Frequently Asked Questions About Practicing Jhana Meditation and Deepening Concentration with Shaila Catherine
Jhānas are states of deep concentration and meditative absorption that develop when attention is focused on suitable meditative objects. Jhāna practices create conducive conditions for penetrative insight into the nature of mind-body experience, thus facilitating awakening.
Four states of absorption, called the first jhāna, second jhāna, third jhāna, and fourth jhāna, are characterized by sequentially refined qualities of joy, pleasure, equanimity, peace, stability, mental agility, and balance of mind.
In Buddhist traditions, jhānas are always practiced with a foundation of virtuous living and right view that understands the aim of this liberating path.
Jhāna is tremendously useful, but not necessary for insight meditation practice. Jhāna offers many benefits, however. It produces a joyful, happy, stable mind; it strengthens focused attention, balances energy, and develops refined meditative skills. The early discourses of the Buddha tell us that concentration develops a mind that is malleable, wieldy, imperturbable, and “fit for work”. The concentrated mind is extremely conducive to insight meditation and has the power and stability needed to perceive impermanence clearly and thereby realize the fruit of liberating insight.
Shaila Catherine leads meditation retreats throughout the year in various locations in the USA and internationally. However, she only introduces students to jhāna practice at retreats that are explicitly designated as jhāna or concentration retreats. At most other retreats, Shaila teaches a blend of concentration and insight without the particular instructions that would lead to meditative absorption.
Shaila generally reserves jhāna training for one or two particular retreats each year, where she presents a systematic and thorough training in jhāna. The retreat that most consistently emphasizes jhāna practice is usually offered in California, co-sponsored by Bodhi Retreats and Insight Meditation South Bay. Attendance at this retreat is limited to a maximum of 34 students to enable Shaila (and her co-teacher) to work closely with each student. Systematic instructions guide students to use the breath as the primary object, nurture skill in focusing on the object, cultivate the five jhāna factors, overcome distraction and other obstacles, and develop the nimitta or sign of concentration.
Since the development of jhāna and concentration occurs in the context of a liberating path, the dhamma teachings at a jhāna retreat will include teachings on insight, liberation, and other aspects of the Buddha’s teaching. Students who wish to train in jhāna practices are expected to have read Focused and Fearless prior to attending this retreat.
Shaila Catherine is known for the depth of her practice, her sustained dedication to meditative development, and the clarity of her teaching style. She is adept at teaching the subtle nuances of jhāna practices and renowned for her skill at making the detailed traditional methods accessible to contemporary lay practitioners.
Shaila began meditation practice in 1980 and has been teaching insight meditation since 1996 when her mentor, Christopher Titmuss, authorized her to teach the dhamma. In 2003 she entered a ten-month silent meditation retreat during which her practice emphasized jhāna as a basis for insight. She has taught jhāna and concentration practices internationally since 2004, always in support of liberating insight practices.
In 2006 Shaila undertook a several-year period of training under the guidance of Venerable Pa-Auk Sayadaw, who systematically guided her through multiple retreats and intensive study. She practiced the full range of concentration and jhāna subjects, and trained in the detailed approach for discerning matter based on the four elements, mentality and the cognitive processes, and conditionality.
She also studied the Buddhist psychological system known as Abhidhamma as a detailed approach to vipassanā. As part of this practical meditative study, she delved deeply into a method for contemplating body and mind which culminates in sixteen insight knowledges and the experience of nibbāna.
People sometimes associate Shaila primarily with concentration and jhāna practice. However, she is proficient in teaching a range of practices, and her courses and retreats emphasize a comprehensive approach to a liberating path. Her teachings embrace mindfulness, virtue, loving-kindness, and wisdom, alongside and supported by the deepening of concentration and jhāna, and consistently aimed at transformative liberating insight and direct awakening.
To hear Shaila speaking about her practice and approach to teaching, listen to this in-depth interview conducted by Wisdom Publications.
In general, attendance at the jhāna retreats requires prior silent retreat experience, substantial self-reliance and self-discipline, and some skill in working with the hindrances. Specific requirements will be provided in the registration information. Students who attend Shaila’s local programs may be exempt from these pre-requisites and may approach these retreats as a first taste of silent retreat. If you do not have prior experience with residential retreats, speak to Shaila at a local event, or contact the retreat registrar to request an exemption, describing your daily practice and intention for the retreat.
