An interview with meditation teacher Leigh Brasington
Each jhana has several factors. In the first jhana, the first two factors are vitaka and vicara, which have been translated variously, from "thinking and pondering" to "initial and sustained attention on the meditation subject." I tend to go with "initial and sustained attention on the meditation subject."' That is, putting your attention on the object and keeping your attention on the object. Then there are piti and sukha, piti being a physical sense of rapture, of pleasure coursing through the body, an energetic release; and sukha, an emotional sense of joy and happiness.
The first jhana, then, is a state where there is a release of this uplifting, pleasurable, physical energy accompanied by an emotional sense of joy and happiness that you can put and sustain your attention upon.
In the second jhana, the piti subsides somewhat, but not entirely. The emotional joy of sukha moves into the foreground, and initial and sustained attention fades, to be replaced by inner tranquility and oneness of mind—ekodi-bhavam. Consciousness becomes absorbed in the sukha—ekagatta.
In the third jhana, the rapture—the physical component—disappears and the sukha calms down from joy to contentment. The concentration is becoming more refined, and there's a spreading of contentment that is all-pervasive. It's a state of wishlessness, a state of complete satisfaction.
The contentment that arises in the third jhana contains pleasure. In the fourth jhana, the pleasure goes away and the mind becomes neutral. The suttas say that "with the abandoning of pleasure and pain—as with the earlier disappearance of elation and distress—[a monk] enters and remains in the fourth jhana, which is beyond pleasure and pain, and purified by equanimity and mindfulness." This is a state that's very peaceful, very restful, very quiet, very still.
And the next four? The next four jhanas are further refinements of the concentration. The mind takes in more and more subtle objects until it reaches a state where simultaneously it has very little recognition of what's happening, yet stable awareness remains. It is very concentrated.
You've said that these are naturally occurring states of mind. Do students come upon these states on their own? All eight jhanas, rarely. However, students do stumble into one or more of the first seven, surprisingly frequently. And a number of people report having experienced these states as children.
But people do not get to the jhanas right off the bat. You suggest that students should have done at least two longer retreats and have a diligent daily meditation practice in order to do a jhana retreat. Can you talk about how people get to the jhanas in the first place? You must have a certain amount of concentration for the first jhana to arise. This is called access concentration. Access concentration has sila—morality—as a prerequisite. The description of the first jhana starts "Withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful qualities .... " [See "Like a Lake," last page] If you are not leading a morally upright life, you cannot expect to sit down on a little pillow and find yourself secluded from sense desires, secluded from unwholesome states of mind. If there is not sufficient sila, there is too much to desire, too much hate or fear, too much to worry about. Access concentration also requires that you be in a physical posture that is both comfortable and alert; otherwise, you'll be in pain, or you will be too sleepy to meditate.
Access concentration can be induced in a number of different ways. There are some forty different methods of meditation mentioned in the suttas, and about thirty of these are suitable for gaining entry to the jhanas. For example, if you have chosen anapanasati as the meditation method, you put your attention on the breath and you keep your attention on the breath until access concentration is established.
How do you know when your concentration is sufficient? In general, you are fully with the object of meditation. If there are any thoughts, they are wispy and in the background, not drawing you away from the object of meditation. Additionally, for mindfulness of breathing, the breath becomes very fine, almost undetectable.