Book Review: Right Concentration by Leigh Brasington

RightConcentration

The Takeaway: This is a very practical guide to one of the foundational practices in Buddhist meditation – jhana. The instructions work as advertised, are very clear and easy to follow. If you try them you will certainly get deeper concentration, and possibly jhana, even without dedicating long stretches of your life in a monastery. Highly recommended.

I love this book. If I could travel back in time I would find my 26 year-old self, put a copy of it in his hand, and say “here is what you need to know.” At that time I was preoccupied with attaining jhana. Obsessed might be a better way to put it. But I had notions about jhana that were unrealistic. I really had no idea what I was doing, and yet I was closer than I could ever have imagined. This book would have cleared everything up. If you have any interest in concentration meditation and jhana, this is a book you should read.

For those unfamiliar with the language being used, “jhanas” are states of meditative bliss. They feel amazing and do wonderful things for the mind. Namely, they suppress five states that get in the way of deep meditation (anger, craving, doubt, restlessness and sleepiness) while developing qualities of mind that make it very powerful. For this reason jhanas are useful for people who want to take insight meditation far. But even if you aren’t interested in insight or awakening jhanas are worthwhile in and of themselves. If you don’t think this, read just about any sutta from the pali canon. Chances are the jhanas are at least mentioned, and when they are discussed the Buddha talks about them the way a doctor talks about diet and exercise. He even made the cultivation of jhana one of the steps of the eight-fold path, which is where the book’s title comes from. “Right” concentration is synonymous with jhana. There are some who say jhana is required for even the initial stage of awakening (stream entry) and others who say they are not required even for full awakening (fourth path). That debate is not covered in this book, but I happen to think Bhihkkhu Bodhi’s take on it, which finds a middle ground between the two positions feels most right. If you’re curious you can read it here.

There are eight jhanas. Four “material” jhanas, so called because they feel most similar to the kinds of physical sensations found in the normal material world, followed by four more “immaterial” jhanas, which have a more mental flavor. All eight are covered in this book. My teacher taught me how to access another five called the “suda wasas” or “pure land jhanas,” but they fall outside the scope of this book.

One of the wonderful things about this book is that it makes jhana, normally the purview of monastics and hermits, accessible to ordinary meditators. Leigh Brasington’s approach is something that normal people can do at home, though he strongly suggests getting guidance from a teacher on a jhana-focused retreat. That way you can make sure your technique is right and your experience is actually jhana. His approach is based on Ayya Khema’s teaching of the jhanas, and if you do not know who she is I would strongly encourage you to read some of her work. The directions are simple and clear, yet Brasington does his best to point out the succession of small subtle state shifts that lead up to jhana. Along the way he guides the reader at each point in the development. This is a seasoned teacher, and the way he delivers the instructions and addresses potential problems shows that.

I tried his instructions over the Christmas holiday and soon entered into a state that I recognized as first jhana, however it was most similar to what I was experiencing from my days struggling to attain jhana back in my 20s. “Wow!” I thought “this is first jhana in this system? I was accessing first jhana the whole time and not realizing it!” After settling in with the first jhana and getting comfortable going in and out of it using Brasington’s directions, I followed his instructions for the higher jhanas and it worked beautifully. What he teaches in the book works. I can say that with confidence.

The jhanas always leave me feeling fantastic. It was though I had taken some wonderful drug that makes me love everybody. People joke about “jhana junkies” as a bit of a problem in meditation communities, and I can see what they mean, but what is odd about jhanas is that they only get strong when you stop craving them, so “junkie” is really the wrong way to think about it. Jhana does not lead to attachment to jhana, it leads to letting go of attachment in a deeper way, even attachment to bliss. Exploring jhana using Brasington’s approach gave me a much deeper appreciation of the fact that jhana can be very good medicine for people, even if they aren’t monks.

