I remember reading about the Jhana and the formless spheres when I was a teenager. (The Jhana are deep meditative states. There are four stages of Jhana. In addition to the Jhana, there are four higher meditative states known as the formless spheres. ) They sounded very cool! Wow, to make it to the fourth Jhana, pure consciousness, the beginning of psychic powers! Or to enter into the sphere of infinite space, to become one with the universe! Wow!!
To my teenager mind these states sounded so lofty, so grand, that they might as well have been unattainable. Now, when I listen to an individual (including myself) speak about his/her own experiences and attainment of these states, I can usually hear an awkward mix of false humility and pride. That’s okay. We are human.
But the thing is: these states are very subtle, you really can’t exclaim “wow!” while in them; you’d kind of ruin it.
The first thing I want to say is that everyone already knows these states in a manner of speaking.
For example, does entering into a profoundly deep meditative state in which you are oblivious to all external sensations seem a little incredible to you?
But perhaps you already know this state. While having a dream (or a lucid dream would be closer to the state) someone could tap you on the shoulder and call your name and you might not notice.
That state doesn’t sound so special anymore. (Have you ever had a lucid dream and in the dream you’re meditating and your mind is absolutely silent? That would be very close to the state of the second or third Jhana.)
I am trying to make these states sound less impressive. They are very natural.
As we sleep we move through all of these states; it’s just that we are usually unconscious. I remember the first time I fell asleep consciously. I realized that these states are very ordinary, very familiar. Idealizing them will prevent you from entering into them consciously.
Something else to remember about these states is that they are subjective. They are your states. They may not match up perfectly to someone else’s description of them, even Siddhartha’s. There is a lot of disagreement and confusion concerning these states. I think what is important and what is most universally agreed upon is that with each successive Jhana or sphere what you previously took to be nothing is now discovered to be something.
What do I mean by that?
Here is an example: Say after years of meditating you have finally learned how to let your mind become silent. There is no sound. There is nothing. Wonderful! Maybe you are enlightened! Life goes on. You continue to meditate, enjoying your nothingness. But then one day you realize that the silence is in fact not nothing after all. You notice that silence is a type of sound. You realize that silence is an auditory experience. You discover that nothing (that is, what you mistook as nothing) is actually something.
This is the process of transcendence. The Witness is learning to differentiate itself from its experiences. With each successive Jhana or sphere the experiences become finer and finer. After each differentiation there arrives a new state that is taken to be nothing. You can’t see it because you are identified with it. However, given enough time you learn to see it, or hear it, and therefore differentiate yourself from it. The process of transcendence continues.
The same thing happens with inner body silence. Not the sound, but the feeling. You might not even notice the feeling. It is so subtle. You think that it is nothing at all. But one day you suddenly realize that the inner feeling of stillness is actually an experience. You may call it bliss.
And again the same thing happens with inner visual silence. Infinite space, the first formless sphere – at first you don’t notice it. It seems to be just infinite vast formless emptiness/nothingness. But then one day you notice that it is a type of visual experience. You differentiate from it; you see it as something. (It is when you begin to see it that you need to sit with it.)
And on and on you go in like manner.
Each time subtler and subtler experiences are discovered to be masquerading as the Witness or Experiencer. (Experiencer isn’t a real word, but I try to avoid the term Witness because the word seems to privilege visual experiences over other experiences. I should say “Witness”.)
What do these “altered states” have to do with enlightenment?
The answer is: Everything and nothing.
Everything, because you learn what you are not in these states.
Nothing, because Enlightenment does not necessarily take place while in any of these “altered states.”
When you are ready, it could happen at any time. When you are ready, you are hanging on by the finest thread. The attachment and therefore the “Witness” can go at any moment.
Finally, one day, perhaps while sitting in the park watching and listening to the flurry of activity around you, it happens, the “Witness” collapses into that which is experienced. The process of transcendence has worked itself to completion in the ordinary day to day waking state. Now, in that freedom, you simply see clearly, you are awake.