Understanding Deep Meditative States: Developing Jhana and Liberating Insight

An interview with Shaila Catherine.

In this interview, Shaila Catherine was interviewed by dedicated meditation practitioner, Hedwig Kren. This interview was originally published in German after Shaila led a series of retreats in Netherlands and Germany. Below is the English version. 

Q: Nowadays people seem to be increasingly distracted compared to the Buddha`s time. How do you feel about this, Shaila? 

Shaila Catherine: Yes, very true. Our contemporary world is filled with many distractions. We don’t need to look very far for a stimulating distraction; most people carry a device in their pockets that can stimulate almost endless distraction from what is actually happening in present moment. Disconnected from the natural world, many people live lost in their own thoughts. But even without cell phones, TVs, and the pace of modern life, the human mind is prone to distraction. Long before the development of the cell phone, the Buddha taught ways to overcome distractions and habitual thought patterns. 

Of course, we have to see the restlessness of the mind and any hindrances that might arise. We don’t just plunk ourselves down on the meditation cushion and find “Wow! Instant samādhi!” Most people first need to see the unskillful patterns that have been conditioned by how they live. 

So the development of concentration includes a skillful encounter with, understanding, and overcoming of the hindrances. We have to face them, work with them, and see how they are conditioning our minds. Then we can make more skillful choices in how we’re going to relate to life. 

Q: So you see the value in developing concentration not only for meditation, but also for daily life. 

Shaila Catherine: There are many worldly applications and benefits for concentration. And whatever concentration we develop in our meditation practice is going to spill over into our lives. It will enrich and inform the ways we make decisions and undertake actions. It will enable us to stay focused and committed on our projects, relationships, and activities. A concentrated mind is not pushed and pulled between desires or aversions; it is free from procrastination and reactivity, it is steady. 

The concentration that we develop in our meditation practice most definitely will improve how we engage with our daily lives, but the reason that the Buddha taught concentration, in fact the aim of the practice, is liberation. The Buddha said that “one who is concentrated understands things as they really are.” If we are not concentrated, how can we see the nature of things clearly? We won’t be able to know the causes and end of suffering if we remain entangled with our habitual distractions.  

Q: That`s the reason why as a Dharma teacher you teach insight meditation and concentration meditation? 

Shaila: I’m really glad you mention that. I don’t want to be limited to teaching concentration and jhana. Concentration is embedded in the path to awakening. That path includes both vipassanā and samādhi. Liberating insight is our aim, not the concentration or jhāna states. Although I specialized in jhāna and value it, and I teach several retreats each year on concentration and jhāna, overall I primarily teach insight and mindfulness meditation. 

Q: You mentioned vipassanā and samādhi. Could you please explain these two words? 

Shaila: Mindfulness based meditation practices develop both the calming qualities that we might associate with tranquil concentrated (samādhi) states, and also the qualities of wisdom, interest, and clear seeing that we might associate with insight (vipassanā). Although we might emphasize either concentration or insight, and we might strive to enhance a mode of knowing our meditation subject that is characterized by investigation or stability, samādhi and vipassanā practices are not as separate as the language might seem to imply. To intensify our concentration we sustain mindfulness, and to directly know a radical perception of impermanence, we need a stable and concentrated mind. So really, I don’t think that we can separate samādhi from vipassanā. But I do think that we can emphasize one or the other at different times in our practice. 

I often advise meditators who have already practiced insight meditation for a long time, have seen their hindrances again and again, and comprehend impermanence to give more time to the deepening of samādhi. The joy, equanimity, and stability that come with concentration practice are a tremendous support for uprooting sensual desire and enhancing our potential to see clearly. 

And I often advise meditators who find concentration quite easy to investigate the nature of body, feelings, mind, and causality. It is especially important to recognize the impermanence of our perceptions. 

The purpose of right concentration is to produce conditions conducive to liberating insight. Right view must inform our meditation practice. And so concentration and insight are always intertwined. 

Q: You also used another word for concentration called “jhāna”. Many people may have never heard the words “jhāna” and “absorption”. Could you please explain? 

