Oh now, when the Dhyana Bardo upon me is dawning!
Abandoning the whole mass of distractions and illusions,
May the mind be kept in the mood of endless undistracted samadhi,
May firmness both in the visualising and in the perfected stages be obtained:
At this time, when meditating one-pointedly, with all other actions put aside,
May I not fall under the power of misleading, stupefying passions.
[Tibetan Book of the Dead]
Sometimes when we meditate we may find blissful feelings arising spontaneously. These can range from mild pleasure and joy to almost overwhelming ecstasy; the experience can sometimes be so beautiful that we shed tears. We may blush, find our hair standing on end, or feel 'goose pimples'. What is more, the ability to concentrate enters a completely new dimension of lucidity and calm.
In psychological terms, we are directly experiencing what is known in our system of meditation as the process of integration: somewhere, disparate parts are combining into a whole. In terms of ethics, this is a highly skilful (kusala) mind state; in terms of aesthetics, we are touched by the beauty of the imagination. In terms of spiritual progress, the meditator is able to let go hindrances and distractions and is beginning to enter a higher state of consciousness. These feelings are a typical beginning for the first of eight levels of dhyana enumerated by Buddhist tradition. It may or may not be actual, full-blown dhyana, for there are pre-dhyana stages too in which the experience is also one of deepening inner harmony.
Before considering the nature of dhyana in detail, it may be useful to get a sense of the integration process from a psychological point of view and see the connection between dhyana and the day-to-day states of our mind. Those often aren’t blissful or peaceful at all; sometimes our mind resembles a battleground of contradictory likes, dislikes, hopes and fears.
Practising mindfulness often reveals all kinds of paradoxes and oppositions in our character. How different, for example, are our intentions from our actions. We make firm resolutions not to eat unsuitable foods, say inflammatory things, waste time on the internet or buy items we don’t really want. These resolutions no doubt have a tempering effect on the overall course of our actions, but gaps remain between our intentions and what we actually do. Another example is where we may sometimes exhibit different behaviours at work, at home, and with particular sets of friends. This is natural enough, indeed we presumably like particular activities and friends because they allow us to express different sides of our personality. From a vipashyana point of view this serves to highlight the unfixed nature of our ‘self’; from the angle of shamatha, we are working to unify our experience of self. Imagine walking along with a friendly neighbour one weekend, and quite by chance bumping into another friend from work. Both know us well but in very different contexts. The personality our workmate sees on weekdays is different from how we are at home, so each may see us very differently, and expect different behaviour of us. The encounter may thus feels a little odd: we can feel the clash of expectations.
Things like this happen because we are not wholly aware of our emotions or even our thoughts. This creates inner inconsistency and tension which can be very strong, and when meditation meets and releases that it's no wonder we experience blissful feelings and clarified concentration. When dhyanic feelings manifest it is tempting to think we have somehow made the grade and are now a real meditator. When they stop we naturally want to get them back, though it’s often a disappointing pursuit. For one can never truly recapture any experience. The clarity and bliss felt in dhyana is a by-product of the process of integration, occurring as (increasingly subtle) inner conflicts are met, come to a head and are resolved in conflict-free states of absorption.
When such breakthroughs occur it is only natural that the felt intensity lessens in subsequent sessions, as the leading edge of our practice returns to work on the remaining unintegrated aspects of our mind. The intensity of meditation goes more or less back to normal, even if the overall tone of concentration and emotional engagement is now established at a new level. Provided we keep practising, we should be able to maintain that new level.
Integration is a dynamic phenomenon. Our life used to happen in different compartments, but the momentum of practice is removing some separating walls, allowing contrary components in our character to integrate with the thoughts and emotions that formerly acted as hindrances to concentration. For a while we have been able to see changes happening more or less at the ‘horizontal’ surface of the mind – we have more mindfulness, feel happier, have clearer thoughts and feelings and so on. But meditation is now penetrating beneath the conscious surface; we are starting to become deeply absorbed in dhyana and to go beyond the hindrances.
