Practice Guides February 20, 2024

The Four Absorptions

Sean Oakes

The Buddha’s path to happiness and freedom is a training of the heart. With wise action and meditation we interrupt the cycles of craving and reactivity, and grow in clarity about ourselves and the world. Craving manifests in the body as emotion and impulse, and in the mind as thinking: the wandering mind, judgment, worry, and all the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what is important. Meditation trains us to interrupt these stressful mental habits and cultivate in their place states of presence, focus, and agency through the practice of samādhi, the final limb of the Eightfold Path. Samādhi refers specifically to a series of four states of deep focus and stillness known as jhāna, or meditative absorption. While the jhānas take time and perseverance to cultivate, they are among the most transformational of all Buddhist practices.

In this practice guide, we explore the four jhānas, or absorptions, with talks and resources for developing this profound meditative skill.

Samādhi & Mindfulness

In the Eightfold Path, the limbs associated with samādhi are right/wise effort, mindfulness, and concentration/immersion. Each of these three limbs emphasizes qualities that are necessary for deepening in meditation and insight and they weave together as we practice.

  • Right effort is the practice of increasing wholesome/skillful states and decreasing unskillful states. We do this through directing our attention and energy to supporting the qualities we wish to develop, such as the seven awakening factors, and diminishing the qualities we are trying to be free from, such as the five hindrances.

  • Right mindfulness is the cultivation of the four foundations: mindfulness of the body, feelings, states, and qualities. With mindfulness, we learn to be present with the various aspects of our experience as they arise, from ever-changing sensations and emotions to the subtle energies of thought and cognition.

  • Right concentration in the form of the four jhānas is both a support for deepening in mindfulness and inquiry, and a result of the maturing of mindfulness into a lucid, discerning attention. While the word “concentration” may suggest forceful effort, in practice the primary qualities of samādhi are relaxation, stillness, and letting go. “Immersion” describes instead the experience of samādhi: the mind immersed in its object, steady and unwavering.

Meditation is also described as having two aspects, or core skills: serenity (samatha) and insight (vipassanā). These may be understood broadly as synonyms of concentration and mindfulness, representing the primary types of practice to cultivate. Though these are different skills developed in meditation, they are neither exclusive nor independent from each other. Steadiness and concentration are needed for mindfulness to become strong enough for insight to arise, and mindfulness and inquiry are necessary for the settling of hindrances that leads to samādhi. There is a range of views among the various Buddhist lineages about how samatha and vipassanā work together best, and how much concentration is needed for liberating insight. But it is universally acknowledged that when attention is stabilized and undistracted, meditation of all kinds is both easier and more potent.

Preliminary, Momentary, and Access Concentration

Before jhāna can arise, the mind has to settle into a steady, pleasurable focus that we can establish and maintain intentionally. Meditation begins with the cultivation of basic presence, and the energy and intention to engage in the practice. The initial stages of strengthening mindfulness and focus are called preliminary concentration (parikamma samādhi). It is important, if we want to develop samādhi, for the foundational qualities to be strong. The qualities of disciplined effort, letting go, and clear comprehension of hindrances—as well as the wholesome qualities we develop in this phase—are the basic training of meditation.

In the Insight Meditation tradition, we often begin with instructions to establish an anchor like the breath as the object to return to when attention wanders. In samādhi practice, this object is held in attention as continuously as possible, with only enough attention given to other sensations or experiences as is needed to understand them as hindrances and set them down. In vipassanā practice, attention is allowed to go more fully to other experiences, moving from object to object in order to understand them as impermanent, unsatisfying, and not self (the three characteristics). When mindfulness is strong and attention doesn’t wander as it moves with clarity and presence between sensory experiences, the state is called momentary concentration (khaṇika samādhi), since concentration is established briefly with one thing then re-established with the next.

To practice toward jhāna, the meditator keeps their attention stabilized in contact with one steady experience or object of meditation, developing toward deeper and deeper stillness. The state of mind that precedes jhāna, and which must be strong and stable before jhāna can develop, is known as access, neighborhood, or threshold concentration (upacāra samādhi). This stage of practice is defined by the absence of the five hindrances and the presence of five characteristic qualities of samādhi known as the jhāna factors. In practicing toward this state and working to strengthen the jhāna factors, we aim to decrease the hindrances through mindfulness and bringing in antidotes.

