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A Jewish Perspective on the Jhanas, Part One


The jhanas are states of heightened concentration that have been cultivated by Hindus and Buddhists for just under 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”). Recently, I completed two months of silent meditation retreat devoted to the jhana practice. I went with certain intentions and expectations, which I’ll discuss in a moment, but the experience was more profound and more religious than I expected. After a few introductory notes, I will describe my experiences of the jhanic states and describe what I believe to be their significance for Jewish theology and spirituality. As far as I know, such a project has not been attempted before. 1.         What I did, and why I did it I wish to make three introductory notes. First, I want to explain why I undertook this rigorous practice, which involved sitting still for extended periods of time (usually, 90 to 120 minutes), and spending the entire day doing nothing but observing the sensations of the breath at the nostrils, even while walking, eating, et cetera. I had three reasons, and discovered two additional ones during the retreat. First, my real goal is liberation from the delusions of ego and the clinging nature of the mind: to learn to let go of clinging. On the Theravada Buddhist path, liberation comes from insight: directly seeing and knowing that all phenomena are empty of substance, impermanent, and fruitless to cling to. Insight, in turn, depends on concentration; you’ve got to get really quiet to see these characteristics clearly. So I went to learn concentration skills as a kind of prerequisite for a four-month retreat that I am on now, as this article is published. Second, I went because jhana itself helps insight. Distractions and hindrances are suppressed in jhana, and the experience is deeply purifying and refreshing; one emerges with an extremely sharp, clear, and quiet mind, ready to do the rigorous, moment-to-moment noticing that leads to insight. Third and finally, I did this practice because I was curious about jhana itself. On earlier retreats, I experienced what many meditators experience when their minds become concentrated: deep contentment, bless, gratitude, love, and awe at the beauty and miraculousness of ordinary life. Jhanas are like those concentrated mindstates squared, amplified, distilled — and I wanted to see what they were like. Along the way, I discovered two additional purposes to the practice. One is the deep “purification of mind” that is required to enter jhana: you really have to see and let go of all of your stuff, which in my case included a lot of grief, confusion, loneliness, ego, expectation, and just plain chatter. Every moment is an opportunity to let go of all this stuff, and I had a number of extremely powerful openings that perhaps I’ll write about some other day. In addition, the jhanas were themselves a powerful lesson in letting go. They are like everything I had dreamed about from the moment I became interested in spirituality as a young adult. Imagine your greatest dreams fulfilled, in oceans of light, bliss, love, and mystical union. Now imagine that you have to let them go. This is the lesson: that even the greatest of states arise and pass. You can’t hold onto anything conditioned, even the dearest and most precious experiences imaginable. This insight alone was surely worth the price of admission. The type of practice-what I did My second prefatory note concerns the type of practice I did. There are different schools of thought among Buddhist teachers as to what constitutes a jhana and how to cultivate it. Some hold that discursive thought and perception of the outside world must completely stop for a jhana to be truly taking place. In this model, a jhana is a totally absorbed state of mind; the meditator is only aware of the object of meditation (more on that in a moment), and nothing else. Even the passage of time is not noticed in such an absorbed state. Other teachers, however, will say that a jhana has commenced as soon as its factors are in place and an obviously altered state of mind has arisen. My own practice was a hybrid of these two approaches. I studied with perhaps the Buddhist world’s leading expert on jhana practice, who holds the more strict view. Yet after a full month of rigorous concentration, I was unable to achieve total absorption as his practice demanded. I would enter clearly altered states, but would still be aware of strong bodily sensations and the sense of time. Therefore, after one month, I switched to the more moderate approach, which I had learned earlier. I still cultivated the jhana in the “strict” method: I concentrated on the sensation of breath at the nostrils until the mind formed a mental image of the breath — a white cloudy light called a nimitta. The nimitta would then become my exclusive focus of concentration. But I proceeded through the first four jhanas even though the absorption was not total. My experiences, as profound and powerful as they are, should thus be understood as only partial in nature. I am a beginner — some might say a failure — not a teacher and not an expert in these practices. (For detailed description of jhanic states and practice, please read Shaila Catherine’s Focused and Fearless, the best contemporary book on the jhanas. The best online resource is my teacher Leigh Brasington‘s website, where you can learn more about the stricter approach.) Jhanas are better That said, my third and final prefatory note is that I actually do have a fair amount of experience with mystical states, and these blow all those experiences out of the water. With the possible exception of ayahuasca, I have never encountered anything like this — and I have spent many years meditating, davening, doing energy work, and engaging in a wonderfully wide range of ecstatic and contemplative practices. Without being too arrogant about it (which would be an ironic reversal of the point of spiritual practice!), I think I know whereof I speak.
