The Seven Stages of Meditation
A Summary of Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond: A Meditator’s Handbook, by Ajahn Brahm.
Summary written by Ray Rawles, member of the Jade Buddha Temple in Houston, Texas
This book includes a thorough set of teachings for developing and deepening meditation. Ajahn Brahm was born Peter Betts in London, 1951, Abbot of monastery in Australia. In this book he describes four initial stages of meditation, plus two more and the seventh stage is called Jhana. These steps will take you to the happiest experience of your life, but must be followed in order. If you skip any, you will need to go back.
The FIRST stage is ‘Present-Moment Awareness’
During meditation you become someone who has no history. If we abandon all that history, we are equal and free. We free ourselves of some of the concerns, perception, and thoughts that limit us that stop us from developing the peace born of letting go. Every part of our history is finally release, even the memory of what happened just a moment ago. Whatever has happened no longer interests us, and we let it go. It no longer reverberates in our mind.
Do not linger in the past. Do not keep carrying around coffins full of dead moments. If you do, you weigh yourself down with heavy burdens that do not really belong to you. When you let go of the past you bill be free in the present moment. As for the future, – the anticipations, fears, plans, and expectations – let that go too. The Buddha said, ‘Whatever you think it will be, it will always be something different’.
In this stage of meditation keep your attention right in the present moment, to the point where you don’t even know what day it is or what time it is. Morning? Afternoon? –don’t know. All you know is what moment it is right now. In this way, you arrive at this beautiful ‘monastery time,’ where you are just meditating in the moment. You’re not aware of how many minutes have gone or how many remember. You cannot even remember what day it is.
The goal of this meditation: beautiful silence, stillness, and clarity of mind pregnant with the most profound insights. You have let go of the first burden that stops deep meditation. Now you should proceed to the even more beautiful and truthful silence of the mind.
The SECOND stage of meditation is ‘Silent Present-Moment Awareness’
Sometimes we assume it is through the inner commentary that we know the world. Actually, that inner speech does not know the world at all. It is the inner speech that spins the delusions that cause suffering. Inner speech causes us to be angry with our enemies and to form dangerous attachments to our loved ones. Inner speech causes all of life’s problems. It constructs fear and guilt, anxiety and depression. So if you seek truth, you should value silent awareness and, when meditating, consider it more important than any thought.
An effective way to overcome the inner commentary is to develop refined present-moment awareness. You watch every moment so closely that you simply don’t have the time to comment about what has just happened.
In meditation, experiences come one by one through the doors of our senses into the mind. If you greet one experience with mindfulness and then start a conversation with it, you will miss the next experience following right behind.
Another useful technique for developing inner silence is recognizing the space between our thoughts, or between periods of inner chatter. Attend closely with sharp mindfulness when one thought ends and before another thought b begins – there! That is silent awareness! It may be only momentary at first, but as you recognize that fleeting silence you become accustomed to it. And as you become accustomed to it, the silence lasts longer. You begin to enjoy the silence, once you have found it at last, and that is why it grows. But remember, silence is SHY. If silence hears you talking about her, she vanishes immediately!
The THIRD stage of mediation is ‘Silent Present-Moment Awareness of the Breath’
If you want to go further, then instead of being silently aware of whatever comes into the mind, we choose silent present-moment awareness of JUST ONE THING. That one thing can be the experience of breathing, the idea of loving-kindness (metta), a colored circle visualized in the mind (kasina), or several other less common focal points for awareness.
Choosing to fix one’s attention on one thing is letting go of diversity and moving to its opposite, unity. As the mind begins to unify and sustain attention on just one thing, the experience of peace, bliss, and power increases significantly. Here we discover that the diversity of consciousness is another heavy burden. It is like having six telephones ringing at the same time. Letting go of this diversity and permitting only one telephone ring is such a relief that it generates bliss. The understanding that diversity is a heavy burden is crucial to being able to focus on the breath.
If you have developed silent awareness of the present moment carefully for long periods of time, then you will find it quite easy to turn that awareness onto the breath and follow that breath from moment to moment without interruption. This is because the two major obstacles to breath meditation have already been overcome. The first of these two obstacles is the mind’s tendency to go off into the past or future, and the second obstacle is inner speech.
