When one pays attention to normal conscious awareness, certain senses and experiences come to the forefront. Sight seems to dominate the senses. Internal dialogue is the strongest current in the river of conscious thought. Taste, touch, smell, and hearing also invade the awareness and provide the foundation through which we perceive our reality and construct our sense of what is real and what isn’t. The human being is constantly under siege by sensory information, often-rampant thoughts, interpersonal relationships, conflicts, and other stimuli. It would be understandable to take sensory information as the only truth and therefore discern that reality is solely material, a matter of acting on impulses or desires and reacting to provocation, and an endless give and take. It’s enough to make anyone psychologically overwhelmed with the amount of sensory input we all experience every day, and often people become just that: over-stimulated, desensitized, imbalanced, and delusional. But what happens if one intentionally draws the attention inwards and deliberately dismisses sensory information, a process known as Pratyhara, detailed in the Yoga Sutras? What happens when the constant mind chatter ceases and the senses slow to numb or negligible input? Douglas Burns (1994) writes in his introduction to Buddhist Meditation and Depth Psychology:
From the Buddhist viewpoint, mind or consciousness is the core of our existence. Pleasure and pain, good and evil, time and space, life and death have no meaning to us apart from our awareness of them or thoughts about them…. all these matters are, in the Buddhist view, secondary to…the existence of conscious experience as it proceeds through the course of daily living. Therefore Buddhism focuses on the mind; for happiness and sorrow, pleasure and pain are psychological experiences…. If the cause of suffering is primarily psychological, then it must follow that the cure, also, is psychological. Therefore, we find in Buddhism a series of “mental exercises” or meditations designed to uncover and cure our psychic aberrations.
The benefits of being able to slow down and even stop rampant inner dialogue and negative thought patterns that have been leading to psychological distress and suffering are myriad. Actually being able to accomplish this type of feat is no easy matter. It can take time and serious effort, and will most definitely take a level of self-awareness that requires an honest and open look at oneself and the way one perceives and behaves in the world. It also may require significant changes. Not everyone who attempts to achieve complete absorption will reach that goal, but along the way anyone who tries meditation will experience certain different stages and types of consciousness that were not possible in normal waking awareness before. The process of learning about how one’s own mind works, how one’s inner dialogue tends to be, and how one’s body really feels can be the goal in itself because that process leads to insight and wisdom. With at least that level of self-awareness, one can begin the process of self-healing. “One must fully accept where one is, in order to change” (Bohart, 1999). What better way to understand and accept where one is, than to sit, be present, and simply observe what the mind and body are saying with full attention?
Meditation is not so much a particular delimited experience, but is rather a way of seeing through experience, always eluding any attempt to pin it down conceptually. Therefore, no attempt to discuss meditation psychologically could ever be a substitute for the personal understanding of meditation derived from actually practicing it. (Welwood, p.2)
Meditation can go further than that. In the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism — briefly summarized as: life is suffering, grasping/attachment causes that suffering, there is a way out of suffering, the Noble Eightfold Path is the Way — the intention is to mold one’s life, actions, thoughts, and views in such a way as to end the cycle of birth and death, emotional ups and downs, the climaxes and vicissitudes, and all those things that cause us suffering. This is done by diligent discipline with the goal of reaching Nirvana, Moksha, or ultimate bliss, which can be achieved in this lifetime.
It is because personal realization of truth is needed to reach the end of suffering that meditation assumes a position of such crucial importance in the Buddhist formulation of the liberating path. Meditation, for Buddhism, is the means of generating the inner understanding required for deliverance from suffering. Its diversity of techniques stems from the differences in the people to be taught, but its purpose and procedure is the same for all: to produce that purity of mind and clarity of vision needed for the liberating wisdom to arise. (Gunaratana, p.11).