Shaila: When I teach a concentration-oriented retreat, we develop samādhi by enhancing the qualities of tranquility, joy, equanimity, while focusing on a suitable meditation subject. As concentration develops we’ll experience the clarity of a mind free from the hindrances. Almost everyone who attends my retreats describes experiencing deeper samādhi than they have previously known. Once samādhi is established, students can choose to enhance the perception of impermanence for an insight-oriented direction of practice, or focus on a fixed meditative perception which enables a sequence of absorption states known as the four jhānas. The jhānas are concentrated states in which the attention is secluded from the variety of sensory inputs, and inclines toward absorption through a consistent and sustained knowing of the chosen meditation subject. Each of the four jhānas are characterized by specific mental qualities, and can develop as a training sequence that results in deep and transformative experiences of joy, equanimity, and calm. 

Q: So it is a deepening of the concentration when one proceeds from the first jhāna to the second jhāna and so on. It this correct? And how does one know the difference between the different stages of jhāna? 

Shaila: It isn’t always clear what someone means by depth in meditation. It is quite possible for a meditator to have stable and secluded experiences of the first jhana; and some people can be very concentrated even with access concentration. The stages of four jhanas do not necessarily imply increasing intensity. The sequence develops by relinquishing the courser mental factors that are present in the preceding state. For example, one can shift from first to second jhana when the stability of the mind is strong enough to enable unification of mind without the courser mental functions of applied and sustained thought. And the progression from the third jhana to the fourth jhana occurs when attention is capable of remaining steadily focused in equanimity, without the support of happiness. Each successive jhana state is characterized by the presence or absence of various feeling tones and mental factors that have come to be called “jhana factors”. 

Q: Not a lot of Dharma teachers make the effort to teach jhāna. Why did you decide to teach jhāna? 

Shaila: I had been practicing mindfulness, insight meditation, and a variety of satipaṭṭhāna practices for about 20 years before I had the intention and opportunity to develop the jhānas. I became interested in the jhānas because I believed that deeper concentration would strengthen my insight. Once I had sustained deep experiences of the four jhānas I understood the value of these powerful states. The non-sensual joy that they produce has the effect of weakening the defilement of sensual desire. The deep equanimity that accompanies jhānas brings balance to ones practice and life. The meditation skills that are developed in the process of abandoning the hindrances and sustaining absorption can be applied toward insight as well as other activities. And the exquisite balance of energy and ease refines right effort. In short, the undertaking of a jhāna oriented practice is a great training, whether or not the meditator takes it far enough to master the jhānas. 

Q: Can anybody learn jhānas? Is it valuable for everybody? 

Shaila: You asked if anyone can develop the jhānas, well, jhānas are available to anyone who has conducive conditions. Jhānas are not reserved for particular social groups—men and women, young and old, monastic and lay, Asian and Western can all develop the conditions of deep and stable concentration. 

But effective jhāna practice requires some conditions. Right concentration is based upon virtue, so keeping the precepts is a basic requirement. Since the precondition for any jhāna attainment is the absence of the hindrances, meditators need skills to overcome the common meditative obstacles. This can’t be done by force of will. 

Success in jhāna practice also depends upon psychological health and mental stability. Jhana practice shouldn’t be undertaken by meditators who struggle with mental illnesses, who are currently working through grief or trauma, or who are going through difficult life transitions. 

Q: How does one prepare the mind for absorption states? 

Shaila: The best preparation for jhāna practice is to maintain impeccable virtue and diligent mindfulness. We need to work wisely with any hindrances that might corrupt the clarity of our attention, and then notice the joy and strength of mind that is available when the hindrances are absent. Jhana practice can begin only when the hindrances are absent. 

Q: What are the biggest obstacles to successful cultivation of jhāna? 

Shaila: The most common obstacles that I see among students involve either establishing right effort, or developing clarity regarding the object that we are being mindful of. Practitioners need to be able to relax without dulling the mind, and to enliven the mind without producing agitation. And since some meditation objects incline toward the perception of impermanence, and other meditation objects incline toward absorption, meditators need to choose the object that aligns with their aim. Contemporary practitioners are often confused regarding the role of the chosen object. On almost every retreat that I teach, some students arrive telling that they are already practicing jhānas, but are not working with meditation objects that are capable of producing jhāna. 