It often happens that meditators start breath meditation when their minds are still jumping around between past and future, and when awareness is being drowned out by inner commentary. Without proper preparation they find breath meditation difficult, even impossible, and give up in frustration. They give up because they did not start at the right place. If you find it difficult to attend to your breath, this is a sign that you rushed the first two stages. Go back to the preliminary exercises. Careful patience is the fastest way!
When you focus on the breath, you focus on the experience of the breath happening now. You experience what the breath is doing, whether it is going in, going out, or is in between. It is best not to locate the breath anywhere. If you locate the breath at the tip of your nose, then it becomes ‘nose awareness’, not breath awareness.
Just ask yourself right now: ‘Am I breathing in or breathing out? How do I know?’ There! The experience that tells you what the breath is doing, that is what you focus on. Let go of the concern about where this experience is located. Just focus on the experience itself.
When you know the breath is going in or going out for about one hundred breaths in a row, not missing one, and then you have achieved what I call the third stage of meditation, which involves sustained attention on the breath. This again is more peaceful and joyful than the previous stage. To go deeper, you aim next for full sustained attention on the breath.
The FOURTH stage of meditation is ‘Full Sustained Attention on the Breath’
The fourth stage occurs when your attention expands to take in every single moment of the breath. You know the in-breath at the very first moment, when the first sensation of inbreathing arises. Then you observe as those sensations develop gradually through the whole course of one in-breath, no missing even a moment of the in –breath. When that in-breath finishes, you know that moment. You see in your mind that last movement of the in-breath. You then see the next moment as a pause between breaths, and then many more moments of pause until the out-breath begins. You see the first moment of out breathing and each subsequent sensation as the out-breath evolves, until the out-breath disappears when its function is complete. All this is done in silence and in the present moment.
You experience every part of each in-breath and out-breath continuously for many hundred breaths in a row. That is why this stage is called full sustained attention on the breath. You cannot reach this stage through force, through building or gripping. You can attain this degree of stillness only by letting go of everything in the entire universe except for this momentary experience of the breath happening silently. Actually ‘you’ do not reach this stage, the mind does. The mind does the work itself. The mind recognizes this stage to be a very peaceful and pleasant place to abide, just being alone with the breath. This is where the doer, the major part of one’s ego starts to disappear.
One finds that progress happens effortlessly at this stage of meditation. We just have to get out of the way, let go, and watch it all happen. The mind will automatically incline, if we only let it, toward this very simple, peaceful, and delicious unity of being alone with one thing, just being with the breath in each and every moment. This is the unity of mind the unity in the moment the unity in stillness.
The fourth stage is what I call the ‘springboard’ of mediation, because from it one may dive into the blissful states. When we simply maintain this unity of consciousness by not interfering, the breath will begin to disappear. The breath appears to fade away as the mind focuses instead on what is at the center of the experience of breath, which is awesome peace, freedom, and bliss.
At this stage, he introduces the term ‘beautiful breath.’ Here the mind recognizes that this peaceful breath is extraordinarily beautiful. We are aware of this beautiful breath continuously, moment after moment, with no break in the chain of experience. We are aware only of the beautiful breath, without effort and for a very long time.
When the breath disappears, all that is left is ‘the beautiful’. Disembodied beauty becomes the sole object of the mind. The mind is now taking the mind as its own object. We are no longer aware of the breath, body, thought, sound, or outside world. All that we are aware of is beauty, peace, bliss, light, or whatever our perception will later call it. We are experiencing only beauty, continuously, effortlessly, and with nothing being beautiful! We have long ago let go of descriptions and assessments. Here the mind is so still that it cannot say anything. One is just beginning to experience the first flowering of bliss in the mind. That bliss will develop, grow, and become very firm and strong. And then one may enter into those states of meditation called the jhanas.
The FIFTH stage of meditation is called ‘Full Sustained Attention on the Beautiful Breath’
Often this stage flows naturally and seamlessly from the previous stage. When one’s full attention rests easily and continuously on the experience of breathing with nothing interrupting the even flow of awareness, the breath calms down. It changes from a coarse, ordinary breath to a very smooth and peaceful ‘beautiful breath’. The mind recognizes this beautiful breath and delights in it. It experiences a deepening contentment. It is happy just to be watching this beautiful breath, and it does not need to be forced.
