Formless Realms, Or Something Less Glamorous?

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Ruth Laura Edlund, modified 11 Years ago.

Formless Realms, Or Something Less Glamorous?

Posts: 32 Join Date: 1/13/10 Recent Posts
Background: My concentration skills are pretty good.

Situation: there's a lot of external stuff in my life right now (ill relative and very ill business partner) so I have been directing my practice toward concentration, using the breath as my object, and taking a break from insight.

Since New Year's Eve I have been getting up at 5 a.m. faithfully every day and meditating for 56 minutes. I know that's a weird length for a sit, but it breaks down as follows: 8 minutes while I wait for the water for my husband's coffee to boil, 8 minutes while the coffee steeps in the French press, then 40 minutes once the coffee is in the thermos. So with the "coffee" (walking) mediation time included, my total meditation time is probably a little longer than the 56 minutes stated.

I have started, how to describe it, blanking out during my sits. I thought for a while I was falling asleep, but I started positioning myself so that I would know if I fell asleep because I would fall over, and I don't appear to be falling asleep. I can feel myself "falling" through attention, rapture, happiness, equanimity, during the eight minute segments, and then...nothingness (not emptiness, I'm quite sure), and then boom! the 40 minutes is suddenly up and I bound up off the cushion feeling pretty good about tackling the gruesomeness of my day.

I retain a subtle sense of presence during these blankouts, because the breath is vaguely there. I don't have any sense of limitless consciousness or limitless space.

I feel pretty comfortable in guessing that I start out by running through the first four jhanas, but I have no idea where I'm going from there. From reading the maps it sounds like some descriptions of seventh jhana to me. If that's the case I'm blundering through jhanas five and six regularly without really noticing them, which seems, if that is what is going on, unskillful.
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the prisoner greco, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: Formless Realms, Or Something Less Glamorous?

Posts: 658 Join Date: 5/14/09 Recent Posts
hi ruth,

given that jhanas 5-8 (the formless ones) all arise from the base of 4th jhana (which means they are actually some of the subtler aspects of 4th jhana), it is entirely possible that you are coming across them unintentionally, particularly as you characterise your concentration as strong. however, as you mention that you have no sense of limitless space or limitless consciousness during the experience, it is unlikely that what you describe as 'blanking out' are those particular (5th and 6th) formless jhanas.

to enable a better diagnosis, though, and possibly a more constructive reply, would you please describe the progression from the beginning into that blankness in a bit more detail?

tarin
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Ruth Laura Edlund, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: Formless Realms, Or Something Less Glamorous?

Posts: 32 Join Date: 1/13/10 Recent Posts
Hi, tarin,

More detail, let's see.

I can give you some time markers because of the quirky structure of my sits (my husband is getting up early to socialize our new puppy, so I make the coffee in solidarity with him).

This morning's sit:

Minutes 1-8:

Sit down, focus on breathing (specifically on the edge of my nostrils where the breath crosses the "threshold" of my body). Eyes are closed. Concentration stabilizes. Faint sense of rapture, faint sense of happiness, equanimity arises. Breathing continues. I note a thought about ill business partner and the physical sensation the thought produces [my stomach contracts]. They pass. Equanimity continues to arise. The timer goes off.

Eyes open, I mindfully grind beans for coffee, pour the water into the carafe, go back to my chair and reset the timer as I maintain my focus on my breathing. I would have to say that equanimity continues during this phase of about five minutes, although it sounds pretentious to say I am making coffee in fourth jhana. It's not quite that...it's just that I don't "come all the way out" of my meditative state. Perhaps I bounce back up to access concentration. I dunno.

Minutes 9-16:

I sit down mindfully. Eyes are closed. Concentration restabilizes, equanimity returns. I don't have a sense of passing through rapture and happiness this time. There is a subtle "pull" on me to release the equanimity and "sink" into this unidentified state, but I resist the pull and keep the equanimity stabilized because I know I have one more "interruption" coming up in another eight minutes I would characterize my concentration as having a "light" rather than a "forced" touch. It is almost as if the breathing is concentrating on me rather than the other way around. The pull "downward" is subtle and equanimity remains stable. I note a thought about something constructive I can do for my business partner and the physical sensation the thought produces [a quicker intake of breath and slightly accelerated heartbeat]. They pass. The timer goes off.

