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Trance vs Jhana/Meditation

Hello everyone,

In many meditation circles I have often found the idea that while meditating one should not allow themselves to “fall into trance”, suggesting that a state of trance is not conductive to awakening.
While I’ve always accepted this suggestion and can intuitively see how it can be true, I find myself wondering wether I even know what a “trance” is and what the difference is between trance and genuine meditation.

Furthermore, the idea of trance is often associated with the concept of “passivity” and I see many meditation teachers warn their students not to fall into passivity (not necessarily described as rolling in thoughts) while meditating, concluding that one should always strive for active concentration (listing various scenarios ranging from time wasted to very bad things happening to those who don’t follow this advice).

So because of all this, my meditations always carry a sense of tension because I’m always worried that I might “fall into passivity” or into “trance” and I feel like I’m not allowing myself to let go and surrender to the meditation process.

I follow Ajahn Brahm’s meditation method so I am aware of the importance of letting go and the uselessness of forceful concentration etc… however I still feel there is some confusion in me regarding these ideas and how they relate to genuine meditation.

Can anyone help shed some light on these concepts?

Thank you

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Hi,

Sounds like your question is about the distinction between right-immersion (sammā-samadhi) and wrong-immersion (micchā-samadhi). Is that right? I’m trying to think of a way to frame your query that fits with the forum’s guidelines.

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Of course ideally any answers would be supported/related to the EBTs.

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Greetings Giovanni and welcome to the forum :slight_smile:

Its great to be able to see that you’re always worried about doing meditation the ‘right’ way, and that this is a hindrance to letting go.

If you follow Ajahn Brahms method, you’ll know that he ‘reviews’ the meditation experience at the very end; the peace-o-meter :smiley: If at the end of the meditation you are feeling dull and heavy, you could use that observation to investigate your meditation experience further. If however, you feel bright, calm and happy/peaceful, then I think it’s safe to say that the meditation process is skillful :slight_smile:

In this way, one can use ones own perceptions as the basis for exploring the process, rather than trying to follow a how-to ‘recipe’ style approach…

There is heaps written about satipattanna practice that you can read (just do a search of topics), but the significant thing that stands out for me from your question is the identification of fear and worry as a hindrance to letting go, and that is a great thing to explore :smiley:

Added: A sutta support for using ones own experience as a guide :slight_smile:
“So, Kālāmas, when I said: ‘Please, don’t go by oral transmission, don’t go by lineage, don’t go by testament, don’t go by canonical authority, don’t rely on logic, don’t rely on inference, don’t go by reasoned contemplation, don’t go by the acceptance of a view after consideration, don’t go by the appearance of competence, and don’t think “The ascetic is our respected teacher.” But when you know for yourselves:

“These things are skillful, blameless, praised by sensible people, and when you undertake them, they lead to welfare and happiness”, then you should acquire them and keep them.’ That’s what I said, and this is why I said it.

All the best on your journey :smiley: :dharmawheel: :pray:

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Ajahn Brahm himself mentions in passing that in preparation for the experiences of jhana, he would strive for continuity of awareness over hundreds of breaths. That requires counting and can’t be done in a detached trance.

I count breaths myself and find it quite effective. Yet I could find no EBT reference to counting breaths. What I did find was this:

MN62:30.2: When mindfulness of breathing is developed and cultivated in this way, even when the final breaths in and out cease, they are known, not unknown.”

There are perhaps more refined ways of knowing the breath, but for someone as distractable as I, counting is quite helpful.

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First things first and that is the practitioner should put their meditation into the perspective outlined in the Anapanasati sutta (MN 118), and realize that ultimately there are two kinds of meditation, serenity and insight. Even though they may not be practising insight at the outset, it is good to know that it exists because it casts light on what may be happening in the meditation and why they may experience energy. (The explicit insight instructions in the sutta are in the fourth tetrad.)

Tetrads 1 and 2 apply to the first stages of breath meditation, and if both of them are studied, they include training exercises followed by calming, that is there is a managed alternation between energy and calm:

First tetrad (four steps):

"[1] Breathing in long, he discerns, ‘I am breathing in long’; or breathing out long, he discerns, ‘I am breathing out long.’ [2] Or breathing in short, he discerns, ‘I am breathing in short’; or breathing out short, he discerns, ‘I am breathing out short.’ [3] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in sensitive to the entire body.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out sensitive to the entire body.’ [4] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in calming bodily fabrication.’ He trains himself, 'I will breathe out calming bodily fabrication.’—-MN 118

Training oneself to be sensitive to the entire body involves energy. Realizing that the breath is the wind property of the four elements, that could mean being aware of and regulating the flow of energy coursing through the different parts of the body. The skills developed would then apply to the second tetrad where the feeling of joy has to be suffused throughout the body. In both tetrads these trainings are then calmed, so it can be seen how at this early stage skills in awareness of and controlling energy are the focus (Thanissaro).

