Highlights From The Comments On Jhanas
"I think it’s the first time half the commenters accused the other half of lying"
[Original post here]
I. Is Jhana Real?
This was a fun one. I think it’s the first time half the commenters accused the other half of lying.
Okay, “half” is an exaggeration. But by my count we had 21 people who claimed to have experienced jhanas (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21), and 7 who said they were pretty sure it wasn’t real as described (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7).
The former group include people like Tetris McKenna, who wrote:
I've experienced samatha jhanas. I don't do it so much now. The first few times you get on the edge of 1st jhana, it's difficult to achieve, because you see the wave of pleasure approaching, and grasp for it, and that grasping takes you away from it. So it's a careful balancing act of pleasure/desire in the first place to get there, which you have to master to some degree. To even get to 1st jhana, you have to internally figure out some stuff about the craving/pleasure dynamic on a subconscious, mechanical level.
1st jhana is, as the author describes, intensely pleasurable. Sublime. His descriptions are spot on imo. But in some ways, it's also too much pleasure. It can feel agitating once you get used to it and aren't so awestruck by it anymore. Indeed, the latter jhanas are associated with letting go of certain aspects of the initial jhana, to more and more refined states that are more calm and equanimous than intensely pleasurable. Again, this is internalising and mastering the skill of balancing pleasure/craving.
Those calm and equanimous states of 2nd-4th jhana become much more satisfying than the initial pleasure wave of the 1st jhana. Cultivating them to that degree is a process of gaining valuable insight into the pleasure/craving dynamic in your mind. Even if you don't get to those stages, just practising 1st jhana alone will help the mind normalise the intensity of the pleasure, such that it's no big deal any more. You don't need or even want pleasure all the time, because you've seen it with such clarity, over and over again, just by setting the conditions up correctly in your mind.
Last January, I practiced jhanas 1-4, and I have (what I think is) a somewhat more balanced perspective.
The jhanas are kind of controversial within Buddhism. There's a sutta/story where the Buddha describes mastering jhanas 5-8, concluding they are not very useful, and then remembering jhanas 1-4 and realizing they are very important for progress toward liberation. However the Zen folks don't use them at all and your mainstream Vipassana people have always been a little skeptical of them.
First jhana is basically MDMA. You can find several people who advocate MDMA as absolutely life-changing, everyone should be on MDMA, etc.
If you believe that about MDMA, believe it about first jhana I guess. I will say the first time I did first jhana (with poor technique but hey), I did have the feeling "oh my god this is what I've needed, so much!" Better than really good, mindblowing sex? Well, different anyway, if the love and acceptance feeling is what you lacked before.
Meanwhile, the doubters include Drethelin:
I know it's rude but I basically just don't believe this is a real thing. The emperor may or may not have clothes but at least an outside analyst (a child, traditionally) can look at him and decide one way or the other. But everyone who makes claims to be able to do the Jhana thing is just saying stuff about their internal state, without even as much potential evidence as people who spend their lives claiming to be able to do telekinesis or clairvoyance.
[In response to a claim that thousands of people claim to have reached jhana:] Thousands of people have also claimed to be able to speak to the dead, or perceive things over long distances, or hear god telling them what to do.
There are all sorts of cultural or personal reasons to make such claims regardless of truth, just as there are religious and social incentives to claim to be able to experience Jhanas.
Most simply, the people making these claims get to receive your impressed attention at their unusual level of mental achievement, without having to actually do anything difficult to show how impressive their brains are.
Same here. I'm not sure why Scott suddenly drops the skeptical thinking when it comes to meditation-related subjects. This is self-reported introspection - is basically worthless as evidence, and it tends to come from people who are trying to sell you something.
I stand by “it’s probably real”.
When people say they have migraines, this is mostly just self-reported introspection, but we still trust them. We trust them because lots of people say it, because they seem like trustworthy people, because it’s not so implausible that sometimes people get lots of pain in their head for weird reasons, and because (contra Johan) we don’t actually have a principled position of never believing self-reports.
When people say that taking MDMA/”Ecstasy” feels super amazing, this is also self-reported introspection, but I still trust these people. Most people who take MDMA say it, it doesn’t seem implausible that there’s some stuff that can give you really high amounts of bliss, and again, self-reports seem like perfectly fine evidence.
