© Vern Lovic – Jhana meditation teacher and author.
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!
More Information About Jhana
- Yikes! A Jhana Experiment Gone Awry
- Why Try to Attain Jhana?
- Jhana Journal Entry
- Ajahn Brahm’s book on Jhana (free download)
- Enlightenment and Jhana Levels (journal entry)
- Pre-Jhana Level Experience (a physical nimitta)
8 thoughts on “What is Jhana Meditation?”
Me again :-). I just commented on your blog post, and then i read this piece about jhana.
I have a question … is jhana considered a ‘good’ thing? A desireable state to reach? Is it something that people look forward to attaining, as with the idea of enlightenment? If so, ehy? I dont get it. I understand the concept of enlightenment; how finally breaking free of ego and illusion is a very desireable place to be. But, this jhana feels confusing to me … it almost soundz like something to avoid. Especially considering how it seems to strip away all feeling, including joy and wonder. Call me crazy, but i’m quite a fan of joy and wonder … it’s the one thing that keeps me going these days. Being awestruck by the wonders of this world around me. what is the benefit of jhana if it numbs a person out to the extent you describe? Thanks for putting up with me! I really am genuinely curious about this jhana; i am nog asking this rhetorically. Im just so confused aboug it!
P.s. sorry for all tbose typos and poorly worded phrases! I’m tying with one finger on my kindle, and i made the mistake of not proofreading before hitting submit :-o.
ha! no worries… You did much better than I could have without a real keyboard!
Jhana is something that most Buddhists see as the holy grail, I mean, if they are serious about getting somewhere. Some teachers don’t even bother teaching about it, and that’s a shame, but the Buddha said Jhana isn’t necessary… but it is good to have it. Don’t quote me… lol.
Jhana are a series of experiences. Most break them out into levels. They are levels of letting go of ‘you’. They are mysterious, fun, amazing, phenomenal, and yet, they are all just part of a natural process that begins to occur when the mind has slowed down enough to focus on just one sensation / object. They aren’t religious (to me), they aren’t magical, they are nothing outside of the ordinary… it’s just that to get them to start, you have to do something that allows them to start. You have to loosen the grip on yourself and focus the mind at a very small point (many use the breath where it comes into and exits the nostrils).
So, that’s about it. Once you start getting jhana pretty good, the potential to start a process rolling which pulls you toward what the Buddhists call nibbana – is there. It seems to have been progressing right along in my head, whether I continue meditating or not, and this has been over the last 12+ years…
It’s a case of, “Be careful what you ask for.” Now my mind is empty, and yet I cannot create like I used to. My mind was an idea factory before meditating. I could churn out great ideas in a very short time. Today I’m stymied. I come up with small things, and the big ideas elude me. The silence in my mind is not frightening, and doesn’t cause sadness… but, I wish the mind would go one way or the other… nibbana or let me go back to being a great idea guy. I have books to write, mouths to feed. If I could turn the clock back, I’m not sure I’d have meditated at all. In spite of the amazing experiences and peace of mind I have… I don’t know that it’s better at all to what I had before. Well, impossible to compare. Better in many ways. Not so good for creativity at the moment. Lol.
Ok then, thanks for your comments. 🙂 Vern
lol – no worries!
Hi Vern! You shared this link at:
What exactly do you mean by “surface jhana” ? Is it a “light/soft” jhana where you don’t lose awareness of your surroundings ? That is the kind of jhana Ayya Khema abd Leigh Brasington teach.
Are you aware of the debate regarding soft vs hard jhanas ?
I had asked you about total absorption jhanas(Hard Jhanas) because many people who practice strenous concentration claim that by “gentler” approaches they only reach soft jhana aka awareness of their surroundings exists at some level. On the other hand a few people like Ajahn Brahm(and now you) say that you reach a hard jhana by a gentler method.