The name ‘meditation on the breath’ can be misleading as it is meditation on the breath applied to the body, feelings, and mind, and then the process of insight applied to those three. A generation of western Buddhists got stuck in the monotony of meditating solely on the breath through not paying attention to the sutta and never progressing beyond Steps 1 and 2.

All other structures such as the noble eightfold path (right effort v right concentration) or the seven factors of awakening (investigation, energy, joy (energy) v tranquillity, concentration, equanimity (serenity) contain this interaction between energy and calm.

It is through the alternation of energy and calm that one does not slip into torpor or trance.

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One more thing Ajahn Brahm adds that is very useful for me is the gatekeeper “I will stay in the present, and not drift off into thoughts of past or future”. Later on followed by “I will stay with the silence of the present, and not drift off into commentary” later “I will place attention on the breath, and not be distracted by other things happening in the present moment” and the fourth I have forgotten, but by that time your mind will be in the right place to possibly continue into samadhi. Maybe an intention “I will not have fear and excitement when joy or nimitta arises” if that is a potential problem for you. Then you can move onto the reflection at the end of the sitting. This is a guide if you’d like to use it, but be careful not to fall into rigid ness of “why is this not working” and other experiences that may make you frustrated. At that point work on letting be. It’s all better said in “Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond”

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Indeed, I think it is a loosely defined concept and refers to a variety of different experiences. Merriam-Webster tells us this:

  1. stupor, daze
  2. a sleeplike state (as of deep hypnosis) usually characterized by partly suspended animation with diminished or absent sensory and motor activity
  3. a state of profound abstraction or absorption

So “trance” can be used in the third sense, where it (at least according to the dictionary) might be a useful rendering of jhāna. I confess, I’m not really aware of any contexts that would really apply, but in any case, it’s clearly not completely outside the semantic spectrum of the word.

The problem is that the first meanings are far more common, and they clearly pinpoint the problem.

Think of a basic example of trance, daydreaming. You drift off, the mind becomes unfocussed, and hazy associations take over. There’s a predominance of moha, delusion: you lose self-awareness. There’s no sense of reason, of a connection between things other than associations generated in the drifting mind.

This is where mindfulness steps in. Each stage of meditation is accompanied by mindfulness, which maintains a self of reflective self-awareness, a clarity that dispells the fog of delusion.

Don’t worry about it. In the meditation itself, let go and allow it to happen. Trance is not bad, it’s just not very useful. At the end of the meditation, reflect back and see whether the mind was clear or not. If your memory is vague, or if you mind is sluggish and befogged at the end of meditation, that’s a sign you’re heading down the path of delusion.

This is a common idea, but no, this is not what “wrong samadhi” means. A state of trance is not samadhi. Look at how samadhi is defined in the suttas; it is always characterized by mindfulness and awareness. “Wrong samadhi” is indeed samadhi, it is wrong simply because it doesn’t lead to liberation.

Think about the other path factors. “Wrong view” is a kind of view; it’s not the absence of views. Of course, the absence of a view can itself be wrong (“I don’t have an opinion as to whether racism is wrong”), but this is really a kind of view about views.

Similarly, think of speech. “Wrong speech” is not the absence of speech; nor is it something that is intrinsically either right or wrong. If someone asks, “What day is it today?”, I can say “Wednesday”. Right speech! If someone asks the same question tomorrow, the same answer would be wrong speech (unless it was just a mistake.) Sometimes silence can be right speech, but in the face of injustice, silence is wrong speech.

So the meaning of the path factors, their sense of “rightness” or “wrongness” is not intrinsic, it is contextual.

When it comes to samadhi, the same thing applies. Samadhi is of course the four jhanas, and it refers to a deep meditative absorption characterized by clarity and mindfulness. Such states, when practiced in the context of the noble eightfold path, lead to liberating insight.

Wrong samadhi is not the absence of samadhi, and it is not a surrogate or counterfeit of samadhi. It is samadhi, pure and simple. However, because of the context, it has a different meaning and a different outcome.

The classic example is the practice of jhanas within the brahmanical nondual tradition, which leads to oneness with Brahma, which according to the Buddha, really means a long rebirth in a blissful realm. A Christian or an skeptic might also practice jhana within their own conceptual framework, and there is no reason they should experience what Buddhists would call liberation. A Christian doesn’t want to experience Nibbana, they want to be close to God. The outcome is shaped by the causes.

This is why all the factors of the path rely on each other, why wrong view leads to wrong samadhi, and right view leads to right samadhi.

If you wanted to describe a state of trance in the terms of the path, I’d say that it reflects a stage on the path where a meditator is developing right effort, but it is so far incomplete. Right mindfulness is still nascent, and right samadhi is over the horizon.

Indeed, I believe counting was introduced in the Visuddhimagga, or at least, that; where it became known from.

In my first book, A Swift Pair of Messengers, I show that this common assumption is not found in the suttas. The suttas do not treat samatha and vipassana as separate kinds of meditation, but rather as qualities of mind to be developed through meditation. It is only in later works like the Visuddhimagga that meditations became divided into separate categories, a regrettable development in my view.

