A Beautiful Mind: Reflections on Jhana Practice

How many of us come to meditation wanting to experience peace of mind and ease of heart only to find ourselves distracted again and again by unwanted thinking? Thoughts related to planning, wanting, not wanting, anger, fear, sleepiness, and restless agitation arise; and doubts about our abilities as a meditator or even about the practice itself seem to come unbidden at times. Fortunately, teachers encourage us by letting us know this is not unusual, saying that the practice of mindfulness meditation is about strengthening our ability to return attention to the present moment, as much as it is about staying in the present moment. Slowly we build the skillful habits of patience, equanimity and resolve in our practice; and mindfulness –– the sense of being fully awake and present in the moment –– becomes an increasingly familiar experience in our lives. As this change gradually occurs, we begin to see through our conditioning to the way the mind works and to become a bit disenchanted with our likes and dislikes. We become interested in life as it is and ease up on trying to make it be a certain way; our freedom in making choices about our thoughts, speech and actions grows.

This shift in our minds and hearts towards continuous mindfulness allows for insights to arise because we are able to “see things clearly” (vipassana); this is the source of liberation.

Continuous mindfulness is also the primary method of cultivating the states of deep concentration called the Jhanas. The Jhanas are eight distinct, identifiable experiences that can occur as the mind centers itself and stabilizes in “seclusion.” Seclusion here refers to that fact that in these states, while they are happening, the mind is totally free from distractions, i.e., free from the hindrances of desire, hatred, dullness, agitation and doubt. These troubling states simply do not arise.

As you may already know, we have Leigh Brasington coming to give a public talk and teach a residential retreat the first weekend in October [see https://valleyinsight.org/retreats.html for more info]. Because the focus of the retreat will be on these deep and quiet meditative states of mind called the Jhanas, I want to explain a bit about them and their place in Buddhist practice.

When one has developed enough steadiness of mind (a state referred to as “access consciousness”), the Jhannic states can be intentionally developed. This practice is usually done in long retreats. As one initially experiences these states, thinking decreases and fades into the background and rapturous joy arises. Over time, this gives way to an internal confidence and happiness; then comes a deepening of mindfulness and contentment. The fourth jhana brings a quiet stillness, in which “mindfulness is fully purified by equanimity.” Leigh Brasington gives a full description and a mapping of all eight Jhanas in a dhamma talk found at http://www.audiodharma.org/talks/audio_player/4597.html. Those people planning to attend the retreat he’ll be teaching in October will benefit from listening to it.

The Jhanas are each sometimes referred to as A Beautiful Mind. Are they the peace of mind and ease of heart we might have been searching for at the outset of our meditation practice? Perhaps, but they too are impermanent and subject to change; they are not the end goal of our practice. So then, what is the point of these concentration experiences? As an answer, the Buddha suggests: “When the mind is thus concentrated and infused with mindfulness, one directs and inclines the mind towards ‘seeing things as they are’…” Leigh explains this further in saying that the Jhanas are like a whetstone, a tool which sharpens the mind for Insight practice. The Buddha encourages a return to the Four Foundations of Mindfulness and to our daily lives with the clarity and natural benevolence gained from Jhana.

“The jhanas are states of heightened concentration that have been cultivated by Hindus and Buddhists for three thousand years. They are altered states, full of bliss and, I would say, holiness, and they play a central role in the Buddha’s Eightfold Path (‘right concentration’),” wrote Jay Michaelson [ http://realitysandwich.com/user/jay_michaelson]. The Buddha’s first two teachers after leaving the householder life instructed him in Jhana practice. He mastered the teachings and the mind states, but he did not find liberation in the seclusion of these states. His quest was to find freedom and lasting happiness within the experiences of a human life in this unsatisfactory, unpredictable world, not by separating from the world. So, he continued his explorations until one night he sat down under the Bodhi tree and used his clear, bright mind to see into the origins and perpetuation of the distractions and stresses of human life. What he saw has been called “Dependent Arising.” (Leigh will be giving a day-long retreat on this subject at VT Insight in Brattleboro in early August. [Find more info on this page: http://vermontinsight.org/programs/retreats.html]

Concentration is an important tool, but it is not enough by itself. Without mindfulness we might lose our way. Bhikkhu Analayo, who in an important book called THE FOUR FOUNDATIONS OF MINDFULNESS, spoke about this recently. He told a story about the day he decided to continue a Jhana-like breath concentration practice he’d been engaged in four many hours into his alms rounds. At the time, he’d been living and practicing in a small meditation hut in the forest of Sri Lanka for eight years. Once each day he would go out with his bowl to get food from local villagers. One day he would turn to the left on the road; the next day he would go right. On the day he was deeply concentrated on his breath, he forgot to turn either way; he just kept walking straight, in a direction where there were no villages and no food. He didn’t eat that day, and never again did he do Jhana practice while on alms rounds.

Heedfulness based in clear seeing is a very important factor in our path to freedom and authentic compassion. Jhana practice can sharpen and brighten our attentiveness helping us to find our way.

“Heedfulness leads to life.
Heedlessness leads to death.
Those who are heedful are fully alive
While those who are heedless are as if already dead.”
DhammaPada vs. 21 (Munindo)


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