I just did a 17 day retreat at Bhavana Society in West Virginia, working mostly on the pleasure jhanas. Whether you are a dedicated meditation practioner with enough concentration to reach jhana (and that means a lot!) or simply curious about jhana, you might find these following tips useful.
Pleasure Jhana: An advanced state of meditation where one becomes completely absorbed in the object of meditation. There are 8 levels of jhana, but in this post we will focus only on the first one. In the first pleasure jhana, one becomes so absorbed in pleasure, that pleasure takes up the entire mental bandwith of experience.
Access Concentration: A state of meditation where you have sufficient concentration to access the first jhana.
Recognizing when you are ready:
My concentration on the breath at the nostrils gets very good, no subtle distractions and I’m fully concentrated on the breath. The sensations of the in and out flow of the breath get finer and finer until the breath disappears altogether and is replaced, usually, by intense electrical pulses. Like dit-a-dit-a-dit-dit..just popping off around where my nostrils would be. Now this might not happen to you, you might not feel anything at all (in that case make sure you aren’t in dullness!) or still have feelings of the breath, but they’ll be so sharp as to be painful, or have some other weird thing going on.
I also start experiencing illumination phenomenon. It is as if you looked a bright LED light on the ceiling and then closed your eyes. And it begins to blanket your vision (in the suttas they describe it like being covered by a white blanket). When I can maintain this state for 5-10 minutes I know I am in access concentration.
The goal now is to focus on a feeling of pleasure somewhere in the body. If at this point I’m not already smiling, I will intentionally smile to generate a pleasant feeling. If smiling isn’t sufficient, I will do a bit of metta practice. I imagine people with down syndrome filled with joy. When I am no longer able to generate this image, meaning when I try to visualize a person with down syndrome leaping into the air with joy, my brain won’t produce the image. Instead, all of my attention remains focused on the feeling of electrical pulses pounding around my nostrils. Now I am I ready for jhana.
I start focusing on the pleasure. The pleasurable sensation will usually be around my mouth where I am smiling, or down in my hands. As I focus on the pleasure it begins to grow in waves. Now, this is very important, do not try and make it grow. Do no think “hey I’m getting jhana”, do not even have desire to reach jhana. All of that will kill it. Instead just focus on the pleasure. Just that.
Jhana is a state of not wanting. If you want it to happen, it won’t. Eventually, if you just focus on the pleasure and nothing else, the pleasure will fill your entire body, and your conscious experience becomes totally absorbed in this pleasure. Other thoughts, sounds, and feelings rarely intrude. It’s just pleasure. You have reached the first jhana.
If you have never experienced jhana before, this will be most joyous experience of your life. You will be saturated with joy and happiness. In fact, it’s almost too intense, like a “I did way too many drugs and I better go lie down” kind of intense. But don’t worry, jhana practice is perfectly safe. Still, the first jhana has a very strong bodily feeling. It feels like you are trembling. It’s kind of overwhelming, to the point where eventually you have enough of it and want to move on to the later more peaceful jhanas.
How do you know it’s jhana and not simply joy? In jhana you are not in control and you can’t do anything. It’s a bit like being in a trance. If you tried to think a thought, the first word or two might come up and then the jhana would shut it down. Any intention that comes up, gets shot down. You are consumed in the pleasure. You are just along for the ride. Generally, the only thoughts that you can think and stick are related to the current experience of jhana, such “Now I want to move on to second jhana” or “It’s time to get out of this.” When you do get out of it, you will kind of pop out and back into reality.
Lastly, don’t do the jhanas late at night. The jhanas, especially when you first start doing them, are so intense in the body that energy remnants will keep you up most of the night. During the retreat their was no way I was falling asleep within 4 hours of doing a jhana. Although this does get better over time and with more practice your body gets a bit more accustomed to it.