Meditation 5: Dhyana

Been in dhyana recently? No, I thought not: me neither. If you have, you’re probably on retreat somewhere rather than reading a blog. However, when I raised the subject of dhyana on the Middle Way summer retreat last year, I was quite surprised at how little people knew about it who were regular meditators. It’s a subject worth clarifying. What lies at the heart of it is this question: what sorts of states are we trying to achieve in meditation, and what value do they have?

Dhyana is a Sanskrit word (Pali equivalent being jhana) for a state of meditative absorption, as described in the Buddhist tradition. In fact, there are 8 different levels of dhyana as described in the Buddhist Pali Canon. As far as I’m aware, there is no equivalent description of absorbed states in other meditative traditions (except perhaps Hinduism, which has borrowed from Buddhism in this regard). Buddhism pioneered a vocabulary that we just don’t have anywhere else. It’s a vocabulary that does not seem to be widely known or used yet in the West: we talk about sublimity, rapture etc., but not in nearly as precise a way as the Buddhists have managed.Knott's_Yantra mojonavigator

The idea of ‘meditative absorption’ is itself a shorthand for a state that is, to put it mildly, difficult to describe. In the traditional description of the first level of dhyana, you start off with 5 factors: one-pointed concentration, initial thought, energetic initial thought, sustained thought, rapture and bliss. Then you lose some of these factors as you go into higher dhyanas (or at least they become so subtle that you don’t notice them any more). This description at least gets over some of the main points: that in dhyana, concentration, intention and positive emotion come together and melt together.

How do you know when you’re in dhyana? I don’t think there is any easy way to tell with certainty, but there are some signs that are all a matter of more-or-less. Your experience gains stability – not fixedness, but a lot more continuity. Your body gains a strong sense of balance, with both uprightness and groundedness in equal measure. You’re likely to have a sensation of energy rising in your spine. The object of meditation becomes a very subtle internal version of itself called the nimitta.

It’s a truism of meditation that the point of meditating isn’t to experience dhyana, or indeed to have ‘good meditations’. There’s certainly a danger of meditation turning into a sort of trippy yearning for dhyana – and never getting it. Wanting dhyana too much is probably a good way of losing the balance and groundedness you need to make progress in meditation. However, one can also go too far with this way of talking down the importance of dhyana. There is a sort of ‘effort’ involved in meditation (see the discussion following Meditation 3), which is about maintaining continuity of intention. This continuity of intention needs goals of some sort to relate to, and if we want a specific goal rather than an incremental direction, dhyana is a good goal to have. It is, after all, a genuine and attainable experience, and thus a far more appropriate goal than a remote ideal like enlightenment. The important thing is not to let rumination about such a goal dominate your experience.

It’s also important not to confuse dhyana with metaphysical over-readings of it. It may make you feel that you’ve gone to the gods, or penetrated to the supreme truth: but actually you’re just having an experience. That experience may be unusual and supremely inspiring, but it’s not an insight into the universe itself. That point is underlined by the scientific evidence from biofeedback machines which seems to identify dhyana with high-amplitude alpha waves in the brain. Of course the experience is not to be reduced to a brain-state, but it is dependent on it. Western philosophy and religion, from St Augustine to Schopenhauer, is littered with people who experienced dhyana (or something like it) and thought it was some kind of ultimate ‘truth’. The Buddhist analysis is a very good corrective to such assumptions.

Using the concept of integration, you can describe dhyana as a temporary integration. Energies that were previously divided and in conflict with each are, for the time being at least, working together. However, this experience of temporary integration is entirely dependent on the conditions of your meditation, and will rapidly change when those conditions change.

For my own part, I think I have only experienced dhyana a few times, usually on retreat. I will close with a poem I wrote more than 25 years ago, which attempts to describe one such experience. You may just not have a clue what I’m on about, in which case that’s OK, or perhaps you may be able to relate the imagery to your own experience of meditative absorption.

A silver tension stills

between the water’s gulf and air above,

holds, as the skin of milk

the fat of fearlessness.

 

Even a knife’s blade stabbed

into a lake is suddenly enamelled

with shining mother-of-pearl

as the tension stretches,

 

sure as elastic armour. And my fist

grasped out into the air above runs

bright with the clarity of it.

Standing above, the fear is far

 

like something vague behind a mirror

while the body lying shell-clear in bare water

basks in the sunlight streaming through.

And the mud has sunk, and the silver burns.

 

Picture: Knott’s Yantra by Mojonavigator (Wikimedia Commons)

About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

6 thoughts on “Meditation 5: Dhyana

  1. I think I experienced dhyana in the mid 1980s when I was engaged in some intensely reflective work as part of my degree course. It centred on work I was doing with a small group I was facilitating through a course I’d designed on the causes of and responses to violence (by nurses). The course comprised some propositional stuff (talks and demonstrations), a week-long visit to a ‘therapeutic prison’, and some experiential stuff.

    My degree dissertation was based on an extended enquiry into the course and my part in it, and I kept contemporaneous ‘stream of consciousness’ notes in a journal. The course lasted four consecutive weeks, and the eight students were ‘in residence’ so it was something of a hot-house atmosphere, something like a retreat.

    I was learning meditation at the time (by myself with no instruction) and used books to support my learning, but I took it seriously. Right from the start, I realised that – if I were to keep a journal – I had to be completely honest and open, and record what I was actually thinking, feeling or doing, without censoring my thoughts or paying too much attention to judging them. I found that by paying careful attention to the stream of my thoughts without getting involved in them, I could -as it were – “follow them down” (that’s the term I used) like Alice following the Rabbit down the hole.

