Perhaps no aspect of the Buddha’s teaching has been more misunderstood and neglected than right concentration. Yet right concentration is an integral part of the Buddha’s path to awakening. It is, for instance, one of the qualities cultivated on the eightfold path.
In general, Buddhist teachings can be divided into three parts: sila, samadhi, and prajna: ethical conduct, concentration, and wisdom. Or to put it into the vernacular: clean up your act, concentrate your mind, and use your concentrated mind to investigate reality.
The Buddha thus makes it clear that a concentrated mind is necessary for the proper examination of reality. The jhanas are the method he taught over and over again for developing such a mind.
The word jhana literally means “meditation.” In the sutras, there are four jhanas and four immaterial states. In modern times these eight states are simply called the eight jhanas. Thus the jhanas are eight altered states of consciousness, brought on via concentration and each yielding more concentration than the previous. Upon emerging from the jhanas—preferably the fourth or higher—you begin doing an insight practice with your jhanically concentrated, indistractable mind. This is the heart of the method the Buddha discovered. It reminds us that these states are not an end in and of themselves—they are simply a very useful way of preparing your mind, so you can more effectively examine reality and discover the deeper truths that lead to liberation.
Related: The Mindfulness of the Buddha
The method for entering the jhanas begins with generating access concentration. The phrase access concentration means concentration strong enough to provide access to the jhanas. It is distinguished from momentary concentration—which is less concentrated—and from fixed or one-pointed concentration, which is the stronger concentration associated with the jhanas.
You begin by sitting in a comfortable, upright position. It needs to be comfortable, because if there is too much pain, the unwholesome mental state of aversion will naturally develop. You may be able to sit in a way that looks really good, but if your knees are killing you, you will be in pain and you will not experience any jhanas. So you need to find some way to sit that is comfortable. But you also need to be upright and alert, because that tends to get your energy flowing in a way that keeps you awake. On the other hand, if you are too comfortable, you might be overcome by sloth and torpor, which is also an unwholesome mental state that of course is totally useless for entering the jhanas.
So the first prerequisite for entering the jhanas is to put your body in a position that you can hold for the length of the meditation period. If you have back problems or some other obstacle that prevents you from sitting upright, then you need to find some other alert position you can maintain comfortably.
Now, this is not to say you cannot move. It may be that you have taken a position and you discover something: “My knee is killing me; I have to move because there is too much aversion.” If you have to move, you have to move. Just be mindful of the moving. The intention to move will be there before the movement. Notice that intention; then move very mindfully, and then resettle yourself into the new position; finally notice the mind working to get back to that place of calm it had before you moved.
This process encourages you to find a position you can keep, because you’ll notice the amount of disturbance that even a slight movement generates. And in order to become concentrated enough to have the jhanas manifest, you need a very calm mind.
Generating access concentration can be done in a number of ways. A common means for doing so is through following the breath, a practice known as anapanasati. The first word of this Pali compound, anapana, means “in-breath and out-breath,” while the word sati means “mindfulness.” The practice is therefore “mindfulness of breathing.” When practicing anapanasati, you put your attention on the physical sensations associated with breathing. It is extremely important to not control the breath in any way—just pay attention to the breath as it naturally occurs. If you control the breath, it does make it easier to focus. But it makes it too easy, so you won’t generate sufficient concentration to enter the jhanas.
It is probably better if you can observe the physical sensations at the nostrils or on the area between the nose and the upper lip, rather than at the abdomen or elsewhere. It is better because it is more difficult to do; therefore, you have to concentrate more. Since you are trying to generate access concentration, you take something that is doable, though not terribly easy to do, and then you do it.
When noticing the natural, uncontrolled breath at the nose, you have to pay attention very carefully. In doing so you will notice the tactile sensations, and then your mind will wander off. Then you’ll bring it back, and it will wander off; then you’ll bring it back, and it will wander off. Eventually, though maybe not the next time you sit in meditation, maybe not even tomorrow or next week or next month, you’ll find that the mind locks onto the breath. Any thoughts you have are relegated to the background. The thoughts might be something like, “Wow, I’m really with the breath now,” as opposed to, “When I get to Hawaii, the first thing I’m going to do is…”
Related: Jhana: The Spice Your Meditation Has Been Missing
Whatever method you use to generate access concentration, the sign that you’ve gotten to access concentration is that you are fully present with the object of meditation. So if you are doing metta (lovingkindness meditation), you’re just fully there with the feeling of metta; you’re not getting distracted. If you’re doing the body-sweeping practice, you’re fully there with the sensations in the body as you sweep your attention over the body. You’re not thinking extraneous thoughts; you’re not planning; you’re not worrying; you’re not angry; you’re not wanting something. You are just fully there with whatever your object is.
As you start to become concentrated, you might notice various lights and colors even though your eyes are closed. These are signs that you are starting to get concentrated. There is generally nothing useful that can be done—just ignore them. When you actually do get quite concentrated, the random blobs and laser shows will disappear. They might be replaced by a diffused white light, which is a sign of good concentration. It always appears for some people, it never appears for others, and many people find it sometimes appears and sometimes does not appear. But again, there’s nothing you need to do with that sign either—it’s just a sign. Remain focused on your meditation object.
Not everyone who undertakes jhana practice becomes proficient in this skill, but the only way to find out if it is something that works for you is to try learning it. It is indeed learnable by serious lay practitioners as well as by modern monks and nuns.
May your journey on the spiritual path be of great fruit and great benefit to all beings.
From Right Concentration by Leigh Brasington, © 2015 by Leigh Brasington. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston, MA.
[This story was first published in 2015.]
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.