Tag Archives: dhyana


Following my post on dhyana last week, I thought I would expand this into a discussion of mysticism. Mysticism is a phenomenon that has been misunderstood and treated with prejudice on many sides – particularly by scientific naturalists and by traditional Protestants, who often seem to use it as a pejorative term. For these people, ‘mysticism’ often seems to mean something like ‘supernaturalist obscurity’. Presumably they see mystics as cloaked dogmatists who confuse the issues through too much emphasis on ambiguity. For me, however, the term ‘mystic’ is overwhelmingly positive. Mystics are the heroes who have stood out against dogma and continually laid the emphasis on genuine experience in all the world’s religious traditions.

Mysticism begins with dhyana-like sublime experience, a type of experience available to anyone and not at all tied to religious beliefs of any kind. Here is an example from the autobiography of Jane Goodall (the chimpanzee expert), ‘Reason for Hope’:

Many years ago, in the spring of 1974, I visited the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. There were not many people around, and it was quiet and still inside. I gazed in silent awe at the great Rose Window, glowing in the morning sun. All at once the cathedral
was filled with a huge volume of sound: an organ playing magnificently for a
wedding taking place in a distant corner. Bach’s Tocata and Fugue in D Minor. I
had always loved the opening theme; but in the cathedral, filling the entire
vastness, it seemed to enter and possess my whole self. It was at though the
music itself was alive. That moment, a suddenly captured moment of eternity,
was perhaps the closest I have ever come to experiencing ecstasy, the ecstasy
of the mystic.

This is a modern example, but experiencesAngel like this have been recorded across cultures and religions. In Hinduism and Buddhism mystical experience is actively cultivated in meditation and is part of the mainstream tradition. In Islam it is an important part of the Sufi tradition, and in Christianity you can read the experiences of a succession of mystics such as Hildegard of Bingen, Richard Rolle and Jacob Boehme.

What these people had in common was that, having experienced temporary integrated states, they could see beyond the rigidities of metaphysical belief. Often this put them into conflict with the metaphysical mainstream of their religions (for example, the persecution of Sufis has been a regular feature of fundamentalist phases in Islam). More often, however, mystics have been happy to pay lip-service to the metaphysical pieties that surrounded them, whilst actually being largely indifferent to metaphysics. At the same time they have earned a far more profound respect from those who experienced their genuine degree of integration, and the wisdom and compassion that flowed from that.

Mystical experience is sometimes treated as a subset of religious experience, or sometimes identified with religious experience as a whole. I am more inclined to the former, as there are many types of experience that can be called ‘religious’. Some other forms of religious experience are also recorded by mystics – particularly visions. Visions, however, like dhyana-type experiences, can be recognised as powerful and valuable experiences without being attached to metaphysical beliefs. The significance of a vision can be implicitly or explicitly recognised as archetypal rather than conveying representational truths-out-there.

Of course, mystics in the theistic religions have often talked about God. However, for them God seems to have been an experience of uncertainty rather than the dogmatic basis of certainty that assertions about God and his revelations seem to have been for others. Where they express apparent certainty, it usually turns out to be a recognition of how far their lives had been changed by mystical experience, rather than any assertion about propositional ‘truths’ behind that experience. Where mystics have written about their experiences, they have often used language that may appear vague. They were writing, after all, about the cloud of unknowing (the title of a fourteenth century English mystical text of anonymous authorship), so their degree of vagueness was entirely appropriate to their subject matter. When it comes to advice on mystical practice, on the other hand, they are quite capable of precision. It is those who write about uncertain matters with a misleading amount of precision that we should be more suspicious of than of the mystics.

The mystical traditions of the world offer a huge resource of inspiration for the practice of the Middle Way. Of course, past and present mystics are each limited in their assumptions by their historical and religious circumstances. They can also be one-sided because their openness is so much concentrated towards the emotive end of the spectrum of meaning, so that they are not very likely to show deep critical thought or an investigative attitude to the world. Nevertheless, the mystics have absorbed and kept alive an important element of the spirit of agnostic scepticism through the ages, and we can still benefit from that spirit today.

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)