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Some Sort of Jhana Experience, or Just Imagination?

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Hi All,

I'm a newbie to Jhana practice but have been practicing zazen for 8 years or so. I've been sitting for about an hour per day for the last 5 years, and less before that.

I'm following Leigh Brasington's core instructions for entering Jhana (because I'm stupid and they're simple!) This is what happened in this morning's 40 min sit:

1. I reached a stable focus on the breath very quickly (attention was light and stable, thoughts where 'wispy' and unobtrusive etc), so I decided to turn my attention to a pleasant feeling. I placed my attention in the warm, heavy, tingly weight of my hands (I sit cross legged on a zafu with the standard hand mudra).

2. The nice feeling spread up my arms and throughout my body. It was just nice, not overwhelming or wildly ecstatic like some accounts I've read.

3. After a time of this I decided to try and focus on the emotional joy/happiness accompanying the physical sensations as per LB's instructions whereupon...

4. Suddenly, and quite surprisingly, I was pulled into a different awareness more in the region of the eye/head than the body. There were 'clouds' of phosphorescent light blooming and fading in front of my eyes. I decided to follow Ajahn Brahm et al's advice and give myself over to it. This made it seem like I was traveling through the light clouds until there was a 'white out' of the shimmery light and it filled my vision. Things then became very quiet and still for the rest of the sitting in this light.

During this time I felt very focused with a few thoughts popping in and just falling away by themselves. I was always aware of some bodily sensations, particularly the nice sensation of the hands, and I could hear sounds in my environment throughout most or all of this.

Actually, the above happened after an initial experience where the light appeared but was a bit threatening and caused some fear (it appeared to be moving somewhat like the mouth of an animal). I put this down to some agitation I was experiencing this morning before the sit and quickly went back down through the stages, and then back up again, and then the above happened.

Thanks for any input.

Regards,

Harry.

RE: Some Sort of Jhana Experience, or Just Imagination?
Answer
4/21/13 2:34 PM as a reply to Harry F B.
Hello Harry,

Since no one else has chimed in on your question, I will endeavor to analyze what you have presented us with, and to give you some clues as to what it might have been that you experienced. However, it will be up to you to decide what it was that happened according to your own ability of discernment.
Harry F B:

I'm following Leigh Brasington's core instructions for entering Jhana (because I'm stupid and they're simple!)

That's good and interesting, as it was Leigh's instruction (albeit less detailed then than it is now) that I followed over 12 years ago when I first began practicing to reach dhyana. Intuitively, Leigh's instruction seemed to match up with a passage I had read in MN 36 of the Buddha's first experience with dhyana as a child while sitting under a rose apple tree watching his father at a ceremonial ploughing during a traditional festival. I say intuitively because the description matched up with experiences I had had as a child, which helped me to relate to the description in the discourse (as well as to Leigh's descriptions).

The lesson here being: if you can stick with (and follow) your intuition, it can oftentimes take you to where you want to go. None of this stuff is rocket science (as some teachers of "jhana" might have it); it is all dependent on being able to follow your direct experience, being relaxed, secluded, and mindfully attentive to what is occurring in the moment. Once you gain an idea of what to look for (of what the experience "feels like"), it can help you to more easily attain to those states again and again in the future.

Harry F B:
This is what happened in this morning's 40 min sit:

1. I reached a stable focus on the breath very quickly (attention was light and stable, thoughts where 'wispy' and unobtrusive etc), so I decided to turn my attention to a pleasant feeling. I placed my attention in the warm, heavy, tingly weight of my hands (I sit cross legged on a zafu with the standard hand mudra).

2. The nice feeling spread up my arms and throughout my body. It was just nice, not overwhelming or wildly ecstatic like some accounts I've read.

So far so good. This is a classic description (using this kind of instruction) for entering into dhyana meditation.

Harry F B:

3. After a time of this I decided to try and focus on the emotional joy/happiness accompanying the physical sensations as per LB's instructions whereupon...

4. Suddenly, and quite surprisingly, I was pulled into a different awareness more in the region of the eye/head than the body. There were 'clouds' of phosphorescent light blooming and fading in front of my eyes. I decided to follow Ajahn Brahm et al's advice and give myself over to it. This made it seem like I was traveling through the light clouds until there was a 'white out' of the shimmery light and it filled my vision. Things then became very quiet and still for the rest of the sitting in this light.

A question: Were you predisposed to seeing "clouds of phosphorescent light blooming and fading in front of" your eyes? By "predisposed," I mean, was there some instruction you read which mentioned this visual phenomenon, or did occur out of nowhere? It doesn't really matter what your answer is; what matters is what you did with the experience and where you took it. In other words, what ideas you associated it with and where you went (what followed experientially) afterward.