Jhana seems a lot like these other cases - an experience lots of people report, where some unusual situation with weird effects on their brains produces extreme amounts of pain or pleasure, which those people then report to others.
I think people who doubt it are applying burden of proof improperly by drawing category boundaries in a weird place; something like “I doubt people who claim to have ESP, I doubt people who claim to be able to speak with the dead, these seem like spiritual/religious people claiming extraordinary abilities, jhana seems like spiritual/religious people claiming extraordinary abilities, therefore I should doubt jhana.” I guess I would argue that ESP and speaking to the dead have very high burden of proof because they break the known laws of physics, but jhana is just people experiencing lots of pleasure, which is very permitted by physics (eg MDMA).
There’s a weird subtype of epilepsy where patients feel incredible bliss around the beginning of a seizure - Dostoevsky had it, and wrote that it made him feel “entirely in harmony with myself and the whole world, and this feeling is so strong and so delightful that for a few seconds of such bliss one would gladly give up 10 years of one’s life, if not one’s whole life.” I’m not inclined to doubt Dostoevsky, because brains are weird, and this isn’t even in the top three weirdest subtypes of epilepsy I know. But why believe seizures can cause this, but not meditation? Is it because meditation feels “religious” and seizures don’t? Why not just classify meditation as “nonreligious” if it’s going to screw you up like this?
A few people have started speculating on why people are so reluctant to believe jhanas. I usually hate this kind of thing (cf. Bulverism), but it does describe some of my own previous reluctance so I’m going to embarassedly signal-boost it anyway. Andres Gomez Emilsson has a Twitter thread about this, but the one that stood at most to me was:
Part of the reason I made that post was that it didn’t seem to make sense to me for there to be something this big that nobody’s world models (including mine) really paid much attention to.
Andres has a longer post on this, but I’ll probably get to it later if/when I write Highlights From The Comments On Brain Waves.
Roon puts it differently:
And Bugmaster writes (in the middle of a long and thoughtful semi-skeptical comment):
The reason every human on Earth is not immersed in Jhana right now is, uh, reasons.
But maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised. The reason I’m not in jhana right now is that I tried a bit to learn meditation, got distracted, and didn’t keep up with my practice, which is the same reason I never succeeded at learning foreign languages or running a marathon. The reason other people aren’t in jhana is because they don’t believe it exists, or haven’t heard of it. These all seem like good logical explanations.
But it’s still weird.
II. Is Jhana Really Better Than Sex?
Others don’t necessarily disbelieve in jhana itself, but express skepticism that it could possibly be as good as sex. For example, ucatione writes:
I have been around people that self-report all these amazing experiences from spiritual practices all my life, and I am pretty sure most of it is bullshit. I have done a lot of meditation and know what is possible and how easily it is to fool yourself to think that you have had a much more profound experience than you actually did. There seems to be a certain percentage of people that are really comfortable with changing their own memory of what they perceived to fit their expectations. The classic pop culture example of this is in that South Park episode when Cartman convinces himself he came up with a joke and his memory becomes more elaborate with each retelling, until he is fighting off a dragon. I know people like this, that embellish stories in which I participated until they are unrecognizable to me and, often, these happen to be the same people that self-report amazing spiritual experiences.
I am not trying to say that jhanas are not a real and positive experience. I question claims such as it is comparable to having sex, or is 10 times better than sex, or is an experience of complete bliss and not crave-able.
At first I thought they were lying but then I realized that I know people who talk about pizza or weed or napping with similar enthusiasm, so now I think maybe a lot of people just are easily made happy, or having bad sex, or both.
I have to admit I find this even more baffling - do these people doubt that Dostoevsky’s seizures were better than sex? That MDMA is better than sex? My default expectation is that “unnatural” “brain-hijacking” forms of pleasure should be more intense than natural ones, for the same reason that hacking into a video game and changing the score to 999999 should result in higher scores than playing the video game as designed.
Still, a few people also mentioned that they experienced jhana and it wasn’t that great:
Benjamin Todd writes:
Several teachers have told me I've been in the jhanas, but to me they just felt "kinda nice" rather than "more bliss than I've ever experienced"
Willy Chertman writes:
I'm pretty sure I reached the first Jhana a few yrs ago when I meditated twice a day. It was nice while it lasted, but didn't have powerful effects the rest of the day. Accomplishing more in my life career wise has been a far more consistent mood enhancer, weirdly enough.