On entering into absorption at this deeper level, content from the subconscious mind will come into consciousness, a phenomenon that marks the beginning of a second, more ‘vertical’ kind of integration. We encounter previously unglimpsed capacities of the imagination that can then be integrated into the ‘horizontal’ conscious mind. These capacities are described in tradition in terms of the five indriyas or ‘spiritual faculties’ which, at a deeper level of spiritual progress, transform into balas or ‘powers’. They are faith, wisdom, mindfulness, energy and concentration; in these it is the role of mindfulness to balance the creative tension between faith and wisdom on the one hand, and energy and concentration on the other.
Note that at this stage we may well experience previously unimagined emotions, thoughts, and pictorial images released into our consciousness, perhaps connected with significant past experiences. Once the depth of the imagination is stirred, happy childhood memories or long forgotten painful experiences may come to the surface during meditation, over subsequent days, or in dreams. These may well be vision-like: sometimes people encounter divinely beautiful or awe-inspiring forms such as gods, demons, Buddhas or symbolic images, archetypal images coming, as it were, from the heights and depths of our imagination. Such side-effects of our deepening concentration are good, but it is unhelpful to cling on to them as signs of success.
Getting rid of these five hindrances is like having a debt remitted… it is passing from a famine-stricken country into a land of prosperity. It is like living in peace and safety in the midst of violence and enmity. Chi-I
The experience of dhyana begins to emerge at the point in meditation when the five hindrances start to die away. This point is known as access concentration since we now have 'access' to the dhyanas. (It is also known as ‘neighbourhood’ concentration since we are close to the territory of dhyana.) How do we recognise whether or not we have reached this stage? We’ll know we’re there when the concentration becomes significantly easier. At this point emotions and thoughts start co-operating with our efforts to concentrate, instead of continually pulling us away into distraction. The few distractions we do still experience no longer exert a strongly emotional pull. So we have emerged on the other side of the five hindrances. Ven. Suvijo has this to say about upacara samadhi as it is called in Pali.
Access concentration is close to absorption, (but) it doesn't mean access concentration is weak. It can be very strong. Take for example a person, either he is watching the in- and out-breaths, or he is mentally chanting… , or he may be doing metta, spreading loving-kindness to somebody. After some time of developing the practice with mindfulness, with metta, with awareness, his mind will become calmer and calmer. When it becomes calmer and calmer he forgets about everything else. The mind becomes very soft, very quiet and very concentrated. It will at times become very light. And he forgets about the body, he won't feel his body at all. He won't be able to hear any sounds at all. He just knows the mind is very still and quiet either on the breath, or on sending loving-kindness to a person, or it might be a visualization, a light for example. The mind does not move. The mind is very still, very quiet, he cannot hear anything, he doesn't know where he is. But he still knows that he is concentrated on the object. And if he wants to think he can; if he doesn't want to think he can, too. Often, in this stage, the mind is like one who is floating. It is like being half-asleep. But it is not really sleep. This still constitutes upacara samadhi, access concentration.
This new situation provides us with a significant opening. As access concentration deepens, distracting thoughts have little power over us, making more energy available and allowing us to notice distractions before they fully take hold. We therefore disengage from distraction more easily, which frees even more energy and further sharpens the capacity for awareness. We enter an expansive, progressive phase. As Suvijo suggests, the term 'access concentration' doesn't just mark a crossing-point between the ordinary mind and dhyana but describes a broad band of consciousness, ranging from the point where we are concentrated but still frequently slipping back into distraction (that is, almost in the hindrances), to a state in which concentration is extremely easy (almost in dhyana). This is within the reach of anyone who meditates regularly; it’s not really so very far away from most people’s ordinary state of mind. If we know how to recognise this ‘access’ point, we can then learn how to encourage and dwell in it for as long as possible. And then, the longer we can sustain it, the greater is the possibility we can move on to full concentration (first dhyana). This is again within fairly easy reach of anyone who meditates regularly. We are likely to experience at least a taste of it within the first few weeks of taking up meditation - particularly if extra time is spent on practising, say on a retreat.
