Jhanas at the Forest Refuge

I spent the whole month of May 2006 on retreat at the Forest Refuge in Barre MA with the Ven. Pa Auk Sayadaw. Sayadaw is a very accomplished meditation master and I learned a great deal both from him directly, and by practicing his method even tho I only barely scratched the surface. The main practices are Anapanasati for concentration and The Four Elements for insight. This paper, however, is not so much about Sayadaw's teaching per se, but actually addresses some interesting things I learned about concentration and the Jhanas as little side explorations after hours of practicing Anapanasati Pa Auk style.

The initial instructions for Anapanasati from Sayadaw were to learn to follow the breath for half an hour without getting distracted. Since I have been practicing Anapanasati for over 20 years in one form or another, this was not a difficult thing for me to do. When I reported that I could do so at my second interview, Sayadaw asked me to sit longer - like 3 or 4 hours per sitting.

Needless to say, such long sittings quickly built my concentration. And since, for nearly 20 years, I have been using Anapanasati concentration to access piti, I began having VERY STRONG bursts of piti. Luckily, these bursts only lasted 10 or so seconds - if they had lasted much longer, my head would have probably popped off, the shaking was so strong. I was not doing anything to induce the piti - it was showing up on its own after I got really concentrated. I reported this to Sayadaw, and he called it "Gross Piti," and said it was not helpful and to not do that.

I found that I could prevent the piti from arising if I made sure not to smile - keep a very neutral expression on my face - and not get distracted into anything "pleasurable." Yet I could feel the piti in the background tingling away pretty much all the time; certainly anytime I stopped and looked for it, it was there. But I could prevent the strong outbursts of "gross piti."

Now mostly I concentrated (pun intended) on Sayadaw's Anapanasati practice. But sometimes after sitting for 3 or 4 hours, if I still had energy and my body was willing, I would let the piti arise (all I had to do was smile for a minute or so) and go off exploring the Jhanas as I had learned them from Ven. Ayya Khema. The following is NOT a description of the Jhanas as taught by Ven. Pa Auk - for that see the Visuddhimagga's section on concentration; this is just my extra curricular explorations.

The whole experience outlined above would take approximately half an hour - based on when my timer went off to end the sitting, and what the clock said when I opened my eyes. All this time, I was doing nothing to maintain, enhance or change these states. I was just sitting back and observing this unfold, trying to be as aware as possible of what was happening. I do wonder what it would have been like if I was less tired and/or if I made any "effort" towards sustaining or deepen these experiences.

In conclusion, I want to say that I have a much deeper appreciation of the description of the jhanas that appears in the suttas. That description now seems far more accurate after having stronger concentration than I had previously experienced.

Now I'm not about to claim that what I experienced was the "actual sutta jhanas". What I was doing was concentrating for 3 or 4 hours and then playing with the jhanas for maybe half an hour or so. The monks and nuns in the suttas would eat their meal (9:00am?, 10:00am?) and then go "for the day's abiding" - practicing meditation until sunset. I imaging that these full time practitioners where sitting much longer than I did and getting even more concentrated.

One thing I can say for sure is that, even tho I was tired after such long sittings, when I finally came out of the fourth jhana, I definitely had a mind that was "concentrated, clear, sharp, bright, malleable, wieldy and given to imperturbability." It was great to turn it to investigation of "things as they really happen."

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