Jasen Murray on tranquility meditation

Since the page that I previously used to link to for a description of how to do tranquility meditation has died, I’m reposting the instructions here. I found them very useful in getting started with meditation, and they seemed to work better for me than any other instructions. Original credit for writing them goes to Jasen Murray.


Very brief summary:

Use either the breath or metta as your object of meditation. Do not focus all of your attention on the object, merely maintain constant awareness of it while also experiencing your entire physical body. You will experience tension in the body (particularly in the head) especially when distractions such as thoughts arise. Let the distraction go, neither following it nor trying to suppress it, while releasing any tension that you notice. Release tension by maintaining uninvolved awareness of the tension, reminding yourself that it is ‘happening on its own’ (I explain this in the detailed instructions below). Keep on doing this. You will pass through the jhanas. Move through them by the same process of releasing tension while maintaining awareness of you object. Eventually, after hanging out in the 8th jhana for a while, a complete cessation of perception and feeling will occur. When perception and feeling return, you will clearly see how attachment is produced and thus be able to release it. The first time you do this is ‘stream entry.’ Repeat until fully enlightened.

More detailed Summary:

You pick an object of meditation. Bhante V. prefers metta (loving-kindness) first and the breath second. He says both he and his students have found metta to produce the fastest results.

If you choose the breath:

Be aware of your breathing. Do not lock your attention on a particular subset of body sensations such as those at the nostril or abdomen, just be aware of whether you are inhaling or exhaling and the length of each inhalation and exhalations.

Now, as you breath in, experience your entire physical body. As you breath out, experience your entire physical body.

If you choose metta:

Start by remembering a time when you were happy until you can feel that happiness, perhaps as a warmth in your chest. Once you can feel it, wish yourself happiness, perhaps in the following manner: “May I be happy. May my mind be peaceful and calm. May my mind be filled with joy. May my mind be clear, and alert.” Really feel the wish, radiating loving-kindness toward yourself. Use this feeling as your object of meditation. If it starts to fade, make the wish again. If you choose this object, the feeling will transform into the other Brahma Viharas as you pass through the jhanas. That’s fine, let it. (more below).

Either way, you will notice tensions, particularly in your head when a distraction (such as a thought) arises.

These tensions arise whenever there is attachment to a sensation. So long as there are such tensions, there is attachment.

In the normal state, there are too many layers of mental activity to see the low-level process of attachment with sufficient clarity such that it can be released.

The purpose of this meditation is to gradually relax your body and mind while maintaining clear, alert mindful attention until all perception ceases in a moment of cessation. When perception returns, you will get a clear glimpse of ‘dependent origination’ and thus see how attachment occurs so that you can stop doing it. I don’t have a good model of this yet, but I’m working on it.

People seem to have a difficult time describing how they relax these tensions. They often say things like “Relaxing this tension is not really a matter of ‘doing’ anything. It is the ‘doing’ that is the source of the tension. Let go of all doing.” There’s something to that, but it is easy to misinterpret. The confusion comes from the mistaken belief that the feeling of ‘effort’ or ‘control’ is produced by the processes responsible for generating the relevant behavior in the same way that the experience of color is produced by the processes responsible for sight. Those feelings are actually just the result of more attachment to sensations. They are produced by the same processes that resist information (in this case, my guess is the resistance is to the fact that experience is happening on it’s own and thus cannot be controlled and that there is no solid permanent ‘you’).

So, maintain awareness on the breath, remind yourself that all experience is happening on its own and cannot be controlled and simply be aware of the tension while leaving it be. It will eventually feel like there is an outer layer to the tension that is softening, breaking up and melting away, leaving a smaller, lighter tension behind. Repeat the process.

If thoughts arise, tension will arise along with them. Let go of the thought, even mid sentence and release the corresponding tension in this way.

If you keep this up, you will get more and more relaxed and pleasant feelings will begin to arise in your body. These signal the beginning of 1st jhana and will grow into an intense joy.

The different levels of relaxation are called ‘tranquility’ jhanas. I do not know if or how these correspond to the ‘absorption’ jhanas or the ‘vipassana’ jhanas. You move through them by continuing the processes of letting go of any tension that you notice. It goes something like this:

1st jhana – intense joy throughout the mind and body, maintaining attention on meditation object feels effortful. Remember that the feeling of effort is just tension and let go of it.

2nd jhana – more intense joy throughout the mind and body, effortless attention on meditation object. Eventually the intensity of the joy will feel a bit too coarse and you will notice some attachment to it. Release this tension.

3rd jhana – less intense comfort/happiness throughout the mind and body. Eventually the feeling of comfort/happiness will seem to coarse and you will notice attachment to it. Release this tension.

4th jhana – equanimity, very peaceful and still, even unpleasant sensations do not seem to be a problem. The next tension to release comes from attachment to distinctions/diversity.

5th jhana – base of infinite space. ‘physical’ sensations take on a formless character, distinctions are not held on to and the feeling of the body seems to dissolve out into the space surrounding ‘you.’ If metta was your object, it transforms into Karuna (compassion) here. This is experienced as radiating compassion in all directions into infinite space (hence the ‘infinite compassion’ of a buddha). Something like continuity of ‘consciousness’ is still being held on to.

6th jhana – base of infinite consciousness. The illusion of a separate, continuous ‘observer’ consciousness breaks down and each seems to be aware of itself. This is difficult to describe, but very cool. It seems as if everything in your sense fields is a tiny bit of ‘you’ looking back at itself. Karuna now transforms into mudita (sympathetic joy). Something like ‘form’ or consciousness is still being held on to…I bit shakier on the next transition as I’ve only experienced it a few times.

7th jhana – nothingness. The black or blank space around sensations becomes more prominent than the sensations themselves. Very peaceful. Mudita now turns into upekkha (equanimity). Perception, if only of nothingness, is still being held on to.

8th jhana – neither perception/feeling nor yet non-perception/feeling. I’m not sure about this one. I may not have experienced it yet. People describe it as a moving back and forth between minimal perception and very minimal perception in which there is still awareness of some kind. This is the same regardless of the object you started with. Some say that you can only tell that you were in the 8th jhana rather than asleep by looking back on your memory of the time spent meditating.

There really can’t be any further instruction at this point because there’s too little going on. You just continue practicing. Eventually, perception and feeling cease completely for some amount of time. When they return, you get a glimpse of what Bhante V. calls ‘dependent origination’ and ‘nibanna.’ This is ‘path’. ‘Fruition’ in this model is apparently something different (though I’m not yet sure what) that comes a bit later after more practice. There are various levels of enlightenment (the 4 paths) that correspond to the number of times you’ve experienced cessation followed by fruition.

Although releasing tension is an important part of the instructions, it is critical that you don’t get carried away and go looking for tension. The instruction to ‘look for’ some aspect of your experience usually leads people to carry out the same kind of operation that produces tension – trying to force your experience to conform to your expectations. Just stay with your object of meditation ( but not too tightly) and let go/allow any other sensations to happen.

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