What is Jhana?
Jhana (Thai: ฌาน/chaan) is a strong state of concentration we can learn to enter while meditating. Once we are able to access jhana, we can then deepen it through a process of letting go.
Jhana covers a spectrum of meditation experiences which can be broken up into stages. These stages are traditionally labelled as first jhana, second jhana, third jhana, fourth jhana (there are another five jhana states to explore, but the first four are sufficient for our purposes). As we progress from one stage to the next, the potential for developing insight increases.
How the Jhanas Can Help Free Us from Addiction
The jhanas are delightful. When we first encounter them, we are usually amazed such states of consciousness actually exist – it is like living for years in poverty, but then finding a huge casket of gold under your bed.
The Jhanas can help keep us free from addiction (and ultimately free us from all types of suffering) because:
• It allows us to safely experience states of concentration that are more pleasurable than drugs (and without the nasty side-effects)
• It allows us to experience happiness that is not dependent on external conditions
• We discover the freedom of a still mind so we become less obsessed with external experiences as a way to make us happy
• We stop blaming other people for our suffering once we gain insight into how we create our own suffering
• From this stillness of mind, we develop can other insights that completely change our relationship with reality
• We know without doubt that the more we let go, the more freedom we enjoy
How to Use Jhana Effectively
I would say there is no danger from jhana so long as we don’t access these states as a way to avoid our life. This is a mistake I made. I began experimenting with deep states of concentration as a teenager, but I was using it as a way to escape family problems. Even though I would occasionally fall into light jhanas, I didn’t benefit from the experience because my intention was wrong.
Luangpor Teean (หลวงพ่อเทียน) advised us that jhana without insight is like placing a rock over weeds. While the rock remains, the weeds won’t grow, but as soon as we remove the rock, the weeds will come back. It is perfectly possible to become skilled at entering wonderful meditation states, yet still behave badly when we are not meditating.
To get the most out of the jhana experience, we need to be clear about what we are trying to achieve. We need to have the right intention or we could end up completely lost. So what would be the right intention? Our minds have been tricking us, and this is why we end up so lost in addiction, so I would suggest the right intention would be to learn how we are being tricked – this is something we will see more easily with deep states of concentration.
The Subjective Nature of the Jhana
The jhanas are subjective experiences, and this makes it problematic when it comes to discussing them. The situation isn’t helped because there is so much disagreement among the experts about what clarifies as a jhana (e.g. some meditation masters would say there should be no experience of external sound in the first jhana and for it to be a ‘real’ jhana we should be able to sustain it for three hours).
I would advise against getting caught up in the debate about jhana (or as the Buddha once described it, ‘the thicket of views’). I prefer the approach to this advocated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (inspired by his teacher Taan Por Fuang ท่านพ่อเฟื่อง) which involves a ‘post-it note’ approach to mapping the mental states we experience in meditation.
Once you understand the ingredients of a jhana, and you feel you have experienced this state, you can provisionally label it (your post-it note) – if it turns out later that you were wrong, you can move your post-it note to a new location.
Preparing the Mind for Jhana
There are three basic conditions for the mind to be inclined towards jhana:
• Vittaka (Thai: วิตก/wi-dtok) – maintaining our attention to the object of the meditation (e.g. the breath)
• Vicara (Thai: วิจาร/wi-jaan) – examining the object of meditation closely
• Upekkha (Thai: อุเบกขา/ubek-kha) – a non-judgmental attitude as we observe the object of meditation
At Hope, we use the physical sensation of metta as our object of meditation. We bring our attention to the area around the heart (this is vitakka in action) and focus as closely as we can on the sensation there (vicara). Observing these lovely sensations can lead to the arrival of piti (Thai: ปีติ/piti) which is a the experience of physical joy and sukha (Thai:สุข/suk) which is emotional happiness.
The arrival of piti and sukha is so attractive to the mind that we develop a particularly strong type of one-pointed focus called ekaggata (Thai:เอกัคคตา/eck-ka-kata). We have now entered the first jhana.
Moving Through the Jhanas
The process of moving from one jhana requires letting go more and more. We move from the first to the second jhana by easing up on our effort – i.e. once we have stabilized the first jhana we no longer need vitaka and vicarra (it is like we are suddenly coasting along).