Eyes open, I mindfully pour my husband's coffee into his thermos mug, set some aside for myself, and reset my timer for 40 minutes while maintaining my light focus on my breathing.

Minutes 17-56:

I sit down mindfully, making sure I am sitting forward so falling asleep would cause me to lurch. Eyes closed. Concentration restabilizes, equanimity returns rapidly (if it ever left--I don't really think so). I am resting in the breath and resting in equanimity. The sense of equanimity gradually fades away. It is as if it and the breath are gradually bleaching out and I can't differentiate them from the "background." It is "there" but no longer "discernable." I could work at maintaining a strong sense of equanimity, but that seems unsatisfactory. ;-) I let it just fade out. I would guess that the fadeout occurs over about a five-minute stretch. The breath remains faintly discernable. Later, a thought about my business partner appears and leaves. Irritation at the thought appears and leaves. I open my eyes to peek at my timer and 23 minutes have passed since I set the timer. Eyes close. I return to this somewhat blank state until the timer goes off.

I feel very calm when I get up.

As I'm writing this up I'm wondering if this might not just be a hard fourth jhana.

I suppose I could pay closer attention during the fadeout and see if there is boundless space and consciousness that I am overlooking. (!!) I sense that more effort, or a more directed effort, might destabilize the state I am reaching. I seem to recall reading in MCTB that it is possible to skip over jhanas. If that is what I am doing, and somehow I'm jumping from jhana 4 to 7 (or even 8), is there merit to exploring and looking for jhanas 5 and 6 (collecting the set as it were)?
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the prisoner greco, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: Formless Realms, Or Something Less Glamorous?

Posts: 658 Join Date: 5/14/09 Recent Posts
based on what you've written, i think that what you call 'equanimity' is probably passaddhi, usually translated as either 'tranquility' or 'serenity', which starts showing up around 3rd jhana and fades away with the transition into 4th. the bleached out/undifferentiated quality of the breath and background you describe also indicates 4th jhana.


Ruth Laura Edlund:


I suppose I could pay closer attention during the fadeout and see if there is boundless space and consciousness that I am overlooking. (!!) I sense that more effort, or a more directed effort, might destabilize the state I am reaching. I seem to recall reading in MCTB that it is possible to skip over jhanas. If that is what I am doing, and somehow I'm jumping from jhana 4 to 7 (or even 8), is there merit to exploring and looking for jhanas 5 and 6 (collecting the set as it were)?


there is merit in exploring the formless jhanas, but more merit yet may lie in other applications of your sitting time. it sounds to me like you've got a pretty easy path to 4th jhana paved out.. the question is, what do you want to do with it?
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Ruth Laura Edlund, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: Formless Realms, Or Something Less Glamorous?

Posts: 32 Join Date: 1/13/10 Recent Posts
the prisoner greco:
there is merit in exploring the formless jhanas, but more merit yet may lie in other applications of your sitting time. it sounds to me like you've got a pretty easy path to 4th jhana paved out.. the question is, what do you want to do with it?


This is an excellent question, if for no other reason that it reminds me that my sitting time is a precious resource and that setting clear intentions for it are helpful.

My first answer is that I would like to develop concentration as an aid to developing insight. I seem to recall from my book larnin' is that one can attain full enlightenment with nothing more than access concentration [edited to add: this is incorrect, according to MCTB--it's first jhana that's the necessary level of concentration, although this correction does not affect the point that follows]. So even the fourth jhana, if that's where I am, might be overkill.

My second answer is that I find concentration states easy and enjoyable, and, in times of stress, restorative. The higher (or deeper, depending on one's perspective) states seem to be more restorative. Therefore, I pursue strengthening my concentration.

My third answer is that I am frankly curious about the formless realms. I have had some experiences with intense concentration (in a work context, but after I became a meditator) that seemed siddhi-like to me, and my meditation teacher agreed. So there is that. On the other hand, MCTB says that 4th jhana is a perfectly good platform from which to explore the siddhis.

I will ponder whether I was mistaking passaddhi for upekkha in my initial analysis. That is entirely possible.

Thank you also for your thoughtful comments.
J Adam G, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: Formless Realms, Or Something Less Glamorous?

