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Where am I in Jhanas / Insight? Any thoughts are very appreciated

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Hi, I've been reading this forum for a long time and I am very grateful for huge amounts of useful information. I've finally decided to post because I'm somewhat unsure where am I and what I should pay attention to next.

I've become interested in meditation half a year ago, and about 4 month ago started to practice Vipassana on breath, on and off. 2-3 month ago I've thought that I was making no progress because concentration was lacking, and decided to try to work in this direction. Right now concentration meditation goes as follows:

  1. I pay attention to breath in abdomen. In 2-10 minutes depending on initial state I start feeling effects of breath also in head, and then in interval of 2-3 breath cycles feeling of breath and abdomen start to connect. On last third of out-breath there is a wave of pleasure, sensation of breath goes to hands and legs. The wave establishes itself and lasts for 3-10 breath cycles. It's possible to prolong it a bit more, but there is no point. It looks like it's 1-st Jhana.
  2. Effect of intense pleasure disappears, and what is left is feeling of comfort. It feels like laying down to rest after 7-hour walk. Attention is firmly fixed on breath. (2-nd Jhana?). Sometimes there are distracting thoughts and I fall out to the very beginning, it happens mostly in first 20 minutes of a meditation session, after that the state is rather stable.
  3. Thoughts and sensations come to focus, breath is still felt, but is on periphery. This stage is short and subtle, I don't always note it. (Is it 3-rd Jhana?)
  4. Pleasure disappears, maybe it's still there, but attention is tuned out of it. There are thoughts, sensations. They do not generally distract, they are just there. The first time I got there, there was a thought visualized as text: "4-th Jhana. Wow!". Despite of "wow" at the end, if it was read aloud, it should be pronounced with most indifferent expression possible (4-rd Jhana, equanimity?).


After 4-th state is attained in meditation session, it's easy to shift between those states.

Those states match typical Jhana descriptions, but there are things that lead to doubt:
  • I cannot stay in 1-st state for more than a minute, it always converts to state 2 by its own. Futhermore, it feels like there is no point in trying to stay in it, and even slight aversion to it in spite of its pleasant aspect. 2-nd state could last much longer, but it's simply pleasant, not euphoric. There is warning in MCTB that those states are very comfortable, and a lot of people are caught in cultivating them for years, and for me it's hard to relate to it.
  • In 4-th state some distracting thoughts do arise. When I detach from them (shortly, after 1-4 breath cycles after their appearence) I find myself in 2-th state, sometimes 3-rd. And it's natural to shift back to 4-th.
  • I hear sounds and feel sensations perfectly well. If there's something urgent, it's possible to react immidiately or better after a minute to allow slow transition to normal state. Still, default is non-reactivity. In some Jhana descriptions it's stated that no external sounds should be heard, so I doubt are these Jhanas or not. Lately while staying in 4-th state for some time I've started to feel something about space, and it seems to start to mask physicall sensations, but I'm not sure, since feeling is very unstable and tends to oscillate.
  • Generally the process feels like falling asleep, except attention is kept fully awake. I guess I've experienced something like those states before I've heard anything definitive about meditation, but they were much more unclear because of pre-sleep slowness and proliferation of random thoughts. So, in practice, it's often useful to try to induce a more "sleepy" state while staying awake and watching it.
  • There are no visions, no visuals, no sounds and no other colorful effects. I've heard once clear bell sound which shouldn't be there, and that was all of it. Well, maybe those effects are common but are not required.
  • First time I got to 4-th state very fast, first time without experiencing 2-th and 3-rd. But even now 3-rd state is very fleeting.
  • The process took much less effort than I expected. About month on/off practice of about half hour a day to get to 1-st state, than at somewhat like 1 hour per day: 2 weeks to stabilize it, first occurence 4-th state in one more week, another 2 weeks to get stable 4-th state and move between those states easily.