Q: You have mentioned right effort now and before right concentration. Could you please explain what „right“ in this context means? 

Shaila: Right implies that it is informed by right view and that it leads to the liberating aim of the Buddhist path. So when I speak of right effort, I am not suggesting that the effort needs to be especially strong effort; but I am suggesting that effort be applied for the abandoning of the unwholesome, the cultivating of the wholesome, and be directed toward liberation. Similarly, I don’t think that right concentration refers exclusively to jhanas. Right concentration is informed by right view, and is aimed at the goal of liberation. One concentrats the mind to support liberating insight. 

Q: How do you teach jhāna practice exactly? And why? 

Shaila: I like to use mindfulness with breathing as the initial meditation subject. My book, Focused and Fearless, introduces mindfulness with breathing. By working with the breath we can vividly see the transformation of the meditation subject from the physical experience of the body breathing, into a refined mental sign (nimitta) that is subtle enough to enable absorption. In my own practice, I most frequently do mindfulness with breathing. Mindfulness with breathing is a versatile and valuable approach to meditation. It is an object that anyone who is breathing can try. And also, I really enjoy it! 

After a student has mastered the jhānas with the breath as their primary object, I teach students to use other objects such as color kasiṇa, element kasiṇa, Brahma Viharas, anatomical parts, meditation on the corpse, and the immaterial perceptions such as infinite space, infinite consciousness, emptiness etc. for jhāna absorption. Sometimes I’ll introduce those practices to meditators who struggle to stabilize their concentration by working with breath, but generally I start everyone with the breath and strategically shift to other object as appropriate. 

For the last eight or ten years, I’ve structured my jhāna retreats around the sixteen steps of the Ānāpānasati Sutta (Discourse on Mindfulness of Breathing). These 16 steps offer a systematic path for both jhāna and insight practices. Although the 16 steps of mindfulness with breathing can certainly be developed without the inclination toward jhāna, and jhāna using the breath can certainly be developed without training in the 16 steps, I like to work with this method. In the morning instructions of jhāna retreats I offer a way of interpreting each of the 16 steps that strongly inclines the mind toward absorption. It is a simple, clear, and logical progression that nurtures the conditions for absorption, produces profoundly concentrated states, highlights the various conditions for concentration as they mature, and integrates jhāna into a progression of development that leads directly to liberation. I developed my interpretation of the ānāpānasati sequence gradually, over many years of practice—it is influenced by some of my teachers, but is not exactly the same as the approaches to jhāna that I learned from any of my teachers.  

Q: Twice you have mentioned “mastering the jhānas”. What does this imply? 

Shaila: Generally, mastery implies that the meditator can attain jhana at will without trouble or difficulty. There are several exercises that we practice to establish mastery of at each level of jhana. Those exercises develop skills in entering the absorption, emerging from it, and remaining absorbed for specific durations. For example, meditators enter the first jhana with the intention of remaining absorbed for 56 minutes. When they emerge, they look to see if it was approximately 56 minutes. If they emerged late, it may indicate that there is some indulgence or attachment to the state. If they fall out early, it may indicate that the faculties (faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration, wisdom) are not yet mature enough to maintain the absorption. There are also exercises that highlight the quality of mind in each jhana. By practicing with the mastery exercises, the meditator will strengthen the stability of the states, develop the control in entering and exiting, and see how each jhana state functions. I like to guide students to develop mastery of the first jhana before progressing to the second jhana. And similarly to develop mastery of the second jhana before progressing to the third jhana, and so on. 

Q: What is the connection of mindfulness and concentration – as mindfulness precedes concentration in the noble eightfold path? How they work together? And what is their difference? 

