Rewiring for Happiness?

Deepening practice of the jhanas

Posted Oct 13, 2014

As the days went by we learned how to use our breathing to end the 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 is associated with contentment and equanimity, J2 being a mixture of the two. 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 piti is a self-induced flood of dopamine in the brain which then breaks down into norepinephrine (noradrenaline in UK English) as we withdraw from seeking or wanting. This then activates 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.

This extraordinary theory might potentially tie together such esoteric phenomena as kundalini and jhana meditation with the modern science of neurotransmitters and hormones – with no need for invisible ‘energies’ and other fanciful inventions. Although it is hard to test at the moment, 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 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 alert silence.

So what’s the point? Isn’t this all just a load of gimmicks – a set of fancy states to claim achievement? This would surely be 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 Zen practice is ‘dry’ and perhaps this deeply emotional practice really helps – or perhaps it’s just a diversion.

I can only say 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 more relaxed than I used to be. 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 and I’m still asking lots and lots of questions.