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Throwing My Hat In The Jhana Ring

While on retreat, I entered a fourth jhana which had a white-out effect of something tantamount to what people report on 5-MeO-DMT, leaving my whole experience to be essentially just a kind of floating, neutral white realm type of existence (this is not me equating 5-MeO with fourth jhana). At the time, I was meditating outside and meanwhile a neighbour was doing some landscaping with a hedge trimmer (a loud one!). At the peak of the jhana, I could no longer hear the whirring of the trimmer’s motor and when I came out of that state the sound came back into my experience. I am positive this wasn’t due to the neighbour turning off the hedge trimmer while I happened to be jhana-ing; but rather because my consciousness was so saturated with jhana four qualities that there wasn’t the capacity to retain awareness of neighbouring noise at the same time.

Introducing the space

There are many different views being cast around regarding jhana, and these debates must go back even before Buddhism - remember the jhanas were not discovered by the Buddha. In modern contexts and TPOT circles specifically, the differences arising on what constitutes and matters as to jhana are mostly expressed amicably and are well meaning (from what I’ve seen). Such as Seishin’s very thoughtful and pronounced twitter thread, as well as Daniel Thorsen’s input, to Jhourney’s efforts to make something jhana-esque more widely available to beginners. And here I am adding my own reference to these states.

There are those who hold very orthodox views. Those that hold very high standards for claiming jhana and those who consider the states in a much looser fashion. I’ve even spoken with someone who despite teaching jhana, doesn’t really think they exist (granted this is a view from emptiness). I think there is appreciation to be found from all sides here and especially those who want to maintain a very high standard for jhana and not allow the significance of these states to be watered down or misconstrued. Their voices are incredibly valuable and I think they should be listened to. Those that deeply care about preserving authentic, canonical teachings may recognise the importance that such commentaries be upheld and kept alive. Once a tradition, culture, language or teaching is forgotten to history, it is essentially gone for good - lest we forget the impermanence of all things.

I’ve come to really value the words of meditators and their personal reports of the different states they’ve tasted and then making phenomenological comparisons. I'm not impressed by people (including long term meditators) who quickly write others off without the self awareness of their disagreeable temperament. I almost always find something to agree and disagree with someone about on a particular point, given we are sufficiently nuanced and I am being charitable or not in my interpretations. If one is aware enough it's clear whichever route you take on a debate is akin to a kind of choice, that hinges on a very subtle expansive or contractive approach which we can alter in the moment. It surprises me sometimes how unaware or uncommanding even very skilled mind investigators can be on this front.

As someone who accesses jhana, who teaches jhana, and has participated in academic scientific study of the jhanas, but also having attained the much, much rarer state of nirodha samapatti, I’ve come to hold my own view of what I care to deem jhana or not. I consider that whatever I write, there will be people who will say “that’s not jhana”, and those sentiments can be coming from a range of places: from those with limited theory of mind, and from those who have only trained in a specific way while not having developed other cognitive abilities and powers of perception alongside, and from those who genuinely are so much more advanced than me along the same relevant metrics and while being able to totally relate and contextualise my experience, yet have still come to a different position. And I know one must be dumb to stick one's head out on such a battle ground and expect to not receive some pop-shots, but I will boldly/foolishly dare to weigh in, because I believe I have something constructive and novel to add to the conversation.

Although I have experienced quite strong levels of jhana, I wouldn’t raise the bar to this height all the time. In no way do I mean this to be a virtue, but I fail to care much to place myself anywhere along the hard/light jhana spectrum, while mostly caring for what works in helping people develop insight at the right time and further purification. However, in life and in mind, there are non-trivial thresholds that can be crossed where it makes sense to say we are now in new territory, and this certainly can apply to jhana. Though, where sudden jumps in experience occur are not universal and consistent with people’s relation to what we call jhana. For this reason, if we are prescribing jhana to anyone, I would take more of a ‘what’s the right medicine and dosage for this person’s context specific ailment?’ approach.

I must say, I find TWIM’s incredibly light standard of jhana surprising and I have heard some descriptions coming from their training that I wouldn’t equate to jhana. However, I listen to people in droves report really positive effects from their teachings. May there be healthy structures of psychological support alongside deep meditative work as well.

Albeit, it is also all too easy to pre-maturely tick off an attainment, and if people are telling us there is more, it goes deeper, it gets richer, and they tell us because they care for the truth and wish for our liberation, and we sense their words are coming with sincere, good intentions and personal experience, then we would be wise to hear them out, earnestly. And yet at the same time, as Kenneth Folk mentions: "jhana is neither necessary nor sufficient for stream entry", which raises the point: how much do the deeper jhanas matter for enlightenment? On nirodha samapatti, though not a jhana, though also not unrelated, Daniel Ingram has said: “It is not that nirodha sampatti is necessary, but it is a good and useful thing to be able to attain.”

