I think the Commentaries and the Visuddhimagga (the work of scholars and not
meditators, it would seem) have left a terrible legacy of over-exalting of jhāna.
The classic descriptions of the 4 stages are not the only description of the
REALITY in the suttas. It is easily forgotten that "Dhammavicaya"
is one of the bojjhaṅgas, - clearly alongside with Sati, in many
ways a foundation, and the usual description clearly implies thought
- So tathā sato viharanto taṃ dhammaṃ paññāya pavicinati, pavicayati,
parivīmaṃsaṃ āpajjati. - MIII.85 (PTS) and it goes on to describe how it
leads to Pīti - Pītisambojjhaṅgaṃ tasmiṃ samaye bhikkhu bhāveti.
Descriptions like the this and the below also seem to be describing jhāna in
other terms, or rather, not different terms but different wording.
Yonisomanasikaroto pāmojjaṁ jāyati, pamuditassa pīti jāyati,
pītimanassa kāyo passambhati, passaddhakāyo sukhaṁ vedeti,
sukhino cittaṁ samādhiyati, samāhite citte yathābhūtaṁ jānāti passati,
yathābhūtaṁ jānaṁ passaṁ nibbindati, nibbindaṁ virajjati,
virāgā vimuccati. - DIII.288 (PTS)
A state of mind of deep peace and very strong real joy and exaltation
(pāmojja) is surely likely to be the first stage of real, effective jhāna
(meditation) in the sutta sense of the word. One can be mulling over
a new insight into Dhamma, with both spontaneous thought and directed
thought in a quiet, meditative way, without in any way breaking out
of the state of bliss and peace - indeed STRENGTHENING it. The
classic image the Buddha gave for this state, of a masseur working up
the lather is itself very evocative of a certain active encouragement,
and almost deliberate holy ‘wallowing’ in the joy. This dhammavicaya
thought is very different from scholarly looking up references in a dictionary,
one hardly needs to add.