusual meditation object, and forcing it to be otherwise. Thus, if you use space or something formless as your meditation object, it is possible to get into a variant of the first jhana that is very different from how it would more naturally be, since those more abstract objects preclude the narrow focus on a chosen object that I mentioned above. Here we get the first introduction to the notion that in the world of jhana, there is significant variability in terms of how objects and experiences may manifest depending on how you tune the mind. This has caused endless confusion among jhana practitioners who didn’t understand one another, because their focuses, objects, and ways of approaching them were so different.

For example, I remember when I was near the end of the first week of my third meditation retreat and I was doing what I thought was insight practice, as I didn’t know any better at the time. I was following the breath like a rabid dog with very high, sustained effort, and I got into this state where the breath became more and more abstract, more and more subtle, but still the concentration on it was hyper-effortful, relatively tight, and very first jhana in that regard. As this deepened, the body basically vanished, then anything like the normal breath vanished, and what was left was a very abstract sinusoidal movement that once had been the breath in an otherwise essentially undifferentiated blank space, with sound, body, and the rest all completely gone. This was still first jhana, just a relatively refined first jhana using what had turned into an abstract object. [A state that these days I would label something like j1.vj7, meaning the fluxing (“v” for vipassana) Nothingness (seventh jhana) subjhana of the first jhana (“j”), a topic I expand on further as we go.] The classic signs of the second jhana would show up later, albeit the second vipassana jhana, and alternating between shamatha-esque jhanas and vipassana-esque jhanas is normal for many insight practitioners.

As another example, I was on a later retreat focusing on a candle flame, and after staring at it for a bit, I would close my eyes and the complementary color (generically referred to in this context as “visual purple” even if not actually purple) version of the flame would appear, then it would change into a stable, bright, pure, very circular, glowing red dot that would burn brighter and get more flawlessly round and pure as I gave it more attention. This was also the first jhana. These two objects (the abstract sinusoidal movement and the red dot) and the states of consciousness I was in while experiencing them may seem essentially nothing alike, and yet I can assure you they were the same in an important, fundamental, jhanic way. Later I will describe the stages of insight and tell you that the first three of those stages are also in the general territory of the first jhana, only the vipassana end of jhana, and they will superficially look nothing like these two descriptions at all.

Regardless of the specifics of how the first jhana manifests, people tend to really like the first shamatha jhana, and may cling to it for the rest of a retreat, or cultivate it again and again in their sitting practice at home. It is relatively easy for many people to get into the light end of it, which is still nice and a promotion from normal attention. To get deeply into the first jhana requires more skill, and the range of depths to which some skilled practitioners can take the first jhana is remarkable.

From the first jhana there are basically three things a meditator can do:

1) get stuck there (I know someone who spent some twenty years cultivating the first jhana in daily practice, thinking that was insight practice);

2) progress to the second jhana; or

3) investigate the three characteristics of the first jhana and thus progress in insight. They can direct their attention to breaking the illusion of the solidity of that state into its component individual sensations so as to gain insight into their actual mode of momentary presentation.

One way to break down jhanas into objects of insight practice is to start noting every time you become aware of some aspect of that jhana. Special attention must be paid to noticing the experience of the precise arising and passing of every individual sensation that makes up the state, particularly the primary beneficial factors of the state listed above. In this way, we might note, “stability”, “solidity”, “steadiness”, “bliss”, “silence”, “rapture”, “effort”, or whatever colors or sounds, etc., may arise as the jhanic object, along with thoughts about the jhana. Do this again and again each time you become aware of those qualities, which is quite often if you are paying fine attention.

If you investigate clearly and have strong concentration, you may get into states that have both shamatha and vipassana qualities, both blissful and quiet, yet fluxing and very rapidly precise and analytical. These fusion states have the advantages of being a lot more fun and interesting than states supported by less mental power. They have the disadvantage of potentially having the subtler jhanic aspects gunk up your insight practice if not clearly perceived to arise and vanish. Still, the practitioner that draws on both strong shamatha and strong vipassana to cut through the trap presented by the pleasant jhanic factors will make fast and easy progress, as the mind is strong, practice is profound, investigation is keen, and hindrances are far away. Some mix of talent, very good conditions, sustained practice, great instruction, and very developed meditation skills is usually required for this optimal fusion of the two styles to work out, and many will find that developing one side or the other well is initially much easier, hence the insight-first and concentration-first schools of practice.

