Diagnosis & next steps: possible light jhana

Colin, modified 1 Month ago.

Diagnosis & next steps: possible light jhana

Posts: 20 Join Date: 6/10/15 Recent Posts
In my recent concentration practice, I have had a couple of experiences that could have been (extremely) light jhanas. I am looking for some guidance on how to continue my practice in light of these milestones.

The basic experience was that I was concentrating on my breath and started to develop a pleasant sensation around my face. I was following Leigh Brasington's advice to smile and look for a pleasant sensation to develop. At this point, my attention was relatively stable - there were thoughts and sensations that would arise in awareness, but not to the extent that they crowded out my ability to follow the breath.

At this point, I switched attention to the pleasantness of the sensation. It was warm, slightly energetic, but tight. I felt the sensation primarily in my face and neck. I played with relaxing my attention so that it was less effortful and forced. I was still actively directing my attention, but it was a gentle direction. I feel like I was ready to nudge my attention back to the pleasantness, and I did so regularly, but it was guiding rather than wrestling.

Between sits, I reflected that that experience may have been a very light version of first jhana. I definitely was noticing applied and sustained attention. There was a quieting of other experiences; I could make a case that it was an altered state of consciousness, but I could easily make the case that it was not qualitatively distinct. It did leave me feeling energized and positive; there was a healing and calming effect from that sit.

In my next sit, I decided to try an experiment to see if I could deepen that experience. I did the concentrate on breath->feel pleasant sensation->shift attention to pleasant senation, and again I felt my attention focus a little more on that sensation. This time, I explicitly noticed a mild feedback loop: the pleasantness was interesting, so I tried to relax into it and felt the pleasantness grow. Again, the sensation stayed in my facial area and I was still having other thoughts, but it felt somewhat stable.

I had recently read some texts that talk about moving through the jhanas by noticing how close, e.g., first jhana is to access concentration, how unstable it is, and using that as a way to incline the mind towards second jhana. So, feeling experimental, I tried paying attention to the instability of that experience and recognizing how I was needing to apply attention in order to remain in that state. (This language in my thought process is explicitly intellectual: I looked for qualities like applied attention and sustained attention. I don't know if I would have come up with those terms on my own, but they seemed to fit in this situation. I say that because I think there's a real risk that I was scripting my experience, and I want to be candid about that.)

When I made those mental observations, I looked for an experience within the pleasantness that was subtler, more stable, and less edgy. I found something and let my attention shift to it. Again, I felt the new sensation primarily in my face, and I was still thinking and reflecting on what I was experiencing as it happened--this was not a full-on absorption. But, the new state felt cooler, still enjoyable, and required less guiding to keep my attention up.

So, points in favor of having experienced light versions of the jhanas:
  • It came about by following Brasington's directions on how to make the shift
  • I could apply the labels of applied attention, sustained attention, and piti/sukha to my experience
  • The transition between the states occured by following the canonical advice for how to incline the mind to the next jhana
  • The states did feel healing and energizing
On the other hand, here are some limiting observations:
  • First, I maintain a very light practice. I'm doing about 30 minutes of sitting a day, with longer days getting about 40 minutes.
  • When I do sit, I mostly perform vipassana noting practice. This experiences were during dedicated concentration sits that I mixed in because I wanted to balance out my vipassana, but my total concentration time in the last month is probably less than three hours.
  • I was looking for very specific things from texts, so there's a real scripting risk
  • The sensations/absorptions never spread beyond my facial area
  • In the latter sit, when I experimented with the transition to second jhana, my total time in concentration was less than 10 minutes. I did perform a half hour of vipassana and then took a brief break before going on to concentration, so I was in meditation practice, but this was an extremely short time focused on concentration.
With those thoughts in mind, I would appreciate some feedback and guidance.
  • Is it fair to describe these experiences as jhana? What other experiments could I try to clarify the quality of my experience?
  • Assuming my goal is to deepen my concentration practice, what would be good next steps to focus on?
Tim Farrington, modified 1 Month ago.