‘You’ do not do anything at this stage. If you try to do something at this stage, you will disturb the whole process. The beauty will be lost. From this stage of meditation on, the ‘doer’ has to disappear. You are just a knower, passively observing.
A helpful trick at this stage is to break the inner silence for a moment and gently say to yourself ‘calm’. That is all. At this stage of the meditation, the mind is usually so sensitive that just a little nudge causes it to follow the instruction obediently. The breath calms down and the beautiful breath emerges.
When we are passively observing the beautiful breath in the moment, the perception of ‘in’ (breath) or ‘out’ (breath) or the beginning, middle, or end of breath should be allowed to disappear. All that remains will be the experience of the beautiful breath happening now. The mind is not concerned with what part of its cycle the breath is in or where in the body it occurs. Here we are simplifying the object of meditation. We are experiencing breath in the moment, stripped of all unnecessary details. We are moving beyond the duality of ‘in’ and ‘out’ and are just aware of a beautiful breath that appears smooth and continuous, hardly changing at all.
Do absolutely nothing and see how smooth, beautiful, and timeless the breath can be. See how calm you can allow it to be. Take time to savor the sweetness of the beautiful breath—ever calmer, ever sweeter. Soon the breath will disappear, not when you want it to, but when there is enough calm, leaving only the sign of ‘the beautiful’.
The SIXTH stage of meditation is called ‘Experiencing the Beautiful Nimitta’
This sixth stage is achieved when one lets go of the body, thought, and the five senses (including the awareness of the breath) so completely that only a beautiful mental sign, a NIMITTA, remains.
This pure mental object is a real object in the landscape of the mind (citta) and when it appears for the first time, it is extremely strange. One simply has not experienced anything like it before. For most meditators, this disembodied beauty, this mental joy, is perceived as a beautiful light. Some see a white light, some a golden star, some a blue pearl, and so on. But it is not a light. The eyes are closed and the sight consciousness has long been turned off. It is the mind consciousness freed for the first time from the world of the five senses. It is like the full moon- here standing for the radiant mind, coming out from behind the clouds—here standing for the world of the five senses. It is the mind manifesting—it is not a light, but for most it appears as a light. It is perceived as a light because this imperfect description is the best that perception can offer.
For other meditators, perception chooses to describe this first appearance of mind in terms of a physical sensation such as intense tranquility or ecstasy. Again, the body consciousness (that which experiences pleasure and pain, heat and cold, and so on) has long since closed down, so this is not a physical feeling. It is just perceived as being similar to pleasure. Although some meditators experience sensations while others see light, the important fact is that they are all describing the same phenomenon. They all experience the same pure mental object, and these different details are added by their different perceptions.
One can recognize a NIMITTA by the following six features: (1) it appears only after the fifth stage of the meditation, after the meditator has been with the beautiful breath for a long time;(2) it appears when the breath disappears; (3) it comes only when the external five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch are completely absent; (4) it manifests only in the silent mind, when descriptive thought (inner speech) is totally absent; (5) it is strange but powerfully attractive; and (6) it is a beautifully simple object.
Sometimes when the Nimitta first arises it may appear dull. In this case, one should immediately go back to the previous stage of the meditation, full sustained attention on the beautiful breath. One has moved to the Nimitta too soon. Sometimes the Nimitta is bright but unstable, flashing on and off like a lighthouse beacon and then disappearing. This too shows that the meditator has left the b beautiful breath too early. On must be able to sustain one’s attention on the beautiful breath with ease for a long, long time before the mind is capable of maintain clear attention on the far more subtle Nimitta. SO you should train the mind on the beautiful breath. Train it patiently and diligently. Then when it is time to go on to the Nimitta, it will be bright, stable, and easy to sustain.
The main reason why the Nimitta can appear dull is that the depth of contentment is too shallow. You are still wanting something. Remember Jhanas are states of letting go, incredibly deep states of contentment. So give away the hungry mind. Develop contentment on the beautiful breath, and nimittas and jhanas will happen by themselves.
A skillful means to achieve such profound letting go is to deliberately offer a gift of confidence to the Nimitta. Very gently interrupt the silence for a moment and whisper, inside your mind, that you are giving complete trust to the Nimitta, so that the doer can relinquish all control and just disappear. The mind, represented here by the Nimitta before you will then take over the process as you watch.