When I described some of my experiences to a friend, she remarked that they sounded similar to what Elizabeth Gilbert describes in her book Eat, Pray, Love. I had precisely the experiences Gilbert describes on my first meditation retreats, six years ago. They are world-shattering, mind-altering, and profound. They provide a direct experience of what generations of mystics have described in glowing mystical terms. I do not wish to minimize them, and have described them in these pages in the past (“You Are God in Drag,” “What the World Is“). But the jhanas were far, far more powerful and more profound — perhaps an order of magnitude more. They’re like the qualities of those earlier experiences, well, concentrated, refined, and distilled. If what Gilbert, and I in those earlier essays, described is like a lovely Hershey’s Kiss, the jhanas are like a rich, hot molten chocolate cake. Get it? 2.            Mikvas of light With those provisos out of the way, I will now describe my experiences of each of the four basic jhanas. (There are actually eight jhanas, but the other four are less essential to insight practice. Moreover, while I had some limited experiences with them, they require their own essay.) While the descriptions that follow may seem hyperbolic and overblown, I assure you that I am deliberately understating and underdescribing the experiences. Every writer who describes the jhanas does this. I don’t want to condition your experience by telling you too much, and I don’t want to heighten your expectations should you undertake jhana practice yourself (which I hope you will). First Jhana The first jhana is like the “big wow,” an awesome peak experience that arises after the mind has finally settled on the object of concentration with focused, sustained, one-pointed attention. Bodily or emotional rapture called piti may arise, suffusing the body with bliss or filling the mind with awe–sometimes the feeling is more “gross” and embodied, other times more subtle and purely mental. In my experience, the nimitta would become radiant, awesome, and beautiful, and grow to fill my entire field of vision, and surround my body; the experience was like a glowing, energetic light surrounding and cocooning my whole being. It’s quite captivating. There is also a sense of seclusion–of finally being safe from the chattering mind. From my Jewish spiritual perspective, this was like holiness as the big amazing awesomeness, full of mysterium tremendum and radical amazement. It’s Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon. Like many mystics, I’ll use erotic analogies as well; the first jhana is like having sex, before orgasm: panting, arousing, ah–ahh—ahh— that sort of thing. Eventually, though, the first jhana begins to feel like too much effort. You have to work to keep it up. This is its advantage–if you didn’t work, you wouldn’t get in–but eventually, after anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour or more (my longest was one hour), the mind gets tired of ecstasy, excitement, and bliss and moves naturally onto the second jhana. The transition between jhanas is always from gross to subtle: the more gross factors drop off, revealing the more subtle ones underneath. In the case of first-to-second, the factors of applied and sustained thought drop, and the other factors–rapture, joy, and one-pointedness of mind–reveal themselves more. Usually this “drop” is conscious; after a few weeks of practice, I would feel a kind of mental itchiness when it was time to move on, and would consciously resolve to let the factors drop and the others predominate. A few times, though, the drop happened automatically; the mind would just bail out. Eventually, the four jhanas are kind of like four rooms in a house that you’ve come to know; you don’t even have to make the resolve clearly, because you know the territory, and can recognize it and adjust quite naturally. Second Jhana
In the second jhana, the feeling tone shifts to joy–“drenched in delight” in Shaila Catherine’s words. Effort drops away, and the mind rests one-pointed on its focus. I experienced the second jhana as being like swimming in a mikva of light–in my journal one time, I wrote that when the nimitta expands, it is a “waterfall of shimmering light that fills your body with joy.” Again, sometimes this was a semi-bodily sensation, other times purely mental. There was often a bright light in my eyes as well–more on that below–and sometimes a deep sense of healing. This is it, you’re here, you can trust and let go. The sexual analogy here is to the time of orgasm itself–not the first moment, but the longer period of time if, like me, you like really long and drawn-out orgasmic states. It’s like that gorgeous sexual feeling of letting go: not ah-ah-ah, but ahhhhhh. Sometimes it really