When I set out to practice by Leigh's description, I had also been reading about the concept of "access concentration" and that a visual in the form of a cottonball or circle of light might appear heralding entry to upacara samadhi or "access concentration." When this occurred (likely because of pre-suggestion) during one sitting, it gave me the initial confidence that I was performing the meditation correctly. As I became more adept at being able to enter the first dhyana, I let go of the concept of "access concentration" and went directly to the first dhyana. In other words, I recognized that it was my own mind that had led me on the pathway (fabricated the experience that I experienced that first time) to the first dhyana, and that I could control the processes that occur simply by inclining the mind toward what I wanted to occur (in essence, making it happen).

Harry F B:
Things then became very quiet and still for the rest of the sitting in this light.

During this time I felt very focused with a few thoughts popping in and just falling away by themselves. I was always aware of some bodily sensations, particularly the nice sensation of the hands, and I could hear sounds in my environment throughout most or all of this.

This, too, is a classic description of what might be either third or fourth dhyana.

In order to gain a better perspective, read the contemplate the following four suttas from the Samyutta Nikaya at SN 40.1-4. It may help to bring a better understanding of what it is that you are endeavoring to accomplish. I wasn't able to find a comparable translation on the Internet, so I copied this translation from my edition of The Connected Discourses of the Buddha as translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Pay particular attention to the importance of the refrain by the Buddha that is repeated in italic in each of these four stages of dhyana development. Steadying the mind in these states first will be to your benefit once you are able to recognize them with ease. Do not be too concerned if you are not able to recognize the transition between these levels at first. It can take some time to really be sure what it is that you are experiencing, as the mind can play tricks on you while it is still not fully within your control. As your discernment becomes sharper, it will become easier to recognize these transitions.

And, of course, Leigh has some thoughtful things to say with regard to the four factors in the first jhana that are well worth attending to.

SN40.1-4:

SN 40.1 The First Dhyana
Translated from the Pali by Bhikkhu Bodhi

On one occasion the Venerable Mahamoggallana was dwelling at Savatthi in Jeta's Grove, Anathapindika's Park. There the Venerable Mahamoggallana addressed the bhikkhus thus: "Friends, bhikkhus!"

"Friend!" those bhikkhus replied. The Venerable Mahamoggallana said this:

"Here, friends, while I was alone in seclusion, a reflection arose in my mind thus: 'It is said, "the first jhana, the first jhana." What now is the first jhana?'

"Then, friends, it occurred to me: 'Here, secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, a bhikkhu enters and dwells in the first jhana, which is accompanied by thought and examination, with rapture and happiness born of seclusion. This is called the first jhana.'

"Then, friends, secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, I entered and dwelt in the first jhana.... While I dwelt therein perception and attention accompanied by sensuality assailed me.[277]

"Then, friends, the Blessed One came to me by means of spiritual power and said this: 'Moggallana, Moggallana, do not be negligent, brahmin, regarding the first jhana. Steady your mind in the first jhana, unify your mind in the first jhana, concentrate your mind in the first jhana.' Then, friends, on a later occasion, secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, I entered and dwelt in the first jhana, which is accompanied by thought and examination, with rapture and happiness born of seclusion.

"If, friends, one speaking rightly could say of anyone: 'He is a disciple who attained to greatness of direct knowledge with the assistance of the Teacher,' it is of me that one could rightly say this."

Footnote:
277. Kamasahagata sanna manasikara samudacaranti. Spk glosses: accompanied by the five hindrances.



SN 40.2 The Second Dhyana

Translated from the Pali by Bhikkhu Bodhi

..."Here, friends, while I was alone in seclusion, a reflection arose in my mind thus: 'It is said, "the second jhana, the second jhana." What now is the second jhana?"

"Then, friends, it occurred to me: 'Here, with the subsiding of thought and examination, a bhikkhu enters and dwells in the second jhana, which has internal confidence and unification of mind, is without thought and examination, and has rapture and happiness born of concentration. This is called the second jhana.'

"Then, friends, with the subsiding of thought and examination, I entered and dwelt in the second jhana....While I dwelt therein perception and attention accompanied by thought and examination assailed me.

"Then, friends, the Blessed One came to me by means of spiritual power, and said this: 'Moggallana, Moggallana, do not be negligent, brahmin, regarding the second jhana. Steady your mind in the second jhana, unify your mind in the second jhana, concentrate your mind in the second jhana.' Then, on a later occasion, with the subsiding of thought and examination, I entered and dwelt in the second jhana, which has internal confidence and rapture and happiness born of concentration.

"If, friends, one speaking rightly could say of anyone: 'He is a disciple who attained to greatness of direct knowledge with the assistance of the Teacher,' it is of me that one could rightly say this."