You do not need to do anything here, because the intense beauty of the Nimitta is more than capable of holding your attention without your assistance. There is no need to pay attention to the shape or edges of the Nimitta; ‘is it round or oval?’ These are all unnecessary queries, which just lead to more diversity, more duality of inside and outside and more disturbances. Let the mind incline where it wants, which is usually to the center of the Nimitta. The center is where the most beautiful part lies, where the light is most brilliant and pure. Let go and just enjoy the ride as the attention gets drawn right into the center, or as the light expands and envelops you totally. Let the mid merge into the bliss. Then let the seventh stage of this path of meditation, the jhana occur.
The SEVENTH stage of meditation is Jhana
There are two common obstacles at the door into jhana: exhilaration and fear. The more likely obstacle is fear. Fear arises from the recognition of the sheer power and bliss of the jhana or else at the recognition that to go fully inside the jhana something must be left behind—YOU! The doer is silent before entering the jhana, but it is still there. Inside the jhana, however, the doer is completely gone. Only the knower is still functioning. One is fully aware, but all the controls are now beyond reach. One cannot even form a single thought, let alone make a decision. The will is frozen and this can be scary for beginners, who have never had the experience of being so stripped of control and yet so fully awake. The fear is of surrendering an essential part of one’s identity.
This fear can be overcome through confidence in the Buddha’s teachings and through recognizing and being drawn to the enticing bliss just ahead. The Buddha often said that this bliss of jhana should not be feared b but should be followed, developed and practiced often. Trust the Dhamma, the Buddha’s teachings, and let the jhana warmly embrace you in an effortless, bodiless, ego-less and blissful experience that will be the most profound of your life. Have the courage to fully relinquish control for a while and experience all this for yourself.
A Jhana will last a long time. It does not deserve to be called jhana if it lasts only a few minutes. The higher jhanas usually persist for many hours. Once inside there is no choice. One will emerge from the jhana only when the mind is ready to come out when the accumulated ‘fuel’ of relinquishment is all used up. Each jhana is such a still and satisfying state of consciousness that its very nature is to persist for a very long time.
Another feature of jhana is that it occurs only after the Nimitta is discerned. During any jhana it is impossible to experience the body (e.g. physical pain), hear a sound from outside, or produce any thought—not even a ‘good’ thought. There is just a clear singleness of perception, an experience of nondual bliss that continues unchanging for a very long time. This is not a trance but a state of heightened awareness.
Some traditions peak of two types of meditation, insight meditation (vipassana) and calm meditation (samatha). In fact, the two are indivisible facets of the same process. Calm is the peaceful happiness born of meditation. Insight is the clear understanding born of the same meditation. Calm leads to insight and insight leads to calm.
This meditation can produce insight or understanding in three important areas: insight into problems affecting daily happiness, insight into the way of meditation, and insight into the nature of ‘you’.
For daily happiness, you will rise above your jungle and from that vantage point you will gain insight into what is to be done.
At the end of each meditation session, spend two or three minutes reviewing all that has happened during that session. This will deepen your experience of meditation and overcome hindrances.
The deepest and most elusive insight is into who you really are. This insight is gained not through belief or thinking but only by meditation, by becoming absolutely still, releasing the mind and then knowing the mind. In deep meditation the five senses recede to reveal the pure and radiant mind. In jhana, you can actually observe the pure mind. In order to know the inner secrets of the mind, one must continue to observe it in the stillness of jhana, with no thoughts at all, for a very long time.
The Five Hindrances
The five hindrances are obstacles that you will meet in your meditation and that you should learn to overcome. They stand between you and enlightenment. When you know them, you have a good chance of overcoming them. If you have not yet achieved the jhanas, it means you have not fully understood these five hindrances. If you have gotten into such deep states, then you have overcome the hindrances. It is as simple as that.
The Buddha named the five hindrances as follows: sensory desire (kama-cchanda), ill will (vyapda), sloth and torpor (thina-middha), restlessness and remorse (uddhacca-kukkuca), and doubt (vicikiccha).
The first hindrance is sensory desire (kamma-cchanda) and it is the major obstacle preventing one from entering deep meditation. The pali word kama means anything pertaining to the five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. Chanda means to delight in or agree with. Together the compound kamma-cchanda means ‘delight, interest, and involvement with the world of the five senses’.