I would think jhana is actually a very natural consequence of awakening and better understanding of perceptual reality. A fond point that Rosa Lewis makes: the jhanas are describing innate qualities of experience (and the universe). So once you know what you're looking for, they are always there. And then the decision to focus and grow them, to whatever degree, is up to you - and that process can be immensely edifying, transformative, contextualising, healing.

While my personal path has led me to effectively become ontologically neutral, epistemologically pragmatic and non-ideological (bless be ‘the middle way’); and so I love to hear what’s new and works for different people and keep a non-naive open mind. All the while, there can be hubris in trying to reinvent the dharma wheel; while as well we can acknowledge that each turning of said wheel has led to new formulations adapted to the minds of the times.


Adding complexity

Within this jhana discours (and not only), there are so many relevant variables that determine how one comes to their conclusions on what constitutes proper jhana. I think many times (though not always) a good way to make sense of orthodox vs heterodox views is with an informed lens of Robert Kegan’s Constructive Developmental Framework. Often these controversies can come from people operating at Kegan stage three, holding their credulity firm to traditions and inherited rules and not understanding the mindsets of those more in the Kegan four and five stages - who respectively seem like heretics. However, this doesn’t at all mean that those that come to more orthodox conclusions can’t be operating at very sophisticated levels as well.

I believe much of what makes the difference in people’s views here are not only their own reference range of experience, but how specifically they've been training and shaping their mind hitherto entering jhana. Factors such as: how much metacognition a practitioner has, how fast are their general noticings per seconds, how great is their overall clarity of peripheral awareness and what levels of realisation/locked-in insights do they possess. We should expect these baseline perceptual variables to widely differ among practitioners and greatly influence how they access and relate to states of mind. Depending on what kind of standard of mind a practitioner has cultivated for themselves, will impact how they grok phenomena and what the states they enter look like from the inside. It is too simplistic to rule out people's starting positions and background assumptions.

If someone is pre-stream entry, has a very relatively low baseline in metacognition and a more myopic field of perception (compared to someone who has actively broadened the scope of their perception), then that's relevant. Additionally, someone could be post-stream entry and have hyper single-pointed concentration abilities, though still not great peripheral sensory clarity and then what jhana feels like to them will be another way. By contrast someone who has deep emptiness insight to the degree that all phenomena are seemingly always half drenched in the abyss, and by default a very wide field of awareness and say a minimal intact sense of a separate self, then yet again the jhanas will seem different to them.

Given the mind I’ve cultivated with it’s depth/lack of realisation and insights and all my idiosyncrasies (in particular being very phenomenologically minded and at the far/high end of metacognitive ability) I have come to experience and relate to what I call jhana in my own way. I'm at a point in my practice where all the jhana factors are readily available to find at a moment's notice. And they are not a big deal for me. I don't have to work up to having access concentration, I simply intend towards any jhana and the mind will attune to that level of fabrication in its own time and let it bloom.

I want to add that the standard for jhana can’t be how mind-blowing it is. The surprise one feels in relation to a state is relevant to how novel that state is for that person. Someone can be experiencing deeply all encompassing states without the added shock value, because they have acclimatised to it by having visited that state many times. When people say jhana must be ostentatiously awe inspiring it is probably because they are still quite new to it and haven’t developed respective equanimity. And I say this not to undermine people’s mind blowing experiences (these can be some of the most important experiences in people’s lives). Jhana should be astonishing the first number of times. I simply speak to what’s not a necessarily relevant part of the criteria for jhana. As one gains increasing access to such states, one can lose sight of how profound they would seem to those starting off.

The following may be a contentious point. I’m someone who has worked a lot on having an ongoing perceptual awareness of the signal/counter-signal nature of reality; meaning I am very noticing of the co-dependent arising nature of things. This is a very prolific insight, but it’s missed on many people. Subsequently this radically affects my perception, including the jhanas. Anything that arises in my mind never takes the totality of experience (neither whole, nor fragmented). And this is important to understand because it relates directly to how much reification there is, how much understanding of emptiness one has and how thoroughly the mind will believe in any given object as holding independent substantial existence - a key delusion to dispel. You see, even in these all-suffusing states, its emptiness is not lost on me; meaning there’s a way in which the mind is never fully bought in. I can thoroughly entertain, indulge and rejoice in experience, but never be fully convinced of their primacy and this is actually an important aspect of awakening. I would argue, the ability to be ‘fully bought in’ is a product of a lack of realisation. And this is not to advocate for the primacy of emptiness either, nor a dispassion or dissociation from existence.

Absorption, formlessness, boundless space and consciousness

I want to raise a few more points on how jhana has radically changed for me since my big shift in 2021. I haven’t heard these sentiments being raised elsewhere and I am slightly curious why.

