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What if you could have a panic attack, but for joy?

Some of the rhetoric around meditation can get pretty extreme: awaken us from the illusion of selfhood, dissolve the mental habits that generate suffering, and maybe merge with the primordial oneness that our thinking minds make us feel separate from.  But of…



What if you could have a panic attack, but for joy?
What if you could have a panic attack, but for joy?
Some of the rhetoric around meditation can get pretty extreme: awaken us from the illusion of selfhood, dissolve the mental habits that generate suffering, and maybe merge with the primordial oneness that our thinking minds make us feel separate from. But of the 35 million Americans (as of 2017) who find some crevice of their day to practice some kind of meditation, including the sort of quick mindfulness meditation that tops app-store charts and bestseller lists, it’s unsurprising that many wind up concluding the hype is mostly bullshit — or at least seriously overblown. Instead of the deep psychological transformations detailed in Buddhist traditions, 10 minutes or so of meditation often gives rise to a sort of balmy uneventfulness that leaves the mind feeling like it’s had a nice, light massage. It has its effects: A growing heap of studies is finding these basic mindfulness practices can do all sorts of relatively beneficial things, from helping with depression to reducing blood pressure. But your basic understanding of how your mind works? That can remain relatively unchanged. In the past few years, though, the study of more advanced meditation than basic mindfulness has been developing. So far, its most robust finding is that our scientific understanding of just how deep meditation’s effects can go has hardly scratched the surface. “In most circles, meditation is billed as this thing that’ll help you relax a little bit,” said Grant Belsterling, a machine learning engineer at Nielsen and avid meditator with a six-year practice. “But there are a lot of states of meditation that blow anything you can get in the regular world of everyday life out of the water in terms of how pleasurable, meaningful, or absorbing they can be.” One series of eight meditative states — the jhānas, often described as successive states of “absorption” into bliss, rapture, or ecstasy — is now beginning to rise from obscurity, raising a powerful example of meditation’s more transformative potentials into mainstream attention across academia, tech, social media, and Western meditation communities. The jhānas are detailed in the Theravāda Buddhist traditions of Southeast Asia and have their own particular meditation instructions, which typically involve sustaining attention on feelings of pleasure in the body. “It’s a completely different mode of consciousness,” said Paul Dennison, a former psychotherapist and meditation teacher who published a book about the jhānas in 2022. “The sense of time disappears temporarily, the sense of why you’re doing anything disappears ... and when you come out of that, the mind is so clear that you can get a lot deeper understanding of who we are and how we get caught up in the patterns that lead to suffering.” Neuroscientist Matthew Sacchet, who leads Harvard’s Meditation Research Program, published a study in January that stuck an advanced meditator with 25 years of jhāna experience inside a massive fMRI machine to create a more robust map of what jhāna experience looks like in the brain, homing in on changes in blood and oxygen flow. When I toured the lab earlier this year, he explained that while the study was just a first step, they found distinct patterns in brain activity that distinguished jhāna meditation from non-meditative control states. Activity decreased in the brain region that includes the prefrontal cortex, which drives complex functions like planning and self-referential thinking. At the same time, activity near the back of the brain increased, in older regions like the brainstem and visual cortex, which regulate more basic functions like awareness and arousal. Sacchet emphasized to me that we still don’t know much about the jhānas from a neuroscience perspective. But his findings support a growing theory in meditation research that some deeper meditative states like the jhānas cause a reduction in “top-down processing,” and gradually deactivate the mind’s habits of weaving narratives, orienting around goals, and keeping cognitive control over experience. As the theory goes, that allows for attention to more directly behold sensory experience as it is, rather than as the mind has evolved to construct it. “This is one of the biggest secrets on the planet right now,” said Stephen Zerfas, who along with Alex Gruver is a co-founder of Jhourney, a meditation startup focused on bringing blissful meditative states like jhānas to the masses. “Access to the jhānas is shockingly available to folks with all kinds of meditation backgrounds.” Neuroscientists, novice practitioners, established