felt as if the light were kissing me, penetrating me, filling me. This is God as lover; the fascinans, the erotic partner envisioned and embodied by mystics. It’s really something. Believe it or not, the mind eventually finds all this ecstasy, even without effort, a little gross. Piti becomes too showy; it’s almost exhausting. Now, when I was first learning the jhanas, I would spend several days with each one before moving on. Part of this was to really nail down the jhana; the Buddha said that someone who moves on too fast is like a foolish cow wandering from pasture to pasture. But another part was that it took me a while to get disenchanted with these states. For several days, I couldn’t imagine anything more wonderful than the second jhana. But eventually, disenchantment sets in–once again, an insight that is, itself, worth the price of admission. Eventually, the mind gets disenchanted with anything. So the grosser factor of rapture drops away, leaving behind only joy and one-pointedness. Third Jhana If the second jhana is like an orgasm with God, the third jhana is like resting comfortably on the breast of the Goddess; its dominant sensation is contentment. Here, the love is less erotic and more familial; it’s like being cradled by your mother–that kind of “ahh.” The light I experienced was golden, radiant, and warm. Many times, I cried and felt healed. Other times, I was still and concentrated. And sometimes, I felt like a little boy sitting by the window, with sunshine streaming in. In the third jhana, piti is relinquished, and sukha, joy, becomes predominant. Sukha is quieter and more subtle than piti, it’s less embodied, and more like an emotional, intellectual joy with a honey-like embodied component. Meditators know sukha from whenever the mind in concentrated and everything just feels lovely. The mind is content. What could ever be wrong with the world? Of course, sukha is so lovely that we naturally cling to it, which means we suffer when it’s gone — that’s what’s wrong. But for me, I spent about three years cultivating sukha, thinking it was enlightenment, and being devastated when, a few days after retreat, it seemed to disappear. Fourth Jhana Finally, there is the fourth jhana–the real point of it all, it sometimes seems. In the fourth jhana, even joy passes away. The experience is totally neutral: just “Ah,” as in “Ah, I see.” And yet, it somehow–just is. I can’t quite describe it; there’s a powerful sense of equanimity, a closeness to the object, and not much else. Somehow, this state is the most beautiful at all, even though it is totally colorless, bliss-less. The erotic flavor is not even post-orgasmic; it’s post-post. The mind is clear, the restlessness is gone. It doesn’t feel good anymore, but in some deep profound way, it feels extremely good and peaceful that it’s not even necessary to feel good. This is not the Shechinah, not awe, not love; it’s just YHVH–Is. It’s a love beyond love; satisfaction without joy or even contentment. For me, the fourth jhana is really the point, because it leads to one of the deep insights of the jhanas: that God is not in the fire, or the earthquake, or the flood. There’s a tendency that all of us have–but particularly spiritual Jews have–to deify and thus idol-ize certain states. Oh, that gorgeous warmth of lighting candles. Oh, we were so high during that drum circle / Kabbalat Shabbat / whatever, that was reall,y mamash, it. But that’s not it. It is what’s always here; Ein Sof, everything. If it wasn’t always here, it isn’t it. Even the fourth jhana isn’t it–it’s a state, with equanimity and focus that are conditioned, and thus pass away after a time. You can’t cling to it either. Real devekut has only one attachment: Is. Totally colorless, totally omnipresent, and in fact, if you look closely, the only thing that doesn’t come and go. Ramana Maharshi said, “Let come what comes, let go what goes. See what remains.” That is the essence of enlightenment right there, I’m telling you. The way leads nowhere. There is no state that is it. This is it; just this. Not feeling special about this, not feeling relaxed or wise or anything in particular–although sometimes those feelings may arise in the wake of letting go. Just is. Now, does that mean that mystical states — including the jhanas themselves — are without value? No; not at all. By fulfilling this spiritual seeker’s wildest dreams of joy and rapture, the jhanas point to the limitations of states, chiefly their transient nature. And next month, I’ll describe in some detail the benefits as well as the limitations of spiritual states of all kinds, mundane to marvelous. First, though, I want to focus on a different question: God. Essay will continue.

All images by Harriete Estel Berman.

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