While it is not actually possible to perceive clearly the arising and passing of every single sensation in the first jhana, as that sort of hyper-inclusivity is not the first jhana’s nature (if it was, it would be all you needed), or even to be perfectly mindful of every sensation, it is definitely possible to be clear about enough of them to reach awakening, and that is what matters. It is somewhat common for us to investigate half-heartedly and not pay careful attention to the myriad sensations that make up rapture, happiness, and stability, as unconsciously we are attached to the pleasure of these sensations and thus we want them to last (be permanent), to be satisfactory, and to be “me” or “mine” (self and the property of such a self). Some degree of stagnation is guaranteed in insight practice if you cling in this way to pleasant sensations, or anything else for that matter. In other words, if you fail to truly perceive the impermanence of all phenomena that make up your subjective experience, you will have artificially solidified them (“clung to” them in the standard yet not-very-precise parlance) and you will not gain clear insight into the way they occur.

It is extremely common for people, particularly on retreat, to start getting into low-level jhanic states that are a weak fusion of concentration and insight, such that they give some attention to the three characteristics of their primary meditation objects, but do no investigation of the low-level shamatha jhanic background, such that they have a weak half-insight, half-concentration hybrid that neither advances their insight practice much nor allows any great delving into the rich world of deeper concentration states. However, as this may be such a relief from spinning in neurotic content or their back and knee pain, they cling to it for the rest of the retreat. It is an improvement over what came before, but not much more.

My advice to counter this trend to cling to low-level half-samatha, half-vipassana jhana is to pick either concentration or insight and really develop that, such that you really power either the insight or the concentration aspect of practice at any given time, meaning that if you are working on concentration, give that your all, and when you are doing insight practice, give that your all. If choosing vipassana, tear down the deceptive blissful seductive shamatha factors with the rapid investigative ruthlessness that getting them to unstick requires. If choosing samatha, give the smooth bliss your full attention and cultivate it without restraint. If you are working with a teacher, such as on a retreat, seek their input and work out what approach will be best in that context.

This brings me somewhat belatedly to a discussion of which practice to do at any given time. This is a question you must answer for yourself, though the advice of whomever you consider your more advanced friends and teachers in the meditation world can be of great value here. What do you want to accomplish? What really calls to you? If that is insight, then do it, and do it well. If it is concentration that beckons, spend time doing that well. I personally think that going for the first stage of awakening as understood in the Theravada system and described in more detail later by doing insight practices is critical, but if concentration is your bag, baby, and that is what really calls to you, then learn the shamatha jhanas well, be honest about what they do and don’t accomplish, beware of their standard pitfalls, and use them as a basis for insight. More pure concentration is a valuable skill set with its own merits and, since well-developed shamatha jhana that doesn’t have vipassana elements is hard to come by, chances are some insight may creep in eventually so that you get a taste of it and can see if you like it. That said, there are plenty of people who get jhana yet never gain insight, so don’t count on this strategy.

The “near enemy” of the first shamatha jhana is access concentration, meaning that, when the applied and sustained effort or attention flags somewhat, access concentration sets in. As the texts (for example, the Visuddhimagga, IV, 138, or The Path of Serenity and Insight, p. 80) rightly say, the fact that you must make effort to get into and stay in this state, will start to reveal itself as being coarse and annoying. The effort-creating components take up a lot of processor time, but in a way that at this stage is generally not that obvious (at least in comparison to what comes later), and so plenty of information slips through without being perceived clearly, as it is obscured by effort itself. This becomes more and more apparent, and clear awareness of just this simple fact while staying in the jhana causes the mind to eventually let go of the first jhana and jump towards the second jhana.

The Second Shamatha Jhana

The second shamatha jhana is like the first, a seemingly solidified mind state. With the dropping of almost all applied and sustained effort, the rapture and happiness/joy factors created by concentration can really predominate. Thus, whereas the first jhana requires you to make effort to pay attention to maintain it, the second jhana has much more of the quality of showing itself to you, welling up, filling the field of attention with itself, blossoming naturally, etc. The focus of attention extends out somewhat, sort of like looking straight ahead without focusing the eyes on anything specific.

Mind-generated objects, such as visualizations, that in a well-developed visual-based first jhana are relatively stable, may now begin to move (spin, pulse, resonate, shimmer, subtly flux, or something similar) in the second jhana in ways that correlate with the phase of the breath, moving slowly towards the top and bottom of the breath and more quickly in the middle. This fine movement may be subtle to some and very obvious to others. Mantras may suddenly seem to be repeating themselves. The breath suddenly is noticeably breathing itself and there is something that feels great about that. This more insight-related aspect of change (impermanence) will not be noticed by everyone, but if you do notice it, that is very second jhana. Objects can also seem very steady, very stable, and yet still have that welling-up, on-their-own quality.

