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Phenomenology of meditation objects - how to describe pre-nimitta meditative experiences?


#1

Hello there! : )

I will start by short introduction. I am a lay meditation teacher, following mostly Ajahn Brahm teachings on meditation, but I am also a non-conventional explorer of mind and truth and I don’t have trouble with experimenting on my own. I also write a doctoral dissertation about importance of using precise descriptions of experiences when discussing or studying meditation in early Buddhism, rather than using bare Pali terminology. I believe Ajahn Brahm, Ajahn Brahmali and Ajahn Sujato are closest to explain early Buddhist teachings in the world today.

Also before I started serious meditating I was for some time on a shamanic path, exploring states of mind induced by entheogens (btw. one of Ajahns - Ajahn Sucitto also thread such a path before becoming Buddhist Monk Reflections: Ajahn Sucitto: Dhamma and Psychedelics ). Going such a path is quite tricky, on the one hand it has clearly set me on the path, but now I cannot be 100% sure whether my experience with meditation is fully “normal” or is it somehow changed by my former use of entheogens. But this topic is not about whether entheogens change spiritual life forever, or if they’re pointing to exactly same stuff as regular meditation, or just changing only irrelevant things. It is also not about judging whether I acted wisely or not, but it is informative that it COULD have changed my perception of things in unconventional ways, so it is important to note for careful analysis of the upcoming subject.

I’ve been meditating quite a lot with the attitude to put effort to explore empirically by myself what is true and what is not etc. sometimes using my own language to explain meditative states. As guidance I refer mostly to Ajahn Brahm book “Mindfulness, Bliss & Beyond” and treat it as meditation manual.

Anyway Buddha and Ajahn Brahm teachings regarding meditation are so vast and many that things gets sometimes a little confusing for me.

First of all I want to say that I came to conclusion that if we want to really talk about meditation, we have to say what exactly we mean by certain terms, like "piti". If we are to fully understand each other, we gotta define what exactly we mean by specific terms so we are sure we are talking about same or different actual experience, when discussing things we label with Pali words. It is like phenomenological description of meditative process to enhance communication process.

One more thing before we start: What I understand by sensual, mental object and imaginative objects:

Sensual object: hearing music outside, seeing a flower, perceiving tactile sensations while ant is walking on my skin etc.

Imaginative object: imagining red hammer in my mind, imagining yellow disc in my mind, recalling favorite song melody, recalling or imagining bliss, recalling or imagining physical pain.

Mental object: hearing "inner silence" (Absolute silence that is background of all other sounds), hearing inner "music of the spheres" (nada sound, like vibrating sound inside our mind), seeing movement of energy (very beautiful shapes, like net of energy, mandalas etc.), feeling piti (feels like pleasurable wave of tacticle sensations), feeling energetic body (rotating, swirling, vibrating, pulsating etc., which often feels “outside” of physical body), thinking (both coarse and subtle like vitakka and vicara on deeper unverbal levels).

Why is it importaint? Because we can HEAR, SEE and TOUCH "mental" objects. It is clear for me that we can both “hear” outside material world, and inner mental world, same with seeing and touching. So we can have a “sensory experience” of inner mental world rather than external material worlds. This is my framework of understanding meditation objects. I find it confusing that Ajahn Brahm sometimes speaks about “mental realm” that is “cut of from sensual experience”. But it IS in a way “sensual” experience in a way that I can see and feel, just not of outside world. What do you think about this?

Okay and to the main subject finally:

When I first started meditating all years years back, what I felt/heard/seen was just regular sensory objects. I felt heat, sweat, tensions, relaxed body, heard outside stuff etc…

But after long periods of meditation and use of entheogens I started feeling more things. It is tricky because my vast increase in meditation practice was hand in hand with states induced by entheogens (since this experience showed me that spirituality is not just words but real thing), so it is not easy to tell what caused what, many things changed in short time.

