The Jhana Bros are Here

Jhourney is a new silicon valley based startup that aims to “teach jhana in a week.” They offer weeklong in person retreats, 10-day online work-compatible retreats, and online weekend retreats. Here is their podcast, FAQ, and blog. Here is a paywalled Atlantic article. (I took the title of my post from here, but wasn’t able to read the full article), and here is a blogpost.

To quote from their website, “We’ll be teaching a secular interpretation of the jhanas inspired by the TWIM community, Leigh Brasington, and Rob Burbea.” In other words, it is what has been called by some folks “jhana-lite.” Lets briefly set aside whether or not this actually jhana (I am personally inclined to say that it is not, but I’ll get to that).


They have only had a retreat center for around 6 months. From what I can tell, their basic approach is a heavy emphasis on metta, “open awareness,” focus on surrending and letting go, and experimentation with a variety of techniques like yoga, pranamaya, etc. I also think they offer high-intensity exercise, sauna/cold baths at their retreat facility, and I imagine at some point they might add things like sensory deprivations tanks, etc. (I have not actually been to the retreat facility, or done any of their online retreats, so I could be mistaken about some of this.)

But the biggest new thing they are aiming to offer is neurofeedback. Consumer grade EEG, basically a brain helmet, can monitor some of what is going on in a person’s brain. By taking folks who can access jhana while wearing such a device, it is possible to train statistical models so that a computer can learn to tell when a person is in jhana. Then, real-time feedback can be given to a novice meditator to let them know if they are heading in the right direction. This feedback can be something as simple as a non-distracting song playing in the background which decreases in volume when a person is heading towards jhana. They have already had success in getting their statistical model to accurately identify when a person is in (their definition of) jhana.

Learning meditation is very different from almost every other skills we learn. Normally, a mentor can watch what a student is doing and provide immediate feedback based on what they notice going on. Now, we know from psychological studies that immediate feedback is one of the most important factors that determines how quickly a person learns something. Furthermore, one-on-one real time training with a teacher has been shown to be one of the best ways to learn new skills. Part of the reason that meditation takes so long to learn is that this is not possible. Instead, there is a lot of personal trial and error, and even when there is a teacher, the teacher has to guess what is going on in the student’s mind.

So, it is plausible that neurofeedback can dramatically increase the speed of learning. They do not offer it yet, but they likely will within months to years. And they claim that without neurofeedback they can already get around 70% of their novice retreatants to jhana at the end of their weeklong retreat.


All that being said, there are some things that are potentially worrying here.

First, is the state they are teaching actually jhana? Likely not. Still, I do not think this is necessarily as big of a deal as it may seem. In another thread, @Sujato writes

Indeed, I’d be much more comfortable if they simply used 'ecstatic meditation" or even “absorption” or something. “Jhana” is just such a specific and doctrinally overburdened term.

I agree with this. It is likely that this is not jhana, but it is still “ecstatic meditation,” and non-jhana ecstatic meditation can still be useful and very powerful. The testimonials seem quite positive. Optimistically, this could be just part of a broader trend, and in the future projects like this will mean that more people end up interested in “actual jhana.”

Still, there is an obvious danger here. Conceit and overestimation can lead a person to neglect the possibility of something more. And offering a product labeled “jhana” is essentially cashing in on the social value of Buddhist wisdom. You might notice something here: when pushed in a conversation about whether or not these are “actually” jhana, they will often concede that it may not be what the Buddha had in mind. But this raises the question: “why call it jhana then?” - and the answer is basically that it sells better.


A second concern is the training of the statistical model. In order to do this, you first need a large sample of people who can get into “jhana.” But if you start out with a group of people who are actually getting into PseudoJhana, then the when you use the results of this data to train novices, you will just be shepherding them right into PseudoJhana.


A third concern of mine is that offering jhana classes in a completely secular framework risks people missing out on the other potentially transformative aspects of the Buddhist path. When packaged in such a way, it might raise the chance that folks feel like they got all of the “good stuff” while being able to discard the bad “religious” stuff. We have to remember, though, that nobody owns meditation – or jhana for that matter – and I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with secular for-profit meditation retreats. Optimistically, a jhourney retreat might have the opposite effect as what I just described: folks might think to themselves, “if this was so good, then maybe there is other stuff worth looking at too.” Also, although I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with secular for-profit meditation retreats, the ethics becomes murky when the meditation tradition you are drawing from explicitly prohibits selling that information.


A fourth concern of mine is simply a personal fear: One of the things that Buddhism has to “offer” is jhana, and if jhana gets reduced to what is happening in the brain, why do we need the rest? If it gets reduced to something happening in the brain, then maybe it was never a supernatural state to begin with, and the other supernatural claims in Buddhism can be dismissed too? Whether we like it or not though, this is already happening and will likely only become more common, and so we have to live with it.


