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While I’ve not mastered the first jhana, I did experience it very briefly once (and only once, for reasons I’ll explain later): Ajahn Brahm calls it a “yoyo jhana” because the meditator goes briefly into the jhana, gets so excited, and the excitement then bounces the meditator straight out of the jhana.
I was meditating in an executive retreat (i.e. a retreat meant for working executives) held at the Le Meridien, Chiang Rai, Thailand in 2010, organized by the Singapore Buddhist Fellowship. It was the second time I had gone for a retreat: the very first retreat I ever attended was an S.N Goenka-tradition retreat at Dharamshala in 2005.
During this retreat, the instructor was Ajahn Brahmavamso (or Ajahn Brahm for short). In contrast to the instructions i encountered on my first retreat, Ajahn Brahm actually advised people to relax to the max, and to be comfortable first and foremost. It was important, he said, to make peace with whatever you feel, be kind, and be gentle. This is his rephrasing of the second factor of the Eightfold Path (nekkhamma, avayapada, avihimsa in Pali). I think this is key, because it allowed my mind to gradually settle over the course of the retreat. Instead of using willpower to hold the mind on the meditation object, my mind very quickly brightened up and held easily to the meditation object of the breath, because it was very delightful to do so.
Later on, the citta nimitta (sign of the mind) appeared as a bright light in my meditation. The more I did nothing, the brighter it became, until at one point it felt like I was staring into the noonday sun. I was also very naturally sleeping less: I needed only 4 hours of sleep a day.
Then one time, I was meditating in the meditation hall, doing the usual preliminaries (relaxing the body, letting the mind be in the present moment and switching to the breath when the mind was ready), and the nimitta popped up very quickly, and became brighter and brighter.
All of a sudden, the “light” of the nimitta dimmed down, as though someone had lowered the dimmer switch. This was accompanied by a sensation of falling, as though I was falling into an infinite pit within myself.
Then there was an absolute explosion of sheer bliss and ecstasy. It was as though someone had taken all the orgasms I had ever experienced in my life, condensed it into a moment, and multiplied it by a million.
I was so excited that the thought “What the…” formed and I came straight out of it, breathing excitedly in the dim meditation hall.
A few observations below.
If you experience the first jhana, it will be the greatest pleasure you’ve ever experienced in your life. There will be absolutely no doubt, because the ecstasy will be absolutely a thousand or million-fold more than all your life’s orgasms combined. There would be absolutely no doubt of what you experienced, because it’s a far higher pleasure than anything you’ve ever experienced in your life.
This is something of a double-edged sword, because while it will be the most earth-shaking pleasure you’ve ever experienced, it inevitably will be accompanied by the wanting and craving for a repeat experience. It is exactly this wanting that prevents one from regaining this, which is why I only experienced this once, and never experienced it again: the desire for it is too much.
(Side note: the pleasure is derived from the ceasing of the five senses. That is why there is a sutta that refers to the first jhana as “the end of the world as one knows it”, because you’re literally experiencing an unworldly pleasure (i.e. mindblowing pleasure without the five senses. It’s from this that one realizes that the five-senses are truly suffering…)
(Side-side note: the experience also made me realize why Buddhist monastics are celibate. They truly have a higher pleasure!)
The immediate sensation just before the jhana is one of falling. This is possibly because the mind was really letting go for the first time in one’s life. The cause of jhanas is letting go, which (according to the Satipatthana
sutta and its Chinese parallels from Ven Analayo’s translation) is fueled by seclusion, dispassion and cessation. As Ajahn Brahm’s teacher Ajahn Chah repeatedly said, “you meditate to let go, not to gain things”. It’s not from wanting, or striving or practice per se, and definitely not from willpower (i.e. even if you sit for an hour every day, that’s not going to help you get to jhanas if you’re not letting go but just using your willpower to force yourself to sit). So your question of “how did you do it (e.g. length of sessions)” is the wrong question, as it implies that you can “get” jhana by sitting for 10x10mins or whatever length of time.
Instead, it’s actually less about the amount of time you meditate, but the manner in which you meditate. Far too many meditators are using willpower, when meditation is about letting go/making peace, being kind, being gentle: it’s not about “gaining” jhana or making them happen. If you let go enough, jhanas will happen. But if you want them, then they won’t.
It’s also important to note that the rest of the Eightfold Path contribute to experiencing the jhanas: it’s practically impossible for one to experience the jhanas if your actions of body speech and mind are completely unrestrained. I had been keeping to the Eight Precepts prior to experiencing the jhanas, so I suspect that was a contributing factor too.
You can read detailed instructions in Ajahn Brahm’s book here if you’re interested to learn how to meditate as per the Buddha’s instructions. I personally think it’s THE best contemporary meditation book out there.