SN 40.3 The Third Dhyana
Translated from the Pali by Bhikkhu Bodhi

..."Here, friends, while I was alone in seclusion, a reflection arose in my mind thus: 'It is said, "the third jhana, the third jhana." What now is the third jhana?"

"Then, friends, it occurred to me: 'Here, with the fading away as well of rapture, a bhikkhu dwells equanimous and, mindful and clearly comprehending, he experiences happiness with the body; he enters and dwells in the third jhana of which the noble ones declare: "He is equanimous, mindful, one who dwells happily." This is called the third jhana.'

"Then, friends, with the fading away as well of rapture ... I entered and dwelt in the third jhana.... While I dwelt therein perception and attention accompanied by rapture assailed me.

"Then, friends, the Blessed One came to me by means of spiritual power, and said this: 'Moggallana, Moggallana, do not be negligent, brahmin, regarding the third jhana. Steady your mind in the third jhana, unify your mind in the third jhana, concentrate your mind in the third jhana.' Then, on a later occasion, with the fading away as well of rapture, I dwelt equanimous and, mindful and clearly comprehending, I experienced happiness with the body; I entered and dwelt in the third jhana of which the noble ones declare: 'He is equanimous, mindful, one who dwells happily.'

"If, friends, one speaking rightly could say of anyone: 'He is a disciple who attained to greatness of direct knowledge with the assistance of the Teacher,' it is of me that one could rightly say this."


SN 40.4 The Fourth Dhyana
Translated from the Pali by Bhikkhu Bodhi

..."Here, friends, while I was alone in seclusion, a reflection arose in my mind thus: 'It is said, "the fourth jhana, the fourth jhana." What now is the fourth jhana?"

"Then, friends, it occurred to me: 'Here, with the abandoning of pleasure and pain, and with the previous passing away of joy and displeasure, a bhikkhu enters and dwells in the fourth jhana, which is neither painful nor pleasant and includes the purification of mindfulness by equanimity. This is called the fourth jhana.'

"Then, friends, with the abandoning of pleasure and pain ... I entered and dwelt in the fourth jhana.... While I dwelt therein perception and attention accompanied by happiness assailed me.

"Then, friends, the Blessed One came to me by means of spiritual power, and said this: 'Moggallana, Moggallana, do not be negligent, brahmin, regarding the fourth jhana. Steady your mind in the fourth jhana, unify your mind in the fourth jhana, concentrate your mind in the fourth jhana.' Then, on a later occasion, with the abandoning of pleasure and pain, and with the previous passing away of joy and displeasure, I entered and dwelt in the fourth jhana, which is neither painful nor pleasant and includes the purification of mindfulness by equanimity.

"If, friends, one speaking rightly could say of anyone: 'He is a disciple who attained to greatness of direct knowledge with the assistance of the Teacher,' it is of me that one could rightly say this."


In peace,
Ian

RE: Some Sort of Jhana Experience, or Just Imagination?
Answer
4/21/13 4:14 PM as a reply to Ian And.
Hello Ian,

Many thanks for the detailed reply. BTW, I didn't mean to suggest that Leigh's instructions were in any way simplistic (as in a 'dumbed-down' sense or whatever). I meant they were very concise and easy to follow practically. I should have pointed out that I was referring specifically to the one page of condensed, explicit instructions for Jhana practice that he provides for download on his site (although I just went looking for their location there and couldn't find them for some reason).

The lesson here being: if you can stick with (and follow) your intuition, it can oftentimes take you to where you want to go. None of this stuff is rocket science (as some teachers of "jhana" might have it); it is all dependent on being able to follow your direct experience, being relaxed, secluded, and mindfully attentive to what is occurring in the moment. Once you gain an idea of what to look for (of what the experience "feels like"), it can help you to more easily attain to those states again and again in the future.

Yes, this approach makes a lot of sense.

A question: Were you predisposed to seeing "clouds of phosphorescent light blooming and fading in front of" your eyes? By "predisposed," I mean, was there some instruction you read which mentioned this visual phenomenon, or did occur out of nowhere? It doesn't really matter what your answer is; what matters is what you did with the experience and where you took it. In other words, what ideas you associated it with and where you went (what followed experientially) afterward.

Some of the instructions/sources I've read mention the 'radiant round nimmitta', so if I was expecting anything it might have been that (obviously that didn't happen... the 'clouds' happened and I went with it until it seemed to stabilize in the glowing 'white out'. I've had similar visions before in zazen (rarely though) and when I've been practicing mindfulness/attention as I'm falling asleep).

I'll read those sutta excerpts in detail. That's good to have.

Thanks again,

Harry