meditation teachers, and apparently Jhourney’s angel investors all seem to agree that the mind can learn how to launch itself into deep states of unparalleled bliss basically on command. If that’s indeed the case, instructions for doing so have been lying around for at least 2,000 years, and presumably longer in oral traditions. Because the Western mindfulness movement derives from Southeast Asian Buddhist traditions that largely ignore the jhānas, they are only now beginning to spread beyond yogic traditions and monastic chambers to reach wider audiences. There are at least two very exciting things to note about the jhānas. The first is that basic mindfulness does not exactly topple one’s understanding of how consciousness works — the jhānas, however, do. Bliss is not forever elusive, but a trainable skill, and the mind is capable of far more than we yet understand. Second, even though that the jhānas do seem to live up to their often hyperbolic reputations — absorptions into “boundless consciousness,” for example — most skilled meditators who learn to access them wind up moving on to explore other practices (like non-dual meditation). Meditators seem to lose interest in bliss alone because experiencing the jhānas makes a fascinating question come alive: If the mind can do this, what else can it do? What are the jhānas? A particular understanding of the jhānas is crystalizing across Western interest today, largely inspired by the work of software engineer and longtime meditator Leigh Brasington, who was authorized to teach the jhānas by Buddhist Theravāda nun Ayya Khema. In 2015, he published Right Concentration: A Practical Guide to the Jhānas, one of the first books dedicated to teaching a wide, Western audience how to access the jhānas. But it takes very little digging to find that within and across Buddhist traditions, people disagree on what the jhānas are like and how long it takes to enter them. Some Theravāda interpretations, like Bhante Vimalaraṁsi’s Tranquil Wisdom Insight Meditation (TWIM), suggest that the jhānas can be entered relatively quickly. You could fit them into your half-hour morning meditation before heading to work. Others, like Pa-Auk Sayadaw, maintain that it takes highly specific conditions and hours of sitting before getting anywhere close to something like even the first jhāna. Daniel Ingram, author of Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha and the longtime meditator who Sacchet’s lab at Harvard stuffed in the neuroimaging machines when they wanted to study the jhānas, said he prefers to think about them “dimensionally.” Each of the eight jhanic states ranges from shallow, accessible entry points to deeper ends of absorption that require more time and preparation. --- The eight stages of jhānas, briefly explained David Snyder, author of a number of books on Buddhism and founder of the Dhamma Wiki, has a usefully sparse list drawn from the Aṅguttara Nikāya of the Pāli Canon, a collection of Theravāda Buddhist scriptures. First jhāna: Delightful sensations Second jhāna: Joy Third jhāna: Contentment Fourth jhāna: Utter peacefulness Fifth jhāna: Infinity of space Sixth jhāna: Infinity of consciousness Seventh jhāna: No-thingness Eighth jhāna: Neither perception nor non-perception --- While each jhāna seems to grow a little more difficult to describe than the last, even the first is not a mellow starting point. Descriptions range from “a laser beam of intense tingly pleasurable electricity,” similar to a sustained orgasm, to MDMA therapy without the drugs. Reporting for this piece, I got the sense that the jhānas, like psychedelics, are things you can’t really understand without having the experience for yourself. So I took on a jhāna-specific practice for the first time (with about 10 years of not-always-consistent other meditation experience). I still don’t know what to make of what happened. There’s a variety of paths toward the jhānas. Most run through what Buddhists call pīti, a sort of bodily zest. Belsterling described it as “champagne bubbles,” or “like the feeling of goosebumps, except throughout your entire body, not just the surface of your skin.” In the past, I’ve noticed random tingles in my body while meditating, usually in my hands or feet. I always figured I was just losing circulation. I’d shift my body a bit and try to ignore them. But it turns out this was just me repeatedly ignoring the doorway to the jhānas because I didn’t know any better. Jhāna instructions say that after reaching a stable degree of concentration, maybe through focusing on your breath, a mantra, or loving-kindness, you’ll begin to notice that tingling pīti growing stronger and more stable. And if your foot is not in fact just falling asleep, that means the decisive moment has arrived. Instead of ignoring it, you shift your attention onto the pīti. I managed to find this on-ramp to the first jhāna, and it was profoundly strange. The tingling sensations leaped from my fingers to envelop the entire frame of my awareness, like going from a few stray