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From Jhanas to Joy

A meditation retreat to reach altered states of consciousness.

It’s been long time since I’ve written about Zen or meditation on this ‘Ten Zen’ blog but a lot has happened and I’m looking forward to sharing it with you.

Last autumn, 2013, I went on a retreat quite different from any I have attended before and it had a profound effect on me. I am still marvelling at the way I seem to have changed – at the way happiness and joy seem to spring up unbidden in a way they never did before. Of course I cannot be sure this is because of that retreat but I suspect that it is. Also, the methods it used suggest a way of changing the brain’s default state so that positive feelings are more readily available. What an amazing possibility!

This all began in 2010 when meditation teacher, 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 that are reached through concentration. The idea that ancient meditators might have discovered such a series of states fascinates me because of all my work on altered states of consciousness (ASCs).

The idea of ASCs sounds simple but it is not. We are used to switching between sleeping and waking, deep sleep and dreaming, and most of us know the effects of alcohol, coffee and other drugs. It’s easy to say that our consciousness has changed. But since scientists and philosophers still have no good definition of consciousness even this is problematic.

More problems arise when we try to label or define ASCs. Sleep and dreaming are relatively easy because EEG or brain scans show similar changes for everyone. But what about lucid dreaming, when you know you are dreaming and seem to ‘wake up’ in a dream? Or what about being drunk or stoned. Should we define those altered states by objective measures, such as how much of which drug a person has taken, or by subjective measures such as how different they say they feel? There’s no right answer. Some people will smoke a tiny amount of cannabis and describe a dramatic change in consciousness; others will swear their first smoke has had absolutely no effect when they are giggling and fascinated by their own hand.

With all these questions in mind I was fascinated by the idea of the jhanas. I knew of no one who had experienced them, and what I had read implied they were reserved for high adepts and not ordinary people like me. Or – I wondered - were they just a fantasy of the early Buddhist literature. I had to find out more.

The lecture was fascinating. Leigh described 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 in England. I wrote the date in my diary. The following year I moved the note to my 2011 diary, then 2012, then 2013. After keeping this note for so long I felt destined to go!

The ten-day jhanas retreat was at Gaia House, a retreat centre near Newton Abbot in Devon. I’ve been there for Zen retreats led by other teachers and had led a weekend retreat there myself, but I’d never done any jhana practice. So I was very nervous. I soon learned that many of the people there were followers of Leigh and had a lot of experience of jhanas but for me, and a few others, this was a first encounter. I was a complete beginner.

The first two days were devoted to deepening awareness and concentration. This was a bit of a shock as I began to appreciate the great difference between this and Zen. I have been on something like 30 or more Zen retreats and I meditate every morning. But this practice is all ‘open meditation’, zazen or ‘just sitting’. That is, I sit with eyes open, paying attention to everything that happens without discrimination or getting tangled up in any of it. That – at least – is the theory. Of course my mind sometimes wanders off or becomes distracted but thirty years of practice mean that I quite quickly go back to open awareness when this happens. Now I was expected to shut my eyes.

I asked Leigh whether I should change my practice and close my eyes and he said yes – I wouldn’t be able to do the exercises he was going to teach us with my eyes open. So close them I did.

I found this extremely weird. I know that many, possibly most, people who meditate shut their eyes. Maybe it seems weird to you that it seemed weird to me! But it did. I am used to having sights, sounds, feelings, touches, smells – all going on and all equally let alone. Now vision had gone and I felt oddly unbalanced. But then we had to concentrate on something.

At first this was the breath which was also unfamiliar. I have done meditation on the breath occasionally but not as a regular practice and this ‘concentrative meditation’ is quite different from open awareness. When distracted my instinct now is to open up to everything around. Instead I had to return to the breath. However, 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.

When our concentration was strong enough, Leigh said, we could begin taking the route to the first jhana. In the next few posts I will describe what these methods are and what happened when we all set off deep into our own minds.

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