Some people feel that teaching in terms of ever-higher levels of concentration introduces something competitive, like grades at school. Of course it is not intended that way; it’s just that some states of mind are far preferable to others and Buddhist tradition generally holds that the happiness of dhyana especially facilitates spiritual development. Discovering that non-sensual pleasure is extremely helpful for the path of awakening was a key moment for the Buddha, when he remembered that as a child he had spontaneously become absorbed in dhyana under a rose-apple tree.
The practical details of actually meditating in the dhyanas come out of the experience of meditators down the ages who, like Sujivo, practice and teach orally within their own cultural context. There have been countless lines of oral transmission since the Buddha’s time, many of which remain fresh today, and there are some variations in terms of the particulars of meditation practice. Yet overall there is great unity of principle across all the long standing Buddhist cultures, and that understanding is now establishing itself in the contemporary world. So teachers in all traditions, using their own meditation experience as a basis, will interpret the signs of dhyana in ways they find helpful for their students while looking to the scriptural accounts for clarification and guidance. Though it is useful to acquire an understanding of the technical differences between the dhyana stages, it is not absolutely necessary.
The Buddha sometimes found it sufficient to teach in terms of images, which can communicate directly aspects that may not otherwise come across.
As a skilful bath man or his apprentice will scatter perfumed soap powder in a metal basin, and then besprinkling it with water, drop by drop, will knead it together so that the ball of lather, taking up the unctuous moisture, is drenched with it, pervaded by it, permeated by in within and without, and there is no leakage possible…
His very body does he so pervade, drench, permeate, and suffuse with the joy and ease born of concentration, that there is no spot in his whole frame not suffused therewith...
In this ancient image the experience of the first dhyana is said to be like soap powder and water being mixed thoroughly together until water completely saturates the dry powder and the water is pervaded by the soap powder.
The Buddha continues his set of comparisons in which water, a universal symbol for the unconscious mind, is the link.
2. Being in the second dhyana feels like a calm lake being fed by an upwelling underground spring.
3. The third dhyana feels as though lotuses and water lilies are growing in that lake soaked and saturated by its water.
4. The fourth is like relaxing in a white towel after bathing in the cool lake on a hot afternoon.
In the first dhyana water is perfectly mixed with its opposite element, dry powder. The image of mingling opposites perfectly together expresses both the vertical and horizontal integration of unresolved differences in consciousness. Emotionality versus rationality, masculinity versus femininity, consciousness, unconsciousness, introverted and extraverted tendencies all shift and melt into more creative and harmonious coexistence. Dhyana is a state of mental purity in which we feel more truly and deeply ourselves than ever before. After meditating in the first dhyana we may feel the happiness of the achievement for hours and even days or weeks after.
In second dhyana, concentration is so pure that we experience no thought whatever. There is thought in the first dhyana but it’s very subtle and is settled around the meditation object. Crossing from first into second dhyana is to drop into a more lucid absorption which, apart from a subtle mindfulness of the state we are in, is completely thought-free. The second dhyana is a state of very great inspiration in which one is sustained by blissful mental and spiritual refreshment that wells up inside, like an underground spring flowing into a calm lake. It is unusual for this degree of inspiration to arise spontaneously outside meditation, but there are rare individuals, naturally blessed with vast and elevated minds, whose experience is just this. . There are individuals somewhere in the world who at times dwell in this sort of state without perhaps even having heard about meditation. In classical times artists and poets called to the Muses, goddesses who bestow inspiration. The person in a state of deep inspiration is united with higher forces of the imagination, and these are experienced as outside the conscious personality, as when prophets or yogins receive instruction from a deeper level of consciousness.
The third dhyana is compared to lotuses growing amongst the waters of the lake, completely surrounded and soaked in the medium of water. In our progress through the dhyanas we become more and more integrated with the higher element of inspiration which in the second dhyana is experienced as just trickling into our consciousness. By the time we reach the third dhyana the stream has greatly expanded until it has become our whole environment; it is a very rich experience of vertical integration. In this third dhyana we feel as though we are part of something much greater than our conscious self. We may need to remind ourselves that this is still a mundane state of mind, one that is unawakened to ultimate reality, because this dhyana level feels like a ‘mystical’ state in which we experience ourselves surrounded, pervaded and unified with this higher element.