Fifth, supposing we grant that this allows practitioners to reach ecstatic meditation much faster than they normally would have been able to, it still raises the concern that maybe other imporant and less flashy lessons and skills that you learn along the way are being discarded. On the other hand, it is easy to slip into the Protestant Work Ethic here: you always need to “work hard” before you “earn” something – an attitude I think is often harmful.


Lastly, I could be wrong about this, but I get the impression that the startup founders have not engaged very much with the source material (the suttas). Instead, their interpretation of jhana seems to come entirely from the authors I listed earlier (Brasington, Burbea, TWIM). This is mostly a personal dissapointment, because I would say that this is actually the norm for most meditators and Buddhists outside of communities like the one on this forum. Still, it would be nice to know that they have done their homework before deciding to teach their interpretation.


So, what do folks think of all of this? I am anticipating a lot of you will not like it :laughing:, so I will end on a more positive note and say that there are some things they are doing which I think are likely useful. The attitude of treating meditation as something which can be fun/pleasant/exploratory and focusing on metta first and foremost for novices is probably a positive development and will yield much faster returns for the average person. And if neurofeedback is just like having an excellent personal meditation coach without any bad side effects, then great!

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Fun for… wealthy people?

Better to spend the finances on visiting a monetary or even ordaining. That’s always a good thing.

However, it’s best not to belittle other people’s attempts to the Spiritual Path, if someone is wholeheartedly trying, even not to the best, it’s still okay to encourage them, albeit if they are not being dangerous. But is this Buddhism, the N8FP, with the 4NT?

Yet what would Gautama Buddha think of this “Jhana-Lite,” and such other things? That is the most important question to ask. Because it’s extremely important not to mangle the original Teaching. Namaste.

Indeed, this is the concern with any type of for profit meditation retreat, and although I do not think they are “wrong” per se, I have conflicting feelings about them. (Worth pointing out that Jhourney does offer scholarships.) I am graduate student, and so the price tag would certainly be hard for my budget.

Better to spend the finances on visiting a monetary or even ordaining. That’s always a good thing.

I think a lot of people would never consider going to a monastery, but they still might benefit from meditation. So retreats like this can reach different audiences. Furthermore, ordaining is a very serious thing to do and not everybody wants to do it!

It is hard to say. Maybe he would disapprove entirely, or maybe he would think it is good in so far as it goes, but incomplete. To Jhourney’s credit, they are not really trying to market themselves as Dhamma teachers, so I don’t think they are “mangling the original teachings.” Except for, of course, their teachings about jhana potentially.

To play devil’s advocate, the term jhana comes from a dead language, it now gets used in a lot of different ways, and nobody owns the term or the meditative state. But I understand and share your concern.

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This is on their website so they do seem to suggest that they are attempting to teach the equivalent of at least what Ajahn Brahm calls jhana?

image

I simply don’t know much of anything at all about them, so I can’t say much, but thanks for the synopsis though! @Soren :pray:

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Hi Yeshe,

Yes, I forgot to mention that quote. I actually think it is disingenuous that they have that there, because the version of Jhana they teach is definitely different than the version Ajahn Brahm teaches.

None of these people have experienced any of the Jhanas. This kind of thing is common though in the western Buddhist world, not that any of it is Buddhist at all.

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They should do it in flight and call it a “mile high dhyana”. (It’s on Air Skandha)

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The fundamental problem is that they are trying to induce states of consciousness, rather than understanding a spiritual path. At its best it will create overestimation and at its worst, psychosis.

The whole point of the eightfold path is that right samadhi emerges as a result of a holistic and meaningful spiritual development of every aspect of life.

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Right, and the attitude they have to inducing these states is also strange. They sell it like a drug that you can take all the time, whose only side effect is very effective western therapy.

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No doubt they will have to start with Asubha meditation, since even the first Jhana already requires considerable right view …

If it is Jhāna lite, it should be possible with their tech. Since the requirements for it is not as difficult as absorption Jhāna.

I think it’s the other way around, if they can follow Pa Auk’s method of training jumping here and there in the absorption Jhānas and train the mind to be so sharp as to develop divine eye, ear, mind reading etc, then let these secular people see if there’s devas, brahmas etc. Then that’s the superhuman Jhānas.

If their system can be improved to get people to get into absorption Jhānas, then all the better, it could trigger a lot of stream winners for the Buddhist community and the more number that realizes that supermundane happiness can be obtained by adopting right view of Buddhism, with their Jhāna, (and all the other path factors), then good. That’s basically empirically verification of Buddhism which science can get behind.

I see it as a positive, but for absorption Jhānas, one couldn’t use sound as feedback.

