A strange thing has happened. I took a retreat that was utterly different from any I’ve been on before. I learned new skills, entered states I never knew existed, and since then I seem to have changed. I’ve no idea whether this retreat would have had the same effect under any circumstances, or whether by luck it came at just the right time for me, but the effect has been extraordinary.
This all began in 2010 when Leigh Brasington gave a lecture at Sharpham House, near where I live in Devon, on the topic of the jhanas – a series of eight increasingly absorbed states reached through concentration. I had heard of these mental states and was fascinated by the very idea, although I’d assumed that they were accessible only to advanced adepts – or were perhaps just a fantasy of the early Buddhist literature. I had to find out more.
Leigh turned out to be a smiling American who describes himself as a retired software engineer and ex-hippy geek from Mississippi, and his style was refreshingly down-to-earth. He explained each state and the methods used to reach it and said that anyone can explore them. ‘Come to one of my retreats in California’ he said. I was not about to fly to California, but he said that in October 2013 he would be leading a ten day retreat at Gaia House. I wrote the date in my diary. The following year I moved the note to my 2011 diary, then 2012, then 2013. After keeping it for so long I had to go!
Like most of you, I guess, my previous practice has been Chan and Zen. I have done many retreats with John Crook and the Western Chan Fellowship at the Maenllwyd in mid-Wales, and that was where I first met Reb. I subsequently sat several Zen retreats with him, including some at Gaia House. I meditate every morning and practice ‘just sitting’ i.e. open meditation. I have my eyes open and practice paying attention equally to all things without judgement or entanglement.
So it was a bit of a surprise when, on the first day, we were expected to close our eyes and concentrate on our breath. This felt terribly weird. Where has the floor gone, and all the sights and sounds around me? How can I concentrate on just one thing when I’m so used to being aware of everything else? I needn’t have worried. Within a few hours I found the narrow focus was quite possible. Indeed, I suspect that training attention in one way can transfer to other skills – although that’s a question to be answered by research.
We spent the first couple of days building up what Leigh called ‘access concentration’ and, in his daily lectures, hearing what lay ahead. His method of teaching comes from his own teacher, Ayya Khema, and is based on the early suttas. This is different from the jhana practice taught by Pa Auk Sayadaw that is based on later traditions. Having read the entire Pali Canon, Leigh had many insightful stories to tell while he explained how the discourses describe each of the eight jhanas.
The first jhana (J1) describes a monk, quite secluded from sense desire and withdrawn from unskilful qualities, who enters and remains in the first jhana. He experiences “rapture and pleasure born from withdrawal, accompanied by directed thought and evaluation. He permeates and pervades, suffuses and fills this very body with the rapture and pleasure born from withdrawal. There is nothing of his entire body unpervaded by rapture and pleasure.” To this Leigh added descriptions of joy, bliss and other happy states, all saturating the entire body.
This all sounded ridiculously delightful, and slightly unconvincing. How could we possibly enter ‘rapture and pleasure’ at will? But Leigh simply told us what to do. He said that if we followed his instructions we would experience the upwelling of a kind of energy called piti, marked by visual phenomena such as white light or coloured floating blobs, shaking of the whole body or of just parts, and rushes of energy. I couldn’t really believe that I would experience any of these, and feared I might just imagine the symptoms and never know if it was really piti or not – if there is such a thing. Nevertheless, I threw myself into the practice and tried to do exactly as he said.
We began each sitting period with gratitude, planning the session, building up motivation and metta, and then practiced Thich Nhat Hanh’s ‘Breathing in, I calm body and mind; breathing out, I smile’. From there, still smiling, we were to build access concentration by focussing on the sensation of breath passing through our nostrils – not on anything else, not the rise and fall of our chests, or any other sensation, just the end of the nose. Difficult, I thought, but OK. Then at some point, with sufficient access concentration, we were to shift attention to our smile.
Something to do! My first reaction was, ‘This is such fun!’. I have spent half a lifetime meditating with nothing to do – just sitting; heading in some incomprehensible way for insight or even for the ultimate ‘non-meditation’. I have sat those dreadful traditional Chan retreats in which you rise at 4 a.m. and spend endless sleep-deprived hours just sitting, waiting (or trying not to wait, or to let go of waiting) for ‘silent illumination’. Illumination may indeed come, but it’s so tough.
Now I had something to do. I wasn’t bored. I wasn’t frustrated. I wasn’t battling with unwanted thoughts. If any came along they were instantly cut off by the demands of the task in hand. Terrific!
Concentrate on a smile? What an odd thing to do! But this was just Leigh’s down-to-earth way of getting us to concentrate on ‘rapture and pleasure’, building it up until it was suffusing the whole body. And it worked. There I sat, filled with joy and pleasure, smiling away idiotically. And then the shaking began. For me it was my head rapidly shaking back and forth, my lips and chin twitching, buzzing in my ears. For others it was different kinds of shaking. At first I was convinced I’d just made it up but in one of the discussion sessions someone mentioned rushes of heat, like a hot flush. Yes, said Leigh, these happen with piti too. And I had had just that; a sudden rising flush of heat like a menopausal hot flush. So it seemed I was not imagining things after all.
