The jhanas are more than a means to insight. They can yield benefits of their own.
My first encounter with the jhanas was a spontaneous experience in the midst of a Vipassana retreat in India, where I lived during the early 1970s. The retreat teacher didn't encourage jhana practice, bur I got some guidance later from my other teachers, including Achariya Angarika Munindra [Indian meditation master (1914—2003)]. Earlier on, when I was studying with Tibetan teachers, concentration training was very highly stressed, but visualizations were used instead of anapanasati—breath meditation—as the object. The Tibetan teachers did not refer to the jhanas, but students could attain extraordinary levels of concentration using visualizations. With the instructions I was later given, feeling my way through it, and reading the descriptions of jhana in the Pali canon, I learned to use the jhanas.
I don't think anybody has an absolute definition of jhana. Descriptions of the jhanas can range from glancing, fleeting states to much more sustained states that can be accessed and exited with intention. There are signposts for each jhana that I look for in myself and in my students. One is sustainability—the ability to enter the jhanas and sustain that level of concentration for a given period of time. Each jhana is really a springboard to the next. The rapture experienced in the first jhana stabilizes through continued concentration and is tempered into refined concentration in the next, and so on. A Tibetan teacher of mine once said it would be a good idea to leave our clothes outside the door because we would be too absorbed to notice if the building—and our clothes—caught fire. I never tested the fire theory, but there are certainly states of concentration where perception fades away.
I decided to teach jhana after finding that a number of people do have accidental encounters with these states, and because I have a great deal of respect for the effects jhana practice has on consciousness. When I see that people are temperamentally inclined toward entering the jhanas, I encourage it. There are many powerful benefits of doing jhana practice beyond turning them toward insight practice. For one, in my experience, they make the mind much less prone to agitation and proliferated thought. I also see the benefits in terms of uprooting the five hindrances (desire, ill will, torpor, restlessness, and doubt).
I see how the jhanas help students encounter a deep level of inner happiness and joy that profoundly affects their relationship to life. The whole energy behind clinging and grasping and craving becomes more transparent for people who do jhana practice, and they have a greater understanding of the fact that nothing achieved through grasping compares to the contentment achieved through developing concentration. The mind loses its addiction to being lost in proliferated thought because it's more inclined toward inner stillness. Jhana practice is really a practice of learning to let go. And in that sense, one of its lingering effects is much more ease in students' ability to let go.
But jhana is not for everyone. It requires a tremendous amount of work, and it does take time. The preparation phases for getting to access concentration—the threshold of concentration required to enter the first jhana—take sustained effort and steadiness. I never think of teaching the jhanas in the context of a one-week or two-week retreat. You need at least a month. Moreover, not everyone has the capacity to get into the jhanas, although I do believe everyone has the capacity to reach access concentration.
Few Western dharma teachers teach jhana practice, because it has not necessarily been part of their own training. In Thailand and Burma, where some of them studied, the jhanas were still being taught, but the dominant form was insight practice. Jhana practice is a bit of a lost art, but I do think there's a renewed interest in it. More and more of the mature students I see are motivated to refine their practice with longer periods of samatha—tranquility meditation. As they begin to enter the jhanas, they can see what an effective means of refining the consciousness it is. It opens the gates of consciousness.
Christina Feldman is a co-founder of Gaia Home, a Vipassana teacher, and the author of several books, including The Way of Meditation, Silence, and The Buddhist Path to Simplicity.