Now when I sit in meditation I soon see that my visual field is forming into “inner space” which I can see in 3D, not just “up and down” but also “depth” far into the horizon. It is beautiful and these visual objects also “feel light/easy” I can also clearly feel what I see, for example I see some energetic shapes moving towards left side and I can feel something moving towards same side simultaneously, so it is clearly a synesthethic experience. And I can hear inner silence, like silence and some vibratory sounds inside of me, which sometimes corresponds to what I feel/see. Especially when I hear this inner sound more, I feel more pronounced energy and visual mental field becoming more and more apparent and vice versa. Metnal visual/auditory/tactile sensation fields corresponds. It also seems connected to what Ajahn Brahm says about “not hearing in jhana”. Is it because inner silence and inner sounds are so powerful and apparent, that we no longer perceive outside world? So it is not like we don’t hear “anything”, but we just don’t hear OUTSIDE world?

I believe all this stuff of "inner mental world" is what Ajahn Brahm says is "mental realm", “realm of the mind”, where the nimittas can appear and sometimes do.

I notice that I can feel this world paralelly to physical realm, sometimes they intertwine and sometimes when meditation is deep I can feel only mental realm, physical realm being gone. But when intended I can also see movement of mental realm on outside objects. For example I look at the tree and I see/feel energy moving in it. Is it what Ajahn Brahm calls “power mindfulness”, that after emerging from deep meditation we have deepened perception of reality, that everything appears more beautiful?

What puzzles me is how different meditation teachers calls this experience of mental realm/energy. This confusion perhaps is caused by that this stage of meditation is not thoroughly explained in the suttas? For example Thanissaro Bhikkhu calls this "Breath energy". Ajahn Brahm calls this "beautiful breath" and says that eventually all is left is “pure beauty”, where there is no more perception of outer world, just the perception of breath full of piti. But it this pure beauty have anything to do with breath? Is this pure beauty actually the flow of energy?? If you could please share your take on that I would be grateful.

I am really not sure if he actually means the same thing. Because I can (1) watch physical breath for long periods of time, and then I can also feel physical breath with element of piti/beauty as somehow merged mental and physical object. But with it also appears this (2) feeling of "inner space" that I can hear, feel and see, energetic flow, and it is SEPARATE but connected to the (1) breath connected with piti. And I can clearly make a decision whether I want to meditate with object (1) or object (2). I usually go for object (2), but it seems like I am not following Ajahn Brahm method, while at the same time I intuitively feel that I am doing what he actually asks. Would be great if this confusing topic was elaborated.

So it is obvious to me that there are two objects

  1. Physical breath merged with piti/mental energetic object

  2. inner mental space, feeling and seeing like being an energetic bubble and energy flows through it, it also changes "perspective" like my field of awareness can expand a bit more than in regular state of consciousness, forming an energetic cocon, broader than my perception of physical body that starts to merge into it. (it is interesting that Ajaan Thanissaro takes that experience for second jhana when energy becomes the sphere, but I know it is not jhana due to Ajahn Brahm standards)

So my question is: what actually is beautiful breath? Is it fully adequate to call the (2) second experience "Breath energy" or "beautiful breath"? It surely feels like energetic sacred experience. But is it actually "breath" as we understand it normally? Or is breath or other objects just way to start perceiving “mental realm” and then we switch to it?

I was wondering about this also in relation to kasinas meditation. I never did much visualisation meditation, but I have a feeling that kasinas could be some genuine idea at first but misinterpreted along the way as many things in late theravada.

We can see for example in Ajahn Sujato article about vitakka and vicara ( Why vitakka doesn’t mean ‘thinking’ in jhana | Sujato’s Blog ) where he argues that same terms can mean more coarse and subtle things on different levels of experience. Vitakka and vicara at deeper levels are not verbalisations, but just subtle movements of the mind.

I am no expert on kasinas really, I would even say I’m a newbie when it comes to them, I just want to share my intuitions. When we read/hear about kasinas/elements mostly in Goenka lectures or later commentaries ways of seeing that, we see kasinas as related only to imaginative disks and elements to certain properties of physical body. For example water element is taken as moving fluids in the body like blood. Or kasina meditation is just keeping an imagination of a yellow disk in a concentrated mind. It is confusing that kasina list contains both colours (blue, yellow, white), and elements (water, fire, earth, fire), which are completely different categories.