drops of rain on my hands to being fully submerged underwater, where I began to feel myself almost literally absorbing into a sort of vibratory expanse (this is what I mean by not being able to understand it unless you experience it). That’s about as far as I went. Since the whole ordeal is so bizarre, lapses in concentration keep knocking me off the onramp. Apparently, getting a little too excited and losing the concentration that keeps things moving forward is pretty common in the early days of practicing jhāna. But if you manage to keep cool while the jhāna ramps up, “at some point, it can just take off like a rocket,” said Zerfas. “The first time I was in the first jhāna, I felt like I got dropped off a roller coaster, that sense of full-body exhilaration,” said Belsterling, who’d been meditating for about six years before trying jhāna practice. “It was super overwhelming, and I got dropped out of it immediately.” But once he learned to stabilize it, the drop would lead to dwelling “in a state of relaxed presence and unification, accompanied by tremendous joy and physical rapture.” While this probably all sounds strange (it should; the jhānas are), the mechanism may be a familiar one for many. Getting into the first jhāna is like having a panic attack — but for joy. “You can think about [the jhānas] as a positive feedback loop between attention and emotion,” said Zerfas. When anxiety begins to set in, you can feel it. Your chest pulls tight or your palms go moist. If you focus on or obsess over any of these sensations, you might make them more intense. The most surefire way to sweat through your shirt is to become hyperconscious of the fact that your body is starting to go damp. The first jhāna is a similar process but in the opposite direction. Rather than focusing on the physiology of anxiety, you do enough concentration meditation that you’re able to notice the early signs of a physiology of joy, or pleasantness, in your body: pīti. Then you focus on it, and by doing so, make it more intense. At this point, you may think meditators have really weird ideas about what feels pleasurable. But as this process escalates, so does the bliss. Which, traditionally speaking, is beside the point. According to Theravāda Buddhist texts like the Pāli Canon and Visuddhimagga, the aim of doing jhāna practice is to develop the mental clarity and concentration skills to go even further in insight practice, which, unlike the jhānas, is what actually leads to spiritual awakening. The jhānas are like an optional training program, and the bliss stuff is just a side effect that contemplative traditions have urged practitioners not to get caught up in. What matters is liberation from suffering, not vacations into rapture. But if the jhānas gain traction in the West, they may well follow the path being forged by the mainstreaming of psychedelics, where wider spiritual and religious contexts are stripped away. What remains, whether drugs or a particular set of meditation instructions, gets packaged as a psychological treatment for a culture mired in mental health crises. [Image: A classroom of sixth graders at George Washington Middle School in Virginia begins their general science class each day with five minutes of meditation.] New treatments aren’t necessarily a bad thing. People with conditions like PTSD or depression (not to mention cluster headaches) are in urgent need of better medical interventions than what we’ve currently got. Psychedelic therapy can do serious amounts of good here, provided it’s done in ways that don’t harm the cultures that have stewarded many of these substances for so long. Same with the jhānas and this whole business of being absorbed into bliss states. Even if the jhānas are decontextualized away from their traditional goal — enlightenment — learning access to blissful states could still deliver important benefits. “It is very possible that we might see the jhānas fitting into hospitals, clinics, and perhaps the public in general,” said Sacchet. While concerns about decontextualizing the jhānas leading to yet another sacrilegious Western perversion of long-running spiritual practices are important to engage with, the jhānas have this interesting quality of pointing beyond themselves. Among the Western meditators I spoke with who are trying them out, I encountered no so-called jhāna junkies. You might suspect that one could become obsessed with unconditional access to bliss. And it’s not impossible. But for the few who do, I can think of worse compulsive habits. And for the others who don’t, they wind up developing a natural curiosity toward the wider possibilities of the mind, which is conveniently aligned with the traditional context anyway. Why the jhānas haven’t received as much attention as mindfulness in the West Ancient Theravāda texts can give the impression that the jhānas are really difficult to learn and that very few who try will succeed. That depends on your definition of jhāna, but observations from this century suggest that at least the