Altered states of consciousness and the eight Jhanas

I started meditating at the end of 2016 without instructions, no knowledge about what meditation was, no preparation, no nothing! I simply sat down (in an uncomfortable cross-legged position), closed my eyes and let my curiosity guide me.

I did this because I was awestruck with my thought process and my identification with it. I noticed, that I had no control over my thoughts. I couldn’t stop them or prepare for which thought should appear in my mind next. It wasn’t as if I had a thinking-muscle that I could flex and made it happen. The thinking process seemed to be totally automatic. But even so, I felt like “I” was doing the thinking, and had some kind of ownership over my thoughts. I was identified with this strange phenomena, but a glimpse of the truth; that my thoughts weren’t me, got me intrigued like I had never been before!

So as I just sat there, without a clue in the world as to what I was doing, I had amazing insights into how my mind works. I observed the flow of thoughts, and saw how unpredictable they were, and how bizarre it was, to consider these an essential part of who we are. Because, there I sat. With no intention of trying to control my thoughts whatsoever. Yet, they kept going, as if what I wanted didn’t matter. My mind seemed to have a mind of its own! It was as if I was a silent observer, resting in the background of the endless stream of thoughts, feelings and emotions. I was the awareness, the conscious presence, not any mere object of awareness, which always seemed to change. My position in the background was constant, and it wasn’t affected by whatever thoughts, feelings or emotions were in front of this background.

I was so intrigued by what I could observe by just letting my curiosity guide me, that I spend about 40 minutes doing this every day for about six months.

But what I observed was more than ‘just’ insights into the normal workings of my mind. From time to time I felt as if my body changed, or even at times disappeared completely. A few times it was as if I was swept into a black abyss of pure vibrations and bliss!

These moments never lasted long, because they always threw me out of the focused, relaxed state I had come into. “What the hell is this?! – That was…AWESOME!!” My reaction would every time be over reacting and getting too excited.

Even though I was super curious as to what this was, it would actually be years before I found out anything about it!

So what was it? Well, as it turns out, you can attain various altered states of consciousness by quieting and focusing your mind. Usually this is done by focusing one’s attention on one specific thing for a while, usually the breath. And if one is concentrated and calm enough, then the mind may drift into one of eight Jhanas.

The eight Jhanas are eight relatively well classified, altered states of consciousness. Let me say right away, that I am by no means any expert on these. But there are experts, which you should seek out if you want to learn this. In fact, I can recommend a book called Right Concentration, by Leigh Brasington. He seems to really have got this! My mother has used his instructions with great success. I myself don’t really care about these states of concentration anymore and have stopped practicing it completely. Why? More about that later!

Even though I am no expert on the Jhanas, I have had plenty of encounters with altered states of consciousness. In fact, the most joy, bliss – even ecstasy – I ever felt in my life, was in concentration-meditation. I was so overwhelmed with bliss that I was crying from the intense pleasure of simply feeling my breath move in and out. It was almost too much to handle!

Also, I was able to attain one of these first Jhanas daily, for about a month. Several times every day, actually. Whenever I sat down, focused on my breath, my mind would quiet down and get very concentrated. And my whole body would feel amazing. An orgasm-like feeling would be in my little finger, my eyes, my legs, stomach – almost every little part of my body would feel like it had a little orgasm going on. And it would go on for as long as I bothered sitting.

I even spent my lunch brakes at my work as an elementary sub teacher doing this. I found it interesting and as I already mentioned: It was very pleasant! So why not, right? Since I was in the habit of not eating until 12:00-15:00 every day, I didn’t eat during my lunch breaks. I just sat, blissed out like a bliss junkie-weirdo! But I was blissed out, so I didn’t care what others might think. After all, they were complaining about this or that, and eating unappetizing foods. I was fine by myself in my little, lonely one-member bliss club!