The fourth dhyana is an experience of complete mental health and happiness. Like the other dhyanas this attainment doesn’t endow us with any ultimate wisdom or compassion – we could still conceivably act unethically and fall back in our progress. However, even though we don't possess the fullness of insight, we are in the best possible state of mental health; a moral fall is therefore less likely. In the fourth dhyana all the powerful energies that have been tamed and liberated through previous meditation coexist in perfect harmonious peace. The Buddha changes his style of imagery at this point, introducing a human being who seems to have mastered the water element, sitting in the sun by the side of a lake, radiant and at perfect ease having bathed and wrapped himself in a pure white cloth. The inspired state of consciousness, generated through the other dhyanas, has become ours to wear and to take into the world as a protection and an outgoing influence. Our deep happiness radiates outward counteracting harmful influences and affecting others too, so that we may become charismatic and even ‘magical’. This is why the fourth dhyana is regarded as the basis for the development of magical powers (like walking on water, passing through walls, and so on, as attributed to practitioners of many religions) and amazingly acute faculties of perception.
As a more precise aid to recognition, it’s helpful to look in a more technical way at the various component parts of the dhyana state. Like a rainbow of higher consciousness, dhyana is made up of a spectrum of positive mental states with different hues and shades. Tradition enumerates five dhyana factors (dhyananga) plus a sixth, equanimity, which emerges in the fourth dhyana. We should not think that dhyana consists only of these factors, for it can also include many other positive qualities. In other words dhyana comes in different flavours, but the six dhyanangas are constants that define its essential nature. We may imagine them as bands of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and indigo light. Dhyana is a synthesis of both positive emotion and deep concentration, of both the warm and the cool ends of the spectrum. Three dhyana factors are predominantly emotional and three predominantly cognitive.
The cool portion of the table shows the faculties of one-pointedness (ekagatta), initial thought (vitakka), and applied thought (vicara). One-pointedness is the ability to pay attention, especially strong in the dhyana state. Initial thought and applied thought are aspects of clear thinking. Initial thought is when we think 'of' something. For example, out of all the millions of possibilities, we might think of our friend Jules. As we call him to mind, some kind of thought or image representing Jules arises in our mind’s eye. Applied thought is when we think about Jules; we explore our general idea of him more, perhaps wonder how he is, and what he might be doing now. Initial and applied thought are a simple analysis of the way we think. Like one-pointedness, they obviously occur outside dhyana too – we are thinking 'of' and 'about' things all the time. But in dhyana our thinking is wonderfully lucid, and almost entirely under our conscious control.
In the 'warm' portion of the spectrum are the feelings of rapture and bliss mentioned earlier. Rapture is when we experience the process of integration expressed in bodily pleasure. It is predominantly physical, though not entirely so – we are physically thrilled and happy. Traditionally there are supposed to be five degrees of intensity of rapture. We’ll recognise the first stage, the sensation of goose pimples as the hairs on our body become erect with pleasure. The second is even more intensely enjoyable: the rapture descends upon us in little shocks, like repeated flashes of lightning. In the third, it washes over us again and again, like waves breaking on the seashore. In the fourth, it quickly floods every part of our body, like a huge volume of water suddenly invading a sea-cave, according to a traditional simile. In the fifth, it is so intensely joyful that it is said to transport us bodily into the air in the miraculous phenomenon of levitation.
Bliss is gentler and subtler, but though less dramatic it is in its own quiet way actually more intense. Rapture is traditionally compared to the delicious feeling of anticipation we experience when we know that we are about to obtain the very thing we have always wanted; bliss is more like enjoying the satisfaction of actually possessing it. Bliss thus marks a deeper stage of integration, in which the mind has begun to absorb the wilder and less refined sensations of rapture. With experience one becomes less attached to these relatively coarse feelings, and moves towards a deeper, stronger state of happiness. The occurrence of rapture and bliss show that increased concentration is an intensely satisfying experience. It is interesting to see how bliss arises out of rapture. As absorption takes a firmer hold, the experience of bliss becomes as it were larger and increasingly contains the feelings of rapture. This process of containment is sometimes known as prashrabdhi, and it is through increased prashrabdhi that the concentration will deepen further. The deepening bliss gradually assimilates the bubbly, thrilling energy that is released through rapture. The process of prashrabdhi makes the mind pliable, flexible, and very easily worked. It is a maturing and strengthening quality that is very characteristic of higher states of consciousness and important in meditation generally.