From here I've tried to go deeper by paying attention to space, but it's still difficult for me to get hang of it. And I've tried to switch to Vipassana mode and back. When in 4-th state and I try to pay attention to physical sensations, all body starts to itch, sometimes very strongly, and that sends me 2-nd state described above. I've also tried to see what 4-th state consists of, and it seems like to be some dynamic mess of thoughts, some mental forms difficult to describe and a lot of sensations on periphery, all much like content of can of worms, always in motion, constantly shifting, and it wouldn't be pleasant if perceived in a normal state. In 4-th state it feels mostly indifferent with slight negative tint. It's easy to shift back to pure 4-th state, which is in comparison very stable and immovable.

Vipassana part is somehow much less clear. Four month ago I've been sitting trying to do some insight practice. I didn't felt that I was getting what first three nanas were about, though I've got some intense itching. Also I could percieve tingling just about anywhere at rate 10-30 tingles per second, knew locations in real-time, but couldn't place sensations on a single timeline, since they occured too fast. Then I've had someting resembling A&P while sleeping: strong electrical tingling sensation in forehead that distributed to top of head, then back, then spine, it lasted about 5 seconds total. I've mostly woke up. I thought that it could be related to reading too much DhO about A&P two days before emoticon , as nothing else happened and nothing was changed. After that I've started doing concentration practice...

And then something strange happened. That was the main reason I've finally decided to ask for advice, because 1.5 month passed and I still haven't figured it out. I've got stuck in state that felt like access concentration for 3 days (and I got to 1-st concentration state as described above just 1 week before, and it was still unstable). So there was concentration directed at anything that came into view. For example, I got locked on some letters at computer screen at work, and sat looking at them for an hour. How they are, how they exist, how they begin to float if stared at continuosly for 5 minutes. Very interesting, indeed. Same thing about other things. That was accompanied by profound aversion to saying anything at all. It was very difficult to speak. Still, I did, when I absolutely had to. Other thing was complete indifference towards mostly anything. And disgust toward people I really like. They and relations with them felt like empty, worthless and stupid. More feelings I experienced for them just before that, stronger the repulsion was. Those states may look like Dark Night, but it's commonly accepted that concentration in this states is very poor, and it's really difficult to concentrate. But this was not the case, I could sit very well (and I did sit), and as stated before, I spent most waking time in some forced concentration state I couldn't get out from. More accurately, I felt that I could, if there were enough energy, but there weren't, I was unprepared. After 3 days the state disintegrated and only calmness was left, no worries about anything. Before I've had some non-critical private stuff going on for about a year in background. Those external problems didn't disappear, but lost their significance. Afterglow lasted about a week. After that those problems returned, but it felt that they are smaller and more manageble. So... I don't really know, if this case had anything to do with meditation, or it was some other psychological process to resolve that background stuff... And I haven't read anything similar.

I should add that I have natural tendency to "halt" when confronted with some difficult problem. First I try to solve it by reasoning and when I see that it fails or I get stuck in a loop, thoughts just stop, what is left is the problem, feeling of it, some parts of thoughts torn apart and floating, view of interconnections from above. Now it looks suspiciously just like some Jhana state... People say that I "hang" and am absent for some time... Often solution emerges in this process, sometimes in very rough form and must be further processed through reasoning... It was noticed that I functioned that way at least since 8-9 years old. So, maybe if presented with DN or something else existentially bad, I would tend to "lock down" and not resurface until some resolution comes, I don't know.

So now I don't quite know where am I and what should be done next.
  • If states 1-4 were really Jhanas, than I could try to look for space while in 4-th state and go to the Boundless Space. If they were not, than I strongly misunderstood them and should try to make corrections and restart process from beginning. Or if they are just shallow Jhanas, maybe I should try to get to harder versions of the states. But, main goal is to get to insight, so...
  • If I didn't made any progress in insight, I should start Vipassana from paying close attention to physical sensations, but that seems counterproductive, since it tends to downgrade concentration state. Or I should pay attention to equanimity of the 4-th state, if it really is 4-th Jhana.
  • If I somehow got through A&P and Dark Night, I should again pay attention to what comprises equanimity, but before that carefully reread corresponding part of MCTB. But this is very improbable from my point of view.