Perhaps on a more subtle level, water kasina don’t mean either sensual physical experience or imaginative experience of a disk, but property of moving energy? It seems much more reasonable meditation object. Perhaps whole “kasina” stuff got misinterpreted along the way, just as we sometimes take vitakka in jhāna as thinking?

Wjen I just let energy flow it is far better meditation object for me than physical breath or imagination of a blue disk. Why?

Because breath is still physical experience, when you breath you feel a lot of outside world. You feel body, scents etc. by nature, also breath is very changing and altering experience, even if much less than physical body.

Keeping visualised object like disk also seems problematic, because it is not a real experience, and Buddha asked us to explore reality. Also it is more exhausting by nature to imagine things than just observe. Also “stoping of will” is importaint part of meditation, and visualisation takes a lot of will. So kasinas are hardly “buddhist” when understood them this way. But if we take them as element meditations related to energetic body it sounds much more plausible.

Is it possible that movement of energy is actually water kasina? Is contracting and expanding of visual/sensory field actually air kasina? Is feeling of rock-solid stable energy body actually earth kasina? Is feeling of coolness in energy actually fire kasina? Is perfecting of piti actually evolution of the four kasinas/elements, when elements come together in perfect harmony?

Feeling/seeing/hearing just the flow of energy that I was describing earlier seems like perfect meditation object. Because it is very stable, continuous and in the mental realm it goes faster into depths of the mind. Also it is totally in line with Ajahn Brahm and Buddha teachings, that we should go deeper and deeper into mental realm to explore jhanas, immaterial attainments and eventually nirodha samapatti. It seems to me unlikely that Buddha would omit such great meditation object, but the suttas are so short when it comes to description of meditation technique that it is hard to say really.

Also when I focus on breath, sooner or later it changes to this experience of energy flow. So why there is so little talk about it? Why we keep calling it breath instead of “energy”? It took me years to overcome this confusion.

What terminology should we use to explain these states? Is it possible to create less confusing framework for discussing Buddhist meditation pre-nimitta stage?

Meditation objects I’d like to ask your opinion about:

  1. perception of seeing and feeling of flowing energy through parts of counsciounsness or entire consciounsenss (still pre-nimitta, pre-jhana), what would you call it? piti? breath energy? beautiful breath? elements?

  2. perception of “inner silence”, like hearing absolute silence inside. is it part of infinite space just perceived by “mental ear”?

  3. perception of “nada sound”, like inner vibrating, sounds a little like tibertan bowl or crickets singing. Is it part of piti perceived by “inner ear”? is it piti perceived by inner ear?

Can we swtich between these objects and treat them as one flow of “prana/mind/piti” perceived by three mental senses, or should we stick just to one object? Can we metidate with all “4 subtle kasinas” at the same time, or should we rather pick one category (coolness, expanding, flow, stability…)?

I keep trying to explore these things to understand my experience and learn how to express it in buddhist terminology…

I ask because soon I will conduct my first meditation retreat and I teach accordingly to my intuitions and Ajahn Brahm teachings and I feel responsible and would like to approach this carefully. I hope it could also inspire valuable discussion about things I mentioned.

I’m sorry if my massage is a little chaotic or confusing and for that it is very long. It is because I am indeed a little confused by these things that’s why I hope that you could help me sort this out. I actually humbly ask for your help and guidance :slight_smile:

I asked really a lot of questions… but I hope you take it as something positive. I was meditating, listening dhamma talks and reading books a lot about these things and tried to answer this all by myself to don’t take your precious time. But these questions remain unanswered and a little confusing for me, and it seems wise to ask for some help. If it was just me it would matter much, but because I also teach I would really like to have even better understanding of these things.