Since each of the five factors of initial thought, applied thought, one-pointedness, rapture and bliss is a component of dhyana, we can encourage the dhyana state to manifest by focusing on those factors missing from the experience. By developing a quality such as mental one-pointedness we will be simultaneously counteracting one of the five hindrances – sense desire. This correspondence is shown in the table along with some rough pointers for arousing the relevant factor. Developing one-pointed concentration causes interest in objects of sense desire to diminish. It is obviously more satisfying and enjoyable to be one-pointedly meditating than to be sitting there supposedly meditating but with one’s mind tossed here and there by sense desire. Likewise ill will has no choice but to subside when through our efforts rapture starts to arise. It is simply not possible to be angry and at the same time feel wonderfully happy. There is less possibility of restlessness or anxiety taking hold if we have some intuition of bliss in the meditation; it introduces at least the mental image of contentment, which is a seed that can grow. As it spreads we will feel increasingly calm and the hindrance will gradually subside. If we attempt to clarify the objects of our thinking - if, in other words, we start arousing clear initial thought in the meditation - any mental torpor, and even physical sloth, will begin to lose its foothold. In meditation one's thoughts can sometimes acquire such an abundance of energy and clarity that their inspirational power can eventually cut through the heaviest resistance. All these processes sometimes work only very gradually so patience is usually required. Any stubborn doubt can eventually be dissolved if we introduce an element of applied thought – of course not just any old distracted thought, but perhaps by reflections on the value of the practice, or the fact that actions, whatever they are, always have consequences. If we apply our thinking truthfully, we can put irrational doubts in clearer perspective. It is the nature of this more investigative thought not to allow any 'sitting on the fence', but to drive on towards a more clear examination of the meditation object.
In practice of course it may take some time to move from hindrance to dhyana factor. It depends upon the strength of the hindrance. But if we know that there is a pathway that leads from one to the other, we can have more confidence in making the effort to create that particular factor of dhyana. And as we work, we may be able to find 'intermediary' factors, such as those suggested in the middle column of the table. For example, trying to arouse interest in the practice itself rather than in the objects of sense desire could be a first step towards shifting the emphasis of our attention more towards one-pointedness. Remember that the inability to pay attention usually depends upon some emotional factor. We certainly have an emotional investment in the particular hindrance we are stuck in, otherwise we could simply drop it and forget about it. If we first allow ourselves to experience what this investment feels like, experiencing its character, and then recall the character of the dhyana factor, it may then be possible to detach the emotional energy from the hindrance and re-channel it in the direction of that aspect of dhyana.
This may seem rather a technical way of working in meditation but it is a useful training in getting closer to the truth of experience. It can be very helpful as an approach at times, if not all the time; for keeping the overall sense of practice fresh, do Just Sitting or Metta Bhavana.
As soon as each of the five factors is strongly present, we enter the first dhyana. If concentration deepens further, we gain access to further dhyanas. Each progressive stage of dhyana has a different ordering of dhyana factors, as shown in the table. As concentration deepens, the cognitive factors tend to drop away and the emotional factors are progressively contained as described before. This process continues until in the fourth dhyana a new 'emotional' factor - equanimity - arises. The fourth dhyana is also the basis out of which a further four dhyanas known as ‘formless’ dhyanas may be developed.