shallower ends of jhāna are surprisingly accessible. When I spoke with Ajahn Sona, a Theravāda monk for over 30 years who runs the Birken Forest Buddhist Monastery in British Columbia, he said that at retreats he leads, he’s seen people reach the first and second jhānas in as little as the fourth day of their first-ever retreat, though some may struggle to reenter the jhānas consistently (meditators may spend anywhere from six to 16 hours meditating per day, depending on the retreat). Zerfas said that Jhourney is finding similar benchmarks at its retreats. After roughly 40 hours of meditation, some students begin reporting experiences that match descriptions of the first jhāna. It’s worth noting, though, that these are very rough approximations. Development along the meditative spectrum isn’t always linear. The amount of time to reach various states differs across people. Not to mention that our methods for verifying whether someone actually went into a jhāna mostly come down to a teacher’s intuition, or comparing someone’s subjective report of their experience to existing jhāna descriptions. Still, if jhāna meditation can propel even novice meditators into incomparable states of bliss, it may seem strange that mindfulness practices claim the majority of mainstream attention. The global market for mindfulness meditation apps is booming, while there’s comparatively zilch for the jhānas. The absence of the jhānas in today’s meditation discourse is made even stranger when you look back across Buddhism’s history, where they played a major role. “Few strategies are as central to the Buddhist path, and as little known to Westerners, as those called the jhanas,” writes Mary Talbot, former executive editor of the Buddhist magazine Tricycle. So why did Buddhism’s spread across the West in the 20th century leave the jhānas out? From the historical Buddha’s time of roughly 500 BCE until the 19th century, Theravāda, the oldest branch of Buddhism, taught two aspects of meditation practice: samatha (or “concentration,” which includes the jhānas) and vipassanā (or “insight”). The two work together and were not generally considered separable. Samatha practices sharpen concentration, while insight practices wield that sharpened concentration to penetrate deeper into the nature of the mind. By the early 20th century, reform movements had swept across the Theravāda traditions of Thailand and Myanmar (then called Burma). Influential teacher Ledi Sayadaw taught vipassanā as a style of meditation that could be separated from samatha and the jhānas. Vipassanā was emphasized while samatha was not, in part because the reforms intended to make meditation practice available to laypeople living outside of monastic traditions, and the jhānas had acquired a reputation — owing largely to a fifth-century text, the Visuddhimagga — as being difficult to achieve. The reform movements created a “dry vipassanā’’ model — dry, because as Dennison put it, it isn’t “moistened by the joy of jhāna’’ — which saved meditators from the hard task of cultivating the jhānas but kept the road toward enlightenment offered by insight meditation. By the mid-1960s, “any organized teaching of the old samatha practices had all but disappeared,” writes Dennison. “The new face of Buddhism had become vipassanā.” And when the generation of American seekers who would eventually return to spread mindfulness across the West — Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein — went off to Asia in search of God or liberation or whatever esoteric interests impelled Americans to seek out meditation in foreign countries, they found teachers from this Burmese tradition of dry insight. These were practitioners like Mahāsī Sāyadaw (who taught in Burma) and S.N. Goenka (born in Burma but who taught primarily in India), whose meditation schemas became the blueprint for much of what came back to the US. Yet even while mindfulness began to take root as the West’s most common form of meditation through the end of the 20th century, a handful of teachers continued teaching the jhānas, often surreptitiously. In the past decade, the teachings have started to spread across meditation communities, social media, and academia. In 2013, the first EEG and fMRI academic study on the jhānas was published in the journal Neural Plasticity by Michael Hagerty and co-authors (including Brasington), focusing on changes in blood and oxygen flow in the brain regions associated with sensory and reward processing. Hagerty posits that meditators can internally trigger the brain’s dopamine reward system through sustained attentional skills, whereas ordinarily, pleasureful dopamine spikes have an external component, like chomping on a sweet doughnut or having sex. Six years later, Dennison published his own EEG study of the jhānas in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, hypothesizing that EEG “spindles” — little spikes of electrical activity — and remarkably slowed brainwaves showed how the jhānas elicit a progressive disengagement from “the human