Sasha Chapin (writes Sasha’s Newsletter) writes:
I'm pretty solid at jhanas, as in, I can reliably get up to 5th, and I can touch the others occasionally. Thanks, partially, to Nick Cammarata helping me out with some personal instruction!
And I'm less enthusiastic about them. Still pro jhana, but not as much as my creditable meditative colleagues quoted above. I think there's a lot of personal variation here; many meditators can do them, not all care that much about them. After a jhana phase of a couple of months, I got somewhat bored, and, even during that phase, they didn't really change my desire for pleasure, sexual or otherwise. They're really cool, but, to me, the pleasure that you get from jhana, while intense and lovely, has a flatness and artificiality to it, because it's totally separate from any narrative content and doesn't have much variety. It's like a giant package of mental sour candy that only comes in a few flavors. I revisit them occasionally, and it's fun that I can get myself harmlessly high with my brain if you give me a few undistracted minutes, but, at this point, my meditation life wouldn't feel that impoverished without them. That said, if you're into meditation, I recommend trying them out, it's worth a try.
A few people, instead of suggesting that jhana might be worse than Nick thought, suggested sex might be better. Artist-Tyrant writes:
When nerdy types start talking about “amazing sex,” I can’t help but roll my eyes. Sorry, but I don’t really value your opinion on this subject because I don’t think you’re attractive enough to have a serious understanding of that kind of pleasure. Maybe if a movie star or Hugh Hefner preferred jhana, I’d sit up and listen.
I’m a bad person to host this conversation. I’ve sometimes described myself as asexual. This isn’t exactly right - I don’t want to get into specifics on a public blog - but it’s basically true that I don’t find sex pleasurable, even with very attractive partners who I like a lot. I assume there’s a very wide range for sex and a very wide range for jhana, partly based on skill and partly based on neurochemistry. Still, I stick to my claim that you would expect unnatural hacky pleasures to have a wider range than natural ones.
A few people made a valiant effort to quantify exactly how good jhana was compared to other things. For example, Romeo Stevens:
Have tried many many substances though only pharmaceutical versions of opiates and methamphetamines which are low dose compared to recreational use. Deep first jhana is much more like a full body orgasm that lasts for anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours (I have personally experienced up to 10-15 minutes, hard to judge time, didn't have a clock at the time, can only enter them on demand on retreat.) This is much more pleasureable than drugs on the pure physical pleasure and contentment axes, though psychedelics + mdma can lead to insights that are a different axis of pleasure/happiness. I imagine that high dose opiates hit many of the same dimensions of first jhana, but with the problem of dullness that scales with dose, whereas jhana is vivid.
[The bliss of jhana] doesn’t feel concentrated around the genitals the way orgasm does, and in fact that's one the main ways it feels better than orgasm, the lack of contraction.
If orgasms and jhana are both very good, would orgasm during jhana be super-amazing? I tested this out with a romantic partner who is an experienced meditator. She reported that orgasming while in first jhana was significantly better than just first jhana alone, was somewhat better than an average orgasm, but wasn't as good as the best (non-jhana) orgasms she had ever had. Thanks to [anonymous partner] for agreeing to serve as a guinea pig in this important scientific experiment!
III. Can Jhana Really Substitute For Other Pleasures?
Other people debated whether or not jhana could substitute for sex or other pleasures, or really helped people avoid addictions. For example, Ben W:
I am someone who claims to be able to experience jhana states.
I also still enjoy casual sex, as well as various kinks.
It seems a lot of people are caught up on the "satiety" aspect. And I experience that. But there's many areas of life where we don't maximize positive feelings even when they don't have drawbacks.
Example: kissing a partner passionately feels better than a goodbye peck on the cheek, doesn't really take that much longer, and has only positive benefits. We still kiss different ways as appropriate.
So there is this interesting thing where you can be having a pleasurable experience and can toggle between that experience and Jhana and you will find yourself preferring Jhana.
It's not really that it's always something huge fireworks or anything, sometimes it can literally be like that, but a lot of the time it's more subtle, it's more underlying but deep and pervasive.
The one place i would probably tweak Nick's description is verbiage where it is made to sound so much better than all worldly pleasures *along the same dimensions*.