RE: Diagnosis & next steps: possible light jhana

Posts: 2437 Join Date: 6/13/11 Recent Posts
Hi Colin, and thanks for sharing this wonderfully detailed post. I am very humble, on jhana ground, given the very wide range of criteria, and meanings implicit or explicit. I came up initially in Zen, the Japanese word for dhyana/jhana, but never thought in jhana terms then, though I was jonesing for altered states, lol. Then I did a yoga ashram, where the term of practice was samadhi, and then I eased by via serious dark nighting into John of the Cross-heavy Judeo-Christian contemplation, so it wasn't until 2011 when I encountered MCBT1 that I even began to give "jhanas" specific thought at all, in the way you are using the term. I say all that to roughly quantify and qualify the grain of salt you can take me with here.

Leigh Brasington, from my own explorations of "WTF is jhana?", has always struck me as sane and realistic and he knows his shit, again for what it's worth. He actually offers one of the best overviews on the variety of takes on jhana in different traditions and teachers here---- http://www.leighb.com/jhanantp.htm
and I go back to that often when the waters and cross currents seem too deep. Daniel Ingram's treatment of the shamatha jhanas, the whole of part III in MCBT2, is also great for me on this stuff.

Last qualifier: this is a breakthrough of sorts, a milestone for you, which is both great and tricky. My experience of the thin line between a meditation milestone and a meditation millstone-around-my-practice inclines me to tread very lightly, as few things will fuck you up worse than falling back into big-time Doing when you've found your way into something by basic good practice and being easy with "results." Brasington himself is great on this, of course: When access concentration is firmly established, then you shift your attention from the breath (or whatever your meditation object is) to a pleasant sensation, preferably a physical sensation. You put your attention on that sensation, maintain your attention on it, and do nothing else. The hard part is the “do nothing else” part.  (cf https://www.lionsroar.com/entering-the-jhanas/

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With all due everything, then, what you describe sure strikes me as jhana, the distinct qualitative shift downplayed by you but clearly present, and with good awareness of the degree of gentle guiding effort still characteristic of first jhana, and the more effortless unfolding in the second. You often hear people describe second jhana as warm (I usually think of it that way), but your sense of coolness seems, uh, cool, lol.

With those thoughts in mind, I would appreciate some feedback and guidance.
  • Is it fair to describe these experiences as jhana? What other experiments could I try to clarify the quality of my experience?
  • Assuming my goal is to deepen my concentration practice, what would be good next steps to focus on?

Well, you're playing it beautifully by the book, so stick with the book, which is working! It ain't broke, amigo. You've tasted the fruits of strong practice; keep practicing strongly. As with all good things in meditation, I suspect the best first advice is "Don't let it fuck you up," lol. You're right where you want to be, doing right what you need to be doing. Best wishes in your practice!

edit, one last thought: in my experience, once you are established in a jhana, the way to "deepen" it is paradoxical: to start treating the pleasure you've been taking as your concentration object as just one more thing, note it, and return to doing your primary technique (i.e., the breath, i think? for you?). Just let it go like anything else, and re-turn to the breath, which will wash it away in due time. If jhana comes back around and re-presents itself (often more subtly and effortlessly), you can ease up that on-ramp to a new focus on it or not. The pleasure generally gets gentler and subtler and more spacious and lighter, the "deeper" you go, but the capacity to let the pleasure go in any particular instance is a key to "going deeper," for me. It doesn't feel like going deeper at all, to do the letting go, it just feels like (increasingly lightly) getting "back to work," lol.
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Chris Marti, modified 1 Month ago.

RE: Diagnosis & next steps: possible light jhana

Posts: 3862 Join Date: 1/26/13 Recent Posts
  • Is it fair to describe these experiences as jhana? What other experiments could I try to clarify the quality of my experience?

​​​​​​​Colin, good morning.

We really don't have enough information regarding the states you're asking about. Can you provide a more detailed description of how they arise? Where does your attention go? What's happening in your field of vision (closed eyes or open eyes)? What's the feeling tone just before, during, and just after you enter one of these states?

