In my own words, jhana is a range of experiences which 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.
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 jhanas – 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. The eighth jhana, as it is sometimes called – is quite a bizarre situation to find yourself in. It is like being in 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 application of one’s self to meditation on some sense object, as mentioned. Some people are able to experience jhana in months… and for many it takes years. 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 my short idea about what jhana is… 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 which 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 video – see below:
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!