I find that Jhana literally exists on like a finer gradient, rather than just being *more* sex than sex, etc.
When you compare the two, it's like oh this other sensation doesn't really hold a candle to Jhana, but they don't exist on the same spectrum IMO.
Several people brought up my old post Is Enlightenment Compatible With Sex Scandals?, where I mentioned that a lot of famous Buddhist meditation teachers had sex scandals. Presumably all of these teachers could reach the first jhana, which is pretty low on the totem pole of Buddhist meditative accomplishments. So what went wrong? Did they just forget that they could get pleasure through jhana instead of scandalous sex?
I think one possible explanation is that "most traditions have lost the emphasis on jhana." In particular, the sex scandals almost all come from traditions like this, AFAIK — Zen, Tibetan; I don't know of any Thai Forest monk scandals (although possibly they do exist).
I have strong opinions on this, because a reading of the early suttas clearly indicates that jhana is perhaps the single most important factor in the Buddha's path to enlightenment, and traditions which try to reach it from normal cognition ("dry" paths) seem to be missing something.
I don’t know exactly what tradition Culadasa (one of the teachers involved in scandals) comes from, but he has taught courses on the jhanas, so I’m skeptical.
IV. What Can Science Tell Us About Jhanas?
Paul T writes:
I haven't really gone deep on the MRI side, but I'm interested in citations for empirical work.
This 2013 paper, Case Study of Ecstatic Meditation: fMRI and EEG Evidence of Self-Stimulating a Reward System seems to get at the question Scott is posing about which reward machinery is being triggered, using MRI to investigate. In particular they substantiate this hypothesis:
> H5: Jhanas should show increased activation compared to the rest state in the dopamine reward system of the brain (NAc in the ventral striatum and medial OFC). A broad range of external rewards stimulate this system (food, sex, beautiful music, and monetary awards), so extreme joy in jhana may be triggered by the same system (the VTA is also part of this system, but is too small to image with standard fMRI methods, but see  for successful imaging methods).
Ok, now what does this mean for Scott's quesitons? I'm far from an expert here, but stitching this together with this comment:
Now, what does the released dopamine do? In PFC (via the mesocortical pathway), it draws attentional resources to the surprising stimulus and its plausible causes, gating out the processing of other, less relevant stimuli. Simultaneously, in NAc, it strengthens connections between PFC inputs and the endorphin-releasing cells, thereby wiring together the hedonic features of the reward and the sensory features of any cues predictive of it. This imbues the cue with the ability to release the GABAergic brake on VTA DA neurons all by itself. Phenomenologically, it results in us "liking" the cue as much (or nearly as much) as we like the reward (this is what allows, e.g., animal trainers to reinforce behavior with only the sound of a clicker that has previously been paired with food).
So, speculatively, if Jhana is somehow short-circuiting NAc to trigger without specific signals from PFC, are we weakening the existing connections from PFC that previously triggered NAc? Something like normalizing the weights over a bunch of input signals, but with the new input signal being "non-causal / Jhanic stimulation"? Thus reducing the weight of other causal hedonic pleasures (like casual sex in this example)? So these signals from PFC would not elicit as much dopamine response through NAc activation as they did pre-Jhana.
Perhaps there is also something here viz the second part:
But once the brain learns that a reward is reliably predicted by a cue, the reward ceases to elicit a surprise signal. This means it no longer increases VTA DA neuron firing rate. It may still cause endorphin release and thus keep the GABAergic brake off, but if there's no surprise signal driving phasic firing, dopamine release will be minimal.
That is to say: We still enjoy expected rewards; we just don't much *care* about our enjoyment of them.
If you can reliably produce the Jhanic pleasure state, perhaps this condition eventually obtains as well; it's no longer "surprising" that you can experience this bliss state, and therefore it's not addictive/appealing. But, maybe it's still a strong-enough stimulus in the NAc system to continue to reduce the weight of the other, more-surprising NAc activations from the PFC, so it's also displacing those surprisingly-pleasurable states from firing.
Thank you, Paul, for this very thoughtful explanation.
And I already mentioned this on the Open Thread, but Stephen Zerfas writes:
I’m the founder of Jhourney, a neurotech company attempting to map the neural correlates of the jhanas and use tools like neurofeedback to help make them more accessible.