The traditional classification of dhyana levels is useful for defining higher consciousness in the abstract, but it is an artificial way of looking at experience. The dhyana factors provide a more experiential framework. These become stronger and then, as we enter further into the meditation, thinking (first initial thought, and then applied thought) is left behind. This is because discursive thought takes place only in a comparatively unrefined state of mind. It also takes up a considerable amount of energy; as concentration deepens, all thought dissolves and the energy previously taken up with thinking becomes free to flow directly on to the meditation object. At this point we find ourselves immersed in a state of lucid, conceptless concentration: second dhyana. From this stage onwards we experience vertical integration increasingly strongly. In terms of the Buddha's simile, this is the point when an underground spring begins percolating its way up from the depths. The spring of inspiration expands and broadens until, in the third dhyana, it becomes the entire medium in which we experience ourselves. This completes the process of absorbing or integrating the wildness of rapture into bliss, (a progression technically known as passaddhi), so that the only dhyana factors remaining are this peaceful bliss and one-pointedness. The process of purification continues into the fourth dhyana, at which point bliss is transformed into equanimity (uppekkha). At this stage our mind goes beyond any possibility of conflict, and reaches a peak of emotional stability and purity. Our one-pointedness of mind becomes unshakeable, so that we can maintain the concentration undistracted for as long as we wish.
Signs of higher states of consciousness
Another approach that helps one become familiar with higher states of consciousness is noticing how the object of meditation changes at different levels. As we progress into dhyana the way we experience the breath, or the metta – whichever object we happen to be concentrating upon – will undergo noticeable changes, as the table shows. It may seem that the object itself changes, but of course we are really witnessing a transformation in our own imagination. Any change in our subjective state is reflected in how we experience the outside world: when we’re in a good mood, we perceive it as beautiful, etc. It’s the same when we meditate. The various ways we perceive the meditation object are affected by our changing subjective state of mind. We naturally perceive the meditation object, the breath for example, as some kind of image. The technical term for this image-object is nimitta, meaning a sign. The table shows how it changes as we progress towards dhyana.
It is interesting to wonder to what extent the nimitta is a true perception of the object, and also what that might mean, but the point is that this is how the object is currently appearing in our mind. The nimitta changes in the course of every kind of meditation including the Mindfulness of Breathing and the Metta-bhavana, but we’ll learn most about its nature by exploring the phenomenon in the context of meditations that entail concentration upon an external physical object. The classic example is the kasina visualisation method taught by the Buddha.
A kasina is a coloured disc set up in front of our meditation seat. We gaze at it for a long time until its qualities are so well impressed on us that we can close our eyes and visualise it as an internal image. So at once there is a clear change in the experience of the nimitta. As concentration upon the disc deepens, it will eventually pass through the three levels of consciousness: first, ordinary sense-based consciousness, then access concentration, and then into full concentration or dhyana. At each level of consciousness there is a significant change to the nimitta.
The most effective kind of kasina is one with a really bright colour that impresses itself vividly on the mind. Traditionally a disc is supposed to be made out of flowers to achieve that quality, but one can experiment. Nowadays a disc of bright coloured light can easily be created on the screen of a computer or phone. Other ways to create nimitta discs are used, for example in the fire kasina meditation where you gaze through a round hole at some flames.
Begin by positioning a kasina disc in front of the meditation seat; then simply look at it. With eyes open, do your best to maintain attention continuously upon the kasina, returning to it every time you become distracted. Whatever you perceive while looking at the physical object with the physical eye is called the preparatory image or parikamma nimitta. Once having gained a fairly undistracted perception of this, you have reached the first stage of preparatory concentration, parikamma samadhi.
At that point, closing the eyes, visualise internally a replica of the preparatory image. This may take many attempts, but eventually you will get some perception of the coloured disc in your mind's eye. A tip for getting into this is to single out the memory you have of the kasina you’ve just been looking at. What does that look like, how does it feel, what is its felt sense? The perception may not be ‘visual’ in the way you expect. The perception of an inner object is known as the acquired image or uggaha nimitta. Now place your attention on this internally visualised image. When, after much practice, you manage to establish your attention stably upon the acquired image, then the level of access concentration, upacara samadhi, will eventually arise.
In access concentration there is a subtle but significant change in the appearance of the object: it becomes lighter and, as it were, transparent. The new quality is not easy to describe and may vary considerably from person to person. For example there is often a numinous, otherworldly aspect; Buddhaghosa, an early writer on meditation, describes the new nimitta as being 'like the moon's disc appearing from behind a cloud', or as 'cranes (silhouetted) against a thunder-cloud' or 'like a crystal fan set in space'.