There are people who disagree that what is described in the book is “real” jhana, and they point to the fact that these are not states of full absorption (that is, you can still feel your body and hear sounds). In the commentaries jhana is only jhana if there is full absorption, and so the canonical view has been that if you feel your body it is not jhana. However, Brasington takes pains in the second part of his book to show how this view of jhana is not only unsupported by the earliest suttas, but contradicted by them. He speculates, usefully I think, that as monastic life became more settled meditation standards became more extreme and exacting. Jhanas became a kind of extreme sport, with full absorption as the minimum criteria, even though full absorption is not mentioned in the early canon. This makes sense to me, and it explains why it is that the early information on jhana available to folks in the west pushed this idea of full absorption as the mainstream approach, even though it was out of reach for ordinary lay people. That is why my 26 year old self was so confused even though he was accessing first jhana. Brasington is going out on a limb and helping people in that position by showing that it doesn’t, and probably shouldn’t, have to be that way. Jhanas, the real thing, are more available to regular people than we have been led to believe.

Now go buy his book and try them for yourself. Whether you want to call them jhana or not doesn’t matter. You’ll see that they are very good for you.

About Ron

To learn meditation, no matter where you are in the world, just send an email to: alohadharma@gmail.com

Posted on January 19, 2016, in book review, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. Great review! This book is a real gem. Between the release of Leigh’s “Right Concentration” and Culadasa’s “The Mind Illuminated,” I’ve been pretty blown away by the recent, practical dharma-fu that our fellow western practitioners are bringing to the table. I believe that Daniel/the folks at Dharma Overground have been working on an MCTB 2.0! Now, we just have to wait excitedly for Ron Crouch’s contribution!

    • I’m actually on a writing retreat, in a little remote cabin working on a book, so hopefully we will see one soon. Thank you for the encouragement!

  2. Thanks for the recommendation. I have the book on the way and just read the introduction online. It sound like just what I need to move forward. I fit what he describes as the intended audience to a T.
    By the way you have typos in these lines
    It as though I had taken some wonderful drug That way you can to make sure your technique is right

  3. Just finished the book as it turns out. Very good.

  4. In a bit more detail – I also love the book. And the Culadasa one mentioned above is also very interesting . It will be quite the project to compare them. What I really like is the willingness to discuss topics that are so often avoided – mental health and medication issues for instance. Two comments:

    – One thing is he doesn’t discuss is the effect of psychostimulants. He doesn’t even mention caffeine, although I read from one of his retreat attendants that caffeine was deemed helpful (which it isn’t for me).

    – Almost no dharma writer talks about the psychosexual aspect of this practice and piti in particular. LB kind of raises the issue obliquely, through metaphor and by comparing piti to kundalini. He even describes one state as “postorgasmic”. I say ‘almost’ because Mark Epstein’s Thoughts Without a Thinker looks at the jhana suttas from a psychoanalytic perspective. For me, the whole project of demystifying the jhanas would benefit from this comparison but the traditionalist response is always “no, piti has nothing to do with psychosexual energy”. Really? Some of the work by Wilhelm Reich and his followers seems awfully similar to jhana practice.

    So I loved the book but it would have been better with more about drugs and sex 🙂

    • I agree – these are the things I’d like to hear more about as well. It makes me wonder about the process of making a book like this. Did he need to avoid such topics?

      • Well I think he broke a lot of new ground with this book, as did Daniel Ingram’s book for insight practices. Maybe it was all the community was ready for. It’ll be exciting to see what comes next.

  5. Nice review. My only contention is this statement: “even though it was out of reach for ordinary lay people.” Which isn’t true, based on my own personal experience. I’ve noticed this sentiment circling around, perpetuated in retreats particularly. There really isn’t enough out there for the lay people who are accessing the Jhanas, both full absorption as well as the soft jhana. It sounds like it was an empowering book for you, that it was pretty thorough, it’s nice having a good guide out there for people.

  6. I just read this and it makes so many things clearer, agree that it would have been helpful when younger.

  7. Piti has a lot to do with sex if you ask me.

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