Jhana is a range of experiences that occurs when the mind is well-concentrated on some small object of meditation (for me, 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Note – please keep in mind, the following is an attempt at transcribing his exact words. It was difficult, and he doesn’t’ so much explain what Jhana is here, but he covers the preliminaries of having Jhana develop.
Jhana Is a concentration.
One pointedness of wholesome mind or wholesome one-pointedness is Jhana.
Jhana has its own factors. In order to attain Jhana one has to overcome hindrances like greed, anger, sleepiness, and drowsiness, restlessness and worry and doubt. These are called five hindrances.
They are called hindrances because they hinder, obstruct gaining of concentration. Therefore one has to overcome them in order to attain Jhana. When these hindrances are overcome, they are actually held at bay, not totally completely destroyed. However, in their absence, Jhanic factors arise.
The factors are Initial thought application of thought joy happiness and concentration. When these factors work together in unison as a team, in that instant that moment, the mind gains very good high-quality concentration. And, that high-quality concentration (concentrated state of mind) each is called Jhana. That attainment is Jhanic attainment. That state itself is called Jhana.
Anybody can attain Jhana. Providing the person has time and is dedicated to practicing day to day and does it regularly consistently and in sitting posture.
You cannot attain Jhana while walking, talking, running playing games, swimming and so forth. You are physically and mentally very busy.
You have to have a quiet place. A secluded place, and you have to have a very relaxed peaceful state and place where there is no noise. Of course, we cannot find a noiseless place but noise should be minimum, and the minimum noise environment is more conducive to gaining a concentration.
That is why solitude is absolutely necessary for gaining concentration. You have to find a quiet place, an empty house or even in your own room. You go to turn off your cell phone, regular phones, computers and TVs and so forth.
If you have a house pet like dogs that make noise, we might make them sit quietly calmly some dogs are very cooperative they are obedient. You have to make them sit quietly so you have to create a meditative atmosphere a quiet peaceful atmosphere.
Then, sit in a comfortable posture. Among comfortable posture, the best, of course, is the lotus posture which is called diamond posture. Once you have been in that posture you have to close your eyes and focus.
You have to make a sort of a survey of your body to see, to become aware of, where the head is, where the shoulders are, how straight the body is. Once you made this survey, close your eyes and start the practice.
If due to hindrances you fall asleep or are drowsy then you probably might be leaning forward-backward or sideward especially when everything is comfortable, cushions are comfortable, the room is air-conditioned, there is no noise, and your posture is adjusted, and even you have very sort of dehumidifier or if it is a humid day, if you have dry days, you have dehumidifier on a day with a lot of humidity, you may have this and so forth.
These are working very smoothly to make everything quiet, calm and peaceful. The posture is quiet and that is the atmosphere where you can practice Jhana.
As I said, when you keep the body straight you have to have an object to gain Jhana. There are objects. The easiest one we recommend is your own breath. You close your eyes, focus your mind on the breath and take a few deep few breaths. To notice the sensation of breath you may feel the sensation of the breath somewhere in your nasal area.
You don’t have to force to look for the place where breath touches in order to gain concentration however you have to find one single spot where your breath touches in and out to focus your mind on once you found the place. Use the rims of the nostril, or tip of the nose, or the upper lip or inside the nostril or between eyes.
There you focus your mind exclusively without thinking of anything outside and without taking details of the breath into account.
Simply become aware of the place you feel the touch sensation of the breath and keep focusing your mind. As the mind unites with the breath then your hindrances sometimes become active – especially sleepiness and drowsiness.
Once you have overcome that then its opposite might become like restlessness and worry. When you overcome that then sometimes greed or desire. Clinging can arise in your mind. If you manage to overcome that, anger or resentment can arise in your mind. When you have overcome all of them you may still have certain doubt you overcome them.
Overcoming these hindrances becomes easier when you assume a comfortable posture and then an initial thought arises, which is the thought of friendliness compassion and letting go. That is what we call generosity, that means you don’t try to hold on to anything. Whatever arises, you can see it passing away. So you let it pass away. Don’t try to hang on to it.
These three types of wholesome thoughts begin to arise in a very systematic way. It means without any hindrances. For instance – generosity is against the greed that is one hindrance you have and then compassion is against cruelty.
Let go so far that also part of the hindrance of hatred and the non-cruelty or compassion arise against cruelty. So these are the beautiful thoughts which begin to activate at that time you feel letting go of everything. You have compassionate feelings toward all living beings. You will have a friendly feeling for all living beings.
That’s a wonderful experience. In order to gain concentration then it remains in the mind.
That sustains thought then because of their presence in the mind for a certain period of time you experienced joy. When joy increases by degrees you gain happiness and when happiness increase by degrees and becomes very strong.
Happiness is a contented settled mind quietening settling your satisfaction is expressed in happiness. Then you gain concentration so onto gain concentration you go to follow these steps.
Once you gain this kind of concentration, that attainment is called Jhana, or Jhanic concentration. It is necessary and means high quality of concentration. This concentration you gain also when you have overcome hindrances.
With the hindrances, you cannot attain liberation or enlightenment, or even the stream entry and even attaining stream-entry, you have to have a high-quality concentration that maybe Jhana may not be Jhana. For instance, when you listen to a dhamma talk your mind is fully preoccupied with the message of dhamma and you become so relaxed and delightful again become very happy right while listening to the dhamma talk and you gain concentration and that puts you on the track of attaining stream-entry but with the Jhana attainment of stream-entry and so forth it is easier without Jhana you have to have previous meditative experience if you have not done any meditation to cleanse your mind, to purify your mind, to understand the dhamma as it is taught you cannot gain concentration or stream entry therefore either you have to have tremendous amount of accumulated experiences from past practices or you have to gain Jhanas in order to attain stream-entry. So, the Jhanic attainment itself is not necessary for the attainment of the stream entry but the concentration has to be of high quality almost like jhanic concentration.
Yes, actually the right concentration is explained in terms of four Jhanas. Right concentrations o there is a truth in it. Now as I said, at least you have to have Jhanic concentration to attain stream-entry, that jhanic concentration is samma samadhilast step of the noble eightfold path (Samma Samadhi) samma samadhi in the perfect sense, the fullest sense, of course, is the attainment of the four jhanas even to gain this high-quality concentration without Jhana you have to follow the noble eightfold path in order to gain right concentration. So after following noble eightfold path, you are ready for attaining stream-entry at the time when the mind is very highly concentrated so we have many examples in practical Buddhist life. Lay people’s lives or monk’s lives who have listened to the dhamma and attained the enlightenment, like (Bahiya Daru Chiriya) UpaliAnna Kondannaso forth while the Buddha was giving a sermon. By the end of the sermon they all attained stream-entry or even some attain arahant but they develop their mind they have practiced noble eightfold path so many times for so long and their mind is so clean pure, strong and powerful they have this quality of right concentration at least the jhanic concentration.
There is one discourse called “Atthaka Nagara Sutta” in Majjhima Nikayain. In that sutta, Venerable Anandahas pointed out or given instruction to nagarahis name to attain stream-entry from the first Jhana so some commentators like Buddhaghosa say you need access concentration to be very highly developed close to attainment of the first Jhana that level is also very pure, strong powerful level that is not as powerful as concentration itself and yet it is powerful enough to penetrate the truth to attain stream-entry.
I was going to add links to some other monks and nuns that understand Jhana, but really – Bhante Gunaratana is the master and his writings are easily understood. Probably best to start with him!