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Meditative Trance: A How-To

by J. Sante (Oct 2014)

The attainment of a joyous trance state is probably the most potent force for motivating individuals to commit themselves to a contemplative or spiritual life.

Sadly for most people in our screen-dominated modern society, such states remain forever out of reach. While many can sense the serene joy emanating from the Dalai Lama or others who have attained lasting trance states, most regard such attainments as an esoteric achievement possible only for ascetics.

This need not be so.

The author is a lifelong city-dweller and computer programmer who has nonetheless attained many of the meditative trances (stages of dhyana) recognized by Buddhism, and who would like to now set down in a clear and precise way how those states may be achieved by any person.

The Goal: Dhyana

Here is a definition of the four stages of dhyana or trance, excerpted from the monk Walpola Rahula’s What the Buddha Taught (1959):

In the first stage of dhyana, passionate desire and certain unwholesome thoughts like sensual lust, ill-will, languor, worry, restlessness and skeptical doubt are discarded, and feelings of joy and happiness are maintained, along with certain mental activities.

In the second stage, all intellectual activities are suppressed, tranquility and one-pointedness of mind developed and the feelings of joy and happiness are still retained.

In the third stage, the feeling of joy, which is an active sensation, also disappears, while the disposition of happiness still remains in addition to mindful equanimity.

In the fourth stage of dhyana, all sensations, even of happiness and unhappinesss, of joy and sorrow, disappear, only equanimity and awareness remaining.

The farthest stage the author has personal experience with is the third, which he has experienced for periods of up to 48 hours. Such states arise and dissipate on their own, sometimes during meditation, sometimes upon waking from sleep, sometimes at a sudden realization. They generally last more than an hour, but sometimes days or longer.

It is nearly universal across all cultures that those who experience dhyana later find words hopelessly inadequate for describing it.

Words indeed probably obscure more than enlighten, but speaking as a rationally minded programmer I feel like I can at least describe some aspects:

Physically, there is often a wellspring of joy in one’s stomach rising upwards, like one might experience upon falling in love.

The brain is calm, serene and without stress, and is in a supra-rational place while able to fully utilize its rational faculties whenever needed.

Spiritually you are without ego and desire and thus fully at one with Reality-as-it-is.

Above all these trance states are truly joyful and feel as though all is well with Reality.

According to Buddhism, it is possible to preserve the fourth stage of dhyana permanently. This may serve as a positive definition of Nirvana, the primary goal of the Buddhist.

Prerequisites: Ethical Conduct and Mental Discipline

There's no getting around it: in order to attain meditative trance states, you have to do all the religious-person stuff you were likely taught as a child:

  • No killing or harming other beings
  • No lying, slander or idle gossip
  • No stealing or dishonesty
  • Cultivate compassion and wisdom
  • Exhibit love, charity, kindness and tolerance
  • Make your living honestly

The following mental discipline should also be practiced:

  • Keep thoughts of love and non-violence in mind
  • Keep thoughts of selfless renunciation in mind

Finally, you should exhibit mindfulness or attentiveness:

Be mindful to (1) the activities of the body (2) sensations or feelings (3) the activities of the mind and (4) ideas, thoughts and conceptions of things.

It’s not necessary to go crazy with all this (e.g. strict veganism, mission work or asceticism), but in general the more you practice this bedrock foundation, the easier it will be for trance to arise during meditation.

For most people, satisfying the above prerequisites will take up the bulk of the necessary training. Individuals whose livelihoods depend on war or financial speculation, for example, will have to change their entire way of life.

But for many, as little as a week or two of practice will get the mind in a place where it is joyous and serene enough to practice meditation productive of trance.

Meditation Leading to Dhyana

For the purposes of this document, meditation is defined as ‘mental development’.

There are truly infinite schools of thought on meditation. The author has currently settled on the classical Zen style.

Zen is short for zazen, a Japanese word for seated meditation, and comes out of the Buddhist tradition. Its practice involves mental development with an aim toward realizing Nirvana, the final extinguishing of ‘thirst’ or ‘desire’ which grants liberation from dukkha/suffering.

Zazen is typically practiced sitting on a pillow in the full-lotus or half-lotus pose, with hands cupped within one another and resting gently on the lap, thumbtips touching slightly. This is however not a hard requirement: sitting in a chair, standing or even walking is perfectly fine just so long as you neither fall asleep nor become uncomfortable.

Mentally you practice suppressing the turnings of thought, while allowing the sense organs to flow. You must therefore sit with eyes either open or half-closed, your hearing attuned to your surroundings and with touch smell and taste enabled. If any mental activity arises due to your observations, let it pass unnoticed before your mind’s eye.

The best time to practice is daily 20 minutes before and after sleep, with occasional 45-minute or longer sessions when possible.

That’s really all there is to it. By following the ‘prerequisites’ above and regularly practicing zazen, you will soon develop the ability to suppress the turnings of thought at will, and then to completely prevent their arising. When this is achieved even for a moment you will achieve a state called no-mind, itself a trance.

The more you’re able to remain within the egoless, desireless state of no-mind, the higher the stages of dhyana that will arise naturally and without effort, and the longer such states will last.

This work is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0