“Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.” — John Cage
We sat outside on a warm September morning, closed our eyes and listened to all the various sounds as if they were made by a variety of instruments in a symphony. The instruments in this particular symphony were all manner of vehicles passing by on the road below, songbirds chirping and squawking jays chasing each other around in the trees, a helicopter, and a neighbor’s rhythmic hammer. We listened with fresh ears, allowing ourselves freedom from wishing that sound would stop or that other one would continue. We simply sat and listened to the symphony, unique to that moment in time.
Were they being made fools of? Was this composer making a joke? As meditators we see clearly that he wasn’t. In fact John Cage was a student of Zen, so we know that at least one of his purposes in this composition was to show that life itself is a symphony if we are present to listen. In our habituated state of distraction, we are unlikely to experience it in that way, however, unless we pay for a ticket in a concert hall. When we practice wise concentration, fully present in the moment, we discover the symphony of life! And that’s how it was for us, sitting on the deck last Thursday.
Listening is one possible concentration meditation, but we can also use a visual focus.One meditator chose to keep her eyes open and focus on Mount Tamalpais. This is a good meditation, whatever the chosen visual focus, especially for those who tend to get groggy in meditation.
There are many varieties of concentration practice, but one needn’t be a ‘concentration connoisseur’. Experiment if you want, but find your main practice, most likely the reliable and portable breath focus, and stick with it. Beyond your regular practice, you will find many opportunities to sit and quietly observe the beauty of nature or a crowd of people; or you can shut your eyes and listen to the rain, the ocean, a babbling brook or city sounds as you sit at a cafe table or on a park bench. Focus on a candle flame or a campfire. Meditate on the stars. But let these activities be in addition to your regular practice. Why? Because there needs to be someplace we can go in our mind activity that we are not caught up in endless choices, where we can set our intentions to be present and kind, and simply sit, relaxed and alert.
Very rarely do teachers talk about what experiences one might expect from meditation practice. Why? Because it would probably set up expectation, goal-setting and comparative mind. We all have enough of that without the added pressure of hearing of bliss states we might attain!
But most of us have been studying together and meditating together for quite some time, and as we come upon this exploration of Wise Concentration, we are given these four meditative states the mind might find itself in, not as a taunt or a goal, but as a way to understand what we may be experiencing.
If you have experienced these states, then it is helpful to learn about them, to recognize them. And if you have not experienced them, let learning about them help you to reset your intention to be fully present in this moment, and compassionate with yourself when you are not.
If you have studied the Eightfold Path before and have been following along in this year-long investigation of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, you may find that your understanding of the Eightfold Path is deepening.
For example, when we studied the Awakening Factors, we looked at concentration and the other arising mental qualities of mindfulness, energetic attunement, joy, tranquility, equanimity and insight. And now we see them again.
Let’s go through the Four Jhanas one by one:
The First Jhana is the enveloping joy that comes from ‘withdrawal from chasing sensual pleasures.’
In our lives we are given so many options, choices and distractions. What do you want for dinner? What movie do you want to see? What do you want to watch on TV? How about another drink? There’s ice cream in the freezer, what harm would another little bowl do? Oh, look at that cute pair of shoes! What I wouldn’t give for a beach vacation, a good night sleep, a romantic interlude, etc. etc. You get the drift. Whether we are in dire circumstances and dream of riches, have an addiction or a ‘weakness for’ something, or are wealthy and healthy but find it challenging to navigate all the options available, we as humans have an ingrained knack of creating suffering for ourselves!
Buddha’s teachings to the rescue! When we meditate, we experience a delicious release from the constant fray of seeking out the next excitement, the next entertainment, the next distraction. Letting go of all else but this, we experience the First Jhana. Ah! Bliss!
This becomes especially apparent on a retreat where things get very quiet and very simple. You take a vow to abstain from sensual indulgences, perhaps with a bit of trepidation, but then discover a quality of freedom you may never have known before.
Remember that the Second Noble Truth is about the causes of dukkha, suffering: Craving and aversion. When we purposely withdraw from that unending wheel of desire, we are liberated. This liberation combined with the regular practice of meditation, gives us access to an unqualified sense of joy. You might say that in this state you have fallen in deep love with this very moment, become enthralled with it. There is a quality of being so fully permeated with this quality, this jhana, that there is no room for anything else.
The Second Jhana, like the first, has a quality of being fully permeated. It arises from the natural stilling of thoughts and inner commentary. Imagine a pond where the silt has been stirred up by all sorts of activity. Now the silt settles and the pond becomes clear. Pleasure arises from a sense of complete composure and confidence in this quality of full awareness.
You might remember that when we were studying the Five Hindrances we learned to recognize what it is that keeps us from this kind of awareness, what muddies up the pond: Desire, aversion, sloth/torpor, restlessness/worry, and doubt. Now as we explore the Jhanas, we can see that we are actively releasing them.