The following pages present a brief overview of the different types of meditative consciousness and also the stages within absorption meditation as presented in the Jhanas of Theravada Buddhism. The Jhanas are defined as the following:
The jhanas themselves are states of deep mental unification characterized by a total immersion of the mind in its object. They result from the centering of the mind upon a single object with such a degree of attention that inner verbalization, the discursive function of thought, is arrested and eventually silenced, brought to a stop. (Gunaratana, p.12)
Prior to being able to enter into the Jhanas, one who is practicing meditation must engage in purifying behaviors in order to fashion his or her life in such a way as to make deeper levels of consciousness attainable through meditation. Distractions must be removed. Intoxicants must be avoided. Emotional states must be balanced. The hindrances must be overcome. Once this has been achieved, one may have the frame of mind to be able to maintain the level of concentration required to enter into states of consciousness that slowly but surely unpeel the onion of conscious reality, removing sensory information, thoughts, and feelings, leading the meditator into a state of utter absorption. This state is not particular to Buddhism. Yogis, Christians, Sufis, mystics, and those that have described religious experiences of oneness with God all have offered their views. Although Buddhism does not attest to a God, accounts of the absorptive states do bear a striking resemblance across belief systems. It is not exclusive, but accessible to all who maintain diligent practice of focused and concentrated awareness.
Because meditative practice will immerse the practitioner in his or her own thought processes and perceptions, it is imperative that one be prepared for this inevitability. Occasionally, a person can be so detached from his or her own personal experiences and thought patterns that to turn the attention inward with such concentration can be shocking, bring up repressed memories, cause an upheaval of belief systems, and can cause other traumatizing events that can lead one away from meditation due to psychological complications. In rare cases, it may even be advisable to discontinue meditation practices and proceed with other forms of therapy to address these issues. (Miller, 1993) Therefore, it is imperative that preliminary steps be taken before undertaking any form of meditation where the goal is to achieve the deepest states of consciousness, not only with regard to mental wellbeing, but also because deeper states will not be possible with such a level of negative distraction.
Although there are many forms of meditation designed to address the many types of personalities that come to the cushion, there are two main channels: concentration and mindfulness. The Jhana meditations can be considered as concentration meditations. Miller (1993) defines the two:
In concentration meditation (CM) the instructions are to place the mind’s attention on a single object, i.e., the breath, a mantra, a prayer, a candle flame, a visualized color, etc. Whenever the mind’s attention wanders from that object, the meditator redirects his/her attention back to that object, allowing the distraction to move outside the sphere of the mind’s attention…. Mindfulness meditation (MM) can be viewed as developing a spotlight quality of consciousness, whereby any passing mind object can become the object of the mind’s attention. (p. 169-170)
In both mindfulness meditation and concentration meditation, as the inner dialogue becomes distant and slows to a manageable whisper, it is possible that repressed emotions or experiences might come to the surface of the meditator’s consciousness. Without the constant distractions of normal awareness, the subconscious begins to slip through the spaces between thoughts to make an appearance. This can be unsettling at first, but with continued practice the meditator can develop an objective perception of what arises and can better deal with things as they appear with the calm and clear help of self-awareness. In order to clear out these negative experiences, Buddhism presents the preliminaries to practice.
The Jhanas can only develop in the right conditions. Therefore, like tending to a garden, the meditator must purify him or herself by removing the weeds and rocks in the soil of consciousness before planting the seeds of right concentration. Moral discipline is the first step. What constitutes moral discipline in Buddhism is the practice of Sila. “Therefore the Buddha states that wholesome moral principles have non-remorse as their benefit and reward, non-remorse has joy and rapture as its benefit and reward, and joy and rapture lead to a succession of purifying states culminating in concentration” (Gunaratana, 1980). If one immerses oneself in the practice of Sila, then there will be no guilt or negative feeling coming from previous thoughts or actions that might get in the way of meditative practice. One must not engage in any action or thought that leads to greed, hatred, or delusion. The Noble Eightfold Path contains the outline for right moral behavior, or Sila; right speech, right action, and right livelihood being the second division. The basic guidelines of Sila for a layperson or beginning Buddhist practitioner are the Five Precepts (Plamintr, 1994):
- I observe the precept of abstaining from the destruction of life.
- I observe the precept of abstaining from taking that which is not given.
- I observe the precept of abstaining from sexual misconduct.
- I observe the precept of abstaining from falsehood.