As the days went by we learned how to use the breath to end the sensations of piti, calming down the rapturous joy and stilling the directed thoughts and evaluations to enter J2. This is a state of ‘rapture and pleasure born of composure’ and unification of awareness. As the piti begins to subside a second kind of energy called sukha arises. This is much less dramatic than piti and associated with contentment and equanimity, J2 being a mixture of the two. These odd effects may be the same as those described in tummo or the Kundalini experience.
J3 involves sukha alone. The suttas describe the fading of rapture so that the monk ‘remains equanimous, mindful, and alert, and senses pleasure with the body. He enters and remains in the third jhana, of which the Noble Ones declare, “Equanimous and mindful, he has a pleasant abiding.” … there is nothing of his entire body unpervaded with pleasure divested of rapture.’ In J4 even this fades away to leave a completely neutral emotional state.
Leigh’s tentative theory is that we begin with an active seeking or wanting system based on the neurotransmitter, dopamine. Withdrawing from this seeking increases norepinephrine (noradrenalin in UK English) and activates opioids (endorphins – the brain’s own opiates) which correspond to sukha. As norepinephrine levels fall, the opioids remain, corresponding to the mindful ‘pleasurable abiding’ of J3. Finally the pleasure generated by the opioids also fades, leaving the neutral state of J4.
Leigh himself has meditated in a brain scanner, and both EEG and fMRI scans show different patterns corresponding to his entering and leaving the jhanas. The researchers report what seems to be self-stimulation of the reward pathways in his brain. But the details of Leigh’s theory need much more research, more funding, and more adepts able to enter and leave the jhanas at will.
I found the transition from J1 to J2 quite obvious but that from J2 to J3 was not so clear. I wondered, again, whether I was just imagining things. Yet the descriptions are clear and specific, and the states feel just as they are described. As the days went by I gained confidence in just following the instructions and letting the states arise and fall away. From the lectures and discussion periods I learned that some of the other retreatants had done many retreats with Leigh and could navigate most or all of the eight jhanas. Others, like myself, were beginners, having varying degrees of success.
J3 was as far as I got during the retreat. J4 seemed just too difficult and scary. This is described as arising ‘with the abandoning of pleasure and stress … he enters and remains in the fourth jhana: purity of equanimity and mindfulness, neither-pleasure-nor-pain. He sits, permeating the body with a pure, bright awareness’. In this state there are no thoughts, just deep stillness reached by concentrating on neutral emotion – not an easy thing to do! Leigh described a sinking or falling sensation, like dropping down a well or falling in space, and suggested we might physically slump down too. I have met this on-the-edge-of-falling sensation before on Zen retreats and I met it again here. I felt I was about to drop off the edge of an abyss, but I never did. Perhaps I was too scared. But in the months since the retreat I have become more familiar with this falling into silence.
So what’s the point? Isn’t this all just a load of gimmicks – a set of fancy states to claim achievement – the opposite of the Zen endeavour? Not according to Leigh, who says the states are not so important in themselves but are valuable as aids to insight. The tradition claims that insight is smoother and more pleasurable with jhana practice; that ‘the vehicle of dry insight’ lacks the powerful serenity of the jhana practitioner. I guess our Zen practice is ‘dry’ and perhaps this deeply emotional practice really helps – or perhaps it’s just a diversion. As you can tell, I am still asking lots and lots of questions.
Towards the end of each session we had to exit from one of the jhanas and practice insight meditation. Then we did a kind of summing up in our own minds, along with metta, insight, recognising impermanence and getting up mindfully. I did indeed have some insights during the retreat but I cannot tell whether they were due to the jhana practice rather than just the many hours of meditation. In any case, it was not these insights, such as they were, that were dramatic, but the after-effects.
Back home I had to decide what to do about my daily practice. After some deliberation I reverted to just sitting and I now continue my regular morning practice as usual, adding occasional longer sits in the evening to practice the jhanas. This combination has worked well. But what is so surprising is that something about me has changed. That smile that we spent so much time concentrating on now seems more natural, and anger seems less so. When I sit down to meditate I find I am smiling and relaxed. When I’m walking around or gardening, a smile seems not far away. When I stop work for a moment and look out of the window a smile comes more naturally. It’s as though a switch has been flipped in my brain so that pleasure and contentment are part of its default state rather than a rarity. I am so grateful for this – and gratitude too seems to pop up of its own accord. So – increased happiness, gratitude, contentment – can they really be the result of 10 days of this peculiar practice? I do not know.
Back to front page