Jhana is a range of experiences that occurs when the mind is well-concentrated on some small object of meditation (for most, the breath at the nostrils). The body is totally at peace without tension, pain, or even feeling the body at all in the later Jhanas.
The mind is quiet, there is no extraneous thought going on. With the exception of the first couple Jhanas, there is no feeling of the body, no emotion.
The mind remains focused on the object of meditation very tightly until the focus is changed to the Jhana experience.
Jhana comes when you are not expecting it… wanting it, attached to the idea that it will, should, must, or better come. Jhana comes only when the mind has let go of all attachments for it, or for anything else.
The mind must be so calm and focused that nothing is produced by thought. If fear, hope, anxiety, or any other emotion about Jhana coming – is evident… Jhana remains elusive.
When Jhana does come, it is felt (by me) as a transformation of consciousness. It is as if the mind is washed over by this new experience, unlike anything I have ever known as a conscious non-Jhannic human being going through life.
When Jhana comes or starts – the senses of the body are no longer operating. Touch, sight, smell, hearing, tasting – they are paused, or on hold. They do not interfere with, taking away from – or adding to the Jhana state.
They are absent or just unaccounted for… sensory stimulation through our normal channels doesn’t lead to the mind recognizing them.
Does Memory Function in Jhana?
Memory does work during Jhana – and after it leaves, you can sit down at the computer and write about your experiences if you so choose. Often times I couldn’t conjure up any ‘want’ ‘need’ or other motivation to do so for hours or days after the fact. Jhana seems to reprogram the mind for a while.
The effects of the Jhana state – especially a strong one that lasts for some minutes or hours, can last a long time. When you open your eyes after the focused Jhana has stopped – you can remain in an odd state where you are not entirely your old self. You are you, sure.
You are maybe missing some of the wants, drives, ambition, needs, and motivations that you are usually infused with. These things seem to be gone, suppressed, or just not available to the mind – not fueling the mind at all.
The mind can remain quite concentrated and ‘free’ for a number of minutes, and even hours after experiencing Jhana.
There are 8 different levels of Jhana – they differ in what makes up the experience. I wouldn’t say each one as they progress is better or worse but there is a decrease of factors comprising them as one goes further into them. They become less tangible. Less objective. There is less to experience.
The early Jhanas involve some feel-good feelings which dissipate by the fourth Jhana. There is no emotion, wanting, thinking, or doing in the fourth Jhana through the eighth.
Jhana doesn’t accidentally come to people during sleep or hypnosis (that I am aware of). Jhana doesn’t happen unless the mind is ready for it to happen. Usually, this involves the application of one’s self to meditation on some sense object, as mentioned.
Some people are able to experience Jhana in months… and for most people it takes years of meditative practice. There are very few people with experience of Jhana – and yet I think anyone on the planet could experience it if they applied themselves.
According to the Pali Canon, there are eight stages of Jhana called First Jhana through Eighth Jhana.
The first four Jhanas (Rupa Jhanas) are characterized by some conscious mind activity. The senses are shut off, but the mind is capable of producing two types of joy or happiness. The next four Jhanas are the “Arupa Jhanas” or “formless Jhanas”.
In order to get into the Jhanas, among other things, the mind should be free of the Five Hindrances. These are sensual attachment, anger, slothfulness, anxiety, and skepticism.
In the 1st Jhana the meditator can experience a very strong, even overwhelming bliss. Many will claim to have reached nibbana in this stage. The level of joy… bliss… rises exponentially, adding more and more when one thinks no more is possible. A truly ecstatic experience that can be reached by focusing on the breath without lapse, and then refocusing that concentration on the mind or a feeling in the body.
During the 1st Jhana there is no awareness of input by the bodily senses like sight, sound, etc.
A refinement of the 1st Jhana, the 2nd Jhana has joy and happiness and peacefulness. There is no input from the senses. There is a quality of ease or tranquility that can be felt.
J The joy and bliss and happiness of the 1st and 2nd Jhanas slips away and is replaced by a refinement of the mind which feels more like peace, contentment, equanimity, balance. There is a tangible quality here that can be focused on. Unlike the next Jhana.
The 4th Jhana is a remarkable state of peace, balance, and quiet mind. The mind is stable and not flitty. It is solid and unmoving. The state of the 4th Jhana can also lead some meditators to believe they have experienced nibbana.
There are no feelings, wants, desires, dichotomy of any kind available to look at with the mind. The mind seems content as it is and seeks nothing more. As with all the other Jhanas, the key to passing through this Jhana is to sit in it still, without attachment to any experience. Let go of this Jhana to progress further.
Some meditation teachers teach that the 4th Jhana is the last Jhana. However, there is a further refinement of this Jhana into 4 more levels – 5th Jhana, 6th Jhana, 7th Jhana, and 8th Jhana. It’s easier just to call them their own Jhana. These are the “Arupa Jhanas.”
Fifth Jhana – Realm of Infinite Space
The feeling of the mind, of perception growing outward to fill all space is present. It is not a feeling of ‘looking down’ as I have heard some describe it. At least I’ve never felt it that way. The feeling comes from the mind only and the mind is expanding outward from a point of reference.