The silence of the mind is noticeably increased, and the pleasure of this state may also increase greatly, particularly if pleasure is the focus of attention. When this state is carefully cultivated, the intensity of its associated pleasure can become as strong as you can bear it, with words like “orgasmic” commonly used for those who take the pleasant aspects of it and amplify them through intent and concentration. Powerful bliss and rapture may show up in those who weren’t expecting them nor inclining to that aspect of practice at all. Like all the other jhanas, the second jhana can be developed in many different directions depending on the focus, object, practitioner, depth, and practice style.

Again, this state is a fine attainment but can be quite captivating for obvious reasons. The second shamatha jhana has very skillful elements, in that it cultivates six of the seven factors of awakening to some degree (excluding investigation, and is more focused on rapture than on equanimity). It temporarily suppresses the hindrances, creating more beneficial wiring in the brain. It is also very seductive and sticky. Some may get stuck cultivating this again and again for some period ranging from days to years. Again, the meditator also has the option to:

1) get stuck here;

2) go on to the third jhana; or

3) investigate this state and begin the progress of insight, paying careful attention to completely deconstructing the state into its moment-to-moment components, as with the first jhana.

There is much that may be said about the second jhana, and I will do so later. When you put together the information I will discuss later concerning a stage called the Arising and Passing Away (A&P) with other considerations about the second jhana, hopefully you will get a more complete picture of the wide range of what can happen in this general territory.

The Third Shamatha Jhana

If the meditator decides to go on to the third shamatha jhana, this can be achieved by just cultivating the second jhana more deeply and eventually noticing that the rapture or emotional “wow factor” of that state eventually becomes annoying, distasteful, agitating, or even boring. More aversive types, such as myself, may notice the downsides of the qualities of bliss and rapture more easily than more desirous types. That said, more desirous types probably found getting into the second jhana a lot easier. This understanding of the downsides of rapture, as well as the deepening of concentration, causes the mind to want out of the second jhana by inclining to the third jhana, in which the rapture of the second jhana drops away, and what is left is a more cool “bodily” bliss and equanimity with a more diffuse mindfulness of what is going on.

The attention is now in broad focus, like resting in the half of space that is in front of oneself. The third jhana is like the counterpoint to the focus of attention of the second jhana. In the second jhana, wherever we look we see clearly, whereas in the third jhana the wide periphery of our attention is clearer and the center of our attention is murkier, more vague, and feels out of phase, as mentioned before. This can be extremely confusing until we get used to it, and in the third jhana, trying to stay with one object in the center will cause the meditator to miss what this state has to offer and teach.

Moving from the second to the third jhana is like going from focusing on the donut hole to focusing on the outer edge of the donut, except that now you are sitting in the center of the donut. This is much easier to appreciate if one is doing a visual practice like a candle flame kasina than it is with some other objects. Remember this strange widening of perspective with its central phase problem when you get to descriptions of the “Dark Night” in the section on the stages of insight, as the Dark Night has as its foundation the third jhana but adds the three characteristics. If the three characteristics of the jhana are noticed, this focusing on the wide periphery is a more inclusive, broader, more sophisticated, and complex kind of concentration than those of the first two jhanas, like going from listening to light pop music to very complex, dissonant, chromatic jazz in some odd time signature in a room with horrible acoustics.

For most, the third shamatha jhana in general is much harder than the previous two jhanas to get clearly into and understand well. I don’t mean to script you into having problems, as you may find that you specifically are more easily able to advance to the third jhana than the general population. Recognizing that the broader focus is the key is very useful for getting into and moving beyond it, as it is a much lighter and more subtly diffuse and cool attention.

If you are using a visualized object, such as a color, it is likely to get wider and taller in this jhana, and its center may have a black or nearly black area in it or just not really seem to be there. The color is likely to start curling around towards you, such that it may seem to be seen as if on the inside of a half of the surface of a hollow sphere that rests in front of you. Images also are likely to have more three-dimensional aspects to them in the third jhana, particularly as it deepens. Repeating patterns of some of the elements of images in the third jhana are common, sometimes to hundreds or thousands of copies. Seeing hundreds of gently swirling lines of pale blue light: that’s a third jhana sort of thing to see when visualizing.

If you are using a mantra, it can split into various strange seemingly out of phase voices with rich distinct harmonics and get very wide in the stereo field, or it may seem to be there and not be there in an out-of-phase way that appears to be less clear than in the second jhana, during which it was more likely to have been strong, steady, and automatic (the classic second jhana characteristics).