    After three weeks of this, two interesting things happpened. One was a huge catharsis of buried grief that poured out in me, and poured out of me, on a single occasion (not dhyani); and the other was a sudden, immense and overwhelming tsunami-like upsurge of energy from my pelvis into my spine and up through my belly, and an accompanying sense of ecstatic clarity that lasted (I think) for less than a minute before subsiding. I thought perhaps it was a ‘kundalini’ experience, but I’ve never made enquiries about that from a teacher, I haven’t wanted to have it ‘validated’ or ‘invalidated’, perhaps.

    This experience didn’t happen in formal meditation. I was just sitting at my desk in my office with the journal, and I’d been writing, and using my “follow thought down” technique. I opened to a thought, and watched it change and metamorphose and open up without resistance from me.

    The experience hasn’t been repeated, but I still occasionally use the “follow thought down” method, it’s helpful in “focusing” (as in Gendlin’s meaning of the word). I don’t know.

    1. Hi Robert,
      Your poem, full of descriptive passages has created an inner picture, as though you are immersed in liquid mercury, that is how I read it. All around becomes silvered, you are one with it. Beyond fears, safe in the sunlight?

      Hi Peter,
      Your thread reminded of a time at Gaia House when an overwhelming feeling of loving kindness came over me, it was momentary, lasting only seconds, before it changed.
      Not dhyana, but memorable.
      During a session when I was having talking therapy, with a very skilled counsellor asking questions, I suddenly experienced an altered mental state, it seemed as though I had reached the very depths of my unconscience when like you I ‘reached a huge catharsis of buried grief that poured out of me’. I wept deeply, from then on I changed and haven’t looked back since!

  2. Hi,

    I have had a couple of strange experiences when meditating, a short burst of euphoria, that actually made me restless and was not entirely pleasant (which seems paradoxical) and a vivid hallucination of the corpse of a recently deceased old man (not woman)! The latter was especially strange as I was meditating with my eyes open (Soto Zen style) but the hallucination engulfed my senses and I was not aware of the room that I was actually in. I do not think that either of these were dhyana.

    I have found this post to be very useful and might help me to strike a balance. There is a natural curiosity to discover what these states are like but also an awareness that the seeking of them can be counter productive. My solution to this has been to ignore them, and not contemplate the possibility of them arising.

    Peter and Norma’s experiences are interesting and signify that these types of altered states are not wholly dependent on sitting meditation – although this is a tried and tested method of cultivating them. I am especially interested in Norma’s description of being changed after her experience with the talking therapy and wonder if Peter and Robert had similar experiences – did the experience have a (significant) transformative effect or was it mainly transient? When I meditate there are real and positive effects that last for quite a while, but if I stop meditating for a period of time – a week or so – then these effects begin to subside.

    Rich

  3. Rich

    Your questions about my own experiences are tantalising. They’ve really made me think about what transformation means to me, and what significant means to me, and what transient means too! Now the words are dancing in my head, and my body is enjoined to trip along with them.

    About the same time I had the experience described I was collaborating on issues of violence with a Jungian clinical psychologist called Dr Rashid Skinner. He is/was very charismatic and clever. He described my approach to teaching and facilitation as like “the Captain and Bessie” in the Northumberland Short Sword Dance. I was flattered, and at the same time moved by the metaphor, which moves me still.

    Apparently the Northumberland thing is a kind of intricate “Morris Dance” performed by a team of five or six North-East miners (or children from mining communities), using a kind of sword. The Captain and Bessie (sometimes performed by the same dancer) is an extra to the team, and his/her role is to intervene creatively in the dance by weaving in and out to disrupt its patterns, and set off new ones.

    The Captain/Bessie also ‘plays to’ the audience, and draws inspiration for her/his interventions from audience responses. She/he is also very expert in the repertoire of dance patterns, and knows the individual team members, and their strengths and weaknesses, very well.

    Now, my sense is that we’re all participants in this miggling dance, and we are all called upon to play the part of the Captain/Bessie in our turn, as we’re inspired to do so. I enjoy that idea, and will let it proliferate in my imagination for a while.

    Meanwhile, I’ll disrupt your own dance, so as to put you momentarily out of step with your solution (of ignoring) and your sword-flourish (of not contemplating), and your blocking the sword (of natural curiosity). May you spin off into a delightful fugue of paradox and possibility, while our immeasurable audience cheers us on.

  4. Thanks for the interesting responses and personal experiences here. I agree that dhyana is not solely dependent on sitting meditation. What people have called ‘religious (or mystical) experience’ or ‘poetic rapture’ may well be equivalent to dhyana, whether it occurs spontaneously, or in the context of reflection or creation. There are some interesting accounts of mystical experiences of well-known people at http://www.bodysoulandspirit.net/mystical_experiences/read/notables/index.shtml Personally I think it likely that the most sublime pieces of music, such as Beethoven’s piano sonata no.32, were written with the immediate inspiration of a state of dhyana.

    The experience is indeed transformative in my experience, but gradually fades. You may feel deeply inspired for hours or days afterwards. My sense is that it is important to invest this state of inspiration whilst it lasts: for example, reaching a fuller understanding of something that has been difficult. It’s easy to just enjoy feeling good in the afterglow, but if you want it to continue to play a positive role in your life from that point, you need to do something with it.

    1. I like the wise counsel contained in your last paragraph, Robert, about doing something with the brief transformation, the opportunity to put the inspiration it provides to useful purpose.

      That purpose might serve legitimately your own interests, or it might be directed toward the interests of others.

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