Some people are naturally prone to the jhanas and they get into them easily, That's rare, however. From what you describe you may be one of those people but I advise caution due to the time frames you've mentioned.
Colin, modified 1 Month ago.

RE: Diagnosis & next steps: possible light jhana

Posts: 20 Join Date: 6/10/15 Recent Posts
Chris Marti
Can you provide a more detailed description of how they arise? Where does your attention go? What's happening in your field of vision (closed eyes or open eyes)? What's the feeling tone just before, during, and just after you enter one of these states?


I was following the breath. My momentary awareness was good; I could keep attention on the breath without too much effort, and when other sensations arose I was able to redirect the mind back to the breath before the breath-thoughts faded. In The Mind Illuminated's language, I was free of mind wandering and forgetting, and gross distractions were minimal. At this point, I added the intention to smile and feel pleasure if it should manifest, and then returned to my concentration.

After a few minutes, I started to feel a pleasant quality around my face, centered around the smile. That sensation then began to appear around other areas of the face and neck. I say "appear" rather than "grow" because it felt like different sensations of the same quality, with spatial gaps in between. It didn't feel like there was a solid border to that region and that border was pushing out. If I try a metaphor, it was like dropping red food coloring into cookie dough at different points - the dye doesn't really expand on its own like it would if I dropped it into water, but it's clearly the same stuff.

I maintained my attention on the breath for a little while while these pleasant sensations of disconnected food coloring drops got more numerous and longer lasting. After a while, I felt like they were covering a good chunk of my face, and they were relatively stable. So, I tried shifting my attention to the pleasantness of those sensations. There was a little bit of pulsing as my mind shifted its object of concentration - the breath was in the foreground with the sensations, but which of them was dominant flipped back and forth. At this point, the feeling tone was pleasant but effortful. I had sensations of effort appear in my awareness and I could tell that I was fighting to hold on to the pleasantness.

When I had those sensations, I made an effort to relax while sustaining my attention on the pleasantness, and I felt the intensity of those sensations dip a bit (but the effortful sensations dipped much more). It was a balancing act; I felt like if I relaxed too quickly, I would be vulnerable to distraction from the pleasantness. I was also still fluctuating between the breath and the pleasantness being the dominant sensation. Over a period of maybe a minute or so, I found a balance that allowed me to stay with the pleasantness without straining, and that allowed the breath sensations to continue to appear but not become the focal point of attention, eventually fading away.

My eyes were closed during this entire time. During the effortful parts, I noticed more sensations of colors on the insides of my eyelids (primarily yellows and purples, life afterimages). Those sensations decreased in both frequency and intensity as I found my balance.

As the effortful phase subsided, I was still having to gently guard my attention to keep from getting distracted--what I thought of as applied attention in my reflection afterwards. The feeling tone at this point was a combination of the pleasantness and an overall sense of enjoyment? satisfaction? The state felt good, it felt energizing yet calming, but it wasn't intense. It was like that moment right after you let out a really deep breath--there's a sense of vitality and calmness together. The pleasantness was definitely the harshest part of the overall feeling tone; it was good but still had harsh edges (again, like the food coloring dots in the cookie dough). The energizing/calming feeling did not feel like it had those same edges. That's the part I concentrated on when I made the shift to what I called second jhana in the original post.

Afterwards, the feeling tone was relaxed, positive, and refreshed. I was meditating right before bed, and I didn't feel any lethargy, but I also didn't feel wound up like I feel when I'm ruminating on something. I was up for a while afterwards, but it was more of "I'm feeling good and the body isn't demanding to fall asleep." I sometimes have insomnia and am up for a while--those experiences feel stressful and restless, while this didn't feel that way.

I apologize for the length of the description. Hopefully this phenomenology is helpful!
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Chris Marti, modified 1 Month ago.

