In our ongoing exploration of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path, using the Cooking Pot Analogy that I created years ago to teach this list in a way that makes it easier to remember and understand, the spoon stirs the contents of the pot, just as concentration practices stirs up mindfulness. It’s not a stew we can leave on the back burner. Mindfulness is more of a risotto, that needs to be regularly stirred.
But what is concentration? We tend to think it’s having an intense narrow focus, like we’re studying for a test “so don’t bug me because I have to concentrate…grrr..”
We can see how that kind of concentration activates physical tension, counterproductive to our opening to whatever is arising in this moment, and holding it all with compassion.
Wise Concentration, as the Buddha taught it, is made up of two main activities:
Calming the mind by paying full attention to one sensation, probably the reliable breath as it rises and falls. Once the mind is calm, we gently switch to noticing change, whether in the breath or in another sensation. Awareness of arising and falling away of the breath and other sensations reminds us of the nature of impermanence of all life, providing insight.
So if your mind is racing with thoughts or filled with emotion, practice following a single sensory focus, like a particular aspect of the breath.
If your mind is calm, notice the arising and falling away of any sensation that comes to your attention: a sound, how light shifts, a painful sensation, the overall energy in the body. To whatever degree you are able, notice without commentary, just paying attention to the way any focus you choose changes over time.
At all times during meditation, and other times during the day, especially if you feel stressed, notice any physical tension that arises and release it to whatever degree you are able. I have discovered that I can end a craving simply by letting my shoulders drop! Releasing tension releases craving. Aha! Who knew?
There’s a good reason teachers rarely talk about what experiences one might expect from meditation practice. We don’t want students to get caught up in thought patterns full of expectation, goal-setting and comparative analysis. We all have enough of that without the added pressure of hearing of bliss states we might attain!
If you are new to meditation, I suggest you stop reading after this paragraph. Just continue to practice with Wise Concentration, relying on Wise Intention and Wise Effort, cultivating Wise View and Wise Mindfulness. Practice with compassion for yourself, accepting that it is the nature of the human mind to have thoughts and emotions come and go. But recognize that learning to focus in this way has innumerable benefits, so reset your intention again and again. It’s not that what follows is a secret you’re not ready to hear. It’s just that it would be so easy to get caught up in desire, goal-setting, self-judgment, etc. Even advanced meditators struggle with this at times, so as a gift to yourself, stop reading and practice the concentration techniques above.
If you are an experienced meditator, feel free to continue as we take a look at The Four Jhanas. We do so with the understanding that these teachings are shared not as a taunt or a goal, but as a way to better understand and appreciate what we may already be experiencing in our practice and our life.
The Four Jhanas
A jhana is a meditative state wherein the mind is fully absorbed in the object of concentration and is completely permeated with a quiet, spacious, joyful non-attachment.
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 have wealth and health but find it challenging to navigate all the options available, we humans have an ingrained knack for creating suffering for ourselves.
Buddha’s teachings to the rescue! When we meditate, we experience a delicious release from the constant 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.
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.
In the Third Jhana, we discover that the enthrallment we experience is not the ultimate purpose of these concentration practices. When the enthrallment fades, what arises is a natural and sustainable pleasant abiding of being mindful and alert.
In this state there is a return of the ability to enjoy sensory pleasure, but without attachment to these pleasures. 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 create suffering and even kill the experience. What a gift to bring this kind of awareness into our lives and our relationships!
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! Hold it with an open embrace, neither grasping or clinging.
So these are the mind states the Buddha taught, and we can see how such states would be desirable. Yet it’s that very desire for them that gets in the way of experiencing them.
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 more easily experienced on a long silent retreat. But even in our daily practice, the wiser our concentration the more likely we will experience these jhanas and be able to sustain them in our lives.