The jhanas are altered states of consciousness which are produced from periods of strong concentration. Although not enlightenment experiences, they do provide much needed experience into the Path and explain much of the cosmology in an experiential way. For example, each jhana tends to correspond to one or more heavenly realms in the cosmology. By attaining different levels of jhana, the meditator increases the likelihood of being re-born to a heavenly plane of existence. If you pass away while meditating at one of the jhanic levels, you will be re-born to that heavenly existence. If you pass away when you are not in a meditation session, but have attained to a certain level of jhana in the past, you can still be re-born to one of those heavenly planes.
To reach the jhanic states of the four jhanas and the five immaterial, formless realms, one must choose a meditation subject and use one-pointedness concentration. The subject can be a devotional statue, a colored disc, or simply your breath. As opposed to insight meditation or vipassana, in this meditation you focus all your attention on your subject. The background views and noises must remain only part of the background. You concentrate on your subject with eyes sometimes open and then closed. When your eyes are closed, look for the after-image of your meditation subject in your mind. Eventually you will reach a high state of concentration with all of the five hindrances gone from your mind. The five hindrances are not permanently extinguished, but gone for the meditation to allow the entry to jhanic states.
When your mind state is free of the five hindrances and your concentration is especially strong you enter the first jhana of pleasant sensations. It takes much practice and remember patience is very important. You may not experience your first jhanic state until many years of practice.
As you reach each jhanic level, your mind will be tempted to remain at the previous jhanic state. Simply keep a balanced mind with no clinging to the pleasant or unpleasant and you will progress to the higher levels. The nine levels of jhana are:
- Delightful Sensations
- Utter peacefulness
- Infinity of space
- Infinity of consciousness
- Neither perception nor non-perception
(from Anguttara Nikaya 9.36)
The jhanas are the main part of Right Concentration in The Noble Eightfold Middle Path. The insight of vipassana meditation can be found in Right Concentration as well, but is primarily part of Right Effort and Right Mindfulness of the Eightfold Middle Path. The jhanas were well known during the time of the Buddha and before. The teachers the Buddha studied under before his enlightenment were all familiar with the jhanas and taught him how to get to the first seven and then eighth jhana. But, the Buddha discovered that there was more to be known. He knew that the jhanas were not all that there is.
The five hindrances to meditation which prevent access to entering the jhanas can be eliminated by the five factors of the first jhana. The first factor is one-pointedness concentration. By maintaining one-pointedness concentration, you will not get distracted by sense pleasures or desires. Focus on your meditation subject, which is usually the breath. There are 40 meditation subjects for Right Concentration and any of them can allow access to the jhanas, but the common subject for most meditators is the breath. When rapture and joy become noticeable, this eradicates the hindrance of aversion. The happiness and comfort that follows eradicates restlessness and worry. As the concentration gets stronger you aim very well at your subject and this eliminates sloth and torpor. Since skeptical doubt includes indecision, as you start to have sustained attention, the doubt about the practice fades.
Some teachers only place the first four jhanas under the heading of 'Jhana' and the remaining four to five as the "formless absorptions" or as the "formless realms." For ease in seeing the transition from one jhana to the next, all nine are labeled as 'jhanas' since they are all inter-connected and are all mental, meditative absorptions. In the Suttas of the Tipitaka the first four are labeled as 'jhanas' but are always followed by the remaining formless realms.
The First Jhana: Pleasant Sensations
The concentration begins with one-pointedness concentration and then when the concentration becomes strong you enter a sustained concentration which is a continuous concentration with no interruptions. You start to enter the remaining jhanic factors of aiming, happiness, and joy or rapture. You shift your attention from the meditation subject to the joy associated with your concentration. You do not cling to the sensations, but just watch them. The experience can include some very pleasant physical sensations such as goose bumps on the body and the hair standing up to more intense pleasures which grow in intensity and explode into a state of ecstasy. If you have pain in your legs, knees, or other part of the body during meditation, the pain will actually disappear while you are in the jhanas. The pleasant sensations can be so strong to eliminate your painful sensations.
The Second Jhana: Joy
You proceed from the first jhana to the second by keeping a balanced mind with no clinging to the sensations of the first jhana. Then you shift your attention from the physical pleasure to emotional pleasure. The pleasurable sensations get put to the background and calm the mind further. You feel a great joy in your meditation and keep one-pointedness of mind.
The Third Jhana: Contentment
You let go of the physical pleasures which changes the emotional pleasure from joy to contentment. You experience a more motionless, quiet contentment.
The Fourth Jhana: Utter Peacefulness
The fourth jhana is entered when the mind remains equanimous to the third jhana of contentment long enough that you are ready to let go further. There is no positive or negative feeling in the mind or body. Then there is an all pervading, deep peacefulness, with one-pointedness of mind.
The Fifth Jhana: Infinity of Space
The fifth through the eighth jhanas are the “absorptions without form.” This is because they refer to states of consciousness where there is no perception of a form or body. They correspond to heavenly realms which also have no form or body. That is, beings re-born to the formless realms, which are some of the heavenly planes, do not have a body, but do have pleasant existences.
You enter the fifth jhana by remaining in the utter peacefulness state and then shift your attention to the boundaries of your being. You focus your attention outward as if you are watching yourself from above. You may feel like you are floating above your body at first. You put your attention on your body so that it feels like you are filling the room. This is expanded further and further so that you fill your whole neighborhood, city, country, continent, and then to space itself. You find yourself in this huge expanse of empty space.
The Sixth Jhana: Infinity of Consciousness
You enter the sixth jhana by realizing that the infinite space you occupy includes your consciousness. So you shift your attention to infinite consciousness instead of infinite space. You may feel “at one” with all nature and existence, but do not be fooled, this is not full enlightenment. Concentration is further increased and there is still one-pointedness of mind.
The Seventh Jhana: No-thingness
The seventh jhana is entered by realizing that the content of the infinite consciousness is basically empty of any permanent nature. We also realize that there is no “thingeither. There is nothing in the universe that has any permanent essence to it. We realize that everything is in constant flux.
The Eighth Jhana: Neither perception nor non-perception
The eight and ninth jhanas are difficult to discuss because they are so hard to describe in much the same way nibbana is hard to describe. This is because they are such heightened levels of concentration and of the Path itself, that they must be experienced. There is also very little to discuss with the eighth and ninth jhanas, since the perception levels have become so fine and so subtle. You enter the eighth jhana by letting go of the sense of no-thingness and enter a very natural, calm place. In the eighth jhana there is very little recognition of what is happening, but you are also not totally unaware of what is happening. There is such a peaceful state and you have gone beyond the duality of perception nor non-perception that it is easy to be fooled that you have experienced full enlightenment. But there is still more to do.
The Ninth Jhana: Cessation
When you reach the limits of perception, you realize that lesser mental activity is better for your calm and peaceful state. You enter a state of “cessation” of consciousness where there is only a very sublte form of perception. The meditator may appear to be unconscious. There have been reports of meditators having heart beats as low as 20 to 40 beats per minute at this jhanic level. The nearest way to describe this state is something like a very deep sleep. The eight and ninth jhanas are not full enlightenment, but very close stepping stones to full awakening. Only those who are very close to being fully enlightened can enter the eighth and especially, the ninth jhana.