Posts: 286 Join Date: 9/15/09 Recent Posts
Well, if you asked one of the meditation teachers who believes that only hard jhana states are "really" jhana, they would definitely say that you aren't in jhana. In fact, I think Ajahn Brahm would say that you were entering what's called asanni-bhava, or the state of nonperception. (This is definitely not the same as nirodha samapatti, or cessation of feeling and perception.)

Just like with jhana states, it seems that you can get into harder and softer states of asanni-bhava. Ajahn Chah didn't trust the anesthesiologist when he had kidney surgery, and he put himself into a hard state of asanni-bhava before the anesthesia was given to him. I've had some experience with ending up in asanni-bhava. The mind is far away from everything, including itself. I don't know if this expression makes any sense, but in Right Concentration (like for jhana or strong-concentration insight practice), the mind can be seen/felt to be "upon" or "close to" or "reflecting" itself. But in asanni-bhava, the mind is not "close to" or "reflecting" itself because it's withdrawn from everything. Or, you could say, it's sunk down away from everything. Does that description ring any bells for you?

Certainly, I don't have the experience to definitively claim that you're in asanni-bhava. It's also possible that you're going through very light jhana states. Just because Ajahn Brahm wouldn't say you're in jhana doesn't mean you aren't! But I don't know that you can rule out sloth/torpor stuff.

I'm wondering what your meditation would go like if you chose to arouse and maintain the energy required to continue resisting the subtle pull downards that you describe,and maintain the equanimity. It's typically said that all of the formless realms maintain the equanimity of 4th jhana. You describe moving away from equanimity because it's unsatisfactory. The instructions for 5th jhana in MCTB describe a shifting of attention away from the object you had been meditating on (like the breath, or equanimity itself if you were taking equanimity as your meditation object by that point) and towards an open, no-boundaries sense of panoramic view. But I don't know if that's supposed to include an element of dissatisfaction. Are you correctly shifting your focus from equanimity to boundlessness, and going to the fifth jhana, or are you losing the equanimity and sinking into sloth and torpor?

I don't have answers, but hopefully this will be food for thought for someone who does.
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Ruth Laura Edlund, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: Formless Realms, Or Something Less Glamorous?

Posts: 32 Join Date: 1/13/10 Recent Posts
J Adam G:
I'm wondering what your meditation would go like if you chose to arouse and maintain the energy required to continue resisting the subtle pull downards that you describe,and maintain the equanimity


I have been doing that for part of the time (until the coffee is done). I could easily do that for the remainder of the time, but I already know what that's like. I was curious about what happens when I "let go," because it is different.

J Adam G:
Are you correctly shifting your focus from equanimity to boundlessness, and going to the fifth jhana, or are you losing the equanimity and sinking into sloth and torpor?


Over the years I have made a careful study of both sloth and torpor (perhaps I should have specified in my initial post that this is not the first time I have ever meditated). This doesn't feel at all like either quality. I also don't feel drowsy.

Asking me whether I "correctly" shifted my focus from equanimity to boundlessness implies that this is what I was trying to do, or the only correct thing to do in this situation. Actually, I wasn't trying to make such a shift, nor is it clear to me that making such a shift is the only correct thing.

So I don't think those are the only two alternatives.

It may very well be that shifting my focus from equanimity to boundlessless would be a desirable step for me to take.

Thank you for your thoughtful comments.
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Ian And, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: Formless Realms, Or Something Less Glamorous?

Posts: 782 Join Date: 8/22/09 Recent Posts
Hello Laura,

I was going to comment before this, but it is well that I laid off while more information was uncovered and came to the surface.

To start with, it is clear to me, now, that not only are your "concentration skills good," but they are excellent. When I saw Adam's comment about the possibility of your experiencing "sloth and torpor" I knew he was after a red herring. Your descriptions are exquisitely precise, as well you had already mentioned taking precautions about dipping down into dull-mindedness and were aware that this state you were in was not "falling asleep." Also you mentioned that: "I retain a subtle sense of presence during these blankouts, because the breath is vaguely there." This alone precludes the possibility of sloth and torpor being a cause.

