Chapter 10 of Buddha’s Map:
A man stood in the strip of land between the river levy and the backyard fences. Holding one end of a three-foot piece of purple plastic, he pressed the other end over a yellow tennis ball on the ground. The ball fit perfectly. Holding the purple gadget over his shoulder, he flung the ball into the air. It rocketed a hundred feet before falling and bouncing on the ground.
Meanwhile a dog focused on this tennis ball. As the ball sped through space, he leapt into the air, spun around, and hit the ground running so fast he left puffs of dust behind him.
The ball zigged and zagged as it bounced over the uneven ground. The dog zigged and zagged in perfect unison until he pounced on it and, in one economical snap, gripped it in his jaws.
Without slowing, he wheeled around and ran enthusiastically back to his human. He dropped the ball at the man’s feet and backed away. His eyes remained locked on the ball. He didn’t look at the ground, the levy, the fence, the birds nearby, or his human. His eyes glistened with joy. To the dog, the entire world was BALL.
The man picked up the ball with the purple plastic and pitched it in the opposite direction. The dog leapt into the air in pursuit. But this time, the man had only gestured. He hadn’t actually released the ball. As soon as the dog was off on his misdirected chase, the man threw the ball in the opposite direction.
It took the dog two seconds to realize he’d been tricked. He stopped dead in his tracks and scanned. Where’s the ball? There it is! He was off again—no time to feel failure, disappointment, humor, or anger. He honed in on his quarry. In the whole universe there was nothing more important. He was in the chase and nothing but the chase.
I could imagine how such rapt attention on rodent-sized moving objects had given his ancestors an evolutionary edge in capturing a meal. Now all these genetic instincts were trained on a lime yellow sphere of rubber and felt—an object with zero protein.
I felt bad for the dog locked into an inbred reflex. And yet I couldn’t help but smile at his ecstasy.
When I first began meditating, I tried to cultivate what the dog had in abundance. His attention was completely absorbed on his object of meditation. His object was the ball; mine was the breath. His concentration was rock solid; mine was wimpy.
And when he lost contact with his object, he didn’t beat himself up, dwell on his failing, become depressed or disturbed. He simply returned to his object with vigor and without melodrama, and he had no trouble maintaining interest in his object. He was filled with energy and joy. He was mindful. He had great samadhi—had a cat jumped onto his back, I doubt he would have noticed.
And yet, despite all his yogic achievements, the combined effect was not exactly what I was yearning for. I saw no wisdom, spaciousness, proportion, peacefulness, or balance. There had to be a better way.
The Buddha called his path a middle way. It brought into balance not just one or two qualities, but many. Yet in my early meditation training, I was encouraged to develop concentration first and choiceless awareness later. I learned to strengthen determination and not be concerned with joy (for which I was too depressed to relate to anyway). I was taught to bring more energy to the practice and not relax or rest. I was told to stay with simple concrete experiences like body sensations and not to worry about spaciousness or nibbana.
In fairness to my early teachers, I’m not sure whether that’s what they meant or just what I heard.
The Buddha described his path as “complete in the beginning, complete in the middle, and complete in the end.” In other words, it was meant to be a middle way balanced in the beginning, balanced in the middle, and balanced in the end.
Since each of us comes to the practice with different temperaments, inclinations, and gifts, what we need in order to find balance may be different. Some may need more energy, some more relaxation, some more curiosity, some more tranquility, some more joy, some more equanimity.
In reading the suttas, it’s clear that the Buddha approached different people in different ways. But he was always looking for balance.
Nevertheless, the way he most often recommended starts with joy. In Western culture with so much striving and stress, joy and kindness seem particularly important.
So as we turn to specific instructions, we’re going to start with joy and see how the path unfolds from there. Other starting points are also effective, but joy brings a lightness that helps balance many of us right from the beginning of practice.
(The following elaborates instructions offered in Chapter 2, "Beginnings".)