- I observe the precept of abstaining from intoxicants
Strict adherence to the Five Precepts is meant to alleviate the mind from wrongdoing and lay the foundation for strong moral character, but one must follow all eight steps of the Noble Eightfold Path as well. Right view and right intention begin the Path and form the first division, Panna. Both can be understood in studying the Four Noble Truths and the Sutras. Finally, in the third division of the Path, we come to Samadhi, in Buddhism considered as follows: right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Through Samadhi we begin meditation and develop the right conditions to achieve the Jhanas.
Along with the practice of Sila, the meditator looking to achieve the Jhanas is advised to remove anything that might interfere with living a moral life. “The Vishuddhimaga enumerates these impediments as ten: a dwelling, family, gain, a class, building, travel, kin, affliction, books, and supernormal powers.” (Gunaratana, 1980) These actions are meant to cause moral progression. Kohlberg defines moral progression as: “… changes in sociomoral perspective: beginning from a self-interested egoistic social perspective, leading to one that is consciously shared by other group members or society as a whole, and culminating in a universal ethical principles orientation, that explicitly defines universal principles of justice that all humanity should follow, irrespective of time and place (as cited in Nidich, Nidich & Alexander, 2000).
With positive moral progression, one will experience a shift in perspective and behavior that leads to a more unified view of oneness with all other beings. This brings the realization that causing harm to another is causing harm to one’s own being. This type of sentiment removes the desire to continue participating in any type of behavior that causes harm. Therefore, when one comes to meditation with a heart of oneness buoyed by moral behavior and lack of impediment, it is much easier to have a calm and collected mind.
During this time, one should be practicing mindfulness meditation in order to be aware of the types of thoughts and feelings that are coming up in the awareness in order to identify and release any experiences that might cause distraction. With consistent mindfulness practices, the meditator will achieve a high level of self-awareness and will therefore be able to work through difficulties and come to the still frame of mind that is conducive to deeper states of meditation.
At first, when sitting in meditation, one will notice discursive thought patterns, chatter, and how the mind flits from one thought to the next in progression. There is only the continuity of one thought after another. There is nothing solid. The mind chatter can be overwhelming. The body might ache. It might be difficult to place the mind on the breath for more than a few seconds without distracting thoughts and wild fantasies taking over. But little by little, gaps of silence will insidiously creep in and begin to widen like water freezing in the cracks of a boulder. Eventually the boulder of the mind will crack open, thoughts will slow and disappear, and a flood of bliss will come rushing in.
Once one is experienced enough with mindfulness meditation and has not found any impediments to continued deepening of the practice, one should seek out a meditation subject on which to begin the concentration meditation processes that lead to Jhana states. A meditation instructor, preferably one who has attained at least the first four Jhanas, can provide the subject. If that is not possible, one may study texts such as the sutras or the Vishuddhimaga and decide upon one of the subjects provided there. Possible meditation subjects “are enumerated in the Vishuddhimaga as follows: ten kasinas, ten kinds of foulness, ten recollections, four divine abidings, four immaterial states, one perception, and one defining.” (Gunaratana, 1980) The subject should be chosen based upon the temperament of the meditator, as some subjects are not as suitable to some temperaments as others and my slow the process. See Coleman (1973), Gunaratana (1980), or Buddhaghosa (2011) for more detailed descriptions of the meditation subjects.
Once a subject has been chosen, the meditator should attain a proper and pleasant meditation space, free from distractions, a place where extended focus and solitude are possible. He or she should mark out extended periods of time in which meditation practice can be done in silence and in comfort. The Jhanas are not always easily attainable, and therefore extended practice should be expected.
Aside from the hurdles of inner dialogue, discursive thoughts, fantasies, repressed memories, and physical sensations that must be overcome on the meditative path, there are also the Five Hindrances to consider. These are as follows: sensual desire, ill will (hatred), sloth and torpor, restlessness and worry, and doubt.
The defilements included in this group obstruct not only the first jhana, but the entire thrust of man’s aspiration for the purification and liberation of his mind. They stand like a wall between man’s sensual and self-directed thought-patterns and his drive towards higher development, preventing progress in the spheres of both serenity and insight (Gunaratana, p. 37).