Jhāna practice can be a suitable approach for both beginners and advanced practitioners, but there are practical reasons why Shaila generally requires prior retreat experience. First, skill in working with the hindrances is a necessary basis for entering jhāna. Because the instruction periods in the jhāna retreat are used for teaching concentration skills, a general mindfulness-based retreat may provide a better foundation for the beginning meditator who wants to learn basic mindfulness practices and tips for working with the hindrances.
Second, the jhāna retreat includes self-scheduled periods in which participants are expected to be able to practice diligently and understand how to benefit from a silent retreat environment.
Students who wish to train in jhāna practices are expected to have read Focused and Fearless prior to attending this retreat.
Although instruction in jhāna practices will be a vivid element of the retreat, no one should “expect” to enter jhāna, and jhāna is not always the best approach for everyone. At these retreats we cultivate conducive conditions and develop meditative skills—we don’t judge our success by whether or not we actually entered jhāna.
Most participants do not establish stable absorptions in their first or even second ten-day retreat. But nearly all participants report learning a tremendous amount about their minds, and developing deeper concentration than they had previously known. Even very seasoned practitioners report transformative experiences, with or without the attainment of the specific states of jhāna.
Some students quickly develop concentration and jhāna; others develop gradually. Shaila teaches a rigorous and nuanced approach to jhāna concentration, but her teaching style is gentle, joyful, and patient.
Shaila’s emphasis is not merely on the attainment of jhāna, but on developing mental skills. While jhāna can produce highly concentrated states in which the mind is free from distraction and has overcome the hindrances, the state of concentration is less important than the skills that develop in the process of learning this meditation method. Meditators will inevitably confront and work to overcome a wide range of obstacles, abandon judgmental habits, balance the mind, refine the skillfulness of their effort, and gain invaluable personal insights.
Those practitioners who are especially adept at concentration will have the opportunity to master each state and skillfully use jhāna as a basis for insight. However, with the intention of liberation, the training will not rush through the mere experience of the jhānas. Although the pace of each student’s development is individual, Shaila generally emphasizes clarity, thoroughness, and skillfulness far more than brief or dramatic experiences.
By working with Shaila over the course of several years, through one or two retreats per year and a dedicated daily practice, students can undertake this profound and systematic training of samādhi and vipassanā without having to travel to remote monasteries in Asia.
After the fourth jhāna is well established, meditators may choose to deepen their concentration and refine their skills by establishing jhānas using other meditation subjects. Or they can explore formless and immaterial states based on the perception of infinite space, the perception of infinite consciousness, the perception of nothingness/emptiness, and an ultra-subtle perception that is called the base of neither-perception-nor-non-perception.
Different meditation objects have different effects on the mind, so meditators who are adept at concentration may benefit from additional samādhi training to enrich their experience of the wholesome states of jhāna and strengthen mastery of the mind.
When a student is satisfied with their concentration, they may shift the focus to the discernment of matter, mind, and conditionality, and then engage in insight meditation through the contemplation of the impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and not-self characteristics of experiential phenomena.
Students who undertake the meditative training with Shaila Catherine can gradually explore a systematic and comprehensive training in both samādhi and vipassanā through repeated annual 10-day retreats, supported by online programs or individual guidance throughout the year.
- The best way to prepare for a retreat is to do the following:
- Keep your ethical precepts very clean. Take care of unfinished business so that you can enter silence without worry; settle worldly matters so that you don’t feel a need to check in on work or home concerns. (Be sure to give our emergency contact information to any vulnerable family members. Knowing that your loved ones will be able to reach you in an emergency can help you to let your phones stay off throughout the duration of the retreat.)
- Avoid TV and movies in the weeks prior to the retreat and reduce nonessential social engagements, if possible.
- Get enough sleep so you enter the retreat balanced and refreshed.
- Maintain a daily mindfulness-based meditation practice, and if possible increase your daily meditation practice in the weeks prior to (and also after) the retreat. If your daily practice does not include the primary object of the breath at the nostrils and upper lip area, then include this focus as a feature of your daily practice in the weeks prior to the retreat. This can help your mind become familiar with the breath as the meditation subject.
