Pure Pleasure Isn't What You Want, or, Notes on the Jhānas
bliss states: exciting, but not as much as you would think
The jhānas are bliss states that can be accessed by meditators with a little practice. Classically, there is a set of eight, attested to by contemplatives for millennia. You get into the first jhāna by noticing some pleasurable sensation in your consciousness, then focusing on it, until the narrow focus produces a feedback loop—it feels good that you feel good, and then it feels really good that you feel really good, until the pleasure skyrockets. Getting to the rest is a matter of making little attentional micro-moves that get you from one state to the next.
The first is a laser beam of intense tingly pleasurable electricity, often likened to the moment of orgasm, but prolonged. The second jhāna is more laid-back, the third is more laid-back still, the fourth is more restful than pleasurable, and then the other four, called the Formless Realms, involve a progressive deemphasis of the sensations that usually comprise existence. The final one, called Neither Perception Nor Non-Perception, does what it says on the can: it’s a state of consciousness so minimal that you can barely call it consciousness.
And they are all the rage in the blogosphere right now! The fearsome Scott Alexander posted a short essay evaluating Nick Cammarata’s claims that, for him, jhānas are better than casual sex and totally change one’s relationship to pleasure. Scott’s comments section exploded, with people accusing Nick of being a liar, claiming that jhāna practitioners are lying, that it’s all a hallucination etcetera.
(Welcome, Nick, to the club of people called crazy by Scott’s commentariat.)
Some of the skepticism comes from a baseless disdain for anything that seems new-agey or woo. This objection isn’t really worth answering. But there is a reasonable version of the skeptical case, which is as follows.
If people really could access pleasure states comparable to orgasm through meditation, why isn’t everyone just doing that all the time? Why aren’t they extremely addictive? How could human beings possibly be oriented toward anything else?
Well, I can do jhānas. I’m not the most studied jhāna person, but I’m pretty decent at them. I’ve touched all eight of the classic set, and I can reliably get up to the fifth and reside in it stably. And I can tell you that, indeed, they are pretty astonishingly pleasurable. The first time I really hit the first jhāna, I was really surprised. And, for the first two months after jhānas became accessible to me, they became the core of my meditation practice.
But I then got tired of them pretty fast. I go back to them maybe once or twice a month. And this is the story, as far as I can tell, of most people who can access the jhānas. They’re cool toys that you put away after an initial period of obsession. Why is that?
Well, it turns out that pure pleasure isn’t really what human beings want, actually. Pure pleasure in isolation, after a short period of time, is pretty boring, or even annoying. In February of this year, a lot of buzzy pleasure filled my waking life because of jhāna afterglow, and it started to get monotonous, so I inclined my practice in other directions.
I think naively we often assume that what people want is to feel the state of happiness, primarily. And, if you don’t experience much sensual pleasure, then occasional moments of bliss can seem like The Point, like the main thing that stands between you and a good life. But this is a completely impoverished view of human behavior, which assumes that an obviously salient part of experience can substitute for the whole of experience. It’s sort of like imagining that licking a bunch of sugar cubes would be as satisfying as eating a slice of apple pie.
The more realistic view is that human beings have a set of interrelated motivations that often are often anchored to pleasure but are not identical to pleasure. They include: security, social affirmation, sexual activity, purpose, food, novelty. The fulfillment of any of these needs tends to induce pleasantness, especially if you can fulfill multiple needs at once, like with, say, sex that makes you feel affirmed and secure in a relationship. But it’s not reasonable to expect pure sensual pleasure to be the sole indispensable component of these behaviors, such that sensual pleasure in isolation would be superior.
But what about addictive drugs? Well, here’s the difference between addictive drugs and jhāna. You can combine addictive drugs with lots of stuff, and they can fulfill (badly, but energetically) a number of human needs. Like, alcohol can give you social affirmation when you consume around other people who are getting sloppy. And it gives you calories. And it can give you the feeling of material security when you buy a fancy cocktail, as well as the status pleasure of conspicuous consumption.
Meanwhile, if you’re doing jhāna, you’re basically just doing jhāna. Getting into the first requires a fair amount of stable concentration unless you’re an expert. It takes a solid level of jhāna mastery to, say, maintain a bit of a jhāna while walking around. You can’t display your jhāna consumption in a public place. They won’t make you look cool. They won’t get you laid. Unlike cocaine, you can’t share jhāna with your drug friends. Unlike heroin, you can’t really use jhāna to numb your other pain—it’s possible, in principle, to hide your issues with jhāna, but since jhāna require a high degree of concentration, this would take some fancy mental footwork. And jhāna can be played with and interwoven, but there are fewer permutations of jhānic states than there are, say, possible combinations of marijuana strains and video games.
Relatedly, a friend of mine reduced his dependence on alcohol by becoming more mindful of how the drug affected him in the absence of any other stimuli. He sat in a brightly lit room one night and mindfully had some beers. And he noticed that, without all of the activities he usually combined with alcohol, the experience wasn’t nearly as compelling. He was a little buzzy, and then a little disoriented, and then a little anxious. And he was like, huh, alcohol is kind of dumb.
It’s an attestation to the power of the jhānas that they’re compelling at all, given that they’re generally the sole object of consumption when they’re being consumed.
Mindful awareness of the nature of pleasure is, in fact, a good argument for jhāna practice. It can teach you about your own motivational systems and what you really want. It is weird to be able to immerse yourself in an ocean of vibratory bliss and then just move on from that back into contemplative practices that are less obviously pleasurable, like, say, resting in non-dual awareness, which is my current daily choice. But that is just what happens. (If you’re one of those chronically stressed out people who wonders whether the absence of stress would cause you to just bliss out unproductively for the rest of your life, this is worth taking note of.)
I also endorse jhāna for other reasons. Getting into them requires the cultivation of a particular attentional skill: the ability to pay close attention to some sliver of your consciousness without altering or judging it. That skill is a beautiful adjunct to many experiences. It’s most relevant to me now as an interpersonal tool—when appropriate, I try to tune into other people as I would to a moment of pleasure I’d want to turn into a jhāna.
Finally, they’re useful as a test of the collectedness and health of your consciousness. If you can get to jhānas, it means you have some measure of relative inner peace. What got me to be able to do jhāna practice wasn’t years of concentrative training—it was getting over my self-hatred. When you have a lot of self-hating thoughts, it’s hard to appreciate pleasurable sensations in your consciousness. You get going, and then the inner voice starts telling you that you’re not doing it right, you’ll never reach the Jhanas, you don’t deserve pleasure, cultivating happiness is a waste of time, etcetera.
By contrast, every moment you’re practicing a jhāna, you’re welcoming your sensations with a spirit of curiosity and delight, rather than questioning them or trying to slot them hurriedly into some self-protective narrative. This generous self-openness is a rarer state, among most people, than it should be. And that is not a fixed state of affairs. You can cultivate a more welcoming approach to your inner landscape.
Appendix: So You Want to Jhāna
I know of no better resources than this or this.
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Can jhānas help me to become more dutiful? Quite frequently in my life I encounter choice between things that I must do and competing things that feel good and sometimes I cave in. Like maybe if I understood on emotional level that I don't actually value pleasure so much I would easier time following my duties. How about this?
I recently learned about a paradox of the jhānas, which seems relevant here. Basically, that the jhānas are a series of progressively more attenuated states of consciousness, so each stage feels better and better because you’re holding onto less and less. But the paradox is that, as you progress through the stages, there’s also less of you to feel those better feelings. You become "thinned out" in a sense. Perhaps that could be related to why people tend to lose interest in them?