I guess general solution would be to just continue to practice and find for myself what works and what doesn't, but I'll be very grateful for any comments about all of that.

RE: Where am I in Jhanas / Insight? Any thoughts are very appreciated
Answer
7/14/13 10:20 PM as a reply to Alexander M.
If states 1-4 were really Jhanas, than I could try to look for space while in 4-th state and go to the Boundless Space. If they were not, than I strongly misunderstood them and should try to make corrections and restart process from beginning. Or if they are just shallow Jhanas, maybe I should try to get to harder versions of the states. But, main goal is to get to insight, so...

If I didn't made any progress in insight, I should start Vipassana from paying close attention to physical sensations, but that seems counterproductive, since it tends to downgrade concentration state. Or I should pay attention to equanimity of the 4-th state, if it really is 4-th Jhana.

If I somehow got through A&P and Dark Night, I should again pay attention to what comprises equanimity, but before that carefully reread corresponding part of MCTB. But this is very improbable from my point of view.


Your concentration sounds quite strong. You can still hear sounds in the Jhanas, and the definition has to do with Jhanic factors per the MCTB. ( I am aware that other people have other interpretations but it is irrelevant).

What do you mean by downgrade concentration state ? Sounds like you had A/P and dark night. There can be some forehead pressure in the dark night that seems like access concentration.

You don't need to pay any attention to what comprises equanimity, rather you need to pay attention to the sensations that comprise the feeling of a 'self' or a 'watcher/controller', when you are in equanimity.

My hunch is your concentration is more than strong enough. You probably need to work on the 'refresh rate' of your attention.

RE: Where am I in Jhanas / Insight? Any thoughts are very appreciated
Answer
7/15/13 3:49 PM as a reply to (D Z) Dhru Val.
D Z:

Your concentration sounds quite strong. You can still hear sounds in the Jhanas, and the definition has to do with Jhanic factors per the MCTB. ( I am aware that other people have other interpretations but it is irrelevant).

What do you mean by downgrade concentration state ? Sounds like you had A/P and dark night. There can be some forehead pressure in the dark night that seems like access concentration.

You don't need to pay any attention to what comprises equanimity, rather you need to pay attention to the sensations that comprise the feeling of a 'self' or a 'watcher/controller', when you are in equanimity.

My hunch is your concentration is more than strong enough. You probably need to work on the 'refresh rate' of your attention.


D Z, thank you for suggestion to try to pay attention to the "watcher", I've felt several times that there are some fluctuations in relationship between awareness and what is being observed, in one moment they feel very interconnected, then separate. It feels like it's right direction for investigation, I'll try it today.

By downgrade in concentration I mean that if I get to 4-th Jhana and then start to pay attention to physical sensations in Vipassana style and then switch back to concentration, most often I find myself back in 2-nd Jhana, rarely in 1-st. But it may be not relevant at all.

Not sure now about forehead pressure during what could be DN, but I was told that I had dilated pupils. By the way, they always dilate when I start to follow breath (I had to look into mirror to see that). Still, it had to be some form of concentration, in normal state I do not tend to fixate to stillness on random objects.

By working on refresh rate of attention do you mean that I should pay attention to attention itself to see its 3C?

RE: Where am I in Jhanas / Insight? Any thoughts are very appreciated
Answer
7/16/13 6:38 AM as a reply to Alexander M.
Hello. I am no expert but I really do not think you ever experienced any jhana and you probably did not even practice concentration meditation.

