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Common Challenges in Jhana Practice

There are many problems and challenges facing meditators who would like to reach Jhanas. Probably the most prevalent issue is following a teacher or instructions that have only a very small chance of helping you reach the state of mind.

Who Is Reaching Jhana?

I have never done any kind of study to see who is reaching Jhana most often in their practice. Is it Theravada monks? Is it teachers themselves? Or, as I suspect, is it the group of individuals who practice on their own according to a good system and who are scattered across the globe without any real network or support?

For myself, I was in that latter group. I figured out a simple system to follow and I was lucky that it worked out. I had no teacher or real direction from books. I saw very little on the topic of Jhana in books I read before beginning meditation.

So little, that I didn’t remember any of it when I started to get into the Jhanas. I just thought they were bizarre states of mind. I had already experienced some really odd things during meditation so they weren’t a big deal.

As it turns out, their not being a big deal helped me not attach to them and I was able to go right through them many times.

The Problem Buddhist Monks Have in Reaching Jhana

Fix Yourself Now, Reach Jhana Later – Monks at a temple, or in their own temple, have been taught to follow the many rules of Buddhism. Some of these rules insist that removal or greatly diminishing the 5 hindrances needs to be accomplished before one enters into the Jhanas.

Since few monks can do that to any high degree, they either give up or know they’re doomed to fail. Their meditation practice becomes secondary and they focus on other things.

I talked to many monks here in Thailand about their meditation practice and very few had been into the Jhanas at all.

Jhana is the Ultimate Goal – Don’t Crave it! – Another major problem monks have in trying to reach Jhana is that they are taught that Jhana is one of or THE ultimate goal of their meditation practice. It’s touted as a very high goal to attain.

The catch-22 is that when you crave Jhana in your meditation session, you will push it away. It’s the oddest thing. If you WANT Jhana to come, even a little bit, it won’t come. It just slips away. You may have been seconds from the First Jhana starting, or from going from Jhana 2 to Jhana 3, but if you crave it – desire it – want it – that will push it away and you won’t reach it right then.

It’s a rare monk who can push the desire down, or focus on the breath so completely that desire for the Jhana doesn’t arise.

I’m having trouble figuring out how to teach Jhana to monks who have been taught for years that Jhana is something to get as a prize. An attainment that is worth reaching and worth all effort to reach.

In my own case, it wasn’t too difficult. I didn’t even know what the Jhanas were. I didn’t know they meant anything to Buddhists or anyone else. I just knew they were cool states to go into and they went in progression from 1 to 8.

If I had known they were the goal of meditation for so many thousands or millions of people across the globe, I would have grasped at them too.

After I entered into the First Jhana, I did grasp a few times in later sessions and I wasn’t able to go in. It was a bit frustrating, but then naturally I told myself it didn’t matter anyway. I had already seen many different odd experiences and I knew that I needed to let all of them go to make progress.

So I let the idea of entering that cool state (now I know was Jhana 1) and I ignored it when it came sometimes. If the state was flitty, I’d just get up and walk away – giving up on it completely but not caring either. I’d go do something I had to do around the house, and then sit again later, or the next day. It didn’t matter to me.

What happened then was Jhana came very easily. Why? There was no attachment to it. There was no grasping at all. I had already let it go, the importance of the feeling, and that was exactly what was needed. It came so easily then.

I utilized this for all the Jhanas. If ever I was in an unstable Jhana that seemed as if I could pop out of it, I wouldn’t grasp, I’d just stand up and go to something else.

This made the Jhanas very easy to get into in subsequent sessions.

Attention on the Breath at the Nose

If you’ve spent any time meditating on the feeling of breath in your nose, you know that the feeling is sometimes there and sometimes not.

How can you focus 100% on the breath at all times when you don’t even feel it about half the time?

This can be a huge problem if you don’t know what to do because attaining 100% focus and uninterrupted concentration on the feeling of the breath in the nose is a crucial step to attaining Jhana.

What do you do?

Your attention must never leave the spot in the nose where you feel the breath or don’t feel it. Meaning, that little spot where you sometimes feel it, that is the exact spot where the focus must remain. It’s hard to keep attention on a spot you don’t feel, but it’s possible to do it.

This is key, and one of the huge obstacles to reaching full concentration on the breath.

Many people use a larger focus on the breath, even the entire breathing cycle. This can help with Samadhi but ideally the smaller your focus area, the better.

Restlessness and Impatience

In the meditation leading up to First Jhana, the restless nature of the mind can make it difficult to settle into deep states of concentration. Impatience and the desire for immediate results can slow progress and lead to frustration in most people.