That point of reference is quickly not felt and instead the meditator’s mind and consciousness seems to fill all space outwardly, quickly expanding. I have experienced this at a fast pace and slower pace. When fast, the mind is literally ‘blown’ as one lets go of a traditional ‘me’ frame of reference, of the ego basically, and expands to fill all space.
Sixth Jhana – Realm of Infinite Consciousness
When the vastness that the mind is filling up is let go of, the meditator ego seems to take all that surrounds, all that is, and assimilates it into itself. It’s that classic – body and mind and everything are one feeling that some say they feel to some degree in various states of intoxication or lucidity.
The 6th Jhana is also often taken for nibbana because this is some people’s idea about the state. This isn’t nibbana in the Buddhist sense, but it is a feeling in the mind that is incredible and unforgettable.
Seventh Jhana – Realm of Infinite Nothingness
As one spends time in the 7th Jhana the feeling of interconnectedness from the 6th Jhana fades slowly, and sometimes VERY slowly to a point of nothing seen and nothing imagined. It’s no longer a feeling of oneness but a feeling of no body, no mind, no thoughts, no self, no objects, no time, just emptiness.
This emptiness is total and goes on and on. It’s a feeling of not really being ‘there’. Not really existing. Non-existence. There is no feeling of fear because in the higher Jhanas there are no feelings like that. It’s just an acceptance of nothing there, nothing coming, nothing ever having been passed through.
Eighth Jhana – Realm of Neither Perception or Non-Perception
As the 7th Jhana is experienced for a while, sometimes for hours, a profound state of stillness exists in the body and mind. It’s as if you never existed at all. You are only vaguely aware of any perception of anything at all. None of your senses work since the early Jhanas. You’re just in a sort of void.
Then something arises. It’s an odd sort of state that seems to be showing us what our lives, the world, the cosmos, the ultimate reality is based on. There arises this sense of a dichotomy. Only that. The dichotomy is not clearly of what 2 things, what 2 ideas… there is only this mind knowledge that a dichotomy exists.
The experience of the eighth Jhana is quite a bizarre situation to find yourself in. It is like being in a limbo of being alive or dead. It’s not literal, of course – you’re sitting there on the floor very much alive and you’re not going to pass away during Jhana. But, the feeling – the knowing, is that the situation is like that limbo state.
There is a realization of states of is vs. isn’t. Or here vs. not here. Alive vs. dead? Light vs. darkness. None of these words will come to you in this Jhana, the mind is VERY quiet and is capable of very little during this Jhana. It is more of a spectator position where the mind can only observe this dichotomy.
After a while one becomes aware of the possibility of a choice. A movement at least, toward one of these factors. There may not be a real choice to move TOWARD one because the mind is incapable of that in the 8th Jhana.
As one lets go of this dichotomy there comes to be felt a final feeling to it all. Is it death? Is it death of the mind? There is nothing known in the state, but upon coming out of the 8th Jhana you can hypothesize that there is a choice here to choose to let go of the dichotomy altogether, or stay with it and observe it some more.
Letting go seems possible and yet if your mind is not completely ready to let go even of this, then you will simply observe the dichotomy and that will be that. 🙂
Some call the cessation of ego the 9th Jhana. This is when the 8th Jhana has been let go and nibbana is reached. I have not let go of the 8th Jhana so I don’t know whether this is attainable.he meditator realizes that the unlimited space he/she “occupies” includes his/her own consciousness. There is a sense of unification with nature and concentration becomes further pinpointed.
Seventh Jhana: Realization dawns that this infinite consciousness contains nothing permanent – the universe is always in flux.
Disagreement About Jhanas
So, that is a short description of Jhana just to give you an idea. if you would like to hear more about it from a Buddhist perspective there are a number of great teachers on the subject. I’ll add some links to the bottom of this page as I find them to share with you.
Before I do so I have to say, there is some disagreement among Buddhists and lay practitioners about what exactly constitutes Jhana. Apparently, there are some ‘surface Jhanas’ that are similar to, or a reflection of, the real Jhanas. There are a number of people teaching these and calling them real Jhana.
There are even highly respected writers and intellectuals who have come to believe these teachers are teaching the real Jhana. They study them as subjects in experiments of the mind, and so on. It’s a rather sad state of things because what they are teaching differs qualitatively and substantially from a true Jhana experience.
Recently I saw a Buddhist Monk in England teaching these ‘Jhanas’ – Bhante Vimalaramsi. He’s the only western monk trained in Thailand that I ever heard of that is doing so.
The following teachers are very familiar with true Jhana, and I don’t recommend you follow anyone else about the subject unless they agree with what has been written by these teachers.
Bhante Henepola Gunaratana is a Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhist monk. He has two amazing publications for free download in PDF format (click one below to download):
If you’d like to see his quick 17-minute overview of Jhana in the video – see below:
What Is Jhana? Transcript of Henepola Gunaratana >
are easily understood. Probably best to start with him!