Thursday, December 20, 2012

Meditation: gaining "absorption" (jhana)

Gary Sanders (Dharma Punx), edited by Seth Auberon, CC Liu, Wisdom Quarterly
Every counterpart sign or nimitta is different prior to jhana (lemeach/
I have purposely not done a lot of reading on the meditative absorptions (jhanas). My thinking has been, "The Buddha mastered them and found they weren't the 'be all, end all,' so why bother?" This was what I thought until a retreat I sat this summer.

A big motivation for going on a retreat in Northern California at Spirit Rock led by Theravada Buddhist nuns was
  • to push myself
  • to step outside of my comfort zone
  • to go on retreat with teachers I wasn't already friends with
  • to be  surrounded by people I'm not closely connected to
  • to visit a place I haven't been before. 
The week-long retreat started off great. The first two days were a relief, decompressing from the daily grind of being a suburban working father of two, a husband, an Against the Stream Buddhist Mediation Society recovery group leader, a Santa Clarita [Saint Clare/Sainted Clarity] Valley mindfulness meditation circle facilitator, and music lover.

Spirit Rock is beautiful, very peaceful with rolling landscapes, and I felt great to be there. Then came the pain. I'd never experienced pain this bad on retreat. It started with my knees leading me to escape to a chair for a bit. Then it got worse. My lower back was screaming in pain, and more of my sitting had to be done in a chair. I even graduated to standing when pain and sleepiness got overwhelming. That was all just "pain," which could not compare to the "suffering" to come:

"What, me worry?"
Doubt and anger started creeping in. I began imagining, "These nuns are sadistic! How can we do silent hour-long sits WITHOUT guidance!?" "If I can't handle this, all these old people must really be hurting!!" "I can't even do metta (loving-kindness meditation) anymore; I'll never be able to do it again!"

We had exit interviews on the second to last day. I talked a little about what was arising. Then to my good fortune, before the last sit of the night, I ran into one of the nuns outside the quiet zone. We talked about my practice, and I got some answers. 

I described what had been happening for awhile in my practice, which turned out to be "access concentration." The nun told me about a technique -- picking one spot on the tip of the nose or nostrils and just staying exclusively on that single spot. She told me more, but apart from the subtleties, this was the salient point. Stick with a single spot to the exclusion of everything else.

I went into the last 60 minute sit of the night, taking to the cushion in Burmese pose, focusing just on a point inside one nostril. I stayed there like a cat at a mouse hole. 

"Heyyy, it's all good!"
Before long, ALL of the hindrances fell away. With persistent effort, I stayed on that spot the whole sit. I sat like a ROCK. No pain, no discomfort, and to my astonishment, I felt an overwhelming joy (piti) washed through me. [Perhaps my earlier pain had been a clearing or an obstacle hindering me and encouraging me to give up like my very own struggle with "Mara"?]

The bell rang an hour later as the group called it a night. I was still glowing. The rest of the night, I felt blissful, effervescent, full of joy. It was spilling out of me. My original intention for going on retreat came to mind. I was flooded with total appreciation for both nuns leading. I slept like a baby.

The next morning was our first and only sit of the day. I went right to the single point of focus again. BUT this time it didn't take much effort at all. With zero hindrances, I sat like a rock, euphoric, saturated with joy. Time FLEW by.

Cut to today. I've read up on the meditative absorptions, the jhanas, a bit. I have been practicing the single point of focus a lot, but not necessarily as a daily practice. And I have not been reaching the joy and bliss I experienced on retreat. 

Recently, I read [Ayya Khema's student] Leigh Brasington's instructions on reaching the first jhana. I followed his instructions thoroughly. I started with loving-kindness for myself then went to the single point of concentration. 

"Who me, worried? Ha!"
Once the breath started to become barely noticeable [because the real object of meditation is not gross breathing but this very subtle breath, the calmed breath, which one could speculate may be prana], I stayed with that then switched to the pleasant feeling of the semi-smile I'd been holding most of the sit.
[Where attention goes, energy flows.] As that pleasant feeling built up more and more, I felt my smile grow bigger than my head. It was smiling on its own. I didn't will it. I wasn't trying to smile. The pleasant wholesome sensation -- which was more pleasing than the sensual pleasure I'd been chasing all my life -- seemed to be swirling, flowing, in motion. It was taking over my whole head, then my whole body then, surprisingly, it just kept expanding outside of my body, my environment... 

Not sure how long it was, but I stayed with it until it seemed to just fade a little. Once I felt grounded in my own body, I got off the cushion. It was quite late at night, and I felt very joyful and contented. Again I got to sleep like a baby. [Maybe this is what Zen means by beginner's mind, throttling back the breath to the softest purr, a sweet infantile innocence and peace.]

The Five Hindrances
Wisdom Quarterly edit of Wikipedia entry hindrances
Five negative mental states impede success with meditation (jhāna and bhāvanā) and lead away from enlightenment and nirvana. These states are:
  1. Sensual desire: craving for pleasurable stimulation of the senses
  2. Anger or ill-will: feelings of malice, annoyance, aversion
  3. Sluggishness-sleepiness (sloth-torpor): lack of physical or mental energy
  4. Restlessness-worry: the inability to calm the mind
  5. Skeptical doubt: lack of conviction, confidence, trust

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