It’s best to forget about immediate results and focus on the long game. Don’t make a goal for each meditation session to reach some level further than what you’ve attained already.

Distracting Thoughts

The mind is endlessly active leading up to Jhana. Once you can concentrate with complete attention – I mean uninterrupted attention – on the feeling of the breath at the nose, you’ll be almost there. Intruding thoughts can STILL pop up and take you away from Samadhi (total concentration on breath).

Just refocus on the breath at the nose and let go of any thoughts that pop up. This is the game. Keep playing. The results, the attainments, are incredible and change your life for the better.

Physical Discomfort

If you’re having trouble sitting crosslegged or in a full or half-lotus position on the floor, go ahead now and move to a chair. A plastic chair is perfect. Ensure your thighs are parallel with the floor. Sit with your back away from the backrest. Don’t struggle through pain for more than a week or two. If it doesn’t go away after 10 days or so, switch to a chair.

Lack of Concentration

As stated already, the focus on the breath at the nose is the 1st game to win. It may take months. It takes some people years. I suspect their effort is not genuine. I find this in coaching all the time. The level of attention needed is COMPLETE, not casual. The best focus is micro, not macro.

Few understand what it means to concentrate 100% on the finite area of the nostrils where you feel the breath going in and out. After I explain it, it becomes much clearer and people have better success. Still, it isn’t easy.

Make sure your process is perfect before you sit down to meditate because if you’re doing it wrong to start with, you’re going to lose motivation to continue.

Lack of perseverance is a massive obstacle to attaining Jhana.

Attachment to Experiences

I mentioned above already for Buddhist monks the attachment to the goal of reaching higher states of mind is usually too much for them to get past. But this happens for anybody who knows that they are about to get into Samadi or Jhana. Once you start desiring the next thing – it won’t come. It will elude you. It’s uncanny.

You can only get there with a letting go of all grasping and attachment to these refined states of mind. Otherwise, they just aren’t going to open the door for you.

Fear or Resistance

Once you begin getting into the Jhanas especially, there can arise fear or trepidation about what is going on. This happened to me a number of times. Quite a few times. The reason it happened is because I didn’t have a teacher that understood what was happening, so I had nobody to rely on for wisdom.

The Jhana states are so odd that it’s natural to fear what is going on in them.

I had a master’s degree in psychology and nobody in my graduate classes were talking about these bizarre states of mind that could be entered into during meditation. I questioned whether I was maybe losing my mind.

After getting into the Jhanas over and over for a few months, I noticed profound changes in my ego, and my personality. I changed dramatically during this time. The changes wrecked some of my social relationships.

I decided after a year of meditation to stop completely. To shut down the process and go back to who I was before. It was too weird not knowing what was happening or where it all might be leading.

It was scary too to think that maybe I was going to become enlightened or something. I didn’t even know what that was. I didn’t want to sit in a temple all day in a meditation pose. I wanted to continue life as I was. At least mostly how I was before.

So I literally stopped meditating for 6 years until I contacted Santikaro, a Theravada monk from the USA who had studied abroad in Thailand for almost 20 years under one of the Buddhist teachers I liked and whose books I had read – Buddhadassa.

He reassured me that the states were natural and called Jhana. I cried on the phone, finally having an answer.

Anyway, fear can knock you out of attaining any jhana, or at least the initial ones as you don’t know what’s going on and fear the outcome won’t be good.

It’s really a good idea to have a knowledgeable teacher at this stage where you are getting good concentration on your breath or other object and are at the doorway to Jhana.

No Teacher or a Poor Teacher

Practicing meditation without proper guidance or instruction can leave you feeling lost or uncertain about your progress. Seeking guidance from experienced teachers, attending meditation retreats, or participating in a supportive community can provide valuable support and encouragement on the path to Jhana meditation.

In all honesty, it is best for you to find one person who will be your teacher and don’t share your journey with a group. One friend is probably fine. Stay rock steady on your journey and don’t listen to others’ opinions about what you should do. Ask the teacher.

It is SO easy to get off track, and so crucial to do things exactly as the teacher says in order to reach Jhana.

Takeaways

There are myriad obstacles to reaching the Jhana levels in your meditation sessions.

Most of it is just a game, so treat it as such. Don’t take any one experience too seriously. Downplay everything in your mind. Make events into non-events. Don’t get excited, you’re not becoming the next Buddha. There will be many odd experiences, just get used to them and let them all go so you can progress.

Get a good teacher and follow the plan. Otherwise, you’ll be derailed and lose motivation to continue.

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