One topic of great interest to me is flow. Flow is that state where a person is totally involved in doing something, so much so that no ego, thought or anything extraneous to the ‘doing’ exists for that person. Runners experience it. Graphic artists experience it. Engineers and artists experience it. Anyone that is doing anything can experience it if the conditions are right. Recently I wrote an article about “Owning the Creative Flow State.”
Flow occurs by definition as we’re ‘doing’ something. Flow operates by pulling huge chunks of data from memory and meshing it together in a stream of action and creativity that is seamless to ourselves and others as we operate in a peak state of doing. The mind is operating in a super-state at it’s optimum efficiency.
As cool as it is… Is flow the purest experience available to us as human beings?
No! There is something much more rare, exciting, and purely awesome to experience.
First, I know you’re wondering what do I mean by the purest experience?
I mean one that is as natural as possible. A pure experience exists when you aren’t doing anything. You are only experiencing. A pure experience is one that hasn’t been tainted by ego, memory, tradition, culture, societal expectation, morals, religious beliefs, or superstitions. The purest experience we can know isn’t tainted by the past or the future. Time is irrelevant. Unfelt. The purest experience is realized in real-time as one is fully immersed in the mindful pureness of the present moment.
Is such a thing even possible? If you think about it for a little while you might recognize that a very small baby might have this state of mind for a short time after it’s born and to a degree over the first couple years of life.
All of our first experiences as infants were of this same, pure quality. We weren’t perceiving anything through the filters of memory or the intricate cognitive schema already in place in an older child or adult. Infants have direct, unadulterated, absolutely pure experience of everything in the world around them. It’s a blissful state of interacting with their environment from the standpoint of having no idea whether they are connected to, or separate from the environment surrounding them.
The good news is I’m not going to ask you to throw on some diapers and revert to childhood to experience what the infant can do by default. To reach this state as an adult will take some effort, but if you choose to pursue it you’ll find peace of mind, balance, and learn a little bit about the depth of your mind and what it’s capable of. Even better, if you dedicate yourself to it you may go on to explore many levels of experience that occur beyond this first level of pure and simple experience. There are many awesome states of mind that can be reached with practice.
I’m speaking about the states of mind Theravada Buddhists recognize as the “Jhanas”.
Jhanas are levels that occur during the simple meditation process of focusing on the breath as you breath in and out. If you can breath, you can meditate on the breath. It’s almost that simple – to begin anyway. There are 4 material Jhanas and 4 immaterial Jhanas. Each of them is the most amazing state you will ever experience, your life will take on new meaning as you enter, one by one these immensely blissful, life-changing states. These are also referred to as states of absorption. Jhanas are bizarre states in that your mind doesn’t function as it has up to this point in your life. These are pure states that are born of concentration on an object or subject, in this case the breath. They are absolutely the purest experience available to us during our lives.
Experiencing the first Jhana occurs as the result of focusing on the breath over a number of sessions. A session might last 15 minutes or 30 minutes. Up to you really. Some meditators like to make a show of how long they can sit in one place meditating for 3 hours, 5 or 10 hours. One need not meditate for more than 20-30 minutes or up to an hour if you’re comfortable enough.
The Jhana states can be elusive for a while. It may take you 5 sessions or 500 sessions, and realistically there are people that have meditated for 20 years and that have not entered Jhana. For myself, flying blind without a teacher or books I experienced the first Jhana in a couple months. It is not that difficult, and I’ll share some secrets about avoiding behaviors that push them away and show you how to attain Jhana quickly in future blog posts I have planned.
I’ll share with you my personal experience of entering the first Jhana below… which, coincidentally (or not) closely parallels a Christian’s ‘ecstatic’ experience. My mother explained to me what she felt the night she became a born-again Christian kneeling on the floor of our living room in front of the TV watching an evangelical pastor and you know what? What she described was VERY similar to what I’ve experienced in the first Jhana while meditating. Really, I believe only the path is different. That night changed her life. She attributed the state of mind she reached as being touched by the hand of God. You too may attribute it to god or something else – and that’s again up to you. It’s a physical, emotional and spiritual feeling that is overwhelming and short-circuits your rationality. It’s not logical or objective… it just is. The most amazing experience of your life, guaranteed.
Over the years I’ve entered the Jhanas many times and it’s no less awesome each time it occurs. I’ll try to relay the essence of it below…
Sitting on the floor of my bedroom, in a half-lotus position on the carpet I was watching the breath go in and out, trying to keep my mind (monkey-mind, beginners sometimes call it) focused on the very small point at the tip of my nose where I felt my breath enter and exit with each inhalation and exhalation. The body was calm, absolutely relaxed and without pain, itch or other discomfort. Being seated in this way felt solid and very relaxing. The mind was slowing down it’s barrage of thought and after 20 minutes thought ceased altogether and I was able to focus clearly on the barely perceptible feeling at the nose’s tip.