I started drafting a comment in response to Scott's post and it ended up a bit long so I posted it here: https://www.jhourney.io/blog/scott-alexander-nick-cammarata-jhana
Scott's questions get at the curiously highly-pleasurable-but-non-addictive nature of the jhanas. A few excerpts from my response:
[Experience suggests] they're not addictive. It’s not as if you wirehead yourself into some wildly different equilibrium, you just never go reaching for them the same way you start automatically reaching for your phone if you’ve been spending lots of time on Twitter. My colleague and neuroscientist Kati Devaney informs me that you can predict the addictiveness of a drug by the first derivative of its dopamine spike. Drugs that see more gradual rates of change of dopamine don’t see such addictive responses. This implies that despite their extreme pleasure, the neurological mechanisms of jhanas don’t have a high dopaminergic rate of change.
But for those concerned about wireheading like a heroin addict, perhaps even greater reassurance is that the idea of *living life* with the jhanas seems much more fulfilling than just doing the jhanas all day. By having access to the jhanas, in the form of either bliss, happiness, contentment, or deep peace (i.e. the first four jhanas), I’m able to “splash” them into everyday life. Walking in the woods with my partner? How about a little J2? Coming home after a long day? How about a little J3? Rob Burbea talks a lot about mastery of the jhanas being a process of learning to delight and play and weave together the jhanas with one another and in everyday life. Every now and then I meet someone who talks about the jhanas like “been there, done that” and I think, “Holy shit is this person missing out.” And since it takes a little practice, they’ve lost the ability to get back to the jhanas and need to relearn.
V. Is This Good?
Suppose that, in fact, you can use meditation to get lots of bliss. Is this good? Or bad? People seem to have quite different opinions here. For example, Beck Stein:
Have you considered that there's more to life than just raw pleasure? Engaging with art, learning, experiencing variety, play, etc. Do you think there's nothing that is valuable to do other than experience endorphins? Would lying in a vat and flooding your brain with serotonin for a few decades until it turns to mush really be a desirable life? That's an extreme example, but if you understand why someone wouldn't do that then you understand why someone wouldn't just spend hours of his limited time on earth in jhana every day.
And Michael Sweeney:
Jhnana is literally worthless. What good is an eon of being immersed in bliss if when you emerge you still haven't figured out what this place is all about?. It's ignoble to seek bliss for yourself, ignoring the darkness and suffering of others. Jhnana up to the fourth is actually an obstacle.
On the other hand, Peter Gerdes:
As a hedonic utilitarian I think it might actually be immoral for these individuals to not spend much more time in Jhana.
The fact that it's only themselves they are hurting doesn't really seem to change the matter. Unless their job/life is so beneficial to others as to make up for the difference they are choosing to fill the world with more suffering and less pleasure than they could by spending more time in that state.
Also I gotta get my act together and quit lazying out on meditation.
I don’t have a principled philosophical position here. But from a practical perspective, I notice I spend some time doing pleasurable things (eg eating good food, spending time with my wife) and some time doing useful things (eg paying bills, collating all of your ACX comments) and although sometimes I go too far to one side or the other I feel okay having a balance. If somebody told me of a new, even-more-pleasurable thing I could do with no downsides - eg a new restaurant with amazing food opened up in town - I would be tempted to try it. I don’t think this would be evil or that it would be especially worth resisting this urge, unless it took over my life and I spent all my time eating at that restaurant. But as long as it was part of a balanced portfolio of activities it would sound pretty good.
VI. Other Interesting Comments
Gareth P writes:
If you're having problems believing claims of achieving the pleasure Jhanas (1-4) you will likely be even more skeptical about the Immaterial Jhanas (5-8). http://www.leighb.com/jhana2.htm
If anything, Gareth links to an unusually restrained list. I prefer the poetry of these people, who describe the fifth jhana as:
5th Jhana (Infinite Space and Luminosity): The Oceanic Space of Light explodes like a cosmic roar (Rudra) and indestructible lightning bolt (Vajra). It spreads with neither beginning nor end as it completely consumes any sense of physical or mental boundary. The body reduces to a tiny dot and vanishes into a translucent Space of Light as Infinite Spaciousness roars from the Source and extends outside one’s mind, body, and being in all directions. The virtual sense of self is completely burned once and for all. This Light consumes everything. It burns like 10,000 suns. No outline whatsoever. Utter Boundlessness. The boundary of a boundary is Zero. This is True Enlightenment. This is Yoga (Union). When there is no experience of any boundary, there is a living Union. One may unintentionally shed one’s body by being overwhelmed by the sheer explosive intensity of all-encompassing Light.