If you are using the breath, it can feel very cool, subtle, wide, and more ghostly or ephemeral. The breath may slow down substantially in the third jhana in comparison to the second. The sense that we could drop far down into the breath, like we could drop through the floor with the out-breath and just stay down there somewhere, is common for those using the breath as object in the third jhana. Also, the sensations of breathing are more likely to disappear entirely in this jhana than in the previous ones, though that can happen in any of the jhanas, depending on the focus of attention.

If you are taking the natural qualities of attention in the jhana themselves as your meditation object, then it can feel like you are far underwater in a place of very out-of-phase stillness. Taking the breadth of attention itself as object is one of my favorite ways to get into this jhana. If you take the cool bliss as object, it can be very healing, tranquilizing, and subtly pleasant. If you take the element of equanimity that begins to develop in this jhana, then deep states of stillness and contentment are possible.

While all of the first four jhanas may fill the body with their particular distinguishing qualities—happiness and bliss in the first, bliss and happiness in the second, cool bliss and equanimity in the third, neutral equanimity in the fourth—the amount of them that we can notice at any instant varies, with attention much more narrowly focused in the early jhanas and much wider in the later ones. However, that this is going on is not clear to all jhana practitioners. The fact that the body may be full of the jhanic qualities may preclude the fine discriminating awareness that notices how at any instant we can notice only some part of what becomes broader as the jhanas progress. Those with more advanced vipassana-based analytical skills will have an easier time noticing this change in the width of the momentary perception of these seemingly stable states.

The third jhana can also be significantly more prone to possessing formless elements than the first two, such as in the sense of the body falling away, sights falling away, sounds falling away, and other similar disappearances occurring. Later, I will discuss more technical ways to map these various extended aspects of the various jhanas. While these formless elements can occur in any of the jhanas, depending on how they are developed, the third jhana is where they become more likely, as the third is naturally conducive. That this jhana can have formless elements also increases the potential for it to cause confusion in those who are trying to map their progress, as they can then conclude that they are further along than they actually are. [Jumping ahead a bit and geeking out, the Boundless Space subjhana of the third jhana (j3.j5) may superficially resemble the third subjhanic aspect of Boundless Space (j5.j3), but it is not the same thing. This is true for other similar permutations of formed and formless jhanas and subjhanas.]

In its pure and simple breadth, profound but diffuse and subtle clarity, balance, contentment, and a subtler bliss, the third shamatha jhana is even better than the second jhana. It is no wonder that people can easily mistake these jhanic states for enlightenment, as they can seem to fit some imprecise descriptions of what enlightenment might be like. Remember that enlightenment is not a mind state, nor is it dependent on any condition of reality. It does not come and go as these states do.

Again, from this state, meditators have a few options. They can:

1) get stuck;

2) move on to the fourth jhana; or

3) investigate this state and begin the progress of insight. This would require careful attention to make sure that all the specific sensations that make up peace, equanimity, subtle bliss, and spaciousness are clearly observed to arise and pass, not satisfy, and not be self or the property of self.

These qualities are not easy to let go of (read: “see the true nature of”, or “release so as to move to something else”). It is often counterintuitive and difficult for many to investigate the sensations that make up jhanic aspects such as space and equanimity. Further, as we will see later, when the third jhana is dismantled by insight practice, the results typically produce some harsh and disconcerting elements. For those who choose instead to enter the jhana, leave it, and then work on insight practice, it is true that, upon leaving such a state, the mind will still have a measure of the good qualities of the state. This can be useful to insight practice if we are willing not to cling to these qualities. This applies to the other states as well, so some teachers have their students master concentration states before they move on to insight practice. On the other hand, such states can be intoxicating and addictive, and can result in a stagnant dead end for those that become duped by them.

Thus, some teachers have their students avoid them like the plague until they have some very deep insights into the truth of things. The path of avoiding shamatha was the one I took initially, and I found it fast, hard, and edgy. I know people who took the concentration-first path, and they generally found it nice, fun, and slow. I know of a few practitioners who could balance and be strong in shamatha and vipassana simultaneously while managing to avoid their respective pitfalls, and their practice was lightning fast and easy. Most of us will not be so lucky, but it can be done, and perhaps you will be one of those who can do it.

The transition from the third to the fourth jhana is the real test of sophisticated concentration, as it is not easy for many to make without some work and maturation. It also benefits from a bit of direction, as a much gentler touch is required to get across that junction. For those who study traditions such as ceremonial magick, that junction is sometimes referred to as “the abyss”. Regardless of what you call it, that shift is less natural for most. It is harder to see what is happening than for any of the previous transitions between jhanas. Strangely, it may require a bit of what feels daydream-like, or like spacing out, or what otherwise might feel like or be characterized as “bad” practice, until we get better at it, and even then, there is something of these qualities to the shift from the third to the fourth jhana.