The Buddha talked about four qualities of mind that were particularly wholesome. They are called the four brahmaviharas and consist of loving kindness (metta ), compassion (karuna ), joy over others’ good fortune (mudita ), and equanimity (upekkha ). What’s most important in starting the practice is not these states precisely but any states that help the mind-heart feel expansive, light, or uplifted. The practice begins by creating phrases that resonate with any of these qualities: “May I be happy,” “May I be peaceful,” “May I have ease.” No quality is necessarily better than any other. They’re just a way of getting a foot in the door of the brahmaviharas in general. We use whatever works best for us—whatever comes most easily and naturally.
We say the phrases sincerely with clear intentions. They aren’t said quickly or rapidly like a mantra. We use one phrase per breath at the most so we can relax into its meaning.
We send or wish these qualities to ourselves because we cannot truly send to others what we don’t already experience. The Buddha said that if we searched the entire world for the person most deserving and most in need of our love and kindness, we’d find no one more deserving than ourselves.
And we send these qualities to our spiritual friend to cultivate a consciousness that extends beyond a sense of self. Selflessness (anatta ) is one of the “three characteristics” of all things. As we send uplifted energy beyond ourselves, a personalized sense of self may start to weaken.
As we relax into the phrases, there may be moments of joy (piti)—soft bursts of well-being that have nothing to do with self or other. The attention may be drawn here. It’s very healing. As we relax into this joy, it spreads out and softens into a less focused and lower-energy happiness (sukha). As we relax into happiness, it may spread out into a more spacious equanimity (upekkha). Equanimity does not have much energy to hold our attention. It is so quiet that the mind may lose contact with it.
This little cycle from joy to happiness to equanimity may pass in just a moment. It can happen so quickly that we don’t notice the various phases—just a little burst of well-being that fades quickly. This is fine. With time and patience, it will lengthen on its own.
This short cycle is a sign of the first jhana (stage of meditation). It’s a toe in the door. It draws and focuses the mind, bringing more collectedness (samadhi), even if only for a moment.
We don’t hold onto it—holding creates tension. In the beginning it is easier to connect with this joy, kindness, or uplift than it is to sustain contact with it. But each time we contact it, samadhi strengthens a tiny bit. So as we relax into it, it will strengthen itself.
I have seen people go into the first jhana just as gracefully as I described. But that’s not how I did it. My first experiences were more like stepping sideways, tripping over a bench, falling through a door into a room, and running out because I didn’t think I belonged there.
When I began meditating, I was sure the first step was to develop enough concentration to make my mind stay put on the breath. Once I had enough of this one-pointedness, I could shift to “choiceless awareness” whereby I let my attention go wherever it wanted as I stayed completely mindful. Concentration first, awareness second: my early efforts in this were not particularly pleasant or successful.
But I stuck with it because I was stubborn and because when I stopped meditating, I felt so much better. The quip says, “I’m hitting my head against the wall because it feels so good when I stop.” I didn’t think that was what I was doing. When I got up from my zafu, my spirits were lighter than before sitting down. The experience on the cushion wasn’t great, but the aftereffect seemed genuinely good.
Looking back, I suspect my mind was getting more collected. But since I was forcing it, there was no ease or balance. The balance came when I stopped “meditating” and eased up a little.
But my practice didn’t go any deeper than this.
After a year or two, I wondered if I really had to start with one-pointed concentration. I felt drawn to choiceless awareness. So I tried it even though I judged my concentration to be weak. I felt guilty—like I was being a bad student. But I wanted to see what would happen.
Choiceless awareness felt less forceful than concentration. I didn’t push so hard; I relaxed a little. I used just enough effort to notice where my mind was wandering next. I was surprised that my mind quieted down on its own. It became more collected.
On a retreat I ventured to comment to a teacher, “It seems that practicing choiceless awareness helps me develop concentration rather than concentration being a prerequisite for choiceless awareness.” He listened carefully and said, “Concentration and awareness are opposite sides of the same coin. Most people need more stillness in the beginning. But a quarter of the people find what you describe: they start with mindfulness, and this helps still the mind. So use what works best.”
I was relieved to get this confirmation and began to practice with less emphasis on strengthening concentration.