My last concern is that I hope I don’t go into some form of illusion when I pursue this energetic experiences. They are very similar to entheogenic experiences and intuitively I feel they are way into the mind, but since Buddha gave 5 precept about intoxication there is very little advice in Buddhist circles for practicioners that have shamanic background in the past. Also I’ve never reached full jhāna yet in my meditation, so I don’t know if my experiences are truly genuine, thou they feel like. If you could please tell me if I am going in the right direction using stuff I described as my meditation objects I would be grateful :slight_smile:

It would be great to get a response on this from Ajahn @Sujato or Ajahn @Brahmali since I value their opinions greatly <3

Also if you feel the subject I gave to this discussion is inadequate, of course please change it for a more suiting one.

I also want to say that all this confusion can be simply because of my ignorance. I very deeply respect teachings of Ajahn Brahm and Buddha, they are my greatest blessings. :slight_smile: I’m just trying to understand them more.

With metta to everyone! <3 And thank you for this amazing forum! :slight_smile:


#2

Welcome to the forum Invo. I hope you are finding useful information here.

I ‘ve moved this very long post to the Watercooler section because we try to reserve the Discussion section for discussion about specific suttas and other early Buddhist texts.


#3

Hello, thank you! :slight_smile: Yes, a lot of useful information there :slight_smile:

Yes I am aware that this post is very long, and I am very sorry for that. I just wanted to share the full story, because I feel all this things are related. I was exploring this stuff for years on my own and it is the first time I share it on the Internet.

I still hope that it will get discussed, at least parts of it. Perhaps if we discuss it a little and get some basic answers and agreements, we could create a more dedicated topics in the right sections and discuss them in light of specific suttas :slight_smile:

Have a nice day everyone ! :slight_smile:


#4

It appears to me, you as a Samatha practitioner and not a Vipassana practitioner.
Am I correct?
The reason is I am more of a Vipassana practitioner. (Sati Pathana)
In my opinion, if you practice Satipathana keeping Jhana formula as a guide your life will be much simpler.
However, I have not attained any higher Jhana as of yet. (not even first Jhana according to Sutta formula)


#5

Hello :slight_smile:

I believe there is indeed something like samathayana and vipassanayana (vehicle of samatha and vehicle of vipassana), and yes I am more like samathayana, but I also “practice vipassana”, they are so connected that it is more like labeling certain teachings methods than really different techniques.

I think that there is mostly citta-bhavana (meditation), and samatha and vipassana are fruits and aspects of one process of meditation. So I think they are more fruits and aspects than different techniques. :slight_smile: Satipatthana meditation is also used by “jhana/samatha” meditators, and I believe it is the technique that actually deepens letting go in “samatha”.

So I actually practice samatha and vipassana and metta and noble eightfold path. But I am not with the “insight movement” of Goenka or Kornfield, but more with teachings of Ajahn Brahm, Ajahn Brahmali, Ajahn Sujato and refer to jhanas, so I guess that puts me in samathayana. :slight_smile:

PS: I was practicing Goenka method for a few years and it didn’t got me far, so now I am exploring things described above :slight_smile:


#6

Hello and welcome to SuttaCentral.

When I read your post, I thought to search for extinguishment by not grasping:

‘The purpose of living the spiritual life under the Buddha is extinguishment by not grasping.’ –SN45.48

I have added this phrase to Voice examples. Thank you.


#7

Interesting, these things that arise when in meditation. What is it you’re hoping to achieve, if anything, through your practice. I think it’s important to anchor your path, in the Four Noble Truths, and not just chasing through experiences in inner worlds. If you can see that sensual experiences that cause craving are generally muted but as you can see, there can be attachment to fanciful phenomena! However, at least it’s commendable just getting beyond the five hindrances. The probability of jhanas always remains, with the right time duration and retreat.


#8

Thanks for the answers. Surely “extinguishment by not grasping” is my lead also, but I found that if you haven’t developed meditation object and awareness deeply, when people try to “not grasp anything” they just get distracted, sloth & torpor arise and eventually they even fall asleep in meditation.
But I find such way of meditation actually best of all.

Anyway for my students path needs to be developed step by step, and I find awareness of energetic objects to be very good for that.