The Fourth Shamatha Jhana

As before, if practitioners wish to go on to the fourth shamatha jhana, they cultivate the third jhana and begin to pay attention to the fact that even the cool bodily bliss is somewhat irritating or noisy, and that the mind is still not as spacious and evenly balanced across the field of experience as it could be. Also, the out-of-phase elements in the third jhana that can lead to some of its positive, restful qualities may begin to feel wrong, strained, and distorted in some way. Eventually, the mind will abandon the third jhana and shift into the fourth jhana which, when strongly developed, is the height of equanimity. This state is remarkable in its simple spaciousness and acceptance. The extreme degree of imperturbability would be astounding if there were not such pronounced imperturbability. This is by far the most restful of the first four jhanas.

The focus of attention is largely panoramic and thus even saying “focus” here is a bit problematic. The fourth jhana includes space and awareness in a way that the previous three do not. Mindfulness is considered to be perfected due to equanimity, though this factor does not generally stand out as in the previous jhanas. When we are really in this state, the basic sense we have of where our body is and what it looks like can get very vague or even vanish entirely (though this is less true if we are in this state with our eyes open), as the fourth jhana is the basis of more formless attainments (Boundless Space, Boundless Consciousness, Nothingness, and Neither Perception Nor Non-Perception), to be described shortly. Since the fourth jhana is the basis of those attainments, it is common for elements from those formless jhanas to be noticed to some degree in the formed version of the fourth jhana. [What I term j4.j5, j4.j6, j4.j7, and j4.j8, meaning some degree of the formless aspects of jhanas five through eight showing themselves in the still-formed fourth jhana. These become more important in later discussions.]

Fourth is quite a high attainment, and can easily be confused with the goal of the spiritual life, though it very much is not. That said, it can seem so ordinary when it occurs in some less-developed way that people might not even notice much about it. However, when it is achieved in its hard-jhana form, it can be truly amazing in its depths of peace, vastness, openness, and silence. Like the previous jhanas, it can vary a lot in its specifics depending on the object we used to get there.

Let’s say you used a visualization of a deity to get there: in the fourth jhana the image of the deity can become fully three-dimensional, have an astounding degree of detail, and take on a life of its own, becoming living, luminous, and translucent, with a level of vividness that can be astounding, like the best computer graphics found in high-budget movies and TV shows. The space in which the entities arise generally gets much larger, more boundless, wide open, and panoramic. If you used the quality of space itself to get to this jhana or take the spacious element as object while in the jhana, the vast boundlessness of this state may be the predominant quality regardless of what forms remain in that space.

If you are using a mantra, it is more likely to get much more silent and diffuse, or even morph into something more vibrant, symbolic, and alive in this jhana. One time, entering the fourth jhana with a mantra, it began to manifest as silent, golden, rotating, three-dimensional symbols far out in space.

If the quality of equanimity itself is taken as object, then that quiet, still openness may be what predominates. If you used a color, such as white, as the object of this jhana, then that whiteness may pervade everything, as though reality has become a giant space of undifferentiated whiteness. It is by filling the whole of our body and world with whatever quality we chose as object that artificial mental barriers and boundaries may be overcome. Poorly illuminated parts of the field may be made clear and bright. We can flush out places of habitual perceptual darkness and saturate them with strong attention and clarity by pervading them with our meditation object. This is the treasure that can be found and the transformation that can occur by the fourth jhana having been done well.

From this state, practitioners have quite a number of options:

1) get stuck;

2) move on to the formless realms (the fifth through eighth jhanas);

3) cultivate the experiences that are often described as “psychic powers” (much more on that perennially touchy topic later);

4) access more exotic and unusual jhanic attainments; or

5) investigate this state while remaining in it so as to attain insight by noticing the shifting nature of the qualities of the jhana and space themselves as they occur, which tends to have a much more fluxing, flowing, inclusive quality than investigation done from within the lower jhanas. When investigating this state, special attention must absolutely be given to the fact that the myriad sensations that make up equanimity, ease, peace, and spaciousness come and go moment to moment, do not satisfy or provide a permanent resting place, and are not self or its property.

Again, it is very easy to get attached to the sensations that make up these high states, and so great precision, attention, and a subtle but uncompromising honesty must be exercised if the practitioner chooses to investigate this state to cultivate insight. Another alternative is to leave this state and then begin insight practice, as the qualities that this state writes on the mind linger for a short time, and this can be helpful if the practitioner does not cling to these benefits.

26. The Wide World of Jhana   |  28. The Formless Realms