Formless jhanas are rich territory for deep insights into the fabricating process the mind does on a continual basis. We take the fourth jhana as a prerequisite for this state, and in the fourth jhana we take the sense of silence in the mind and solidify that perception and strengthen it. For entry into the formless realms, we need to enter a state of physical pliancy where we don’t feel the body at all. In the process of learning the formless jhanas we can get insight into the emptiness of our senses, and learn to observe dependent origination in real time.
The Realm of Boundless Space
To enter the realm of boundless space from the 4th jhana, we want to stay with the open spacious silence and detune from the body. We specifically intend to ignore the bodily fabrications. When we do this, due to the gradual training and the learning we have done, the mind releases clinging to sense perceptions associated with the body, and this leads to those perceptions disappearing from conswcious experience. In other words, we ignore the body to such a degree that it is no longer anywhere in our conscious experience.
The way to bring that about is to detune your mind from the body, while simultaneously expanding the mind into the new mental space with an intention for clear comprehension of the state. We are ignoring something but we also fill up the void with something else- more clear perception of the new container of manifestation. We always want to maintain a metacognitive awareness of the mind as a whole, in every moment, whether we are in jhana or not.
When we observe the mind detuning from the body and we observe what’s happening, we can see very clearly how the sense of bodily fabrications first depend on sensation of the body in awareness and then they become an object. This is seen quite clearly, but only when we have our bodies completely disappear is it striking enough to draw a contrast in the mind. That’s an insight experience!
To get into the 5th jhana of boundless space, imagine your attention expanding outwardly in all directions, as far as you can imagine. Keep your mind centered on the experience of the space of your awareness moving out. The key is to focus on that until there is a perceptual flip. All of a sudden you find yourself in this broad, open spacious universe. The body is nearly gone or completely gone from all awareness.
As you bask in the wonder and awe of the spacious sense you have in mind, you can really soak into that sense of space and gently ask what it is about not having any body is so relieving. The sense of freedom from physicality is truly supramundane and profound, and that sense of freedom is a key aspect of the 5th jhana and an insight into the first noble truth.
We can bask in that state and learn to make it very steady and we can begin to get a feel for the fabrication process the mind does, at a more granular level on faster time scales. We see these bits of information registering in the mind that tell us “spacious” and we see directly in those very quick quarks of manifestation that spaciousness is simply an aggregate concept of a position and a point subject, and with those two conditions and not much else going on, you can see directyl how the mind constructs “space” from other concepts and sensations. This is a profound thing to discover first-hand.
The Realm of Boundless Consciousness
The 6th jhana, and the second formless realm is the relam of boundless consciousness. It is closely related to the 5th jhana of boundless space. While we are spoaking in that awesome spacious sense free from the body, we also notice that the bits of information coming in in fast vibrations that tell us “spacious” also contain a condition of consciousness in that space. The way I enter 6th from 5th is to simply notice that conscious strikes upon everything in the 5th jhana, and there is a flip where suddenly the information seems to be coming in from all directions, toward a point object that doesn’t exist. There is a sense that all of manifestation is consciousness and the idea of manifestation being the same thing as consciousness starts to make sense.
In the 5th jhana, there is a point subject somewhere in the field of manifestation, but the energy seems to shoot out in all directions, whereas in the 6th, this somehow “breaks” a mental curcuit, and in the 6th the subject now receives the information from all the conscious manifestation “out there” . Words sometimes fail in describing these subtle unfabricated states, but if we can notice what are the constituents of these mental phenomena that make up “space” we can get direct insight into dependent origination.
The Realm of Nothingness
The realm of nothingness is like being in a sensory deprivation tank. There isn’t much happening except utter peace, silence, and darkness. Like being dead but conscious of being dead and still perceiving it somehow. I notice the mind starts to perceive in the 6th jhana moments where there is nothing happening or gaps between knowing bits and the mind jumps into the nothingness and blackness and there is just silent nothingness. It’s a very relieving sense, very restful. It feels like the mind “falls into” 7th jhana as it seems to be much a lower-energy state. It’s like it has some kind of gravity- I’ll be in bounless consciousness and then like a light switch turned off- most of perception turns off! Just black, silent, nothing. Very similar to sleeping or being dead
The Realm of Neither Perception Nor Non-Perception – 8th jhana
My personal experience of this state is mainly just confusing – I seem to be there but not there, not sure if I’m awake, asleep, or dead. Whereas in the 7th there is only a perception of nothingness, that seems straightforward compared to the 8th. In 7th, there’s some non-perception mixed in there, but the mind doesn’t get confused because there’s still perception of nothingness and it’s somewhat of a stable object. The mind seems to give up with perception altogether but instinctually clings to perception and oscillates rapidly as some kind of primal defense mechanism. This basic clinging can be seen and comprehended retroactively after experiencing it, but there is really not any way of knowing that while it’s happening. So perception itself is an assumption like any other. Seeing this basic fact is a key part of dependent origination.
Personally, after the 8th the mind eventually pops back into perception and the meditator enters a very deep, restful state. The mind is clear and perception has a clean slate. I discovered that there is an area in my skull that I can wiggle mentally and there is a sense of being able to press that spot in just the right way, and if I hold it, I can notice a shutting down of sorts. I hold that spot and hold a “poker face” and in relatively quick succession, the black static screen and the faraway sounds shut off, the body disappears, and finally perception of any kind disappears and there is a “whooshing” sense of return like something quickly unwraps in a very satisfying, cathartic way. There is an obvious sense of a break in reality that is very remarkable, and often the body is positioned slightly different upon regaining consciousness. This has happened a dozen or so times when I was at certain points and it is not something I ever trained to do. I would reckon that this may be Nirodha Samapatti. After this the mind is very, extremely chill, like having taken valium and heroin but being perfectly lucid. It’s a very heavy, incapacitating high. The body is perfectly relaxed, and I just don’t mind anything.