I think these are Hindus working from a slightly different tradition from the Buddhists I’ve been quoting so far, but I don’t think the Buddhists would disagree with them - except where they say this is True Enlightenment. Buddhists reserve True Enlightenment for something else!
AlexV speculates that maybe the reasons jhanas aren’t addictive is because it takes a lot of effortful and time-consuming meditation to get to one, and that makes it more like a slow release drug (less addictive) compared to an IV drug (more addictive).
I like the way he thinks, but Steven quashes this hypothesis:
So I have access to them in as little as a second or less, I can basically enter at will. Intensity varies for sure, but I can essentially turn my attention to them and enter.
I don't think this is like crazy rare or hard to attain either, Ive seen other people get this quite quickly.
I personally have found certain techniques are more conducive to this at will access (compared to methods like focusing on the breath until something changes).
For example, I've seen people get access to Jhana 1 through a mental question "Are you aware?" "How do you know you are aware?"
Then observe the actual mechanism by which you validate your own experience of awareness, and stay in that place. That "place" is essentially the location of Jhana 1, atleast for a good handful of people I've seen.
Regardless, I wouldn't say the phenomena can be broken down to time of onset compared to substances!
I have heard other people mention that after achieving jhana the first time through lots of meditation, they can gradually “learn” “where it is” and then enter more quickly and easily later, until like Steven they can do it in a second.
Brian Bargh writes:
So anyone have any resources for learning how to do it?
Chris Merck recommends Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha and The Mind Illuminated, both of which I’ve reviewed before (MCTB, TMI). I agree these are good, though they’re much more comprehensive than just jhana.
Nick Cammarata recommends Right Concentration by Leigh Brasington (I’ve read this one too, although I thought it was kind of short and basic) and these videos by Rob Burbea.
Joshua Graham recommends A Mind Without Craving by Delson Armstrong and Michael Taft’s YouTube channel.
Some people on postrat Twitter are trying to start a jhana-related Discord server, go here for instructions on how to join.
I seem to have accidentally taught myself some kind of quasi heightened sense state from hunting. Yeah, sounds dumb, but it seems to be some first cousin of some of the stuff people describe from meditation. And what I'm doing to get into it is fairly related to the types of meditation techniques where you empty your mind of everything but X while being quiet and motionless. In my case, I'm sitting/standing in one spot for minutes to hours at a time and being hyper focused for tiny movements or sounds. It doesn't always happen but I'd say maybe 20% of the time, I can get into this sort of out of body feeling where I don't really notice stimuli from my body anymore (like the fact my butt is aching from sitting in this spot on the ground for an hour or such) and I see/hear ludicrously small things I would never notice otherwise. I wouldn't really call it blissful. It's more like powerful. Predatory? It's a really weird feeling.
Interesting, this is a comparison I wouldn’t have thought to make.
I've listened to a lot of [meditation expert] Daniel [Ingram’s] interviews, including one with Andres Emilsson, and I think it's likely that he took on supernatural views for similar reasons that Scott mentioned in his post Why Were Early Psychedelicists So Weird? I think, for some people, taking meditation too far is analogous to taking psychedelics too far - causing illogical belief updates (either overfitting or underfitting their world model). Worse still, Daniel has read texts on Fire Kasina which are filled with talk of magical powers (I believe these are authentic accounts of hallucinations), and has given himself dramatic hallucinations (pointing even more in the too-much-psychedelics direction) by doing Fire Kasina.
I have done both jhana and fire kasina, and can report them both as have real dramatic effects, but I interpret them in the same way I do psychedelic experiences: just more qualia, and in no way "spiritual". My hunch is that the spiritual feeling people have is a genetic thing, because I can't relate to it at all, even after very high doses of multiple hallucinatory drugs and many intense meditation experiences.
Daniel's favorite example of supernatural activity being proven real is when both him and his friend saw the same hallucination after multiple days straight of doing Fire Kasina. I always go to Josikinz's example where they had a friend who was having an out-of-body hallucination experience try to name a card, randomly drawn from a deck, that was placed on top of a shelf (out-of-sight from their friend). The friend's guess was incorrect.