Shaila: Right mindfulness, right concentration, and right effort are cultivated together—they are always intertwined. The Visuddhimagga includes an illustration of three friends who visit a park together and see a tree filled with flowers. They want to pick some flowers to make garlands. One of the friends gets down on his hands and knees creating a strong support and then invites his friend to stand on his back to pick the flowers. The third friend stands near, offering his shoulder to prevent him from wobbling. And so together, the three friends are able to collect the flowers. The friend on his hands and knees symbolizes the strength of right effort. The friend who reaches one-pointedly to grasp the flowers is likened to the one-pointed aim of the focused mind. And the friend who stands near is compared to mindfulness, which prevents the mind from wandering, wobbling and loosing track of the object. They are a team that works together to realize their aim. We need all three to develop tranquility and insight. 

Q: Could you explain briefly what the Visuddhimagga is? 

Shaila: The Visuddhimagga is meditation manual that is widely used throughout the Theravādan world.  The English title is “Path of Purification.” It was composed during the fifth century in Sri Lanka by Venerable Buddhaghosa. It presents a detailed approach to Buddhist practice that includes cultivating virtue and concentration, discerning the nature of body, mind, and consciousness, analyzing casual relations, and exploring refined approaches to insight meditation. The training propels the mind through a sequence of sixteen knowledges that culminate in the experience of nibbāna. In short, it is a comprehensive map or training guide for awakening. 

Perhaps it has served as a primary reference for generations of meditators because the early discourses rarely provide such detailed instructions. The four jhanas are mentioned frequently in the suttas, and their purpose and characteristics are defined by the suttas, but The Visuddhimagga offers pragmatic advice about how each meditation subject develops, tips for focusing attention, and step by step instructions for working with each meditation object, including the formless perceptions. It is indeed a comprehensive meditation manual. 

Q: What is the difference between insight and concentration meditation? Do we need both to experience Nibbāna? And how do the work together?  

Shaila: Meditation practices that emphasize concentration tend to encourage a stable, calm, and continuous perception of a chosen object. Meditation practices that emphasize insight tend to encourage the investigation, analysis, or direct observation of the impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not-self characteristics of mind, body, and causes and effects.  

Wisdom certainly develops while nurturing concentration, but when we are absorbed in a jhāna state we are not discerning the changing characteristics of our experience. Tranquility certainly develops when we are observing the changing nature of body and mind or the contemplation of changing causes and effects, but changing perceptions prevent stable and sustained absorption. 

Practitioners often use the term jhāna rather casually to refer to any degree of calm or joy that might arise during meditation. But I distinguish between the arising of the five factors that intensify concentration (also called the jhāna factors) with the four jhāna states of meditative absorption. The presence of the jhāna factors—of initial and sustained attention, joy, pleasure, and one-pointed attention—do not define a jhāna absorption. Hindrances will be absent during both samādhi and vipassanā practices. The jhāna factors will be present during both samādhi and insight practice. A jhāna absorption involves more than the mere absence of hindrances and presence of the 5 intensifying factors. In the jhānas, the mind is secluded from all distractions, thoughts, and sensual impressions, and the attention is deeply absorbed with a mental object. 

Q: The Buddha talks about four stages of awakening. It is a progressive deeping of the experience of Nibbāna: stream-entry, once return, non return, and Arahantship. Is jhāna necessary to experience stream entry? 

Shaila: I don’t think jhāna is necessary to free the mind from the types of attachments and distortions of perception that dominate minds that have not yet known nibbāna. The concentrated mind that emerges from jhāna is energized, clear, balanced, free from obstruction, and strongly inclined toward letting go. But jhāna will weaken the obstacles, wear away clinging, and make the mind quick, flexible, and clear so that it can more effectively contemplate mind and body with insight. Let’s just say jhāna makes vipassanā easier. We all already know that things change, and yet we still cling to impermanent things. We know that experience is unsatisfactory, but we still crave for the things we like and push away what we don’t like. Perhaps we need to see these habits of craving and clinging with a steady, discerning, and concentrated mind before we can genuinely let go. Is jhāna necessary? Probably not, but it sure is helpful! 


Shaila offers online courses and insight and concentration retreats internationally. Her next concentration and jhana focused retreat in Europe will be in the Netherlands in summer 2019. 

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