After being focused completely on the breath at the nose for eight in and out-breath cycles I noticed that my hands and feet felt light and tingly. Soon my chest felt it too. Then, after a couple more breaths I noticed that my breaths were not deep any more. They were shallow. Smooth. Not forced. They were becoming even lighter. My chest was moving only the slightest bit as my diaphragm appeared to either stop working or to have slowed down to about 5% of normal movement. My entire body tingled and a pin point of bright white light appeared in my mind. My eyes were closed and the room was dark, and yet this tiny light started to grow in radiance with each breath. I was very calm, very relaxed. The mind was free of thought. Not one thought existed in my mind. Soon the dot had grown to be a brilliant circle of the brightest light. I began to feel happy. This general sense of joy crept up and grew slowly in intensity. With it I felt a sense of release… This feeling of release also grew and was amazing in the power it had to free up every fragment of tension in my body and mind. I had no idea my mind was tense, until this release made it grow less and less tense. It was so amazing. Tension in my muscles and mind was ebbing away. As it did the bliss increased. The circle in my mind became larger and more bright during this process. It was as if the brilliant light in my mind was pure bliss… pure love… it was as if it was engulfing me. It seemed that it wouldn’t stop growing and increasing in power.
Just when I thought I couldn’t stand it to increase more – it increased more and took me to a new level of bliss, happiness… pure joy that I’ve never experienced ever in my life before. Though I don’t believe that god is available to me here on earth the experience was truly as if god was there wrapping me in bliss. To say anything less doesn’t make sense. Even so, it was a greater feeling than even that. It was so surreal that I began to wonder if my mind and body could stand it anymore. The first few times entering the first Jhana I was a bit tentative about it. But I kept letting go little by little of any concern and the feeling would increase. HOW could it increase more? I wondered. I’d do a mini-experiment and hold back from letting go and then let go just a little more. More bliss! It was phenomenal beyond words.
It was an amazing experience that I could never come close to explaining with just words. I hope my description convinces you to try it for yourself at some point though, as that’s the only way to understand what I mean when I say it’s the purest experience available to us here on earth. You’re pre-wired for them just like me and everyone else.
Oh, I need to clarify. This feeling of amazing bliss is what you experience just before you enter the amazing state of the first Jhana! You’re not even there yet at this point. This first experience is like the doorway to Jhana. It is the first pure experience that you’ll have on the path.
Oh, and this isn’t all there is… there are 8 levels of Jhana and a whole lot more absorption experiences that are different and not of the same type of bliss and ecstasy but that are equally or more phenomenal in their own way. Meditation provides a path into the mind where these states exist already for you and you and you. Everyone can find these states with the right practice. Physical practice, not religious.
Some of you might have preconceived negative ideas about doing a Buddhist meditation if you are Christian or of some other religious background. I mention it as Buddhist meditation because I read about it in a Buddhist book and heard about it from a Buddhist man.
Do you need to be Buddhist to practice this meditation – no, absolutely not. Can you still go forward through the levels of Jhana and not give one thought to becoming Buddhist? Yes, absolutely. Don’t get caught up in the idea that meditation need be a religious act. Watching the breath go in and out doesn’t need to be anything but a physical act.
In 1997 I started to meditate as a result of a couple things. My wife was Buddhist and her father took the time to explain meditation to me in the Theravada tradition. He was a general surgeon at a small hospital in the mid-West. He said he found meditation relaxing, and experienced an equanimity or a balance that helped him during surgery and in dealing with emotional patients and other stresses of the job. He gave me a book by William Hart called, The Art of Living. Vipassana Meditation as Taught by S.N. Goenka which layed out the process in far more detail than I needed. I read the book and pulled the bare essence from it. In other words, I pulled out the physical act of meditation from among the Buddhist vocabulary, beliefs, rules and laws.
I started sitting and focusing on the breath, not believing anything about Buddhism or any other ism. I didn’t purify myself first or in any way seek to abide by some Buddhist criteria for right thoughts, right speech, right action and right occupation. I just wasn’t concerned with any of that since what I knew about the Buddha was that he sat down and entered the Jhanas, and was enlightened. After enlightenment he told the people that they should not believe anything he said as the truth, but try it for themselves. One of the primary beliefs in Buddhism is to test things for yourself and, if true – adopt it. If not, throw it away as worthless for you.
I took that approach.
I hope I’ve piqued your interest about the Jhanas and other states of absorption and you choose to investigate further. If you want to begin meditation you can download a meditation course I created in e-book format in PDF (Adobe Acrobat) format.
22-Day Meditation Course Info Page >
If you’re interested in learning more about my experience with meditation I have a page of audio and video downloads where I detail many of the experiences here at my Bio II page >
Best of Life!