I personally have reached a hard jhana only recently. I practice a kind of “do nothing” meditation, where I literally do nothing. My mind tends to settle down on either the breath or my “sense of I-ness” deepening into bliss. I have now added a feeling of surrender to this acceptance/let go , as it really deepens the Acceptance by melting the “hard/intellectual” ego that is really very crystallized in me. I go back to this surrender throughout the day, falling back into my “natural self”. Goal orientation makes me neurotic. This has given me many benefits including better and deeper listening skills, contentment, better relationships, energy, enthusiasm at the right time etc. Though hard jhana is not as yet a controllable phenomenon, I tend to sit with the attitude that I will have the experience that Universe/God has willed for me at this moment. However moments of bliss are increasing in frequency.
Hi Arpan, thanks much for your comment… yes, I’m sort of aware of the hard vs. soft jhana camps. I don’t really argue about it. I have never had a soft jhana… so not sure what it even is… just know that it is not what I experienced.
I’m not sure what you mean by gentler approach to jhana… I only did what I outline in both of my books – Meditation for Beginners – a 22 day course, and “secrets for success” – both at amazon – just search my name: vern lovic. I think my style is gentle… but not sure how you’re defining it.
Yes, the idea to “let go” – was something I did extensively while meditating. I think it’s one of the main keys. It’s detailed in the books – the secrets book really goes into more detail.
I like your do-nothing meditation idea. I sort of do that… for the past i don’t know – 6-8 yrs. I dont do traditional meditation any longer… I should do a video about that I think.
Have you added any mindfulness of the present moment to your practice? I think it helps. It might help tremendously, I can only say I’ve done it and think it helped me. Might help you.
OK, cheers then, thanks for taking the time to send me this msg… loved reading it.
Oh, and the hard jhana being a controllable phenomenon – is likely impossible. You get there by letting go – no control at all…
By “gentler” approaches I meant like yours: acknowledging thoughts and returning to the object. The kind of approaches that are not “stern” and “strenous”. It is these approaches that Illuminatus was criticizing in his article on personalpowermeditation.com which you addressed.
“Soft jhana” is one in which khana factors like Ekaggata (one pointedness), piti (physical rapture) and sukha (emotional bliss) are present (talking about 1st jhana here) but sensory perception of outer environmental sounds etc has not completely ceased, nor has nimitta (a bright light which is the sign of concentration just before entering a hard jhana) appears.
By “controlling” hard jhana, I meant the ability to repeat it in meditation at Will. I understand that WHILE on cushion one needs to let go.
I used to practice all day mindfulness which you mentioned. However now I am trying to make my practice as “uncontrived” as possible. In my experience what’s important is the inner-attitude and not the outer form you give to your practice/concentration. An example: If you meditate on metta or Divine love, you need not repeat same sentences/images everyday. It’s best to just invoke that attitude and let your mind-body create whatever feelings/words/images that it is inclined to on that particular day. Essential thing is focus on metta/divine-love, not the particular external forms. Thus, now I just “surrender”/ do-nothing whenever I find myself “intentionally” doing something at any level of mind or emotion(except for what actual task I am performing). This creates a state of receptivity, acceptance and beautitude, in which sometimes the mind settles on the breath in an uncontrived manner for the entire day Or on a mystical idea I am inclined to: Seeing the One in All things, All things in One, All things as One (this becomes natural when the mind is very non reactive and equal-sighted in all phenomenon and everything seems to have a fresh, glassy look). The outer form that concentration takes depends on your natural proclivity basically.
Even during formal sitting Do Nothing meditation: some people who have done breath meditation for years, awareness naturally rests on breath. For some who used to practice witnessing-thoughts method (like me) awareness naturally rests on sense of self, “I”, which is akin to self enquiry. Some I know get beautific vision of their favourite deity. Thus, Do Nothing seems to be a mother-practice that can take any outer form.
For hyper-technical process oriented minds who are habituated to an “anchor”, Do Nothing can be very confusing to practice.
For each audience (I was in that camp) I find this video as the best starting point:
This is I guess one reason why related practices of the “Path of Surrender” like devotion to God etc easily skyrockets illiterate people into deep ecstasy while it does not find favour with the more modern-educated.