However, when my mind did wander, I wasn’t sure what to do. It wandered a lot. So I just let it drift unless it seemed to be drifting too much, in which case I went back to focusing on the breath.
By shifting back and forth between these two practices, my meditation went a little deeper. After several years, I noticed times when my mind was so quiet that it was difficult to think if I tried. Thoughts were very slow in coming. As I described earlier, I experienced this as mental “white noise” in which thinking was foreign. This state felt effortless, joyful, and peaceful.
When I described this to various teachers, they frowned: “Be careful. You don’t want to get attached to those pleasurable feelings. They are a trap—or at best a dead end. So if they arise, just go back to the breath.”
I did as I was told. But sometimes the joy and peace became so intense that I did not want to ignore them. I called it a “non-genital, non-climactic orgasm”: an intense and self-sustaining feeling of well-being.
And sometimes it was overwhelming. I’d feel myself spinning around like I was in a whirlwind. If I tried to stop the spinning, it just got more intense. Finally, not knowing what else to do, I gave in to it. Surprisingly, when I relaxed into the whirlwind, it slowed and spread out into a deeper, wider, subtler feeling of peace and happiness. I smiled.
Most of the time in retreats, I flopped back and forth between bare attention (mindfulness) and concentration on the breath without coming into balance. I had no way to bring up these peaceful, joyful energies, but they arose on their own more and more often.
It was during this time that I heard Larry Rosenberg’s talk on the “Anapanasati Sutta”—the Buddha’s talk on mindfulness of breathing—in which he described some of the signs of the first and second jhanas. Larry confirmed my experience as being jhana related. It was the first time I heard the word.
I was delighted that these experiences were not symptoms of wandering off the path but of going further along it.
Still, I didn’t know what to do with them.
It was many years before I found a teacher—Bhante—who understood how to work with the jhanas.
The difficulty with one-pointed concentration was that it created too much tension in me. Without the relaxation step that the Buddha taught, the tension built and built, making the practice more and more uncomfortable.
The difficulty with choiceless awareness or bare attention was that I didn’t know how to work skillfully with the wandering mind. All I knew was forcing the mind into stillness or letting it run amuck. There was no balance.
It wasn’t until I learned how to use the Six Rs that I found a way to both honor the joy, happiness, and equanimity (piti , sukha, and upekkha) as they arose and how to work with distractions without tightening up.
In the next chapter we’ll go more fully into the Six Rs.
When I look back on my experience in those years, it is clear that there are many ways to enter the jhanas. I found my own way into them with some sensitive flopping around. It took me five or six years.
I’ve seen people use the breath awareness with the relaxation step and the Six Rs and move into the first jhana in a matter of days or weeks. And I’ve seen people with very little meditation experience use metta with the relaxation step and the Six Rs and move into the first jhana in a matter of a day or two.
Many report feelings of intense joy. At first it is tentative. But when told they are on the correct path, they relax and it becomes more powerful. Then it passes. With this they’ve gone through the first and are on to the second or third jhana—topics for later chapters.
The Buddha was an incredibly gifted teacher. Following his instructions closely moves us along the path very quickly.
Let’s look at what the Buddha actually said in the suttas about this first stage or jhana.
A sutta is a single thread in the whole cloth of the Buddha’s teaching. The word “sutta” literally means “thread.” Each sutta is a single discourse or fragment of a teaching passed down to us from the Buddha himself. Some of the threads are probably closer to the Buddha’s original words than others. But when we weave them all together, we get a better feel for the whole of what he wanted to teach us.
He described the first jhana in many suttas—sometimes succinctly, sometimes in more detail, sometimes about his own experience, sometimes about another’s.
In the “Anupada Sutta: One by One As They Occurred” (Majjhima Nikaya 111) , he described the experience of one of his students, Sariputta. Picking up at verse 3:
(3) Here, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, Sariputta entered upon and abided in the first jhana, which is accompanied by thinking and examining thought, with joy and happiness born of seclusion.