And for those reasons I tend to agree with you that:

Ruth Laura Edlund:


As I'm writing this up I'm wondering if this might not just be a hard fourth jhana.

That's what it sounds like to me, too.

Also, tarin, I'm afraid, had it somewhat backwards when he suggested that passaddhi starts to "fade away with the transition into 4th." In truth, it expands into the fourth jhana. He may be working with a different understanding of passaddhi than I am. The people who have used the word around me used it in conjunction with the prolonging of the calmness/tranquility that takes place after the sitting is through, meaning after formal meditation and extending into periods of normal consciousness. During these periods the mind becomes unbothered by the kind of "monkey mind" distraction that can take place during meditation, and can be indicative of the establishment of mindfulness (sati). Of course, it can also be used in conjunction with meditative states, and tends to be descriptive of profoundly quiet states of mind wherein concentration and mindfulness becomes established and strengthened.

Ruth Laura Edlund:

This is an excellent question, if for no other reason that it reminds me that my sitting time is a precious resource and that setting clear intentions for it are helpful.

Your response here is clearly insightful, especially the part about being able to "set clear intentions" for your meditative sessions. Yes, they are helpful indeed. In fact, this is how one begins to make the advancements that one wishes to make. By setting clear intentions to do such and such during contemplation.

Ruth Laura Edlund:
...I would like to develop concentration as an aid to developing insight. I seem to recall from my book larnin' is that one can attain full enlightenment with nothing more than access concentration. So even the fourth jhana, if that's where I am, might be overkill.

You've clearly already done that! That is, developed "concentration as an aid..." That was clear from your first post. All you have to do now is just used the concentration that you've already developed and apply it toward insight themes, as you at times have already half-heartedly suggested in your descriptions. I'm speaking about the parts of your descriptions where you mention, for example, noting "a thought about ill business partner and the physical sensation the thought produces." This is clearly insight contemplation based on your developed ability at concentration.

In this state, if you wished to develop more insight about, say for instance, the five aggregates and the role they play in personality view, you could do that from this state that you have described. The mind is quiet and can focus like a laser beam on any subject you wish to bring up. Beginning to avert the mind toward these subjects during these moments will inevitably lead to the development of insight about them. So, yes, have at it.

Ruth Laura Edlund:

I suppose I could pay closer attention during the fadeout and see if there is boundless space and consciousness that I am overlooking. (!!) I sense that more effort, or a more directed effort, might destabilize the state I am reaching.... I am frankly curious about the formless realms.

Yes, that would be one way of doing it (referencing the highlighted sentence above). If you wish to explore the immaterial levels of absorption, all you have to do is make a resolution (intention) to do so and then follow that resolution while you are in contemplation.

Although I don't think you were "overlooking" boundless space and consciousness in your first experiences of this state. You were just languishing in the profound tranquility of it all. Nothing wrong with that either. It's just a different resolution (intention). And one that was probably best taken in the way that it occurred so that now you KNOW what that state is and how to use it in the future.

Ruth Laura Edlund:
...I find concentration states easy and enjoyable, and, in times of stress, restorative. The higher (or deeper, depending on one's perspective) states seem to be more restorative. Therefore, I pursue strengthening my concentration.

Yes. This is a discovery that we all make, at one time or another. Concentration states (once again, leading to the experience of passaddhi) help to strengthen our ability to remain mindful. In other words, they strengthen one's sati. It is that mindfulness that you find so attractive and resilient, helping you to tackle "the gruesomeness of [your] day." The mind is able to remain calm and to focus on solutions to obstacles rather than to become entangled in the negativities of life, which can lead to feelings of discouragement about the situations one faces. From this standpoint, you remain in a position of empowerment over the obstacles that face you, meaning that you can see and take positive steps to overcome them.

Ruth Laura Edlund:
I will ponder whether I was mistaking passaddhi for upekkha in my initial analysis. That is entirely possible.

I don't think you were. Your descriptions were very precise about where you were. I take you at your word. When you're meditating, you KNOW where you're at. And that's exactly where you want to be. That's one thing that is very clear about your descriptions. You're familiar with the territory.

Ruth Laura Edlund:

I seem to recall reading in MCTB that it is possible to skip over jhanas. If that is what I am doing, and somehow I'm jumping from jhana 4 to 7 (or even 8), is there merit to exploring and looking for jhanas 5 and 6 (collecting the set as it were)?

