Slam-Shifting Ñanas and Jhanas

54. The Middle Paths   |  Luminosity

Here is what my practice often looked like at that point: I would generally sit down already in the A&P, drop down into the breath to Dissolution, and then, when the interesting stuff resumed in Fear, start chasing vibrations and cataloging them meticulously: fast vibrations, interesting harmonics, edgy vibrations, harsh vibrations, but also stranger things, such as slow waves, deep pulses, waves so slow they would take perhaps fifteen seconds to complete one cycle, waves that seemed to plunge deep into the earth, and finally after a lot of experimenting with dissolving everything into just abstract vibrations of mind and body, get to Equanimity, possibly check out all the little subparts of that, get a Fruition, then cycle back around again, as many times as I could. [Such as the early formless realm aspects of Equanimity, what I would now call things like ñ11.j4.j5 or ñ11.j4.j6, using ñana.subjhana.subsubjhana notation.]

I also spent hundreds of hours of practice time over a few years doing what I call slam-shifting ñanas and jhanas. This sort of practice comes mainly out of inspiration from Bill Hamilton who himself was inspired by texts and lines that you will find mostly in the commentaries. Kenneth Folk also helped revive this sort of old practice. I then took it and modified it to suit my practice style, inspired as I was by passages such as the Visuddhimagga, IV, §134, which states that Maha-Moggallana had the ability to enter jhana in a finger-snap or ten finger-snaps, which is called “mastery in resolving”. Much more extensive inspirational elaboration on the foundational theory of this technique can be found in the Vimuttimagga (BPS version), VIII, section 3, pp. 130–131, which describes a similar practice though, without the insight stages and subparts but instead using kasina objects.

I currently know of only a few people other than myself, such as Kenneth Folk, who have ever played with practice to any great degree, though perhaps this section will change that. I hope that this is the beginning of a renewed interest in this spirit and mode of meditative exploration. My apologies in advance for this next paragraph, but its structure and content give you something of the headspace that I was in back then and the sorts of practices I was doing.

What does mastering fluency with mind states do for you, in which you can just call up the second subsubjhana of the sixth subjhana of the eleventh ñana and have that show up in its refined glory? What does this mean for energetic systems and the like, if you then immediately after that just call up the third subjhana aspect of the sixth ñana, then suddenly slam-shift the mind and really grind hard on the first subsubjhanic aspect of the third subjhana of the tenth ñana (or hit something truly awful like ñ10.ñ10 really hard, meaning the Re-observation subñana of Re-observation), and then immediately down-shift hard again and really revel in the rapturous wonder of the fourth subñanic aspect of the second jhana, and then blend the rich rapture of the second jhana with the vast expansiveness of the fourth jhana, and then just keep going like that for hours? I have only a few data points to answer this, as the number of people who have publicly described mastery of this sort of practice is so few. I feel it did something great. If you can do this sort of practice and have the stages and substages show up as you call to them, you have some seriously fluid ability to shape reality however you wish it to be, and have an energetic system that can easily navigate radical, rapid, and rough changes and extremes.

If you want to learn to jump around between jhanas and ñanas, I recommend starting simply after laying the proper foundation. First, get at least stream entry. Second path would be better, as many notice that appreciating subtle nuances of mind is easier then, but many of the basics should be within the reach of stream enterers. Next, get good at the Review phase, as that is the phase of mastery, where the stages are much more accessible by mere intention. These foundations make jhana-jumping easier. In fact, it is hard to imagine someone below stream entry successfully doing these practices. Also, if you get good at these practices, it can be surprising how much they can fade when you are up in a new progress phase, only to return in the next Review phase.

Next, start with the normal sequence of the ñanas, noticing each stage as it unfolds naturally in order as you practice. Get used to labeling the stages by name and by number so that you associate the labels with the stages. If and when you are able to perceive subphases, add those labels as well when stages arise.

When you are good at this, then you can begin to add a small sense of control to the stages by prolonging them by intention. As each stage arises, make resolutions to stay in that stage for a few minutes until you get a sense of it. Notice that as each stage matures, there will begin to be a pull towards the next stage. Feel and resist that pull until you are ready to move on to the next stage. Really get a feel of each stage as you stay in it, so that you know the shape of attention, the feel in the body, the emotional feel, the various vibratory and phase aspects of the stage, as well as the other stage-specific effects. I call all of this “gaining control of the vertical rise of the ñanas”.

Now, I recommend doing what I think of as horizontal work, that which explores the associations between the ñanas and the jhanas. As each ñana arises, pay attention to its jhanic qualities, fixating the mind on those aspects until something much more jhanic than ñanic arises. Then, let that go and shift to the next stage of insight, which I would call a diagonal move. So, for the A&P, turn it into the second shamatha jhana, then let that shift into Dissolution. For the Dark Night stages, turn them into the third shamatha jhana, then when you are done with them, let them shift into Equanimity. For Equanimity, turn it into the fourth shamatha jhana.