When I first encountered the teachings of Ajahan Chah, coming from a “dry vipassana” background, I couldn’t grok how he melded the two together. It was only later that I gradually learned that is is in fact what has been taught in the suttas all along.

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:pray: Thank you for the correction and clarification, bhante!

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Thanks Bhante. I’ve recently listened to some of your talks on the teachings and meditative attainment of the Buddha’s teachers, which are good complements to your post above.

See the third talk this series:


and the talk on “Former Teachers” here:

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Thank you Bhante for your answer :pray: I definitely have a better understanding now.

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Thank you! This is most useful. :pray:

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Hi Giovanni. I’m familiar with trance as I used to practice hypnotherapy in my psychiatry practice. In deep trance, there is no memory of what happened. So if you end your meditation sit and you can’t remember anything, then maybe you were “in trance”. Mindfulness, by definition, has a memory component…remembering what is skillful and what is not and then making the four right efforts. The majority of people do not go into a deep trance easily, so I wouldn’t worry about it…especially since worry and tension are counterproductive to our practice.

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Thank you @Sanghamitta , that helps! :slight_smile:

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This is not a simple question and I think for a satisfactory answer we would need someone who is both a master meditator and a master hypnotist. Personally, I have rarely experienced a variety of deeper trances, so I don’t know. Here I take ‘trance’ in the meaning of Milton Erickson who was the dominant hypnotherapist in the past century. He freed the notion of trance from artificial states of ‘deep trance’ and had a much broader understanding of trance as a relatively common phenomenon of daily life. A therapist and fellow spiritual researcher is Stephen Wolinsky who in his titles ‘Quantum Consciousness’ (crappy title of 1993) and ‘The dark side of the inner child’ (1993) explores some connection points between trance and a spiritual perspective.

In short, with this understanding of ‘trance’ it’s actually quite difficult in any state to know whether and how much I’m in a trance. And since the mind anyway likes to blend states I would not be surprised if especially in lower meditation states a lot of blending is possible.

Doctrinally, I’d assume that only with upekkha we have a jhana factor that is really incompatible with a strong aspect of trance. Sati/mindfulness itself is not itself incompatible with shallow or mid-level trances - but that depends of course on the interpretation of sati. If I see sati as a major liberating factor then of course I separate it from trance. If I see sati as an ingredient to focus the mind then it’s fully compatible with trance, because in trances the mind can be highly focused as well.

Dear Ajahn,

I think there was one time I felt like being in a ‘trance’, but didn’t know what it was and asked Aj Chatchai and his explanation was like yours :smiley: and added that it was a state between restlessness and ‘serenity’. and no, it was not useful. In Thai we use the verb ‘fall into’ for this state. Ajahn Chatchai advised that I needed to cultivate more mindfulness to not fall into trance (ภวังค์).

Dheerayupa

Indeed, I believe counting was introduced in the Visuddhimagga, or at least, that; where it became known from.

I heard that breath counting (susokukan) is a preparatory training for zazen. Could it have originated there?

[Edit] Might help if I read that document before posting! It says “This method of self-observation (観法 kanpo) has been employed in India from time immemorial […]”, so Visuddhimagga or earlier seems more likely.

“You should be able to maintain with ease the fourth stage, full sustained attention on the breath,
without a single break for two or three hundred breaths in succession. I am not saying you should count the breaths during this stage; I am just giving an indication of the approximate span of time that one should be able to stay in stage four before proceeding further.” (Mindfulness, Bliss & Beyond, Ch. 1, final para. ).

I’ve wondered how you learn when to stop counting in favour of the silent, sustained awareness. Similarly with the “in-peace/out-let goooooo” mantra, which I assume acts as a scaffold similar to counting.

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I count as I listen to the suttas. When the suttas stop I simply walk and meditate. For me this is a good use of time since the mind is chattery at the beginning and attentive at the end. Over the span of an hour, suttas are heard followed by emptiness. My Voice playlists are usually less than an hour. DN33 is an exception as it seems to go on forever.

The other thing is that I count using my fingers. In this way there is much less verbal process. Instead, there is a physical process. My right hand counts units. My left hand tens. This alone lets me ask and know what the count is at anytime without actually counting verbally. Although unusual, this method is quite similar to minding beads on a rosary. The count is there but not forefront. With this counting technique, one is aware of the breath and is able to ratchet down the verbal process to just hearing the suttas.

The above is aligned with three of the five opportunities for freedom:

DN33:2.1.133: Or the mendicant recites the teaching in detail as they learned and memorized it. …
DN33:2.1.134: Or the mendicant thinks about and considers the teaching in their heart, examining it with the mind as they learned and memorized it. …
DN33:2.1.135: Or a meditation subject as a foundation of immersion is properly grasped, attended, borne in mind, and comprehended with wisdom.

Notice that this practice is not trance nor is it targeted at jhana. It’s just meditation on a chosen subject, the Dhamma. I’m not sure it is advisable to try for jhana walking in the street. Modern cows with four wheels zoom about. :car:

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This article outlines the difference between hypnotic trance and mindfulness from the neuroscientific perspective.

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