Below is an interesting personal testimonial from a friend who had a “Jhana-like” experience:
The reason why I call it Jhana- like or Jhana- lite experience (I will use the acronym JLE for the rest of the testimony) is because when I read about Jhanic experiences from reputed monks like Ajahn Brahm, it is clear what I had experienced was not as deep as what Ajahn Brahm has described. For example, Ajahn Brahm commented that when someone is in Jhana, there can be no thinking because the mind is too still, but clearly I was still able to think. Yet, by other standards, it did feel like a Jhanic experience.
The circumstances under which I had the JLE experience offer some interesting insights themselves. I was in my late 20s and had, by then, been a Buddhist for a few years. But during those earlier years, my Buddhist journey was a bumpy one (ok, I struggled) and I had in fact had stop participating in any Buddhist activities for a few years.
I had to thank the Buddhist website Access to Insight for rekindling my interest in Buddhism. Learning Buddhism straight from the “source” (the suttas) had been one of the most liberating and inspiring experiences for me; The sutta is the authoritative source from which we can learn the Dhamma from. Reading the suttas for myself has helped clear up much of the confusion I previously had. As a result I became interested in Buddhism again. I felt very inspired every time I read the suttas.
Secondly, like most youth, I had many things I wanted to do and experience (like traveling and scuba diving). By the time I was in my late 20s I felt I’ve actually tried many of the things on my “to do” list. So there was a certain amount of contentment about life in general.
Lastly, both my work and social life was “pretty routine” (I had been working in the same company for a few years and I felt I understood my role pretty well) so there was not a lot of striving.
I believe the inspiration, contentment and lack of striving were important factors that made the experience JLE possible. When I sat down to meditate, the mind was happy (because I felt inspired), at ease (because I was contented) and I could calm it down quickly (because there was not a lot of striving in my life).
Then I experienced it.
Like any classic Jhanic experience story we have heard before, the experience was an immensely blissful one. In fact, the happiness experienced was almost, almost beyond what words can describe.
To put it in perspective, on a happiness scale of 1 to 10, I can recall some experiences which I would rate 9 out of 10 on the scale. By comparison, the happiness, joy and bliss of the JLE would be 25 out of 10 (Yes! Off the chart)! – I did not know it was possible to experience so much happiness.
At the same time, it is very different from our everyday mundane happiness. In mundane happiness (e.g. winning a million dollars in a lucky draw), one experiences happiness that is conditioned by craving (a million dollars!), a corrupting element. Sooner or later the mind gets used to the million dollars (especially if you see someone who has two million dollars) and says “ok I want more”.
But the joy and bliss of Jhana comes from letting go (of greed, hatred, anger etc) so from a Buddhist psychological perspective, it is a purifying factor. In fact, when I was in JLE, it felt like I could NEVER get angry because the condition for destructive emotions like anger do not exist.
The Buddha said that there are 3 kinds of happiness; happiness from sensual pleasure, from Jhana and from Nibbana. Each kind of happiness is different from the other, with Nibbanic happiness being the highest, followed by Jhanic and then mundane happiness. How true!
I knew for a fact that no sensual pleasure can even come close to the joy and happiness that one experiences in Jhana. Because the “technology” is difference , thus the experiences are also very different. – It’s like comparing sand on a beach to flour. No matter how fine nature polishes the sand, it can’t come close to the texture of flour, because the elements and molecular structure that make up sand and flour are different.
Likewise the conditions for sensual happiness and Jhanic happiness are different. While I’ve yet to experience nibbanic happiness, what the Buddha said, and my own experience of sensual and jhanic happiness gave me confidence that it is real.
The other interesting thing I noticed was that when I was in JLE, it felt like all the energy of the mind came together. It’s hard to describe, but in our everyday mind, 90% of our attention and energy are scattered. But when one is in Jhana, all the energy comes together and is at your disposal and you feel like your mind is tamed, just like what the sutta describes, “the mind is meable”, like gold that had been heated by the gold smith and can be easily shaped. The mind feels like it had been tamed and could be shaped for enlightenment.
Another experience I felt was that of great contentment. Reflecting at life, the only analogy I could come up with was, that we were like children fighting over toy cars… if we were to stop our fighting long enough and put our hand in our pocket, we will realise we all had the keys to an expensive car that is parked just beside us. – The fighting symbolises the craving and striving we have in our daily life, stopping to put our hand in our pocket is like meditation and learning to let go, and the expensive car is the relative value of the happiness of deep meditation compared to sensual pleasures(the toy car) .
The happiness, joy, bliss and letting go also purified the mind of a lot of defilements. One of the first things I felt like doing was to pick up the phone and establish friendships with people I fell out with over the years (which I did). Carrying around all these past grudges and unhappiness was just plain silly!
The mind also becomes more sensitive to defilements, like anger or greed, and I did not want to go near them. The experience also removed 90% of my craving for sensual pleasures. For example, music used to be one of the things I truly enjoyed. After JLE, I could no longer listen to music anymore and preferred silence. I used to like photography, but I found I could not pick up the camera to snap another photo anymore. I stopped watching movies, because I could not relate to the themes of the movies any more (For a few months after the JLE, I instinctively found myself drawn closer to the eight precepts than the five precepts.)
A person living in our modern world may think a world without music or movie or hobbies might be a strange and lonely one. However the opposite was true. We seek these things because the mind is not contented and needs external stimulus to “perk it up”, but a mind touched by great contentment is peaceful and happy as it is.
It also offered other insights to the nature of the mind. Personally, one of the biggest puzzles in Buddhism for me has been how could someone have no desire, an honest reflection of our own mind would review that even our most altruistic intentions are marked by desires.
Yet a mind that has been “cleansed” by Jhanic experience is just that. It felt like sensual desires had been “decoupled” from the mind and I could experience what it is like to have a mind that is no longer motivated primarily by desires, craving and clinging. But rather, it is motivated by metta (loving-kindness) and karuna (compassion).
While most of the benefits of my JLE have faded over the years, the greatest gift it gave me still remains – my renewed confidence and faith in the Buddha’s teachings. One that is based on experience.
At the same time, it is sad to see how there are many Buddhists who try to put down and even belittle this important teaching of the Buddha. This is especially true in the 90s when there was a strong vipassana movement in the Buddhist circle. Many described Jhana as inferior to vipassana and even to be dangerous! (I believed it so much that when I first heard Ajahn Brahma talking about and praising Jhana, I doubted it and was even troubled by what Ajahn Brahm said).
It was only after reading the suttas for myself and my own JLE that I come to understand that Ajahn Brahma was right after all. – In fact, of the 152 suttas in the Mhajjima Nikaya about 30 of them mentioned Jhana. In all of these suttas, the Buddha praised Jhana (Of cause, Jhana is not the end all be all of Buddhism. It is after all, “only” the eighth factor of the Noble Eightfold Path).