(4) And the states in the first jhana—the thinking, the examining thought, the joy, the happiness, and the unification of mind; the contact, feeling, perception, formations, and mind; the enthusiasm, choice, energy, mindfulness, equanimity, and attention—these states were defined by him one by one as they occurred; known to him those states arose, known they were present, known they disappeared. He understood thus: “So indeed, these states, not having been, come into being; having been, they vanish.” Regarding those states, he abided unattached, unrepelled, independent, detached, free, dissociated, with a mind rid of barriers.
Let’s go back through this passage.
Sariputta was one of the Buddha’s most accomplished students. He became fully enlightened and was gifted in his wisdom. The monks who were followers of the Buddha would have been very interested in how Sariputta practiced.
The first thing Sariputta did was to find seclusion—some quiet place with few distractions. We can count on the world intruding on us from time to time. But when we meditate, it is helpful to do what is reasonable to have some external peace: turn off the cell phone, shut off the TV, close the door, find a time when we have no immediate obligations, and so forth.
Seclusion also means an intention not to indulge distractions when they arise in the physical world or in the mind’s thinking. And when something grabs our attention anyway, as soon as we realize it we Six-R it: recognize where our attention has gone, release it, relax, smile, and return to our primary object of meditation. This cultivates inner seclusion.
Meanwhile, there is a lot going on in this seclusion. Sariputta experienced thinking and examining thought—discursive thinking. He also experienced all five khandhas: contact, feeling, perception, formations, and consciousness.
As noted earlier, some schools of meditation describe the jhanas as states in which the external world and thinking are completely shut off—the mind is totally absorbed in one-pointed concentration. But here the Buddha uses jhana to refer to something far more dynamic and accessible.
Amongst this inner activity is the cycle of joy (piti), happiness (sukha), and equanimity (upekkha) mentioned earlier. And there are other wholesome states as well: enthusiasm (wise effort), energy, mindfulness, attention, unification of mind, and so forth.
What’s crucial is that Sariputta does not get lost in the phenomena. He doesn’t identify with them or call them “self.” Rather he sits back and observes the process—he doesn’t indulge them or try to make them go away. He’s neither attracted nor repelled; he simply watches them arise and vanish.
Meditation is not about entering a specific state and having it remain unchanged. That goes against a basic characteristic of all phenomena: impermanence (anicca).
Awakening arises from seeing things as they are, not controlling them or trying to fit them into some mold of what we think should be. It arises from a detached, clear, and unencumbered observation of the flux and flow of inner events.
This relaxed attention cultivates the “unification” of mind that is hinted at in the first jhana.
The “Kayagatasati Sutta: Mindfulness of the Body” (Majjhima Nikaya 119) verse 18 includes a metaphor for the first jhana:
Just as a skilled bath man or a bath man's apprentice heaps bath powder in a metal basin and, sprinkling it gradually with water, kneads it till the moisture wets his ball of bath powder, soaks it and pervades it inside and out, yet the ball itself does not ooze; so too, a monk allows the joy and happiness born of seclusion drench, steep, fill, and pervade this body, so that there is no part of his whole body unpervaded by the joy and happiness born of seclusion.
In other words, joy (piti), happiness (sukha) and equanimity (upekkha) first run through quickly. But as the jhana deepens, they begin to spread softly through the body and mind like moisture through a ball of bath powder.
The reference to a ball of bath powder was probably more familiar to people in the Buddha’s day. The ball of powder is small. We’ll see that the next verse describing the second jhana uses the metaphor of a lake—a much larger object. So the joy and happiness of the first jhana is only a hint of what’s to come.
As noted before, the mind in the jhanas is not free from distractions. They arise frequently and don’t need to be suppressed. As long as we retain some contact with the object of meditation, we can let them float in the background.
But sooner or later they take our attention away completely. We are lost in thoughts or images. And then, wisdom asserts itself. We suddenly remember where we are and that we’ve been lost in a distraction.
What we do next is crucial to cultivating balance. We’ll take this up in the next chapter as we explore the Six Rs in depth. In the following chapter we’ll look at supporting practices which, like the Six Rs, can be used along side any jhana. After this we’ll come back to the jhanas themselves.