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.
So where was I? Well, this state was certainly familiar from practicing the jhanas as I learned them from Ayya Khema - but far more stable and intense. It's what she called the second jhana. But what do the suttas say? Well, the first jhana has 4 factors (Yes! Four - look it up):
The last two - the piti and sukha - are said to be born of "seclusion" (from the hindrances). Now the second jhana arises with the subsiding of the vitakka and the vicara and also has 4 factors (Yes! Four - look it up):
The last two - the piti and sukha - are said to be born of "concentration." Well, I certainly was concentrated when I entered this state. And there was no real "initial" and "sustained" mental activity - I was just there with my calm mind focused in a unified way on the sukha. So I would say I was in the second jhana - skipping the first because of the strong concentration which propelled me directly into the second.
I would also say it was the second based on a few times where I played with jhanas as I had learned them from Ayya after getting only somewhat concentrated and having a less strong piti experience. Then I would enter a similar state; however, my mind was not sunk into the sukha but had to aim at it and sustain attention on it. I found that if I could stay there, the experience would deepen to where the aiming and sustaining would drop away. The resulting state was a weaker version of what I described above. So I would say this was entering first jhana and moving on to second jhana.
My visual field remained white during this sinking and settling phase. The description of the fourth jhana sometimes adds "One sits suffusing ones body with a clear, bright mind." Yep, it was all white visually, and that visual state seems to extend to the non-visual aspects of my experience - there was a brightness and clarity to the whole experience.
The simile given for the fourth jhana is a "man covered from the head down by a white garment." The experience was like sitting outside on a bright sunny day with a white sheet thrown over me - except there was no sense of touch and my eyes were closed. But everything seemed closed in and bright white. For the first time, I had a deep appreciation of how extremely accurate the simile for the fourth jhana actually is - it really captures the experience.
I must say that now suttas like MN 111 where Sariputta describes his insight into the jhana factors makes a great deal more sense to me now.
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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