I have not started practicing insight meditation using the abdomen yet so I do not know in what nanas you are at but you seem pretty advanced. What you are practicing is probably insight meditation. The abdomen is for insight, the concentration on a fixed spot at the tip of the nostrils is for concentration. There are many kinds of meditation but these are the main ones used.


I only practiced concentration meditation for about the same period as you, maby not that serious and I was able to enter first jhana only once recently. Many times I thaught I was in second, third etc. jhana but these states are really not that weak as we think they are. At the begining, many things you will experience will match their descriptions but these states are really, REALLY strong. Also, they are not that easy to obtain. They take many years, not many months.

It is good to know where you are and not fool yourself like I did thinking I was in first jhana for 2 months already. It always seem to match the description. I concentrated on the nostrils till I got to acces concentration, switch to a pleasant sensation and just observe it and it grew but there was one thing missing for the descriptions, it did not explode. When it finally exploded I knew what was first jhana and that it really is probably the most pleasant sensation you can ever experience as a human, way more powerfull than any drug. This only happened to me once after about half a year, these things take time otherwise we would be a world full of elightened people.


I sugest you start doing some concentration meditation if I am right and what you are doing is insight. Daniel Ingram had a great article about how in the west we use the goenka stile and completelly neglect concentration because in Myanmar where it was developed people have way better concentration than us due to a simpler life and are easily able to enter the jhanas after a short while. After you will develop concentration, your insight practice will skyrocket, again, if I am right and you are doing insight meditation.


edit: also what you are describing about the letters seems to me like been mindfulness and the level you say it happened proves you are probably advanced in insight meditation

RE: Where am I in Jhanas / Insight? Any thoughts are very appreciated
Answer
7/16/13 3:03 PM as a reply to Alexx alexxx.
Alexx alexxx:
Hello. I am no expert but I really do not think you ever experienced any jhana and you probably did not even practice concentration meditation.


It's very possible that I haven't attained anything, nor Jhanas, nor stages insight, and I doubt in insight part much more. It's difficult to tell without good reference points, but they are all nessesarily external and mostly expressed textually...

I haven't ever experienced explosions of pleasure that strong. What happens is this: when I sufficiently calm down, stop being distracted by thoughts and fix attention on abdomen, in short time very distant feeling of pleasure arises on last part of out-breath. With each out-breath it grows a bit stronger, and then, after 3-5 breath cycles, on last part of another out-breath it goes from something like 15% to 100% of its power. Then in 3-7 cycles it subsides to perhaps half of its peak value. And the peak value isn't something off scale, definitely not the strongest pleasure that could be experienced. I guess it's possible to try to hold on it and make it grow. But it's both very pleasurable and annoying at the same time, so I don't feel like staying there for more than required. And I don't know if I could...

And about explosions, you may find this thread useful:

Ian And:
On occasion, an unhealthy absorption occurs when piti explodes and is experienced as a strong burst. These bursts can last as long as ten seconds or more and are an example of gross piti, which should be avoided if possible. Leigh Brasington talks about his experience with this phenomenon when it happened to him while on retreat. The retreat master immediately told him that this was not helpful, and that he should not encourage its emergence.

RE: Where am I in Jhanas / Insight? Any thoughts are very appreciated
Answer
7/16/13 9:34 PM as a reply to Alexander M.
I am quite sure you attained something in insight meditation. Almost everything you are describing in your first thread is related to insight meditation. I have not started practicing it yet so I have no clue but you should read about the nanas on this site. Also, the level of you been able to be mindfulness in daily life situations seems big. The great thing is that if you start doing the concentration at the tip of the nostrils or some concentration practice, your insight practice will skyrocket.

About the unhelthy absorptions, what is described there seems like a blow of first jhana pleasure for a couple of seconds probably been bad then happening out of context. The first jhana should theoretically be the bigest pleasure you can experience in the universe if the descriptions of the deva realms on accestoinsight.com are right because of all the jhanic pleasures the first one is supposed to be the biggest and it is called extasy. Keep in mind you should not get attached to this pelasure eather or desire it. I was unable to enter first jhana again after I entered it for 1 time about a week ago most probably because I had a bad state of mind when starting meditating and always desiring it very much in the back of my mind. Every time I get close I desire it very much. I hope I will fix this soon.