The hindrances are to be expected, and must be overcome in the meditation leading up to the entrance to the first level Jhana or it will not be achieved. In the Vishuddhimaga, the meditator is advised to seclude him or herself from the Five Hindrances by physically and mentally withdrawing from them and if that’s not possible, suppressing them by replacing them with the opposite thought, sensation, or action. Removing oneself from anything that might trigger these types of distractions is advisable. The hindrances will never truly be absent from one’s reality, unless one achieves arhatship, but they can be properly and sufficiently bypassed and suppressed. More detailed accounts of the five hindrances have been provided by Gunaratana (1980) and Buddhaghosa in the Vishuddhimaga (2011).
In order to overcome the hindrances, the meditator focuses his or her attention on the chosen meditation subject/object. This is easier said than done, and requires strict mental discipline and a high level of self-awareness. Eventually in meditation, a sensation of merging with the meditation subject/object will manifest. The meditator will continue to apply thought and will sustain the thought until a sensation of becoming one with the thought or meditation subject/object appears. All other thoughts disappear, and rapture, happiness, and one-pointedness flood in. This is the door to attaining the first Jhana, also called access consciousness.
Silence, expansion, and evenness begin to dominate awareness, while mental activity decreases in intensity and frequency, and ultimately ceases. Transcending is automatic, conducted by the natural tendency of the mind. Transcending must be an automatic process. Any intention or individual directing of the mind leads to increased activity in a localized area—the mind cannot transcend. (Travis, p.5)
According to Coleman (1973), access consciousness might present itself with feelings of pleasure, equanimity, flashes of colors, bright lights, geometrical or other shapes, feelings of lightness or levitation, and other forms of visionary experiences.
The Lower Four Jhanas
Jhana One is identifiable by an overcoming of the Five Hindrances, and possession of the Five Jhana Factors: applied thought, sustained thought, rapture, happiness, and one-pointedness. A loss of sensory perception outside of the meditative subject will occur. Thoughts and bodily sensations totally cease. Internal feelings of elation, joy, rapture, and happy excitement build and recede like waves. The mind is fixed on the meditative subject, but one is aware of the positive feelings that are nearly overwhelming. This state usually only comes for a moment, is difficult to maintain at first, but with continued practice it can be held for longer periods of time. One has mastered the first level when it can be accessed and maintained at any time (Gunaratana 1980). One must completely master Jhana One before moving on to Jhana Two.
Jhana Two is a continuation of Jhana One, and occurs with the loss of applied thought and sustained thought. The meditator releases the meditation subject at this point and dwells in rapture, happiness, and bliss.
The procedure for this requires entering the first level of absorption on the basis of the primary object, and then, having previously so resolved, turning the mind toward the feelings of rapture, bliss, and one-pointedness, free of any idea of the primary object. This level of absorption is both more subtle and more stable than the first; mind is now totally free of any verbal formations or ideas of form embodied in the primary object. (Coleman, p. 11)
Jhana Two is called “The Noble Silence” because it does not have the quality of applied and sustained thought. Without those two, the meditator acquires confidence, peace, faith, and equanimity of mind.
In Jhana Three the meditator loses his or her grasp on rapture, and focuses solely on the one-pointedness of mind and the feelings of bliss. Eventually even the feelings of bliss fall away as Jhana Four is achieved, and the meditator remains in equanimity, mindfulness, and clean comprehension or discernment (Gunaratana 1980).
Feelings of bodily pleasure are fully abandoned; feelings of pain ceased at the first jhana. There is not a single sensation or thought. Mind rests with one-pointedness in equanimity at this extremely subtle level. Just as mind has become progressively more still at each level of absorption, breath has become more calm. At this fourth level, breath, it is said, ceases altogether. Concentration here is imperturbable. (Coleman, p.12)
The Higher Four Jhanas
The next four levels of absorption consciousness are called “The Formless Jhanas. These are extremely difficult to achieve, and very few people who try ever do reach these levels. Jhana five is achieved through concentration on limitless space. “With infinite space as the object of contemplation…mind abides in a sphere where all perceptions of form have ceased. Mind is so firmly set in this level of sublime consciousness that no external sensory input can perturb or disrupt it” (Coleman, 1973). Jhana Six is achieved through concentration on limitless consciousness. Jhana Seven is the contemplation of non-consciousness, and is achieved through absorption with nothingness or the void. At this point the meditator still perceives the absence of consciousness within the void. The eighth and final Jhana occurs when the meditator abandons consciousness itself and attains ultimate peacefulness.