RE: Diagnosis & next steps: possible light jhana

Posts: 3862 Join Date: 1/26/13 Recent Posts
I want to add a few thoughts:

- jhana is unmistakable. It's like falling into something. It occupies the mind almost fully and is a very different state than what we normally experience. Yes, there are light versions of the jhanas, but even the lightest, in my experience, are remarkable for the difference between those and our "normal" mind states.

- being in the jhanas, especially at first, feels to the mind sort of like going back to the womb - your mind will feel warm and fuzzy and blissful as hell, like being wrapped up in the softest, warmest blanket you have ever experienced. You will want to go back there as much as possible. It can be addicting, frankly.

- each jhana is a new strange attractor for the mind. There is usually a natural progression from first to second to third, and so on. The focus of attention changes with the transition from one to the other, as does what's in the "behind the eyes" visual field, and the general feeling tone.

- I describe moving from jhana to jhana as like finding a specific "handle" for the mind to latch onto and leveraging that handle to progress from one jhana to another.

I don't want to be a killjoy, Colin, but I think it's easy to mistake calm, clear mind states with the jhanas before you have experience the jhanas. You may indeed be getting into the jhanas, but the way. It's just that just don't "hear" your descriptions as having the "wow" that usually goes along with first jhana access experiences.  I hope that providing you with my personal experience of the jhanas will help you diagnose what's happening for you.
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Helen Pohl, modified 1 Month ago.

RE: Diagnosis & next steps: possible light jhana

Posts: 83 Join Date: 8/10/20 Recent Posts
I can't seem to be able to quote anyone today but like Chris says "It's like falling into something." They just sort of take me and run...
Martin, modified 1 Month ago.

RE: Diagnosis & next steps: possible light jhana

Posts: 260 Join Date: 4/25/20 Recent Posts
Regardless of how you end up labeling the experience, I think it's nice to find out that our minds can do more than just think.

​​​​​​​You asked about what is next and what appears to be the low-hanging fruit is the length of your sits. You are having fun, things are happening, why not try a little longer. It is sometimes the case that sit-length trumps technique, especially when the technique is already good. For me, sit-length can be like a volume control. And I don't mean to refer only to concentration-oriented sits it can work on both "ends of the stick."
Tim Farrington, modified 1 Month ago.

RE: Diagnosis & next steps: possible light jhana

Posts: 2437 Join Date: 6/13/11 Recent Posts
Chris: It's just that just don't "hear" your descriptions as having the "wow" that usually goes along with first jhana access experiences. 

This is a really good point, Colin. The "wow" is the best diagnostic: sustained wow. You seem an understated sort, on the whole, but don't settle for less than a wow.
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Chris Marti, modified 1 Month ago.

RE: Diagnosis & next steps: possible light jhana

Posts: 3862 Join Date: 1/26/13 Recent Posts
It's only now that you've posted that quote from me, Tim, that I realize how sloppy it was. ... "just that just don't..."

How clever of me!
Tim Farrington, modified 1 Month ago.

RE: Diagnosis & next steps: possible light jhana

Posts: 2437 Join Date: 6/13/11 Recent Posts
lol, chris, actually, as your editor on that quote, just that just should have caught it in the proofreading. So we're a clever pair, lol. Obviously your intended meaning sufficed for all of us.
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Chris Marti, modified 1 Month ago.

RE: Diagnosis & next steps: possible light jhana

Posts: 3862 Join Date: 1/26/13 Recent Posts
Colin, I've read through your long description three times this morning. You should keep doing what you're doing. Don't try too hard to concentrate. Jhanas aren't about single-pointed concentration but about wide-band relaxation. Just relax into those pleasant feelings - not the object that seems to be creating them, but the sense of pleasantness itself, whatever the source. If you can do that then a "buzzy" or "fuzzy" kind of sense might arise, and when it does it may at first be a bit scary. It may feel like you're losing control of your experience. As if you're falling into a dark hole or being pulled up into the air. And you are, after a fashion. If you can learn to stay with that buzzy/fuzzy feeling and let it take your mind where it will want to go, you may end up in the first jhana. You'll know it's the first jhana because you'll feel like your whole being has been covered in warm honey.

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