When we are meditating and hear a sound, why can’t we simply ignore it? Ajahn Chah said ‘It is not the noise that disturbs you, it is you who disturb the noise’ Kama-cchanda was the mind getting involved with the sound. It is similar with pain. You will notice that when the five senses disappear so does your body. Letting go of one means letting go of the other.
Abandoning of kamma-cchanda in meditation is done little by little. You start by choosing a comfortable, quiet place in which to meditate. When you first close your eyes you will be unable to feel much of your body. It takes a few minutes to become sensitive to your bodily feelings. Thus the final adjustments to your body posture are made a few minutes after closing your eyes.
Begin with present-moment awareness. Most if not all of our past and future is occupied by the affairs of our five senses. Our memories are of physical sensations, tastes, sounds, smells, or sights. Through achieving present-moment awareness we cut off much of kama-cchanda.
The next stage of meditation is silent present-moment awareness in which you abandon all thought. An aspect of kama-cchanda is called kama-vitakka meaning thinking about the five-sense world. Few meditators realize that noting bodily sensations, for example thinning to oneself ‘breath going in’ or ‘hearing a sound’ is also part of kama-vitakka and a hindrance to progress.
One evening the sage Lao Tzu was walking with a student who said ‘What a beautiful sunset’. Lao Tzu said ‘When that student said ‘what a beautiful sunset’ he was no longer watching the sunset, he was only watching the words.’
In silent present-moment awareness, it is as if the world of five senses is now confined in a cage, unable to roam or create mischief. Next your focus on the physical sensation of the breath paying no attention to other sensations in your body. The breath becomes the stepping stone from the world of the five senses over to the realm of the mind.
When you succeed in full sustained attention on the breath, you will notice the absence of any sounds. You never recognize the moment that hearing stops because its nature is to fade away gradually. Such a fading, like physical death, is a process, not an event. At the end of a sitting, you also notice that your body has disappeared, that you cannot feel your hands, nor receive any messages from your legs. All that you knew was the feeling of the breath.
Soon the breath disappears and the awesome Nimitta fills your mind. It is only at this stage that you have fully abandoned kama-cchanda, your involvement with the world of the five senses. For when the Nimitta is established all five senses are extinguished and your body is out of range. The first and major hindrance has now been overcome and it is blissful. You are at the door of the jhanas. The Buddha said in the Jatakas ‘the more you abandon the five-sense world, the more you experience bliss. If you want to experience complete bliss, and then completely abandon the five-sense world’.
The second hindrance, ill will or vyapada is usually understood as anger toward another person but it is more likely toward yourself or even toward the meditation object.
Ill will toward yourself can manifest as not allowing yourself to bliss out, become peaceful or become successful in meditation. There are many people who have very deep guilt complexes. This is mostly a Western trait because of the way that many of us have been brought up.
To overcome this hindrance, do some loving-kindness meditation. Say to yourself ‘the door to my heart is open to all of me. I allow myself happiness. I allow myself peace. ‘
A beautiful ethic of Buddhism is that there is nothing, absolutely nothing you cannot forgive in Buddhism. You can forgive everything. Your forgiveness is healing and solves old problems. Ill will toward yourself may be the main reason why your meditation is not successful.
If you start the meditation with ill will toward meditation or the meditation object of breath, doing it but not liking it, then it’s not going to work. You are putting a hindrance in front of yourself. Meditation is like a dear old friend that you want to spend time with. You’re willing to drop everything else. Program yourself to delight in this meditation. Think ‘WOW Beautiful! All I’ve got to do is just sit and do nothing else. I just need to sit here and be with my good old friend, my breath’ if you can do that you’ve abandoned the hindrance of ill will, and you’ve developed the opposite—loving-kindness toward your breath. When you have loving-kindness toward the meditation object, you do not need much effort to hold it. You just love it so much that it becomes effortless to be with.
The third hindrance is sloth and Torpor (thina-middhaa).
The most profound and effective way of overcoming sloth and torpor is to make peace with the dullness and stop fighting it. The Buddha advocated investigation, not fighting. Dullness in meditation is the result of a tired mind, usually one that has been overworking. Fighting that dullness makes you even more exhausted. The two halves of the mind are the knower and the doer. The knower is the passive half that simply receives information. The doer is the active half that responds with evaluating, thinking, and controlling. When you have a busy lifestyle, the doer consumes most of your mental energy thus starving the knower half. When the knower is starved of mental energy, you experience dullness. Make peace not war with sloth and torpor, then your mental energy will be freed to flow into the knower and your sloth and torpor will naturally disappear.