Again, for each stage or state, feel the pull towards the next one and resist it, resolving not to allow it to shift forward until you have decided to move on. You can make formal resolutions to stay in a specific state for a specified time period and, properly done, your internal clock will let the next stage arise after the specified interval. It can be interesting to pick short intervals for some and long intervals for others. In this way, you will gain control of the stages and states of meditation. Repeated practice makes this easier and easier. Many will find this a lot easier on retreat, but some will be able to do this well in daily life on less practice time. If you are more of a jhanic practitioner, do the corollary and, as each jhanic state arises, vipassanize it. In this way, both types of practitioners will gain fluency with the stages and states of meditation.

Now that you can rise through the stages of insight and turn them into their jhanic equivalents, learn to access the stages out of order. This requires more skill and practice than the initial exercises. Start by calling up a stage by name or number, and send the mind towards that stage. You may initially notice odd energetic effects or movements as you force the system to shift to stages out of order. It might take a minute or so to get established in the new stage, so keep inclining towards it. With practice, this gets easier. The more familiar you are with the stages, the easier it is to shift between them, so it helps to actively stay in them for enough time to comprehend what they are about and how they feel.

Initially start with small jumps that are not so jarring or different, such as from Disgust to Fear, for example. As you get better, you can explore jumps that are farther and between more disparate stages, such as from Re-observation to the A&P or from Misery to Equanimity. You can even try jumping lower than a standard Review phase goes, jumping from, say, Dissolution to Cause and Effect, for example, or Three Characteristics to Misery.

Now, add in the jhanas, or, if you are a more accomplished jhanic practitioner, start with the jhanas and then add in the stages of insight. I will give the instructions for those who are starting with insight, as I did, but the same concepts apply in the other direction. For those who start with the stages of insight and then add in the jhanas, try going from, say, the second jhana to Desire for Deliverance, then up to the fourth jhana, then back down to Fear, etc. In this way, and with repeated practice, you gain mastery of the stages and states.

More advanced practitioners may add in the formless realms. Some will find this very difficult but, with practice, it will likely get easier, and on retreat it is easier than in daily life for most. Adding the formless realms assumes that you already have access to the formless realms in the standard sequence, as learning them first out of sequence will likely go poorly unless you have rare talent and/or unusually good practice conditions and set-up. I would start with comparatively easy jumps, such as from Dissolution to Nothingness, or from Equanimity to Boundless Consciousness. As you get better with this, try more dissonant jumps, such as from Fear to Boundless Space or from Re-observation to the eighth jhana. These are clearly much harder, and the ability to pull off those jumps fluidly and rapidly shows rare meditative competence.

For those who have an appreciation for the substages and substates, or even subsubstages and subsubstates, try shifting from, say, ñ8.j2 to ñ5.j3, meaning the exciting but immature part of Disgust to the more dissolving moderately mature part of Dissolution. We can even get more specific, such as from ñ11.j3.j2 to ñ6.j4.j1, for example, or more exotic, from j7.j4 back to ñ4.j6. In this way, those who learn jumping at this level and practice well enough for long enough will realize that it is possible to get into very subtly and specifically different subflavors, variants, and extensions of many of the ordinary states and stages with a great degree of control and nuance. Those who can do this are the true supertasters of the meditation world.

We can even learn to combine elements of stages and states that ordinarily don’t go together, such as, for example, the rapture of the A&P with the boundlessness of space and do this just by inclining the mind to those now-familiar qualities either sequentially to build up a custom-crafted state, or all at once for those who have that level of talent, such that we just jump to the unusual combination. We can also add specific objects, colors, elements, images, sounds, and other kasinas into our practice, such that we can learn to jump from the red kasina on j3 to the blue kasina on j2, for example, which I would label as and This is one of the traditional practices found in the commentaries. You could add in chakras, symbols, and any other sensate components that your mind can dream up and your concentration and insight abilities can conjure.

One can add in Bill’s mapping magick, and jump from, say a vipassanized version of metta practice, which I would label ñ4.metta, meaning the A&P taking metta as object, to, say, j4.equanimity, meaning the fourth jhana that took the quality of equanimity itself as object, then to something creepy like j3.ñ6.corpseimage, which is self-explanatory, and then down to, say, ñ1.breath, meaning Mind and Body that takes the breath as object, and then to, say, ñ10.light, which would be the peak of the third vipassana jhana taking the light kasina as object. One who can do this is an unusually accomplished meditator.