default consciousness.” Then in the past year, Jhourney (the meditation startup Zerfas co-founded) was founded, and Sacchet’s lab published their paper on the jhānas, joining a swell of research on advanced meditation more broadly. All of this raises questions without clear answers. Is there something perverse about turning deep meditative states into clearly defined goals that Americans will, inevitably, try to optimize? Will the drive to commodify ancient practices defile them? Are there risks to jhāna meditation? The jhānas may offer something more powerful, interesting, and compelling than basic mindfulness does — which makes the stakes of integrating and navigating them in a new cultural context that much more important. Accelerating the jhānas “We don’t aspire to teach 1,000 people jhānas,” Zerfas told me, “we aspire to teach 10 million people jhānas.” Which may encounter some obstacles. First, no matter how much more accessible the jhānas may be than traditionally thought, 10 minutes of meditation a day probably won’t get you there. Even if that 40-hour benchmark holds up, dividing it into 240 10-minute increments isn’t a very promising strategy. Even for practiced meditators, it can take at least 10 minutes just to reach the kind of concentration you need to get started (Brasington calls this “access concentration”). Longer increments of practice are better, which is why retreats make for an easier place to start. That’s still a remarkably low bar for learning to dwell in boundless ecstasy. But good luck scaling that commitment — 40 or so tightly clustered hours — across millions of Americans. The first way to cut down on the time-to-jhāna is simply to teach them directly — something that until recently has been rare in the West. Jhourney approaches jhāna instruction as “Engineers, not Dharma Teachers,” tinkering to find what methods seem to be most effective. That may sound like a classic narrative of Western optimizers lifting spiritual practices from their traditional contexts, oblivious to the harms born of what they leave behind. But even Ajahn Sona, the abbot of the Birken monastery, told me that anyone seeking to spread the jhānas to more people “needs to systematically plot out the optimal preconditions” for getting into them. The Theravāda texts still offer one blueprint for doing so. But it’s also possible that in the 2,000-plus years since they were written, as both new technologies and cultural sensibilities have developed, there might be some value in revisiting what those preconditions are and whether any new tools could help optimize them further. While monks of old used singing bowls and monasteries as technologies to support meditation practice, Jhourney figures, why not neurotechnology? Why not, for example, strap a skullcap and sensors on advanced meditators in the jhānas, train algorithms on their biometric data, develop a consumer headset that can track the brain activity of novice meditators, and then use the algorithm to run a neurofeedback training program that helps guide users, via gentle audio cues, toward the jhānas, hopefully cutting down on the time it takes to get there? Jhourney is currently in the first phase, collecting data from experts while holding retreats to test what instructions seem to work best. “I think the real thing that stops us from taking this to true scale is good data,” Zerfas said. “If we can get the right quantitative tools ... then we may have what we need to share this thing that could be the well-being intervention of a generation.” [Image: A Geodesic Head Web with 280 electrodes used to collect EEG data at the Brain Electrophysiology Laboratory in Eugene, Oregon.] If this acceleration of mainstream interest continues, the jhānas will likely face a similar gauntlet of questions that mindfulness began to wrangle with decades ago. And if we successfully developed technology that would allow anyone — 10 million people — to speed-run their way to the jhānas without first going on retreats and studying under teachers for years, a number of traditional harm reduction strategies could be lost. You may not have access to a teacher who can monitor how things are going, and you may not be part of a meditation community that can offer you peer support and understanding, rather than Prozac, if you begin to experience what psychologist Willoughby Britton has called “dark nights of the soul,” or destabilizing meditation experiences that can last for months. It’s tempting to think that since the jhānas are bliss states, the risks are negligible. What’s so risky about teaching everyone how to access a mental state of extraordinary well-being? While there are increasingly well-known (and still generally rare) risks to meditation, they’re often associated with insight practice. But if 10-day vipassanā retreats can prompt psychotic breaks, or deep and unwavering anxiety that lasts for months afterward, is jhāna meditation really immune? Ingram feels that the separation between jhanic bliss and destabilizing insight makes sense in