- Read Focused and Fearless if you have not previously read it, or review parts of it as a refresher and inspiration before the retreat. Bring a good attitude to the retreat. Enjoy the opportunity to work with whatever conditions you may find internally or externally.
If I register for Shaila’s intensive jhāna retreat, will I be expected to only practice jhāna or mindfulness with breathing?
Mindfulness with breathing represents the core of the group instructions. However, Shaila presents the jhāna instructions in the context of a wider and more flexible view of the liberating path. Many additional practices and teachings are offered through group and individual instructions in order to cultivate conducive conditions for concentration and insight.
It is not always the right time for a meditator to develop jhāna. Therefore, even on retreats that are described as featuring jhāna instructions, or mindfulness with breathing, individual guidance may encourage mettā, mindfulness practices, or other insight meditation techniques.
Shaila will usually respond to questions about concentration and jhāna during any retreat, but she only teaches the specifics of jhāna practice at retreats that are described and advertised to include jhāna instructions.
It is understood that meditators may, at various times in their meditation history, experience absorptive states, even without intentionally doing jhāna practice. Although this can indicate a personal aptitude for concentration, periodically slipping into secluded states of absorption or jhāna-like states is not the kind of concentration that Shaila teaches. She takes a thorough approach to the development of the mind that emphasizes the development of mental skills, not altered states or esoteric experiences.
Even if a meditator has practiced jhāna with other teachers, in other systems, or naturally slips into jhāna-like states, Shaila cannot teach the subtle nuances that master jhāna and apply it to liberating insight during her general insight meditation retreats. The jhāna training usually requires systematic instruction and individual guidance, neither of which are available on general insight retreats.
How does Shaila’s approach to jhāna meditation differ from that of other contemporary jhāna teachers?
A variety of meditation teachers now teach jhāna and concentration practice in the USA, Asia, and internationally. Different approaches, meditation objects, and teaching styles may be more or less suitable for different practitioners.
Some teachers accept rather light states of heightened joy as a jhāna attainment; other teachers do not use the term jhāna until concentration is sustained and repeated. Some teachers encourage rapid progress through brief dips into concentrated states; other teachers emphasize greater mastery and maturity at each stage of jhāna practice. Some teachers only offer jhāna practices; others are adept at applying the concentrated mind to insight practices. Some teachers teach only one or two meditation objects (such as breath or mettā); other teachers offer a wide selection; and others may offer group instructions with one meditation object, but offer students more flexibility through the individual consultations.
Common differences in the currently available approaches to ānāpānasati samādhi practice circle around:
- the inclusion or exclusion of bodily and sensual perceptions
- whether the meditator keeps the attention on the chosen meditation subject, or turns the attention to either investigate or relish the qualities of the concentrated mind
- when and how one works with the five jhāna factors of applied and sustained attention, rapture/joy, pleasure/happiness, and one-pointedness
- how one develops the sign of concentration called a nimitta
- how concentration and insight practices are distinguished or intertwined.
It is difficult to pigeonhole Shaila’s teaching style because her approach responds to individual temperaments. In general, she inclines toward a gradual, careful, and deep training that develops concentration through consistent attention to a single mental perception, starting with the breath. Most students use the breath to establish the four jhānas and later cultivate additional concentration objects; some students choose to use a different meditation subject from the beginning of their practice (such as mettā or mindfulness of the body).
Shaila draws inspiration from the early discourses of the Buddha, the Visuddhimagga, and the Abhidhamma. She incorporates investigation of mind strategically, and trains students to gain some degree of mastery at each level of jhāna before progressing to the next stage. The training results in a malleable, quick, clear mind that is strongly inclined toward awakening.
A discerning practitioner can get a sense of Shaila’s approach by reading Focused and Fearless and listening to some of her online dhamma talks before attending her retreats. But even with some research, it can be difficult to understand why and how a teacher teaches until actually undertaking the training.
Some methods that are promoted by other teachers are very compatible and students will find no conflict when working with both Shaila and another teacher. However, some approaches to jhāna promoted by other teachers are distinctly incompatible with Shaila’s approach. If you are deeply engaged in another approach to jhāna, and are uncertain if her retreat will be appropriate for you, please contact the registrar for the retreat. Describe your experiences of concentration, personal goals regarding the practice, and motivations for applying for Shaila’s retreat.