The Five Jhāna Factors

The jhāna factors are five wholesome qualities that naturally strengthen as we practice. They both arise on their own as we deepen in meditation, and can be cultivated with intention and skillful attention. The five jhāna (or jhānic) factors are:

  1. Directed thought / aiming (vitakka)

  2. Evaluation / sustaining (vicāra)

  3. Rapture / bliss (pīti)

  4. Happiness / ease (sukha)

  5. One-pointedness / singleness (ekaggatā)

The first two, vitakka and vicāra, are sometimes thought of as synonyms—both referring to types of thinking—but they are commonly taught as the initial connection with the meditation object and the process of sustaining that connection, thus “aiming and sustaining.” These are the factors we practice intentionally, and are in essence the main meditation instruction: connect with your object and sustain that connection. When the mind wanders, reconnect and again sustain.

Aiming and sustaining attention takes effort, but for samādhi to develop, our effort must be gentle and persistent rather than forceful. Relaxation and letting go are the key to concentration, not willfully trying to shut down the thinking mind, which only creates more tension. In samādhi we do less, not more, and learning to relax in a sustained, mindful way is the key to deepening in these practices.

As concentration develops, blissful energies in the body-mind develop, called pīti, translated as “rapture.” Energetic experiences in the body can arise through other conditions besides concentration, including emotional intensity and trauma, but the rapture of the jhāna factors is a wholesome, healthy experience. Pīti can be gentle or intense—from a soft vibration or tingling in the body to strong bursts and waves of sensation. It is specifically caused by the deepening of attention into stillness and turning away from sensory distraction.

A subtler emotional expression of the pleasure of meditation arises with the jhāna factor of sukha, happiness or ease. Unlike the intense physical bliss and energy of pīti, the pleasure of sukha is characterized by smoothness, contentment, and deep satisfaction.

Concluding the jhāna factors is a quality of deep focus and equanimity known as ekaggatā, one-pointedness. Bringing concentrated attention to its most refined state, ekaggatā describes the mind that doesn’t waver and has lost all desire to move away from the meditation object.

These five jhāna factors develop as we practice, and come to fullness in access concentration. When they are all present to some degree in our meditation, and we can sustain undistracted mindfulness and clarity for many minutes without the mind wandering, we are in the neighborhood of jhāna.

The Four Jhānas

When meditation is discussed in the Pāli discourses, it is most often defined as the four jhānas. The term “jhāna” can be translated as “absorption,” referring to the experience of attention being fully absorbed in present moment experience, but because these states are unique, with specific characteristics beyond just absorption, the term is often left untranslated. Listed by number—first through fourth—the four jhānas describe a sequence of increasingly stable and refined states of consciousness, characterized by deep relaxation, pleasure, ease, and steadiness of attention. The jhānas are defined partly by the jhāna factors: the qualities of attention, effort, or energy that predominate in each one, as well as by the factors abandoned in each.

The jhāna are listed in the Buddha’s discourses using a stock passage that can be found in many places, including Dīgha Nikāya 2 and Majjhima Nikāya 39, both of which contain the primary passage defining the jhāna and a simile that describes the state.

First Jhāna

Quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unskillful qualities, they enter and remain in the first absorption, which has the rapture and bliss born of seclusion, while placing the mind and keeping it connected. They drench, steep, fill, and spread their body with rapture and bliss born of seclusion. There’s no part of the body that’s not spread with rapture and bliss born of seclusion. (DN 2)

First jhāna is defined by the factors of vitakka and vicāra, connecting and sustaining focus, with the blissful energies of pīti and sukha. This is generally interpreted as being a meditative state where active directing of attention is still necessary, and where the somatic energies of rapture are strong. First jhāna is “born of seclusion” because a primary condition is the attention turning away from all sensory or cognitive stimuli other than the meditative object, like the breath or the mettā phrases and feeling. Seclusion (viveka) can also be translated as stillness or solitude, each interpretation suggesting aspects of this deeply centered, protected state.

The simile given for first jhāna describes a bath attendant kneading water into a ball of soap powder until it is fully and evenly saturated. The meditator is encouraged to “knead” rapture and pleasure into the whole body in the same way, filling the bodily energetic field with bliss.

Second Jhāna

With the subsiding of applied and sustained thought, the bhikkhu enters and dwells in the second jhāna, which is accompanied by internal confidence and unification of mind, is without applied and sustained thought, and is filled with the rapture and happiness born of concentration. He drenches, steeps, saturates, and suffuses his body with this rapture and happiness born of concentration, so that there is no part of his entire body which is not suffused by this rapture and happiness. (DN 2)

Second jhāna is defined by the subsiding of vitakka and vicāra, suggesting that intentional effort to maintain focus now ceases, with this and all subsequent jhānas characterized by effortlessness and ease. The jhāna factors of pīti and sukha are prominent in this state, with the emphasis that they are now born not of seclusion but of concentration (samādhi).

The simile for second jhāna describes a deep lake fed by a spring welling up from beneath, providing a constant refreshing source of cool, clear water. The meditator now experiences their whole body as being effortlessly nourished by rapture and happiness just as a mountain lake would be by such a pure spring.