Another method for overcoming sloth and torpor is to give more value to awareness. When the path of meditation comes to a fork in the road, choose the path to bright awareness, not the path to sloth and torpor.
Sometimes sloth and torpor is the result of ill will toward the sitting. Instead, put joy into sittings, making them fun and then sloth and torpor rarely will come.
The fourth hindrance is restlessness and remorse (uddhacca-kukkucca) and is very subtle.
Remorse is the result of hurtful things that you may have said or done bad conduct. Forgiveness. Letting go of the past, is what overcomes remorse.
Restlessness in meditation is always a sign of not finding joy in what’s here. We do not appreciate the sheer pleasure of contentment; do not acknowledge the sheer pleasure of doing nothing. We have a faultfinding mind rater than a mind that appreciates what’s already there. Whether we find joy or not depends on the way we train our perception. It’s within our power to change the way we look at things. In meditation we can see the breath as dull and routine, or we can see it as very beautiful and unique. If we look upon the breath as something of great value, then we won’t get restless. Contentment is the opposite of a faultfinding mind. You should develop the perception of contentment with whatever you have, wherever you are as much as you can. Learn to be content with the present moment. Forget about jhanas; just be content to be here and now, in this moment. As that contentment deepens, it will actually give rise to jhanas.
Even if you have an ache in the body and don’t feel well, you can change your perception and regard that as something quite fascinating, even beautiful. See if you can be content with the ache or pain. It is possible to be content with even severe pain. If you can do that, the worst part of the pain disappears along with the restlessness. The restlessness that accompanies pain is probably the worst part. Get rid of restlessness through contentment, and you can even have fun with pain.
There is a simile that the Buddha used. Restlessness is like having a tyrannical master always telling you ‘Go and get this’ ‘Go and do that’ ‘that’s not right’ and never giving you a moment of rest. That tyrant is the faultfinding mind. Subdue this tyrant through contentment.
After you’ve overcome the more general forms of restlessness, a very refined form often occurs at the deeper stages of meditation. The first time you see a Nimitta, because of restlessness, you just cannot leave it alone. You mess around with it. You get excited, you want something more. Restlessness is one of the hindrances that can easily destroy the Nimitta. You’ve already arrived. You don’t have to do any more. Just leave it alone. Be content with it and it will develop by itself. That’s what contentment is –complete nondoing, just sitting there watching a Nimitta blossom into a jhana. That’s the way to get into jhanas. If the Nimitta comes and goes, that’s a sign of restlessness in the mind. If you can sustain attention effortlessly, restlessness has been overcome.
The fifth hindrance is doubt (vicikiccha). Doubt can be toward the teaching, the teacher or toward yourself. As you experience the beautiful results of meditation, allow them to strengthen your confidence that meditation is worthwhile. If teachers lead by example, put your confidence in them. Give yourself encouragement and have confidence that you can achieve whatever you want. The only people who fail are those who give up. Don’t question what you experience during meditation, think about that afterward the sitting is over.
Meditators fail overcome the hindrances because they look for them in the wrong place. The hindrances source is the doer, their result is lack of progress and their workshop is the space between the mind and its meditation object.
The Space Between
Skillful meditators observing their breath also pay attention to HOW they watch their breath. If you see expectation between you and your breath, then you are watching the breath with desire, part of the first hindrance. Your main task in meditation is to notice these hindrances and knock them out. Thereby you earn each successive stage in meditation, rather than trying to steal the prize of each stage by an act of will.
In every stage of this meditation you cannot go wrong when you put peace of kindness in the space between you and whatever you are aware of. Make peace not war with dullness. Place kindness between the observer and your aching body. Stop controlling and start to let go.
When moment after moment you place peace or gentleness or kindness in the space between, then sexual fantasies are no longer needed, pain fades away, dullness turns to brightness, restlessness runs out of gas and jhana simply happens.
The five hindrances occur in the space between the observer and the observed. Place peace and loving-kindness in that space. Don’t just be mindful, but develop ‘unconditional mindfulness, the awareness that never controls or even interferes with whatever it knows. Then all the hindrances will be undermined and soon fade.