Shaila has undertaken extensive training in both samādhi and vipassanā practices guided by Pa-Auk Sayadaw. She has twice completed his vipassanā course. Her book Wisdom Wide and Deep introduces western practitioners to this methodical approach to jhāna and vipassanā.
Shaila is therefore well versed in this method, her teaching is compatible with this training, and she is very happy to guide meditators in that systematic approach when appropriate. However, strict adherence to the systematic approach characteristic of Pa-Auk Sayadaw’s training is not suitable for most western meditators. Shaila’s style is generally described as much lighter and softer. She works with the people along with the method, and is regarded as a highly skilled and flexible teacher who values the details of a methodical training but consistently points to the ultimate goal of awakening.
The breadth of her background of practice and teaching that occurred prior to her encounter with Pa-Auk Sayadaw provides a unique context for understanding and interpreting the systematic methods. Shaila spent several years living with the Advaita master H.W.L. Poonja in India; she has almost a decade of mindfulness meditation experience based on Mahasi Sayadaw’s noting method, she has received Tibetan Dzogchen teachings, and has spent over nine years in silent retreats in both Thai forest monasteries and western retreat centers. All these experiences influence her approach to practice and teaching.
Shaila works with a limited number of students between retreats through telephone consultations. To qualify for personal guidance, you must have attended a Bodhi Retreats retreat and have the intention to attend another in the future. Shaila does not offer personalized training for meditators who have not attended her intensive retreats. It is at those retreats that she offers comprehensive meditation instructions for attaining jhāna, clarifies the purpose for the practice, and gets to know the qualities, dispositions, tendencies, and aptitudes of individual meditator’s minds. This shared experience on retreat helps her to be an effective guide.
Shaila has authored two books that provide practical instructions for deepening concentration, establishing the four jhānas, and applying the concentrated mind to insight practice. Her first book, Focused and Fearless, emphasizes mindfulness with breathing (anapanasati samadhi) as the means for developing the sign of concentration (nimitta) and entering jhāna. Her second book, Wisdom Wide and Deep, offers a comprehensive system for developing jhāna and insight based on the methodical training she received from Venerable Pa-Auk Sayadaw, which is founded on principals of Abhidhamma Buddhist Psychology and the ancient meditation manual Visuddhimagga, or Path or Purification. Wisdom Wide and Deep includes instructions for deepening concentration using several concentration subjects, including mindfulness with breathing; kasina practices that are derived from colors and elements; formless and immaterial attainments; the Brahma Viharas of loving kindness (mettā), compassion, joy, and equanimity; and various reflections and body perceptions.
Shaila freely shares many of her talks on diverse aspects of the dhamma through the IMSB portal of the Dharma Seed Library. Shaila does not, however, share in-depth teachings on jhāna and concentration so publically. She has found that more context is required for the subtle teachings of jhāna to be wisely undertaken and integrated into practice with a right view of the path. Therefore, her teachings on jhāna are only available in formats that provide suitable contexts for the training. You can find jhāna instructions in her books, retreats, and online courses.
Shaila offers a series of online courses in the development of concentration and insight through Bodhi Courses, an online Buddhist classroom. She usually offers two courses per year. Each course includes lectures, readings, guided meditations, reflective exercises, and discussions that are intended to deepen concentration and lead to enlightenment. Online courses are excellent opportunities to stay in contact with Shaila and these practices between the retreats. They also offer excellent opportunities for newcomers to gain an introduction to her approach, and for students who practice jhāna with other teachers to gain a well rounded understanding of the role of jhāna in a Buddhist practice.
- Online Courses by Bodhi Courses
- Shaila’s Retreat Schedule https://www.imsb.org/events/category/retreat/list/
- First Book: Focused and Fearless https://shailacatherine.com/2008/05/15/focused-and-fearless/
- Second Book: Wisdom Wide and Deep https://shailacatherine.com/2011/09/15/wisdom-wide-and-deep/
- An In-Depth Interview with Shaila Catherine by Wisdom Publications.
- Audio Recordings:
- Schedules, events, teachings, and resources can usually be found on Insight Meditation South Bay’s website: www.imsb.org.