@Mat: What I hope to achieve is nibbana and along the way to learn as much as possible, so I can share this path with others, knowing possible troubles and help with them. I keep Four Noble Truths deeply in my heart and Mara is not going to fool me, I am very dedicated to the path. I am not craving towards these objects or experiences in themselves, I just find them as very good tools to practice meditation and I believe they are vehicles to deeper states.

My intention was to 1. get some encouragment from people more experienced than me that I am on right track. And if someone has gone similar path and had bad results then I hope for a warning.

And I wanted to discuss how to label experiences I described in terms that are used in Pali canon. Since they are clearly meditative experiences, perhaps there are right names for them. I study Buddhism for years and I find it a little confusing that suttas tell little about pre-nimitta, pre-jhanic stages of meditation, while they are actually very rich in possible experiences and have a lot of stages.

For example what Thanissaro describes as four material jhanas (light jhanas) are actually 4 stages of pre-nimitta stage according to Ajahn Brahm standards (deep/heavy jhanas).

Still, Thanissaro mentions only tactile sensations and perhaps seeing. He doesn’t mention hearing. Only Ajahn Amaro and Ajahn Sumedho refer to that, but they don’t say if it is piti, or what… just new terminology taken from outside traditions (nada yoga).


#9

Your problem arises because you have followed Ajahn Brahm exclusively, who is not a doctrinal specialist, and have not studied the Anapanasati and Satipatthana suttas independently, allowing you to understand progress in doctrinal terms. You are at the stage of the second tetrad in experiencing piti, at a fork in the road where samatha and vipassana diverge. If the practitioner keeps focus on piti, it will lead to the gate of jhana, as described in the seven factors of awakening. If they begin to explore the specific features of experience, it will go in the vipassana direction. The breath and piti are actually different aspects of one unified entity, which begins to be experienced in the first tetrad with sensitivity to the entire body. The name " meditation on the breath" is misleading, because the Anapanasati sutta develops into an exploration of bodily energies from the first tetrad onwards. Relating piti to the path in general, it is a pivotal factor as it is a not of the flesh alternative to sensual feelings:

“Even though a disciple of the noble ones has clearly seen as it actually is with right discernment that sensuality is of much stress, much despair, & greater drawbacks, still — if he has not attained a rapture & pleasure apart from sensuality, apart from unskillful mental qualities, or something more peaceful than that[4] — he can be tempted by sensuality. But when he has clearly seen as it actually is with right discernment that sensuality is of much stress, much despair, & greater drawbacks, and he has attained a rapture & pleasure apart from sensuality, apart from unskillful mental qualities, or something more peaceful than that, he cannot be tempted by sensuality.” MN 14


#10

Thank you for your reply Paul, it is very interesting and fascinating! :slight_smile: :pray:

Could you please elaborate or send some link to these tetrad/tetrads you’re describing? It is first time I came across this term and it got me interested, especially since it refers to my practice. Does this come from suttas or some other source? :slight_smile:

You are at the stage of the second tetrad in experiencing piti, at a fork in the road where samatha and vipassana diverge. If the practitioner keeps focus on piti, it will lead to the gate of jhana, as described in the seven factors of awakening. If they begin to explore the specific features of experience, it will go in the vipassana direction.

Wow, seems like you know a lot about these things, thanks for sharing!
So you believe there is actually different technique for vipassana and samatha path, it is very interesting and something importaint for both my academic work and my meditation practice. :slight_smile: I’m actually wondering, purely theoretical: if you follow this vipassana path at this “second tetrad”, wouldn’t you just get into jhanas eventually? Doesn’t vipassana lead to letting go - and letting go to jhanas by nature (at least Ajahn Brahm sees it that way I think)?
Or does vipassana in your opinion bypass jhanas and go straight to nibbana experience eventually?
Or does vipassana practitioner just erase sankharas (no jhana, no nibbana during life) and expect nibbana at the moment of death of physical body?
I was on 3 vipassana retreats. Goenka never mentions jhanas, but he mentions experience of great bliss if you follow meditative path, he calls it liberation, which probably means Nibbana. But I was wondering if perhaps he eventually gets into jhana and thinks it is enlightenment. I thought that, because according to Ajahn Brahm description, jhana can be mistaken for enlightenment and many traditions, not just Buddhist but Christian and others too did that. And he gives very detailed descriptions of all 8 or 9 jhanas (counting nirodha samapatti), which made me believe that he probably knows what he talks about, and Goenka went straight from this flow of energy and bhanga to Liberation, which seems to me less plausible and somehow “too easy/too good to be true”. But of course my intuitions could be wrong.