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Why don’t modern Buddhist teachers teach right view first and instead go straight to instruct how to achieve jhana?

Well these folks are explicitly saying they are not Buddhist.

This kind of seems like a mirror of the whole Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. But with startup culture.

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Hi Soren

Do they use drug(s) in order to reach Jhana in 1 week?

Regards,

Briefly went through their offering. I hope they’ve got permission from the publisher to reproduce Ajahn Brahm’s words - it’s under copyright as I recall.

As for their product, it’s clear from their wording that they use the phrase “jhanas” as a key element in their sales pitch. They also make vague claims to “be interested” in the first four jhanas: FAQ, but their wording about “helping people access these states” leaves the objective vague, i.e., whether they actually teach the first four jhanas. There’s also an allusion to disagreements on what constitutes a jhana in their FAQ, with a disavowal of responsibility towards that supposed debate.

What I find weird is the team, and the advisors. They’re management consultants, engineers or neuroscientists, but there’s no one with the authority to speak about the jhanas. I’d have imagined they would have at least got the endorsement of one or more Buddhist teachers or organisations, legit or not.

It’s interesting how much Ajahn Chah emphasised right view and sīla, building the foundations, practising, eradicating the defilements, training the mind, and so on. This new service obviously caters to a very different type of clientele.

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Suspecting many inductees are not open or capable for right view … or the teachers don’t have it themselves … or both. But let’s not be overly critical. Most of it may still be ok

This says it all:

H1 2024 strategy and priorities
We believe to scale jhanas to millions, we’ll need an intervention that teaches jhanas reliably in under 10 hours, or ideally under 2 hours. Such such speed and reliability will require a tech product.

But for now, we have a special opportunity in starting to scale low-tech retreats:

A “default alive” business means we’ll have more time to iterate

Recruiting and fundraising will be much easier

Teaching hundreds of people to enter jhana will accelerate and inform our tech roadmap

Gradually layering on tech will create a virtuous cycle with R&D

In H1 of 2024, our top priorities will be scaling our budding retreat business to reach cash flow positive and 50 new people in jhanas per month by September.

We’ll defer our raise until we’re too good to ignore: a positive, compelling business with demonstrated scientific breakthroughs, and a cornered resource on jhana data for R&D.

They are trying to be MBSR v2.0 by exploiting the psychedelic-propelled, instant-pseudo-mystic industry that’s generating beaucoup revenue for savvy US investors at the moment. Of course, they’re targeting concentration because no one’s tapped that market yet. Mindfulness is tapped out as a market, just about.

At the expense of the dhamma.

At the expense of psychologically distressed people of privilege who don’t really know any better. Some of whom want a drug-free way to alter consciousness without having to pencil it into their schedule as anything more than a visit to the dentist.

Yes, this can serve as a gateway drug for people earnestly seeking a spiritual path. But let’s be clear about the banal motivations underlying the initiative.

Wow, this is amazing and kind of sickens me. It’s good to know about it, so thanks Soren for flagging it :pray:t2:

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Interesting! So imagine that some group developed a way to map the brain correlates of when a person is in the divine eye. They were also able to train/stimulate other people to get into this state. I think a natural conclusion people would reach would be, “look, the fact that we know what is happening in the brain when people see Devas shows that it is just a type of hallucination.” What would you say and think if something like that?

I had not thought of it like that, but I see what you mean.

I am happy you see it as a positive! I think for the sound feedback the sound gets quieter as you get more concentrated, so by the time you are near the threshold of jhana the noise should be completely gone. If the sound started back up you would know you had gotten distracted.

Yeah, it is similar to MBSR. Which is a program that I think, overall, has been a great thing for a lot of people.

They explicitly claim they are not Buddhist and that jhana is a natural state of meditation which also appears in Hinduism, yet it is clear they are using the Buddhist term and teaching a Buddhist meditation — all of their jhana teachers/experts they have scanned the brains of have been explicitly Buddhist.

It just seems like they want to have it both ways. They are using the fact that it is a Buddhist meditation to sell the product, but claiming to not be Buddhist when it inconveniences.

No, I do not think they do any drugs on their retreats.

Exactly, you put this much better than I did!

Indeed. They had Leigh Brasington on podcast, and they have had him and other “expert meditators” who they have scanned the brains of (I am not sure who else specifically). Maybe that counts as endorsement?

Could this be viewed as a good thing? Like MBSR, this could reach people who try to avoid what they see as “religion.”

“I’ve achieved Jhana!”

“No, dear, that feeling is just you beating Super Mario World…”

:neutral_face:

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Yep. Like I said, I don’t necessarily think for-profit secular meditation retreats are a bad thing. But something about this operation feels greasy and like it is about the money, money, money.