In the Third Jhana, we discover that this enthrallment is not the end all purpose of these concentration practices, but just part of the journey. Now the enthrallment fades, and a natural and sustainable pleasant abiding of being mindful and alert, filled with equanimity. In this state there is a return of the ability to enjoy sensory pleasure, but there is no attachment to them. We hold them the way we would enjoy a butterfly alighting on our open palm, enjoying the experience but understanding the fleeting nature of it, understanding that to try to make it stay would be to create suffering and to deaden the experience.
On retreat, after so many hours of dedicated meditation practice, when you are out walking about, you can be in this state and enjoy the feel of sunshine on your face, delight in the appearance of a bird, lizard, deer, commune with a tree, note the patterns of light, savor the taste of the food at your meal, eating mindfully, honor the earnest sangha members who like you are practicing mindfulness, and feel a deep and pervasive love for all you encounter.
The Fourth Jhana is a lightness of being, a pure bright awareness, an all pervasive equanimity where there is neither pleasure nor pain. When we practice with a balance of attention and infinite loving kindness, we experience this lightness of being — perhaps in brief glimpses, perhaps in long stretches. This is a state beyond time, so if you experience it, don’t get attached. Just be open and grateful. Hold it with an open embrace, neither grasping or clinging.
When you are sitting in meditation, following the breath, being present and filled with loving-kindness, you can put some of your attention on your closed eyelids. There you will find a spaciousness and light that you can rest in and allow that quality to fill your being. The spacious lit eyelids are a reminder of this state. You don’t have to stay focused on them.
This lightness of being can also be experienced as a celebration of the I don’t know mind — a kind of easeful surrender, an unburdening. Becoming aware of how little we know is a great release. This is not to say that knowledge is a bad thing. In fact, it is a delight to learn! But when we are struggling, we often think it is because we don’t know the answer. Guess what? We don’t and that’s okay. Our desire to know everything is a desire to be in control of our situation. It’s more realistic to understand that we are not in control here! We inform ourselves as best we can to deal with whatever life might present us, but to some degree we have to let go of the false belief that there is any armor out there that will truly protect us from the nature of impermanence.
For example, perhaps you, like many of us, have experienced as I have some medically unexplained physical phenomenon. You’ve had a bunch of tests and the doctors can assure you that it is none of the life-threatening things they are concerned about. But it’s your body and you may be uncomfortable not knowing what exactly is the cause of this strange symptom. Even if the symptom is not bothersome, you still want to know. This hunger to know may be your body’s wisdom asking for one more test to reveal some hidden clue, but maybe it is just the restless mind wanting to have things all tied up in pretty bows with fancy latin names.
But life is not like that, is it? No one knows everything. We might want the experts to be super-power experts. But the medical profession has become wiser, and part of that wisdom is in being a little more humble, a little less certain. This is a good thing. If we can open to the possibility that we don’t need to know everything, we suffer less. We can delight in the world as it is. We can delight in the mystery. We can love the question itself.
So these are the Four Jhanas, and we can see how such states as described here would be desirable. Yet it’s that very desiring of them that gets in the way of experiencing. It is good to know about them only in order to develop confidence in our practice. Whether or not you have experienced any of these states is not a reflection on your meditation practice. If you sit in order to get to these states, you will wait forever. If you are aware that these states are possible, you will welcome them when they arrive.
These states are much more easily experienced in a long silent retreat, and I encourage you to go on one and do the intensive, and pleasurable, practice offered with Wise Intention and Wise Effort. There is a shift that happens when we allow ourselves to experience a sustained period of practice, where we have set aside any sense of striving and struggling in our lives, and are simply present in the moment.
One thing to know is that even a brief glimpse of these states is enough to infuse your awareness, to awaken what has been dormant for so long. So make yourself available for these experiences by developing a regular practice of meditation, by attending regular classes and longer retreats. But let go of your hunger for them, that drive for fulfillment or enlightenment. It doesn’t work that way.
So why do we study the jhanas if we are not meant to make them into a goal? Well, let’s look at them again. Each one offers a useful technique we can incorporate into our meditation and into our lives.
The First Jhana inspires us to stay more present, and being present, we let go of imagining the next meal or other sensory experience. We let go of our expectation that it will somehow make everything better.
The Second Jhana reminds us that through focused attention, we create clarity, and our thoughts settle down. If thoughts are present, we don’t have to chase them or get lost in them. We can simply be present, anchored in physical sensation.
The Third Jhana reminds us that bliss experiences do not endure but that there is an ease of equanimity that infuses all the moments of our life.
The Fourth Jhana allows us to open to the experience of the light of awareness when it comes. Just knowing this is possible, a gift of the practice, allows us to enjoy it and to rest in it. And we can let go of the burden of proof, of having to know the answers to everything.
These states come and go, but the more we develop a sustained meditative practice, the more likely it is that we will experience them and that they will be sustained.