theory, but it doesn’t hold up in practice. “Anyone on the path of jhāna is risking insight. Which from a certain point of view is a beautiful thing. Except in the short term, every single one of the risks from insight applies,” he said. No one I spoke with felt that the jhānas hold any greater risks than other meditation practices. But scaling them means even rare consequences are meaningful at population levels. Ingram worries that the infrastructure to communicate informed consent, risks, benefits, and alternatives that can support millions of people getting into this territory at scale is dangerously lacking. Just like a bottle of aspirin provides risk estimates (“one in a thousand people may experience ...”), bringing advanced meditation to the masses should come with both clear information and clinical literacy for supporting those in need. Ingram now runs an organization, the Emergent Phenomenology Research Consortium (EPRC), that’s working on getting informed consent and clinical support to become the norm for states like advanced meditation experiences. Then there’s capitalism. Ingram also worries about profit as a motive underlying advanced meditation research and technology. “This needs to be open source, open tech, open collaborative science for public benefit,” he said. Sacchet, who runs the Harvard lab, is conflicted by the tensions inherent in promoting the jhānas. “On the one hand, my research has contributed to the hype,” he said. “I am deeply committed to raising awareness of these altered states.” But he worries that literally selling the jhānas risks leaning too heavily on promising something in exchange, contributing to the idea of meditation as a goal-oriented practice. “Striving is the antithesis of jhāna,” he said. “Touting the practice and its esoteric benefits may be anathema to the practice itself.” For Jhourney, though, Zerfas wants scale. And scaling meditation is not something that even traditional Buddhist cultures really did. Most Buddhists throughout history did not meditate. It requires a bit of a stretch to imagine academic research on advanced meditation or nonprofit jhāna teachers reaching tens of millions of people. On the contrary, Headspace alone reports over 70 million downloads of its meditation app. This tension between scale and authenticity to the original framing of the practice is nothing new — mindfulness has been contending with this debate for years, where the mass-market version is often criticized as “McMindfulness.” But given that the jhānas usually take more time than basic mindfulness, I don’t think they threaten any greater commercial success than what we’ve already seen in the mindfulness industry. And the jhānas themselves are not at risk of being enclosed behind private property rights. Instructions and information on the jhānas are already freely available, and that’s not going to change. Instead, just as with mindfulness, we’re more likely to see the logic of capital at play in building goods and services around the jhānas. For example, proprietary algorithms built on private biometric datasets that power commercial neurofeedback headsets. Publicly available datasets, algorithms, and tools would be great, but nothing is stopping others from building their own versions in the public domain (if they can get the funding). Sacchet’s lab is working on exactly that. He told me that his team is “in the process of developing such programs to make these kinds of practices more accessible to everyone who might be interested.” This paints a picture where capitalism isn’t swallowing the jhānas whole. Instead, there’s a diverse and growing ecosystem of institutions getting involved, which helps mitigate the shortcomings of any one alone. On a video call, Ajahn Sona seemed genuinely excited by the rising interest in jhāna practice, both within his tradition and beyond (he’s even been posting talks about the jhānas on YouTube). “Jhāna is just staggeringly important because nothing like it is taught in Western philosophy, or in any university,” he said. “I went through all that stuff myself, and there is nothing equivalent to it, whatsoever. It’s the only place you’re going to find this alternative way of using your mind.” And while the jhānas themselves are only one among a great variety of baffling meditative states, they may prove tractable and accessible enough to further advanced meditation’s march into the mainstream. That, in turn, can help build a richer understanding of what’s going on in the mind of someone absorbed into an electrical beam of bliss, roping these uncommon experiences closer into the ordinary fluctuations of human psychology. But perhaps the most exciting thing about the jhānas is that despite their offering of an apparently unparalleled sense of bliss that requires no external trigger, skilled meditators tend to leave them behind and explore other practices. Pure bliss isn’t the end of the road. As Belsterling said, “There’s no way you could be in jhāna without questioning what else might be possible.”