Monday, May 18, 2015

The Four Dhyanas

In my previous post, I spoke about anapana, or “tying consciousness to the breath.” Anapana, or watching the breath, represents the beginning stage of the first of four dhyanas. What are dhyanas? Put simply, they represent the stages or progressions in meditative absorption.

According to the sutra, the first stage is marked by awareness and contemplation. Here “awareness” means the condition of physiological feeling and sensitivity to all that is going on internally. “Contemplation” means the condition of psychological awareness, knowing the coming and going of every thought. For me, it is as if my outward senses have been turned inward.

At the beginning of my daily meditation, there are certain things that I practice that have the effect of releasing me from wandering passions, desires, and unwholesome thoughts while moving me towards a joyful interest in what I am doing and a sense of well-being.

I start by listening to Santam Kaur’s song Ong Namo, the words that begin the centering process:

Ong Namo, Guru Dav, Namo,
Oh my Beloved, Kindness of the Heart, Breath of Life, I bow to You.
Divine Teacher, Beloved Friend, I bow to you again and again.
During the course of this song, I am able to move away from the exterior to become very aware of everything that is happening internally. At one point in the song, I direct my intention to the chakra areas and silently repeat the following sounds as my attention is given to each chakra starting with the root and emphasizing the Anahata or heart chakra: LAM, VAM, RAM, YAM - YAM, HAM, SHAM, CHREE-OM.


The second thing I do consistently and find very useful is to visualize the subtle body with its three main channels. The larger central channel begins at ajna chakra (third eye) runs over the crown of the head and down to the Svadhisthana or Sacral chakra. It’s exterior is pale blue with a reddish interior color. Starting at the inner nostrils and running parallel and on either side of the central channel are the smaller channels connected with the nostrils. The one on the right is red, and the other white. At each chakra point, starting at the crown, these two smaller channels cross over the larger central channel, one from the left, and the other from the right, curving around and returning back to their original position, but forming a loop or knot. At the Anahata or heart chakra, they loop three times, then continue this course until they reach the end at Svadhisthana or Sacral chakra.

In the practice of tying consciousness to breath (Anapana), on the inhale, I follow the breath from the nostrils, down the two smaller channels to the Svadhisthana or sacral chakras to the base of the central channel. On the exhale, I follow the breath up the central channel to the crown. I’m not sure of the exact point of connection with the central channel on the exhale, however, the breath seems to always follow my intention in this regard. In the tantra, this is called “Vase” breathing meditation, and is described is much more detail there.

Other Anapana practice that I do consistently at the beginning of my meditation period is alternating nostril breathing. I don’t cover a nostril as suggested for this practice. Directing the breath by intention does the same thing and keeps it simpler.

These exercises, along with the backward circular flow of breath in the abdomen area, always move me into the deeper absorption, increasing my awareness of a mindful joy of how I feel physically, and contentment as in peace and ease. It is as if the body and mind are beginning to sit in empty space. I have the experience of slowly surrendering to that which is beyond self.

In the second dhyana stage, the intellectual activity described above begins to fade and is replaced by tranquility and one-pointedness of mind. Joyful interest and sense of well-being are still present, but the awareness and contemplation are emptied out, and one experiences just the mindful joy of samadhi. At this point, I am no longer conscious of the flow of breath or its direction. In fact, I am not conscious of breathing at all. The joy and contentment of just being seems to heighten. There are no thoughts running around in confusion. They come, are recognized for what they are, and are immediately dismissed. This is not the stage of “no-mind” because there are still objects present, however they are not much of a distraction. At the early part of this stage, as a practice, I often explore and experience the impermanence of my physical form, senses, concepts, motivational synthesis, and discriminating consciousness.

In the third dhyana, the mindful joy and contentment fades and is replaced by the rise of bliss and a movement towards equanimity. In this stage, everything inside the body is going through a great transformation including to energy structures and channels and every cell and nerve. After realizing the third dhyana, we look upon previous realms of joy as being the same as that of any ordinary person because we have now reached a heightened joy. Master Nan Huai-Chin says that it is only after one reaches this stage that you can get rid of diseases.


I find that I can get attached to this stage if I’m not careful. Some of the practices I do are probably not the best for moving into deeper absorption. Bliss is a very enticing force, and I am inclined to enter into practices that serve to enhance it for its own sake. I have trouble at times discerning when it is best to continue with a practice, or just let it go. For example, sitting in siddhasana is one of the practices I do from the beginning of meditation. The rising energy from this practice affects every nerve and cell and increases the level of bliss throughout the whole body. One may erroneously believe that they have arrived when this happens, however, such beliefs are only an obstacle to further meditative absorption. I must eventually let go of the bliss and allow it to fade. The temptation is to hang on to it, and enhance it.

In the first three dhyanas, there is an increased awareness of that which exists beyond self (ultimate reality, presence).  As all the remnants of "I-ness" fade, it is as if you become that presence. The seeker becomes the sought.  
In the fourth dhyana, all sensation ceases and only mindful equanimity remains. This is the realm where both suffering and pleasure are extinguished, where sorrows or worries no longer exist. This is the stage of the beginning of pure mindfulness. According to the sutras, unless this stage can be preserved (body and mind, inner and outer, fused into one whole) then the fourth dhyana is not completely realized.

In meditative absorption, I have touched the fruits of this stage, but it is far from a permanent way of being. At times, I've wondered if the complete realization of this stage would take one out of the realm of day-to-day living and responsibility, but the sutras suggest not. Those who have mastered this stage are able to move to other realms to fulfill daily tasks and responsibilities, but still not lose their state of pure mindfulness, and return to it at will.

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