Third Jhāna

With the fading away of rapture, the bhikkhu dwells in equanimity, mindful and clearly comprehending, and experiences happiness with the body. Thus he enters and dwells in the third jhāna, of which the noble ones declare: ‘He dwells happily with equanimity and mindfulness.’ He drenches, steeps, saturates, and suffuses his body with this happiness free from rapture, so that there is no part of his entire body which is not suffused by this happiness. (DN 2)

In the third jhāna, the relatively coarse vibrations and energy of pīti have subsided, and the deep contentment and ease of sukha is the primary quality remaining. The description suggests an exquisitely satisfying state that is not only happy but has the wholesome qualities of mindfulness and equanimity. The presence of mindfulness in the definition reminds us that samādhi and mindfulness are not separate practices, nor is mindfulness somehow absent in deep concentrated meditation, but that these states of profound stability of mind also include a deepening mindful awareness.

The simile for third jhāna describes a pond with lotus flowers, in which some lotuses bloom entirely under the water. The meditator experiences their body like one of these flowers, fully immersed in the cool water of happiness and ease, with no part of the body left out.

Fourth Jhāna

With the abandoning of pleasure and pain, and with the previous passing away of joy and grief, the bhikkhu enters and dwells in the fourth jhāna, which is neither pleasant nor painful and contains mindfulness fully purified by equanimity. He sits suffusing his body with a pure bright mind, so that there is no part of his entire body not suffused by a pure bright mind. (DN 2)

Fourth jhāna is the culmination of the jhāna sequence, and is considered the quintessential state to prepare the heart for inquiry and insight. The Buddha favored this state, and is said to have touched into all the jhānas (as well as a set of formless meditations that often follows the jhāna sequence) immediately before his death, ending with fourth jhāna. (DN 16) In the sequence of the jhāna factors, which have been progressively abandoned as the meditator moves through the practice, fourth jhāna is characterized now only by one-pointedness (ekaggatā). Both pleasure and pain have been let go, including the blissful energies of pīti and sukha, and the energy that remains is considered to be the pinnacle of mindfulness and equanimity.

The simile for fourth jhāna departs from the water imagery of the first three, focusing on the experience of light and brightness of mind that comes to the foreground in this state. The image is of a person completely covered in a white cloth, which may give the sense of the kind of all-pervading brightness and luminosity of fourth jhāna.

Jhāna & Insight

The Insight Meditation tradition in the West began as a descendent of Burmese vipassanā lineages—primarily through Mahāsī Sayādaw and U Ba Khin/Goenka—that deemphasized jhāna in favor of mindfulness leading to momentary concentration and directly into insight. But as meditators have broadened their study in recent decades to other Theravāda systems, study and teaching of jhāna has increased. There are many schools of meditation that emphasize jhāna, each teaching these profound meditations in somewhat different ways and to differing degrees of depth.

Jhāna is both a preparation for insight and is itself productive of liberating insight. Because attainment of jhāna is the product of favorable conditions and individual effort, the Buddha describes using the states as a basis for developing insight. Following an experience of a given jhāna, we are instructed to reflect on the qualities of the state as impermanent, ultimately unsatisfying, and not-self, directing the mind toward disenchantment and letting go. This counteracts the understandable mistake of interpreting these blissful states as evidence of liberation, and instead uses the states as potent lessons in the unreliability even of bliss (MN 52, AN 9.36).

While jhāna may seem far away from the kinds of meditation many of us experience in day-to-day practice, and even on retreat, concentration will develop with regular practice, and the states may not be as far away as they seem initially. The beginning stages of concentration developing, including the softening and subsiding of the hindrances and the strengthening of relaxation and easeful presence, are healthy and refreshing even at the beginning. As a kind of cognitive repatterning, samādhi rewards gentle, persistent effort. Our habits of anxiety and restlessness are deeply-rooted responses to a stressful world, and they do not relax their grip on our heart easily. But they can, and with supportive conditions like dedicated meditation both at home and on retreat, the heart can learn to rest more and more into the ease and bliss of samādhi.

The Joy of Samādhi: Practices to Cultivate Concentration

Join beloved Spirit Rock teacher Nikki Mirghafori and learn methods for deepening in relaxed, easeful meditation in this foundational on-demand course.

Sean Oakes

Sean Oakes

Guest Teacher

Sean Oakes, PhD, teaches Buddhism and Yoga focusing on the integration of meditation, trauma resolution, and social justice. He received teaching authorization from Jack Kornfield, and wrote his dissertation on extraordinary meditative states. His current research explores identity, ancestry, and rebirth, and working with the body in contemplative inquiry.