When you emerge from a deep meditation, you’ll notice that the hindrances have been gone for a long time. The mind is very sharp and very still. You can keep your attention on one thing for a long time and you have no ill will at all. You can’t get angry with someone even if they hit you over the head. But after a while, the hindrances come back again. The more you return to those deep stages—the more often the hindrances get knocked out—the more sickly and weak they become. Then it’s the job of the enlightenment insights to overcome those weakened hindrances once and for all. This is the age-old path of Buddhism. You knock out the five hindrances through mediation practice in order to provide an opportunity for wisdom. Wisdom will then see through these weakened hindrances and destroy them. When the hindrances have been completely abandoned, you’re enlightened and there is no difficulty in getting into jhanas because the obstacles are gone. What was between you and jhanas has been completely eradicated.
The Gate Keeper
The Buddha said that mindfulness is like a person who guards a door or gate, the gatekeeper. A wise meditator must do more than just give bare attention to whatever comes into and goes out of the mind. When wise meditators practicing mindfulness observe an unwholesome state trying to break in, they try to stop the defilement, and if the unwholesome state does slip in, they try to evict it.
At the beginning of meditation remember there’s a gatekeeper inside –something that can be aware of what’s happening and remember instructions. Tell that gatekeeper something like ‘Now is the time to be aware of the present moment’. Tell the gatekeeper this 3 times.
It’s also important to tell the gatekeeper who is allowed in and who is not. In the first stage ‘anything happening now’ is allowed in. The past and future are NOT allowed in. say “I’ll be aware of the present moment and I’ll not go off into the past or future’
In the second stage, silence is allowed in and inner speech is NOT. Say ‘I’ll be silently aware in the present moment and will discard all inner speech’
In the third stage, only allow in the breath of the present moment. Say ‘I will be aware of the breath in the present moment and discard all other perceptions and thoughts’
In the fourth stage, the gatekeeper is told to be aware of the whole breath in every moment and not allow other things to intrude on this smooth, continuous awareness. ‘I shall be aware of the whole breath continually and disregard anything other than breath’
Develop a sharp and powerful mindfulness that you can use to dig deeply into the nature of your mind and uncover the beautiful treasures of impermanence (anicca), suffering (dukkha), and no-self (Anatta).
The 16 Steps
Jhanas are emotional summits and hot intellectual heights. You cannot think your way into a jhana you can only feel your way in. To succeed you require familiarity with your emotional world, enough to trust in it silently without any controlling. Metta meditation trains everyone to become more at ease with the power of emotions. On the path to nibbana we all have to learn to embrace the intensity of the purest emotions, and the jhanas are the purest of all. Therefore metta meditation makes jhana more accessible. You can even take metta meditation directly into jhana. When you have reached the stage in metta meditation where you are radiating a limitless golden glow of loving-kindness throughout the whole universe, then forget about all beings and ignore where the power is coming from. Focus your attention instead on the experience of metta in itself. All that remains is disembodied metta which is experienced as a blissful sphere of gorgeous light in your mind’s eye. It is a Nimitta, a metta Nimitta that is incredibly beautiful. In a short time the brilliant golden metta Nimitta becomes still and you fall into jhana. This is how metta meditation takes you into jhana.
First train your mind in Samadhi, attentive stillness and then you can spread loving-kindness powerfully
The SIXTEEN steps of meditation are:
- Experience long breaths
- Experience short breaths
- Experience the whole of the breath
- Calm the breath
- Experience joy (piti) with the breath
- Experience happiness (sukha) with the breath
- Experience the breath as a mind object (breath drops away from beautiful breath leaving only beautiful)
- Calm the mental experience of the breath
- Experience the mind (by the Nimitta, a reflection of the mind)
- Shine the Nimitta (make it bright and beautiful)
- Sustain the attention on the Nimitta
- Free the mind (let go of all doing)
- After jhana, reflect on impermanence
- After jhana, reflect on fading away of things
- After jhana, reflect on cessation
- After jhana, reflect on letting go, abandoning
Focusing of Mindfulness
By focusing mindfulness on the breath, it is possible to experience the breath as an empty process, completely subject to conditioning with no being in here doing the breathing. In deep jhana, we can experience the breath disappearing altogether (in the fourth jhana) with no danger to life.