That depends upon you and that which you wish to become familiar with. In terms of being able to corroborate the Buddha's findings, I would think that having experienced the fifth and sixth jhana would be informative, if nothing else. In a kind of "been there, done that" kind of way. See what I mean?

Hope that helps you.

In peace,
Ian
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the prisoner greco, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: Formless Realms, Or Something Less Glamorous?

Posts: 658 Join Date: 5/14/09 Recent Posts
hi ian,

Ian And:

Also, tarin, I'm afraid, had it somewhat backwards when he suggested that passaddhi starts to "fade away with the transition into 4th." In truth, it expands into the fourth jhana. He may be working with a different understanding of passaddhi than I am. The people who have used the word around me used it in conjunction with the prolonging of the calmness/tranquility that takes place after the sitting is through, meaning after formal meditation and extending into periods of normal consciousness. During these periods the mind becomes unbothered by the kind of "monkey mind" distraction that can take place during meditation, and can be indicative of the establishment of mindfulness (sati). Of course, it can also be used in conjunction with meditative states, and tends to be descriptive of profoundly quiet states of mind wherein concentration and mindfulness becomes established and strengthened.


oh? i didn't know that (that passadhi was considered, in some circles, to 'expand into the fourth jhana'). in that framework which understands passadhi in that manner, what do you/they call the 'sense of equanimity [which] gradually fades away', to which laura referred?


Ian And:

Ruth Laura Edlund:

I seem to recall reading in MCTB that it is possible to skip over jhanas. If that is what I am doing, and somehow I'm jumping from jhana 4 to 7 (or even 8), is there merit to exploring and looking for jhanas 5 and 6 (collecting the set as it were)?


That depends upon you and that which you wish to become familiar with. In terms of being able to corroborate the Buddha's findings, I would think that having experienced the fifth and sixth jhana would be informative, if nothing else. In a kind of "been there, done that" kind of way. See what I mean?


more than merely being informative, i think having 'been there, done that' means there isn't likely to be any blind spots in the realms those jhanas cover. the approach i learnt (via investigation into the three characteristics of any and all sensations) was particularly good for exposing illusions contained in the formless realms because it brought the investigative quality in in a way that was pretty much idiot-proof.. doing relentless investigation in such a basic manner (in which the only criterion is to see anything and everything as impermanence, suffering, and/or not-self) powered me through the formless realms in days, whereas i had been 'stuck' for years there beforehand.

--

hi laura,

my replies to answers:

1- i don't think anyone can get to stream-entry without going through the vipassana jhanas. i've noticed that people who tend to use the term access concentration also tend to be those who separate vipassana and samatha jhanas (and define samatha jhana as being hard jhana)... the latter of which, i'm guessing, is what they are referring to when they say that they are not necessary for attaining enlightenment.

2- then spending a lot of time in the 4th jhana is a really good idea.

3- the formless realms will show up on their own, if they haven't been already (i think they probably have), but turning your attention to those qualities (called 'adverting' in pali buddhist terms) will probably make them show up more clearly, so give it a go.

i can't think of any other term for the quality that fades from the transition of 3rd to 4th than passadhi, so unless you're describing, in the fading, the transition from 4th to the formless ones, i think that's what it is (rather than upekkha, commonly called equanimity). it's possible that you were describing the transition from 4th to the formless jhanas, but i don't have enough information to make an informed guess either way (the description of the 'bleached out' or 'blanking out' states were not specific enough for me).

--

tarin
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Ruth Laura Edlund, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: Formless Realms, Or Something Less Glamorous?

Posts: 32 Join Date: 1/13/10 Recent Posts
the prisoner greco:

hi laura,

my replies to answers:

1- i don't think anyone can get to stream-entry without going through the vipassana jhanas. i've noticed that people who tend to use the term access concentration also tend to be those who separate vipassana and samatha jhanas (and define samatha jhana as being hard jhana)... the latter of which, i'm guessing, is what they are referring to when they say that they are not necessary for attaining enlightenment.

2- then spending a lot of time in the 4th jhana is a really good idea.