There is no gross perception here at all: thus “no-perception”; there is ultrasubtle perception: thus “not-non-perception.” This eighth Jhana is called the sphere of “neither perception-nor-non perception.” The same degree of subtlety of existence is here true of all concomitants of consciousness. No mental states are decisively present, yet residuals remain in a degree of near-absence. (Coleman, p.13)
At the eighth level of Jhana the mind is stretched to the complete limit of consciousness, and so also is the body. At this point breath and metabolism have slowed to the point where they’re nearly undetectable. Jhana Eight can only be maintained for a short amount of time, or the body may begin to degenerate.
Although it’s not the aim of practicing the Jhana meditations, it is said that one who has achieved the Jhanas will be given supernormal abilities, called siddhis, such as being able to read minds, being able to be in more than one place at a time, being able to see and hear over great distances, walking on water, flying through air, et cetera. These powers are normally seen as obstacles, and are not indulged (Coleman, 1973).
The mundane jhanas are not absolutely necessary for all practitioners, but on account of the powerful calm they induce the Buddha frequently commends them to his disciples. The Buddhist training progresses through three stages – morality, concentration, and wisdom. Wisdom leads directly to liberation, but it can only arise in the mind that has been collected and purified by concentration. Jhana, as a superior form of concentration, helps to produce this purification needed as a base for wisdom. (Gunaratana, p. 221)
The benefits of any form of meditation begin as soon as one makes the intention of sitting and becoming mindful of one’s own thought patterns, inner dialogue, and behavioral quirks. These are the things that make up our personality and motivate our actions and reactions. Self-awareness is the first step towards being able to make honest assessments and changes that lead towards the cessation of suffering. Jhana meditation, the prerequisite moral progression, and the removal of hindrances are profound ways to deepen not only self-awareness, but also awareness of the layers consciousness that are available to us. With such a deep level of insight into the way one’s own mind works and also the nature of reality, deep wisdom grows. With that wisdom, one may not only eliminate suffering in one’s own life, but also the lives of others.
Bohart, A. C. (1999, August). An implicational view of self-healing and personality
change based on Gendlin’s theory of experiencing. In Arthur C. Bohart (Chair)
Self Healing and Self Actualization. Symposium conducted at the meeting of the
American Psychological Association, Boston, MA.
Buddhaghosa, B. (2011). Vishuddhimaga: The path of purification. Kandy, Sri Lanka:
Buddhist Publication Society.
Coleman, D. (1973). The Buddha on meditation and higher states of consciousness.
Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society.
Gunaratana, H. (1980). A critical analysis of the jhanas in Theravada Buddhist
meditation. (Doctoral dissertation, The American University) Retrieved from
Miller, J. (1993). The unveiling of traumatic memories and emotions through
mindfulness and concentration meditation: Clinical implications and three case
reports. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology (25)2, 169-180
Nidich, S., Nidich, R., & Alexander, C. (2000). Moral development and Higher states of
consciousness. Journal of Adult Development (7)4, 217-225.
Plamintr, S. (1994). Getting to know Buddhism. Bangkok: Buddhadhamma Foundation.
Shapiro, D. H. (1983). Meditation as an altered state of consciousness: Contributions of
Western behavioral science. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology 15(1), 61-81.
Travis, F. (2014). Transcendental Experiences during Meditation Practice. Annuals of
New York Academy of Science: Advances in Meditation Research: Neuroscience
and Clinical Applications, 1307, 1-8
Travis, F., & Pearson, C. (2000). Pure Consciousness: Distinct phenomenological and
physiological correlates of “consciousness itself.” Neuroscience, 100, 77-89
Welwood, J. (1977). Meditation and the unconscious: A new perspective. The Journal of
Transpersonal Psychology 9(1), 1-26.