Frequently I meet students who excitedly tell me about experiences they have had in past retreats where they believe they have “stumbled into jhana,” or “slipped into jhana.” It may be so. Blissful states are not uncommon in meditation. But whether or not it was an actual accomplishment of the deep absorption states called jhana, what will make the experience significant? What makes any meditative experience significant? Certainly a pleasant meditation, even a very very pleasant meditation, is not inherently important.
People can be impressed with their own meditative experiences and enraptured by the pleasure of the state. Unfortunately I sometimes disappoint students, because it is difficult for me to pretend to be impressed. I have heard the story so many times. Instead of confirming the experience as a jhanic attainment, I may ask some basic questions: What was your meditation object? What was your attention absorbed in? Were there any thoughts? Were you aware of any bodily perceptions? How long did the experience last? Where you able to repeat it in your next sitting? What perception preceded the absorption? What was the quality of mind after the absorption?
Intense and pleasurable experiences happen naturally in meditation, but I believe that concentration and jhana practice is not about “stumbling” into altered states that may be characterized by peace or happiness. Concentration practice involves the honing of attentional skills.
The four concentration states called jhanas describe controlled perceptions. We learn to direct our attention to a chosen object and are repeatedly mindful of that object. A skilled meditator entering jhana will know the nature of their object. Their mindfulness of their object will be very refined.
I hope my questions help students to release a little of the infatuation with their experiences, and encourage the development of skill. If someone just slides into a pleasant abiding because conditions conspire to create sustained bliss, why call it a jhana? Why call a meditative state jhana until it is a repeatable controlled perception?
When meditators learn to skillful direct their attention through the traditional four jhanas, they will be able to apply their attentional skills to develop the mind and also support insight.