I agree that many meditators seem to become convinced meditation has supernatural effects. The very smart and careful ones say something like “I know there’s a lot of evidence supernatural effects aren’t real, and this could just be something I’m saying because I’ve fried my brain too many times with weird states, but I can’t help feeling like [description of some very unconvincing evidence] had to be supernatural, take that however you want”. The dumb and reckless ones just go around claiming to have psychic powers. I am definitely concerned about this, although it doesn’t seem to turn the smart and careful ones into loons about everything else, the way some of the early psychedelicsts were.
Scott's post and some commenters seem to be trying to assess the plausibility of these descriptions from a scientific POV without addressing any of the Buddhist theories about them. Assuming for a moment that jhānas exist, maybe the folks theorizing about them in the past 2500+ years have something of value to say?
For example, I don't see any mention of the standard Buddhist theory that lack of sensory desire (technically, suppression of the hindrance of kāmacchanda) is a cause for jhānas. "Wow, Nick doesn't crave sex as much anymore" is about lack of sensory desire as an effect from jhānas. Further, standard Buddhist theory wouldn't say that jhānas completely eradicate sensory desire. That would only apply to (at least) a partially awakened "anāgāmī", aka "third path".
I also see no mention of the Buddhist concept of "insight". I think a particular family of insights is the more mundane explanation for being less interested in casual sex after experiencing consistent jhānas. That family of insight goes like, "Huh, I walk around all day being driven by my craving for pleasure and aversion to pain. I do all sorts of weird things because of those drives. But, here I just sat down and entered a jhāna, experiencing more pleasure than I ever have in my daily life, and very little suffering [note: without investigation it can seem like no suffering]. What were the conditions for this state? Well, I needed to be alive, reasonably healthy, and incline my mind in a particular way. So, basically nothing. I'm sitting on a treasure but I hurt myself picking up pennies all day. Man, I am very very confused in daily life". Eventually you exit the jhāna and the afterglow fades. When you see ice cream in the advertisement or an attractive person walking down the street you will still feel desire. When someone cuts you off in traffic you will still feel aversion. But, you now know to some degree that it's bullshit. You obviously might still act on these cravings/aversions. But, the more times this insight gets hammered into you the less likely compulsive action is. There is a difference between "knowing" something and knowing something.
This isn't to say that there are no permanent benefits from jhānas beyond helping produce certain insights. They're very "healing" in a similar way that a spa retreat might be healing for a stressed person. Is going to a spa retreat regularly before too much stress/burn-out builds up permanent? In a certain sense, I guess?
"Why isn't jhāna addictive?" To a Buddhist who has never heard the word "dopamine" this is a weird question. Addiction is a thought/behavioral pattern (a fabrication or a saṅkhāra) caused by craving (taṇhā). Jhānas arise from a reduction in fabrication and craving, so in a certain way they're the opposite of addiction.
If someone wanted to scientifically engage with the crux of Buddhist logic, I think a better line of inquiry would be "why does the reduction of craving reduce suffering?" or "why is the suppression of sensory desire a precondition for jhāna?"
I went through a similar dynamic with lucid dreaming. For years, for hours every night, I was a god, I could create any world, do any thing, the only limit was my imagination. I explored a lot of things deeply, and I'm glad I did it, but it got ... old. It cured me of the hunger for experiences, or something like that. My ethics are a little odd because I don't believe suffering (or pleasure) is any kind of fundamental entity in moral calculus, and I believe that years of intense, constant lucid dreaming plays a large role in that.
Thank you! I think I was in a similar place with lucid dreaming, as I was with jhana before I read Nick’s tweets: I had heard many people make this claim, but it seemed so crazy that I figured it it were true surely it would have more of an effect on the world. There would be lucid dreaming junkies, people would be shouting from the rooftops “WHY AREN’T YOU LUCID DREAMING MORE? IT’S AMAZING!” - and so I had to be misunderstanding the claim, or people were lying, or something.
But I think maybe it is just that some people can do this amazing thing, that having infinite pleasure gets kind of old after a while, and that since most people are skeptical of this the people who can do it learn not to talk about it too much. Maybe there are dozens of infinite-bliss hacks like jhana or lucid dreaming floating around out there, and we just never hear about them.
Highlights From The Comments On Jhanas