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#3434 - Thursday, February 5, 2009 - Editor: Jerry Katz

The Nonduality Highlights

Nondual Judaism is a niche occupied by very few. Jay Michaelson is one of them. Here is the beginning of a new article Jay wrote, featuring strains of the mystical and notes of the nondual.

Photo: Jay Michaelson


A Jewish Perspective on the Jhanas

Part I

by Jay Michaelson

January 29, 2009

The jhanas are states of heightened concentration that have been cultivated by Hindus and Buddhists for just under three thousand years. They are altered states, full of bliss and, I would say, holiness, and they play a central role in the Buddha's Eightfold Path ("right concentration"). Recently, I completed two months of silent meditation retreat devoted to the jhana practice. I went with certain intentions and expectations, which I'll discuss in a moment, but the experience was more profound and more religious than I expected. After a few introductory notes, I will describe my experiences of the jhanic states and describe what I believe to be their significance for Jewish theology and spirituality. As far as I know, such a project has not been attempted before.

1. What I did, and why I did it

I wish to make three introductory notes. First, I want to explain why I undertook this rigorous practice, which involved sitting still for extended periods of time (usually, 90 to 120 minutes), and spending the entire day doing nothing but observing the sensations of the breath at the nostrils, even while walking, eating, et cetera. I had three reasons, and discovered two additional ones during the retreat.

First, my real goal is liberation from the delusions of ego and the clinging nature of the mind: to learn to let go of clinging. On the Theravada Buddhist path, liberation comes from insight: directly seeing and knowing that all phenomena are empty of substance, impermanent, and fruitless to cling to. Insight, in turn, depends on concentration; you've got to get really quiet to see these characteristics clearly. So I went to learn concentration skills as a kind of prerequisite for a four-month retreat that I am on now, as this article is published.

Second, I went because jhana itself helps insight. Distractions and hindrances are suppressed in jhana, and the experience is deeply purifying and refreshing; one emerges with an extremely sharp, clear, and quiet mind, ready to do the rigorous, moment-to-moment noticing that leads to insight.

Third and finally, I did this practice because I was curious about jhana itself. On earlier retreats, I experienced what many meditators experience when their minds become concentrated: deep contentment, bless, gratitude, love, and awe at the beauty and miraculousness of ordinary life. Jhanas are like those concentrated mindstates squared, amplified, distilled -- and I wanted to see what they were like.

Along the way, I discovered two additional purposes to the practice. One is the deep "purification of mind" that is required to enter jhana: you really have to see and let go of all of your stuff, which in my case included a lot of grief, confusion, loneliness, ego, expectation, and just plain chatter. Every moment is an opportunity to let go of all this stuff, and I had a number of extremely powerful openings that perhaps I'll write about some other day.

In addition, the jhanas were themselves a powerful lesson in letting go. They are like everything I had dreamed about from the moment I became interested in spirituality as a young adult. Imagine your greatest dreams fulfilled, in oceans of light, bliss, love, and mystical union. Now imagine that you have to let them go. This is the lesson: that even the greatest of states arise and pass. You can't hold onto anything conditioned, even the dearest and most precious experiences imaginable. This insight alone was surely worth the price of admission.

~ ~ ~

Read the entire article here: Michaelson goes into the type of practice he did and each jhana.

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