The breath and piti are actually different aspects of one unified entity, which begins to be experienced in the first tetrad with sensitivity to the entire body.

Great, thats very interesting. And what is this entity? I call it “prana” or “mind energy” personally. It seems that Thanissaro calls this “Breath energy” and Ajahn Brahm “Beautiful breath”, am I correct? What would suttas call this, someone knows?

“The name " meditation on the breath” is misleading, because the Anapanasati sutta develops into an exploration of bodily energies from the first tetrad onwards."

You mean that anapanasati sutta is relating to energy body experiences? I have that intuition too and indeed calling it all breath was misleading, at least on my path, because I was sticking to the breath instead of following these energetic sensations.

“Relating piti to the path in general, it is a pivotal factor as it is a not of the flesh alternative to sensual feelings:”

could you please explain this sentence? Probably due to my english skills I don’t understand what do you mean by “not of the flesh alternative to sensual feelings”.


#11

All your question show how deficient in basic knowledge of MN 118 and MN 10 you are. You have to answer these questions yourself by studying the suttas. One answer I will give to start you off is that the tetrads relate to the Anapanasati sutta. Read the two suttas in the appendices to Thanissaro’s book, “Right Mindfulness”, which despite the title, is mostly focused on the Anapanasati sutta. You will find the answers to all your questions in this book, and it is particularly important that you research the second foundation of mindfulness, to ascertain the difference between worldly feelings and feelings not of the flesh. A warning that Thanissaro is biased towards jhana, so for information about vipassana which is harder to describe, guidance about the insight knowledges has to be sought from individuals such as Ledi Sayadaw or the Visuddhimagga.


#12

Greetings,

While this is a legitimate and thoughtful discussion, this forum is unfortunately not resourced for personal practice issues. General points can be discussed when related to Sutta study, but in-depth practice discussions should take place via Personal Messaging or on another discussion platform.

Recently there have been several PM groups set up to discuss personal practice, and the moderation team encourage that :slight_smile:

If desired, I can turn this thread into a Personal message stream, with all participants included. Otherwise, you can continue here, as long as discussion is kept in general terms.

with Metta


#13

Greetings Invo and welcome to the Forum

It would be a good idea to try to do a meditation retreat, so that you can really get down to specifics. For your information Ahajn Sujato is planning a retreat in Poland later this year :slight_smile:

with metta


#14

? :thinking:

I am not aware of any change of dates. The link you provided goes to the past retreat Bhante Sujato gave in Poland in 2015. Maybe there is more to find about upcoming events in the Polish version of the website, but in the English I didn’t see anything.


#15

Oh Thank-you very much @sabbamitta. I didn’t pay attention to the dates. I used your link to start with and then clicked on visiting teachers and didn’t pay attention to the date.

Thanks for pointing that out :slight_smile: . I’ll delete the separate link I posted to avoid confusion.


#16

@viveka what can be done to make this thread more oriented to the current goals!


#17

what do you mean by ‘current goals’ @Mat ? :slight_smile:


#18

Current objective of the forum, considering that the translation project is now nearly finished!


#19

Ah ha… an easy question then :wink:

The short answer is that there has not been any formal discussion of substantial changes. So for the time being things will remain as they are. The Moderation team is quite small, voluntary and spread across time zones, so an increase in duties is not feasible at this point in time, IMO. However, you raise a very good point and I will slate it for discussion at our next Moderator meeting with Bhante.

Added, in the mean-time, the discussion can continue here on this subject, as long as members are aware of trying to maintain a balanced perspective, without going ‘too far’ into personalised practice discussions.


#20

I was hoping we could help in making sense of these experiences in terms of EBTs, but there’s a place for educating and looking at EBT based practice.