The first point is on absorption. Often we can hear that full absorption into the jhana object is what’s required for it to count as jhana. Here ‘absorption’ would mean achieving a state in which any sense of separate doer vanishes as the subject ‘consumed by’ the jhana object, becoming one with it. The thing about this model of thinking is it necessitates that the practitioner start from the place of having a subject/object split in their experience which can subsequently collapse with enough concentration. 

However, for myself I really no longer experience a separate subject that could even conceivably not always be absorbed in experience (neither absorbed nor not). As a matter of default experience, all content instantaneously knows itself, without a separate or distinguishing watcher/doer/subject. Anything and everything that arises, is aware of itself and so the notion of absorption no longer computes for me (whereas it did before). So without drawing a subject/object distinction that needs to be transcended to begin with, there are simply phenomena with different degrees of ardency, to the exclusion of other phenomena.

Secondly, on formlessness: People talk about the later formless jhanas, or even by 2nd jhana, that there should no longer be a sense of the physical body. Simply, relaying my personal experience, my sense of a body schema is permanently very downregulated. So moments of not experiencing having a hardened body, as a  unified organism are really just a hair’s width away; this makes states of formlessness exceedingly accessible. It’s always really gaseous/holographic. One of my more standard senses of the body is the whole of experience, including everything perceived in the environment - rather than just the typical body schema. My perception is such that I literally feel from the whole room that I’m in, as I am sensitive enough to somatic sensations which correspond with all sights and sounds etc. The result is a distributed ‘body’ taking on the entire scene.

Thirdly, my ongoing experience is also by default boundaryless, which plays a doozy with my relationship to the fifth jhana (boundless space). Before my shift into centrelessness, in order to get into fifth, I would, from fourth jhana, focus on the expanse of the experience space and extend my awareness out in all directions until eventually there was a noticeable dissolving or ‘popping’ of the sense of boundaries in the experience space, resulting in boundless space. Now, there are never any spatial mind boundaries, so all I need to do is focus on the sense of extended space. (It’s worth noting that the sense of extended space isn’t a constant of experience.)

Fourthly, I expect this point to stir heads and be misunderstood, but as an ardent phenomenologist, I care too much about accurately explaining and making sense of experience to not write this: jhana six (boundless consciousness) has lost all meaning to me now. The signal of boundless consciousness has become nonsensical to me now and can't be found anymore. It became everything and subsequently cancelled itself out. I very much used to be able to enter sixth jhana, but for something to exist in the mind it has to arise with its opposite (you can't have black without white kind of thing); and it may sound obvious, but there is no non-conscious part of experience to be aware of which could highlight in contrast the boundless consciousness part. This realisation, which speaks to the no singly positioned epistemic agent, centrelessness and everything being aware of itself, means that consciousness is already ubiquitous to all of experience and subsequently the perceived detecting of it gets cancelled out.

I certainly used to be able to enter jhana six, but now there is not only nothing to do here, but nothing even conceivable to do here. I am not suggesting that my default state is like a permanent sixth jhana (although it sort of is), because again the sense of extended space fabricates/defabricates and even consciousness is dependent arising. Though I can still intellectually engage in philosophical discussions on consciousness, phenomenologically there is no non-consciousness to be perceived. The best I can do is focus on the ‘is-ness’ quality of existence, or the sense of ‘being’, which can be contrasted and highlighted with the sense of 'non-being'.

What I’m suggesting here is quite sophisticated and requires really refined phenomenological discernment (and sympathy to how I frame/word things) to be able to understand what I’m getting at. So I wouldn’t want my position here to be reduced to “Roger thinks everything is consciousness”. Thank you.


Closing Thoughts

I think a lot of what holds people back from the deeper jhanas is holding onto any specific expectation of something ‘more, more, more…’ and waiting and wanting for something much more ferocious, much more total. I’m not saying jhanas can’t be that, but what I am saying is the expectation, disappointment and holding (contracting) to the sense of ‘not quite enough’ prevents one from being with, appreciating and settling into what jhana qualities are already present at this time - no matter how subtle they may currently be. And that this approach can then allow what subtly of jhana quality is there to further engulf more of your conscious capacity (maybe even to the point that you can't hear your neighbour's hedge trimmer).

Part of the insight process is recognising the emptiness of the words we use; that concepts don’t ultimately, concretely pertain to other objects and that reality doesn't consist of 'things' (in the typical sense of distinct nouns). And that fixation on definitions can prevent us from seeing the phenomena in themselves, causing us to miss contact with the 'real' thing. That being said a shared vocabulary is an immensely special thing. Where I've come to, everything is relational and it's hard to say about anything that I've ever fully exhausted all possible understandings. Instead, my world is alive and there are ever unfolding new facets, features, aspects and positions and this includes the jhanas.

Lastly, the promising thing about the new science based approach to studying jhana and general meditation research is now (who knows?) we may hopefully enter a new phase of the conversation which goes beyond ‘my word versus your word’ - though it is still very early days.


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