So meditation can definitely be used to achieve some pretty crazy states of being – I believe I haven’t experienced more than perhaps two or three of the eight jhanas. And still, it has revolutionized my knowledge of what’s possible!

Aside from learning about the eight jhanas, I also experienced lucid dreaming, ego-death, self-induced hallucinations and a little bit of what’s called astral projection.

Each of these types of experiences deserve entire posts for themselves, so for the sake of this post, I will classify all these as simply weird stuff that definitely isn’t conventional knowledge or normal to experience. That is pretty accurate for these, right?

So perhaps you think this sounds cool and want to try experiencing some of this for yourself? After all, it does give you some unique experiences without taking any mushrooms or LSD (which I never did by the way). Not that I can say that would be the same, but some do say that there can be found resemblances in these experiences anyway.

If you choose to practice meditation in order to experience altered states of consciousness, I have to tell you a few very important things!!!

    Important thing about altered states of consciousness #1:

1. You have to train very hard for it! I fell into altered states of consciousness after practicing for a month or so, by just letting my curiosity guide me for 40 minutes a day. But that is by no means the case for everyone, even if they have a perfect practice dedicated to attaining the Jhanas! Leigh Brasington, whom wrote the book I recommended earlier, writes that one shouldn’t expect to attain these states before having been 30 days on an intensive retreat. And on these retreats you do nothing but meditate every day. Gee, even some people never attain these states. Not to discourage you, though! The practice is well worth it! But you should know that it isn’t, under normal conditions, something you just sit down and do.

    Important thing about altered states of consciousness #2:

2. They are impermanent! No matter how hard you practice – even if you master the 8 Jhanas completely (which is like a super-olympic level..very hard!) then these states will still leave again! There lies a grave danger in striving for being under the influence of bliss all the time, simply because that is not going to happen! Even the world’s best Jhana-practitioner will bump her pinky toe into the coffee table every now and then. That means that even her world will be a world of endless pain every now and then. The same goes for you! You will have bad days, you will feel grumpy, you will not have time to meditate. And if you expect to constantly be able to have these Jhana-skills, you are going to be endlessly frustrated. And essentially, that would be very anti-buddha!

    Important thing about altered states of consciousness #3:

3. Screw these altered states of consciousness! Don’t waste your friggin time doing them! They are not the goal of meditation! The goal of meditation is to change yourself – such that you can live a happier life. These states don’t help you with that unless you know how to use them in the right way – and even then you can do without them. PLUS you need to know how to use it first. This you will learn by practicing Vipassana, so go do that!
Even though these altered states can be used properly, they are probably more often than not an obstacle to living a happier life. That is because people experience some fantastic states of consciousness, become totally enchanted, and spend their entire lives seeking the same experience. Or one that exceeds the past one. It’s a lot like being a junkie! A bliss-junkie! No one likes a junkie, don’t be one…
Furthermore, you don’t learn anything about how your mind works in these states. And it is what you learn about the subtle characteristics of your mind that will ultimately give you a happier life. The wisdom will set you free, not temporary experiences! If getting a bliss on temporarily would save your life or change you for the better – taking a pill or going partying with booze and ecstasy every day should be the answer, right? And then one could do heroin every time one didn’t feel like parting and life would be just great, wouldn’t it?!! NO! So again, screw the Jhanas! There’s a damn reason why the Buddha never mentioned them at all (even though he did master all 8).

 

So now you have some (more) anecdotal evidence of the existence of mystical, magical, amazing states of consciousness without the use of drugs. I hope my stories have inspired you and that you have learned something new!

If you still want to experience these altered states of consciousness – go for it! I know I said screw it, but if you are really curious about it, then that might be a sign that there is something important for you to learn, hidden along that path. I know I learned a lot! I was turned around completely! My view on what happiness was, the meaning of life and the harsh impermanence of even the greatest bliss, all changed. But I sure as hell wouldn’t have been able to come out on top without the practice of Vipassana.

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