3- the formless realms will show up on their own, if they haven't been already (i think they probably have), but turning your attention to those qualities (called 'adverting' in pali buddhist terms) will probably make them show up more clearly, so give it a go.

i can't think of any other term for the quality that fades from the transition of 3rd to 4th than passadhi, so unless you're describing, in the fading, the transition from 4th to the formless ones, i think that's what it is (rather than upekkha, commonly called equanimity). it's possible that you were describing the transition from 4th to the formless jhanas, but i don't have enough information to make an informed guess either way (the description of the 'bleached out' or 'blanking out' states were not specific enough for me).

--

tarin


Hi tarin,

1. I looked up the appropriate passage in MCTB and I had slightly misremembered it. It says 1st jhana is a sufficient level of concentration, it didn't say access concentration was sufficient. My error.

2. Roger that!

3. Fair enough. I will also comment that, although I expect I will eventually turn my attention formally to the Three Characteristics of whatever jhanas I find that I attain, I would like to feel that I understand them in their (illusory) solid state first. To use another analogy, I figured I would build them first, and then take them apart. Is that an appropriate plan?

Regarding the bleached out state, let me see how much more information I can dig up for you without going and doing another sit on the spot. At around minute 17 (after pouring the coffee ;-) ) I have a sense that my attention is "locked in" and the focus is very firmly on the breath. It is unwavering. It is not, however, intense and narrow. It is broad (even though the breath is clearly in the center). The bleaching out begins in my peripheral awareness that there is anything around me. My surroundings bleach out and are indiscernable from "me." Then attention itself bleaches out. Finally, the breath itself almost bleaches out, except for a faint sense of it.

What is most interesting to me, and what perhaps I should have articulated earlier in this thread, is not so much the qualities of the state that I am struggling to describe but the loss of the sense of the passage of time. When I came out of this state a bit after a thought arose, and I peeked at my timer, I was really surprised at the amount of time that had passed. I realize now I was expecting it to say five minutes.

When not in formal mediation, I have had a similar experience of the loss of time regularly enough to get in trouble with my family, as follows: I look at my clock and see it's about time to go home. Sometimes I even call home and say, "I'm just finishing up." I look down at my work, I look up, and it is one hour later. Or two. This started happening with enough regularity when I did certain types of work (editing my own writing or less frequently preparing first drafts) that I actually rearranged my office to keep a clock in my line of sight at all times. I believe that putting a clock under my nose is the *sole* reason I no longer have this experience. (Probably somewhat similarly, when I was a child if I was reading a book I enjoyed I would literally not hear someone talking to me to try to get my attention. My parents would have to shake me by the shoulder to get me out of the book, or shout).

The loss of the sense of time, therefore, may not be directly indicative of the state I was in and may be more of a quirk produced by my developing a base level of concentration for worldly purposes years before I began a consistent meditation practice.

Thank you for the continued thoughtfulness of your reply.
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Ruth Laura Edlund, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: Formless Realms, Or Something Less Glamorous?

Posts: 32 Join Date: 1/13/10 Recent Posts
Hello, Ian,

Thank you for your detailed response. I tried doing a point-by-point response and it got very confusing with the sub-quotes, so I am starting from scratch here.

I think I will leave to you and tarin the debate about sequencing of passadhi and the contexts in which it is used.

Your comments were very helpful in that they prompted me to refine my own intentions for my morning sits. Your message provided a fair amount of encouragement for me to direct my practice back toward insight. However, although I am trending back in that direction generally (being aware that one can become a "jhana junkie"), I would like to explore the jhanas to see which of them I can (a) attain and (b) master, before deconstructing them by deliberately applying insight. Although past a certain point insight appears to arise and seems be fairly difficult to suppress even with intent.

I have read of different methods for exploring jhana. I believe I have reached jhanic states (a) informally before I had any formal meditation instruction; (b) through brahma vihara practice; (c) through concentration on the breath. Still to be plumbed are candle flame and kasinas. My current meditation teacher actually advised me against trying Tibetan-style visualization practices (of entities) because she thought I would get too lost in them (not her exact words).

At the end of the day, of course, I won't be disappointed if I "only" ever reach the level of the fourth jhana that it appears I can access already, but I also don't want to assume limitations that may not, in fact, exist.

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