One of the remarkable things about this sort of training is realizing that any mind state or perceptual mode we find ourselves in is rapidly modifiable to something else by the mere inclination to do so, and this insight and ability is profoundly empowering. Also, this sort of practice, done long enough, eventually fosters a sort of meta-equanimity for all states of mind, a disenchantment with even the most remarkable states, such as ñ4.j7, and a resilience regarding even the most horrible ones, such as ñ10.ñ10.ñ6. If you can do this practice well, you also have a remarkable capacity to taste experience with subtle nuance across a wide range, from hellish to heavenly and everything in between. Do this practice long enough, and you know you can handle nearly anything, as eventually, done well, you learn that, no matter how grating or how blissful the experience is, it ends. As you will see later, this sort of attitude, learned deeply for yourself by your own practice, is the point.

There is something very empowering about being able to crash hard and intentionally into Re-observation with everything you’ve got and take it to the depths of truly horrible, like diving into the mouth of an erupting volcano, and then, just like that, soar like a ghostly space eagle out into vast, spacious, fluxing formless realms. Then you can plunge down into the distant quiet depths of the bottom of the third jhana, like you just scuba-dived to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, then crank the rapture of the second jhana to as high as you can stand it, as if you are high as a kite at the best rave on a beautiful beach in Thailand, and dance spinning in ecstasy from there into the thrilling and creepy depths of Fear, as if suddenly you are rotting away in a dark dungeon full of the ravenous undead, and on it can go.

Remember that when I was young I wanted to have great flying dreams, as I found them very compelling? This, slam-shifting jhanas and ñanas, done very well, is very much like what I was looking for in some ways but much better in others. Between slam-shifting jhanas and learning to travel out-of-body, I got what I wanted: the opportunity to have remarkable adventures without ever leaving my bed or cushion. While this has satisfied me to the degree it reasonably could, and I still appreciate these skill sets, they were only one interesting part of the adventure and there were others that were vastly more fundamental and ultimately beneficial.

Intentionally shifting between various specific jhanas and ñanas both in order and out of order means that you have a specific agenda for what jhana or ñana you are in. Thus, as this practice is concerned with specifics and involves intentions to cultivate specific qualities, it is somewhat to the shamatha side of practice even though, being often harshly vibrational as well as pretty jarring, it would seem more vipassanesque. Still, slam-shifting states and stages for hour after hour, month after month, gave me a great sense of competence in all the various major ñanas and their subparts. I also think it gave me a tolerance for rapidly shifting and highly contrasting mind states and an appreciation of the breadth and subtlety of the many, many states of mind that meditation can produce. These skill sets helped with all sorts of practice aspects later. I also have a theory that doing this and mastering fluency in a wide range of vibrational and jhanic modes of attention opens and strengthens emotional and energetic channels that make things move through more easily. Slam-shifting states and stages practice is like the drain-cleaner or fast-acting laxative of the meditation world.

Here temptation strikes, a temptation I mentioned earlier. I haven’t mentioned much about this phase of my practice before, particularly the slam-shifting ñanas phase, as, from my current vantage point, it seems imbalanced, needlessly showy, and really missing the essential point about this moment being the answer to the question of vipassana. I do worry that this sort of practice can lead to serious emotional instability and competition. It would likely be easy to fry yourself if you pushed this too hard, and I was a pretty edgy guy for much of this phase. If you want to try to avoid this sort of bleed-through, stay farther to the shamatha side of practice, stick to lighter states, and reduce harsh transitions.

That said, I also am sure that this sort of practice has the potential to eventually create the reverse effect: insight into a vast range of mental and emotional territory and an eventual disenchantment and equanimity regarding all of that. It can also cultivate very high degrees of ego strength in the skillful, traditional psychological sense. So, caveat emptor. There is no need to do this sort of athletic and technical practice, but if you do, realize it is a double-edged sword. Pay attention to what it does to your brain and body at that time, particularly when you get up off the cushion, and do back off if needed. Taking some time at the very end of a session of this sort of practice to stabilize in something calming and centering rather than edgy and toxic, such as the third or fourth jhanas with the breath as primary object, can help.

There is now so much meditation technology out there on the internet and available in various publications that is potentially as or more dangerous than slam-shifting states and stages. So I hope these warnings will help you, skillful reader, to have some appreciation of the risks and benefits, and that you can make informed choices in your own practice. Just as it annoys the heck out of me when people fail to teach what got them their own insights, I can’t be sure that I didn’t get what I later got due to having gone through this practice phase. Still, you should seriously consider finding a good teacher if you are doing this practice, as it is severely athletic, acrobatic mental training and, as such, not entirely safe.

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54. The Middle Paths   |  Luminosity