It's a nice thing that from all 8 jhanas the first is the most pleasant. Makes every novice very enthusiatic emoticon Keep up the good work

Also keep in mind no technique is purely for insight or concentration, they are all a mixture of both.

RE: Where am I in Jhanas / Insight? Any thoughts are very appreciated
Answer
7/18/13 6:55 AM as a reply to Alexander M.
Alexander M:
I've finally decided to post because I'm somewhat unsure where am I and what I should pay attention to next.


If I understand you correctly, you started meditating only fairly recently. Considering this, my general advice would be: Pick a practice that suits you and keep at it for at least a few months before trying something else. Try to master the practice you have chosen, make it your hobby, make it as fun, pleasant, interesting as you can and practice regularly. Keeping a practice journal can be helpful.

Another thing that might help is clarifying your goals: What do you hope to accomplish in your practice? Clarity in this regard can keep you from getting sidetracked and becoming overwhelmed.

For example, if you want to train in concentration, knowing exactly in which jhana you are at a given moment etc. is not that important. Instead, if improving concentration is your goal, just do the practice, deepen the states as best you can, drop the analysis, make concentration as pleasant as you can and don't worry too much whether your experiences line up with this or that model. If on the other hand your goal is mapping the strata of mind, mastering the jhanas, teaching meditation or something like that, then being able to clearly distinguish one state from another, control over duration of jhanas, entry and exit etc. are more important.

A good general guideline that is often quoted around here says: You get what you optimize for.
Practicing concentration brings better concentration (and all kinds of interesting experiences).
Practicing analysis and mapping brings proficiency at analyzing and mapping.
etc...

RE: Where am I in Jhanas / Insight? Any thoughts are very appreciated
Answer
7/20/13 2:32 PM as a reply to Alexx alexxx.
Alexx alexxx:
About the unhelthy absorptions, what is described there seems like a blow of first jhana pleasure for a couple of seconds probably been bad then happening out of context. The first jhana should theoretically be the bigest pleasure you can experience in the universe if the descriptions of the deva realms on accestoinsight.com are right because of all the jhanic pleasures the first one is supposed to be the biggest and it is called extasy.


Well, most sources (MCTB, General Jhana thread referenced above, Lessons in Samadhi by Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo, the article by Leigh Brasington usually state that there must be rapture, and don't specify that it's the greatest pleasure possible, or how strong it should be. MCTB states that Jhanas could be of varying hardness, and I've seen somewhere that there could be 5 types of 1-st Jhana, only one of which is considered strong, like body is continuously felt floating (can't find reference now). In any case, what I've experienced surely isn't that strong.

RE: Where am I in Jhanas / Insight? Any thoughts are very appreciated
Answer
7/20/13 2:49 PM as a reply to Christian Calamus.
Christian B:
If I understand you correctly, you started meditating only fairly recently. Considering this, my general advice would be: Pick a practice that suits you and keep at it for at least a few months before trying something else. Try to master the practice you have chosen, make it your hobby, make it as fun, pleasant, interesting as you can and practice regularly. Keeping a practice journal can be helpful.

Another thing that might help is clarifying your goals: What do you hope to accomplish in your practice? Clarity in this regard can keep you from getting sidetracked and becoming overwhelmed.


I agree, and that's how I'm trying to work now. Still it would be helpful to know more precisely where I'm in the global picture.

For now I'm trying to continue on assumption that I'm somewhere near Equanimity nana, and concentrate on "watcher / self" and attention itself per D Z suggestion using maximal currently reachable concentration state whatever it is (or is not). Will see where it will lead me. If there will be no progress, then I should restart from step one and pay attention to mind / body.