The images give a feeling for the kind of thing that happens, rather than literally representing the experience; you should not expect necessarily to see anything like this, though the nimitta may well have a visual aspect or some quality deriving from another of the senses. In terms of the different levels of nimitta, at this point your perception of the meditation object has reached a significant stage at which it is considerably subtler. It is now the patibhaga nimitta, the reflex or counterpart image. You should now concentrate your full attention upon that. As you sustain access concentration with the reflex image as your object, the dhyana factors of rapture and bliss, and so on will arise and you will enter the stage of full concentration, or dhyana .
The mind naturally creates images, though these are often unclear and unnoticed. So in any meditation practice where there is strong concentration, some form of nimitta will be clearly perceived. As I have been saying, it may not have a visual appearance at all; there can be a tactile type of nimitta, as when the breath we are concentrating on acquires a special subtlety at the stage of access concentration. It may be simultaneously visual-aural-tactile, like an image in a dream. It is difficult to describe reflex images satisfactorily because they are not experienced through the physical senses and similes or poetic images work best, like those of Buddhaghosa or the Buddha, whose image of mingled soap powder describes this kind of experience well. In access concentration we are entering a realm of pure mind, moving from the realm of the senses (known as the kamaloka) into the realm of purely mental form (the rupaloka).
The ‘Formless’ (Arupa) Dhyanas
Four more dhyanas, called 'formless' absorptions or arupadhyanas, may be developed on the basis of the fourth rupa-dhyana, which is the high point of conditioned existence, a complete attainment of integration that enables a total experience of the natural world, especially in terms of the infinities of space and consciousness. The arupadhyanas could therefore be described as special extensions of the fourth rupadhyana.
Ayya Khema offers some useful advice for gaining access to them.
When you come out of fourth jhana and want to reach “the infinity of space,” you can notice the boundaries of the body, wherever they may be at the moment, and start stretching its limits further and further. The contemplation on the four elements… gives some inkling of this process.
The first, the sphere of infinite space, is characterised by the boundary between the subject meditating and the object of meditation having become so subtle as to be almost indistinguishable. The nimitta or meditation object now expands to fill the whole of space, and the meditator transfers his or her attention from this infinitely large nimitta to the infinite space it is occupying. This may produce a further degree of concentrated harmony and tranquillity, which is what provides access to the first formless dhyana.
The sphere of infinite consciousness arises when we give attention to the fact that we are experiencing infinite space. This implies that in some way our consciousness has also become infinite - if we are aware of an 'object' of infinite space then there is as it were a corresponding 'subject' of infinite awareness. Experiencing this fact, we then withdraw our awareness from infinite space, concentrating entirely upon infinite consciousness. This is the point at which the second formless dhyana arises.
At the stage of the sphere of no-thing-ness, we concentrate our attention upon the fact that within the context of our infinite consciousness there are no particular things that can be distinguished. In this expanded state we cannot identify any one thing as distinct from another, even though our mind is unprecedentedly clear and bright. Focussing upon this produces an even more exalted state of consciousness which is the third formless dhyana.
When the sphere of neither identification nor non-identification arises, we go almost completely beyond the distinction of subject and object. We now concentrate our attention upon the way that we are identifying, or recognising, the experience of infinity, and this causes one more final stage of dhyana to arise. At this point 'we' are hardly separate from the experience. There is, in a certain sense, no subject who identifies, so that the process cannot be described either as identification or as non-identification.
The dhyanas of the formless plane are subtler than the highest experience point in conditioned existence marked by the fourth dhyana and in them the distinction between subjective experiencer and objective experience becomes increasingly subtle. Yet these higher states of consciousness are still conditioned; they do not indicate or encourage any insight into the ultimate nature of reality. Being conditioned, they are also impermanent – we can still fall back into lower states of being and consciousness.
Here perpetual incense burns;
The heart to meditation turns,
And all delights and passions spurns.
A thousand brilliant hues arise,
More lovely than the evening skies,
And pictures paint before our eyes
All the spirit's storm and stress
Is stilled into a nothingness,
And healing powers descend and bless.
Refreshed, we rise and turn again
To mingle with this world of pain,
As on roses falls the rain.