We have a huge amount of attachment to this body, a delusion that causes us much suffering. The sign that you have penetrated the truth of the body is the complete lack of fear about your own death. Meditation on a corpse combines the contemplations of what a body is and what a body does. It produces revulsion at the beginning, insight in the middle and liberation in the end. It’s powerful and effective. Seeing a corpse disintegrate and return to its natural state proves once again who the real owner is – nature. No longer will you be attached to your body or fear death. If the insight reaches to the core, then you will never again come to birth in another body.
The second focus of mindfulness is feeling (vedana), pleasant, unpleasant or in-between. When the mind is still and free from both desire and aversion, it sees that sukha vedana (unpleasant feeling) is no more than a pause between two moments of dukkha vedana (unpleasant feeling).
The third focus of mindfulness, observing the citta or mind consciousness, in one of the most difficult to practice. After a jhana, mindfulness takes the jhana experience just past, a sustained experience of the citta set apart from the five senses, as its object of investigation
The fourth focus of mindfulness are objects of the mind such as the five hindrances, the five aggregates, the six senses, the seven enlightenment factors and the four noble truths. Thought, the inner conversation is an object of the mind that can generate immense suffering. It can be manifest as restlessness, remorse, doubt desire, or ill will. As such thought is at the heart of the five hindrances. There are great benefits to be won through contemplating thought according to this fourth Satipatthana.
When Satipatthana sees thinking for what it truly is, a makeshift approximation, then we experience dispassion with regard to our thinking. The sign of such dispassion and wisdom is that you can let go of thoughts at any time. The proof of such insight is your ability to be silent. In the Suttas, a term for an enlightened one is santamuni ‘silent sage’.
In the original Buddhist scriptures there is only one word for meditation and that is jhana. The culminating factor of the Buddha’s eightfold path the one that defines right meditation is nothing less than the 4 jhanas.
All jhanas are states of unmoving bliss, almost. In the first jhana some movement is discernible. The bliss is so delicious that it can generate a small residue of attachment. The mind instinctively grasps at the bliss. Because the bliss of the first jhana is fueled by letting go, such involuntary grasping weakens the bliss. Seeing the bliss weaken, the mind automatically lets go of its grasping and the bliss increase in power again. The mind then grasps again and then let’s go again. Vitakka is the automatic movement back into bliss; vicara is the involuntary grasping of the bliss.
One comes to a state , the second Jhana, where vicara is still holding on to the bliss with the most subtle of grasping but this is not enough to cause any instability in the bliss, The bliss doesn’t decreased as a result of vicara nor does mindfulness seem to move away from the source. The bliss is so strong that vicara cannot disturb it. The first feature of the second jhana is avitakka and avicara meaning ‘without vitakka and vicara’. The second feature is ‘ajjhattam’ sampasadanam meaning internal confidence. This describes the full confidence in the stability of the bliss, which is the cause for vicara to cease.
As the stillness of the knower continues, the stillness of the known grows ever more profound. In Jhana what is known is the image of the mind and the mind is the knower. First the knower becomes still, then its image, the known, gradually becomes still. In the first two jhanas this image of the mind is recognized as a bliss that up until now has been called piti-sukha. In the third jhana, the image of the mind has gone to the next level of stillness, to a very different kind of bliss. Prior to the third jhana, bliss had a combination of piti (joy) and sukha(happiness). Now in the third jhana piti (joy) vanishes to leave only sukha (happiness).
As the stillness of the knower calms that which is known, the bliss that was the central feature of the first three jhanas changes again when one enters the fourth jhana. Only this time it changes more radically. Sukha (happiness) completely disappears. What remains is an absolute still knower seeing absolute stillness.
The jhanas are like immensely rich gold mines, carrying the most precious of insights rather than a precious metal. They supply the raw material which builds those special insights that open one’s eyes to nibbana. The jhanas are jewels that adorn the face of Buddhism. They are essential to the experience of enlightenment and are possible today.
The Buddha said
There is no jhana without wisdom
There is no wisdom without jhana
But for one with both jhana and wisdom
They are in the presence of nibbana
This summary was presented by Ray Rawles at the Jade Buddha Temple in Houston, Texas on January 11, 2015.
Ajahn Brahm’s book can be purchased here: