Reflecting on the Jhana Factors

If you drive back from a peaceful mountain region to the busy town you can reflect on all the milestonesSerenity and passing sights either while you drive or when you are back home.

Now of course watching the scenery while driving is usually not recommended. It may very well be outright dangerous to look back while driving on a highway. If you do that at all, you would have to do that very quickly. But you can.

The safer approach of course is reflecting on your passage long time afterwards, when you are home, sitting on your sofa with a cup of tea. But then of course the journey is long gone and not everything is as fresh in your memory as it was during the trip when you just “saw” it.

The Suttas and Visuddhimagga tell us about the ability to “look back” (pacca-vekkhati), look over our shoulders, so to speak, when practicing meditation, especially the jhanas.

As mentioned in an earlier post, for the beginner it is quite hard to come into deep states of concentration but especially for the intermediate meditator with one or two years of consistent practice it is sometimes challenging to just stumble over absorptions but not to know where they come from or how to locate them “at will”. Mastery of the jhanas is nothing else than the ability to plunge into any of those concentrated states by will, at any time. But how to get there?

One very important foundation is of course the proper understanding of one’s own meditation object, and practice. What is supposed to happen if i concentrate on one object and what exactly do i have to do? A good meditation teacher will answer those questions precisely and render this post unnecessary. So it is for those meditating in Alaska who have no one to ask :-)

At the very beginning a proper understanding of vitakka and vicara is necessary. They stand for what the meditator is trying to archieve: He is trying to bind his wandering mind to one object…and one object only.

Any diviation is a loss in concentration. Maybe not a complete break up but nevertheless a loss a diminuation. According to the simile the Buddha gave with regard to the six animals each longing towards a different realm the meditator’s object is like the pole in the middle on which the six animals are bound by a rope and around which they will circle and eventually calm down.

However, just having a pole won’t keep the animals away from roaming around. They will simply drag the pole with them. The pole needs to go into the earth. Deep inside.

Here comes vitakka and vicara to our rescue. Vitakka is the thought which resembles a hammer and drives the pole, for instance “light”, “light”, “light” down into the ground. Each repetition of “light”, “light” is another blow with the hammer prolonging the steadiness of the object – in this case the perception of light.

But we are not to mindlessly recite a mantra here. We want clarity and gain concentration so that we can induce this whenever we like. As mentioned above – we are looking for mastery.

Therefore, lets try to understand vicara, the second jhanic factor. Vicara is like the resonance after the hammer hit the pole. It is the
movement into the ground, the resonance of a bell hit by a stick.

If you think “loving kindness”, “loving kindness” …now pause for a moment and watch your mind. The “being on the topic” just after you think such a concentrated thought (vitakka) dwelling on the object of your concentration (“the feeling/perception of kindness towards all”) is what vicara (“moving about”) is all about.

Soon, if these two factors are established piti, or joy, will follow in due course. This is like a very natural law: The mind, subdued and calmed by one calming thought and focusing on one object/color/feeling/perception (depending on what your meditation subject is. If it is loving kindness it will more be a feeling. if it is breathing, it will be the feeling of the breathing, if it is light, it will be the perception of light) …a mind thus steadied will experience joy because of a reduction in sense impressions.

So the only task at hand for you seeking the entrance into the first of the four jhanas is establishing a repeated focused thought like “loving kindness” and a “mental listening” or “close thoughtless observation” or “dwelling and gliding on” the aftermath after striking the bell with this meditative thought. The longer you can hold your mind gliding on this resonance the quicker you will establish vitakka and vicara. Having established those two, piti will come in quickly.

So far so good. How does the method of pacca-vekkhati or “looking back” come into play here, helping us to master states of absorption?

Giving it a modern name, we would probably call it “tagging”. The purpose of pacca-vekkhati is a tagging and labeling of our actual experience. That way the mind establishes signposts and it will be easier and easier to repeat and identify an experience.

Think of someone doing samatha meditation like a person stumbling through a stretch of forest. In theEntering the forest middle of the forest runs a straight clear clean and beautiful path. But this path is – initially – very small and hard to find. Now the person might start entering the forest from many different sides but wherever it enters (whatever the subject of meditation is) in the beginning it will be hard for that person to even come across this path.

Most of the time the person enters the forest, soon is lost by all the trees and bushes stopping his advance into the forest and he turns in circles and after a while gives up and leaves the forest.

However, once in a while, this person would – by chance – stumble over this clear clean beautiful trail. Standing there, it looks around and says: “Wow, this is a beautiful trail”. But his dwelling on this path and walking along is only for a very short time. For one, because this trail is not very wide in the beginning and as soon as he looses track he finds himself again surrounded by trees and lost.

What will help this person to find this trail more often and stay on it for longer periods of time? Tagging!

Path in the forestA boy scouts first resort to finding his way to and fro in any unknown place is to leave markers and waysigns. In the same manner a meditator desiring to master the jhana has to make use of paccavekkhana or “looking back” and has to “tag” those factors which make up the individual jhanas. That way he will not only find the track quicker, more easily but also widen the path and thus deepen his experience allowing the jhana factors to become much stronger.

Now, how do we do the tagging of such faint mental things like jhana factors? The most difficult part for you will be to identify what is what. If you know, what is what, you are almost there. Knowing what is what is like seeing a glimmer of the path through the canopy and trunks of trees.

Let’s do this for the first jhana together and you try to tag the jhana factors of the remaining 3 jhana as an excercise on your own.

These are the five factors of the first jhana:

vitakka (thought)

vicara (gliding/resonance)

piti (joy)

sukha (happiness, comfortableness)

upekkha (equanimity, deep serenity)

Traditionally in each sucessive jhana the factors are reduced. So that the

2nd jhana has only piti, sukha, upekkha. The 3rd has sukha, upekkha. And the 4th only upekkha.

Now with regard to the first jhana, the thought which we use to set up the pole with can be any concise mentioning of the topic like “earth, earth” or “loving kindness”. Do not mix this up with mental chatter about your meditation topic. We use one thought to substitute all others. So go on repeating this thought. Then, once in a while think: “This is vitakka”. Now, doing this reflection/looking back/paccavekkhana you have to be careful like the driver looking back on the road. You temporarily diminish your concentration by letting in a “stray thought”. That is fine as long as you do not loose control over your vehicle and crash into other cars, piling up a heap of thoughts: this would mean losing your concentration. But, if you just, once in a while, internally “tag” what you experience then that will be no problem at all, even beneficial – because now your mind knows what to look for.

Next step: Repeating this vitakka is just the first step to pull yourself closer to a concentrated mind. Now you add the following task: After each repetition of the thought take close attention to the “state of your mind” directly after thinking the thought for instance “loving kindness” … the gliding/flapping of your wings or resonance that thought leaves…if you think you identified it, tag it, thinking: “This is vicara”.

Now repeat those two tags…But not constantly…just once in a while. As if you would check on the way you take through the forest not to stray off to far.

Once you established vitakka and vicara the joy will not be far away. As we said in the beginning, it is given, a natural law, that the mind will feel joyous once the calmness of vitakka and vicara laid the foundation.

A note beside: Sukha and Upekkha in the first jhana kind of hide behind the first three factors which are very dominant at first. The progression of the jhanas is a progress in refinement. As the gross factors will diminish the finer onces will gain strength. But that is something you might like to find out by yourself.

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