The Nimitta: The Home Stretch into Jhāna

Hong Hien Tu temple. Buddha statue (Credit: BSIP SA / Alamy Stock Photo)

Editor’s note: Readers will have noticed the text for the post titled: The Home Stretch into Jhāna dated March 18 2022 is a repeat of the previous post dated: March 11 2022. My apologies for this error. The text below is the intended post for March 18 and continues in sequence from March 11 2022.

When the nimitta does not appear

For some, when the breath disappears, the nimitta doesn’t happen. No lights appear in their mind. Instead,  they  are  left  with  a  deep  feeling  of  peace,  of  emptiness,  of  nothing.  This  can  be  a  very beneficial  state  and  should  not  be  belittled,  but  it  is  not  jhāna.  Moreover,  it  lacks  the  power  to proceed any further. It is a cul-de-sac, and a refined one at that, but it is incapable of being developed further. There are a number of methods to bypass this state, generate the causes for nimitta, and go deeper into the jhānas.


The  state  above  arises  because  one  did  not  cultivate  sufficient  pītisukha  along  with  the  breath. There  was  not  enough  delight  when  the  breath  disappeared,  so  mindfulness  had  no  clear  mental object of beauty on which to settle. Understanding this, one needs to put more value on developing delight when one is watching the breath, and cultivating that delight until it becomes a strong sense of beauty. For example, you may regard the breath as an old and well-loved friend who brings you joy, and that joy lets you look on the breath as beautiful. Whatever skillful means one employs, by paying careful attention to the beauty alongside the breath, the beauty will blossom. What one pays attention to usually grows.


In the previous chapter, one was cautioned not to be afraid to delight in meditation. I regard this exhortation as so important that I repeat it here almost word for word: Do not be afraid to delight in meditation. Too many meditators dismiss happiness, thinking it unimportant or believing that they don’t  deserve  such  delight.  Happiness  in  meditation  is  important,  and  you  deserve  to  bliss  out! Blissing  out  on  the  meditation  object  is  an  essential  part  of  the  path.  So  when  delight  does  arise alongside the breath, you should cherish it and guard it accordingly.


Another reason for the nimitta not arising is that one hasn’t invested enough energy into the knower. As explained in the previous chapter, delight is generated by letting energy to flow into the knower. Usually, most of our mental energy gets lost in the doing, that is, in planning, remembering, controlling and thinking. If one would only redirect one’s energy away from the doer and give it all to the knower, to attentiveness, then one’s mind would become brightened and energized with delight. When there is lots of delight, strong pītisukha, then after the breath disappears the nimitta appears. So maybe the reason why a nimitta doesn’t appear is that one has devoted too much energy to controlling and not enough to knowing.


However, if the breath has disappeared but still no nimitta arises, then one must be careful not to fall into discontent. Discontent will wither any pītisukha already there and urge the mind into restlessness. Thus discontent will make the arising of a nimitta even more unlikely. So one must be patient and seek the remedy in becoming aware of contentment and letting it consolidate. Just through paying attention to contentment, it usually deepens. As contentment grows stronger, delight will arise. As delight grows in power, the nimitta  appears.


Another useful method to arouse the nimitta when the breath disappears, is to focus more sharply in the resent moment. Present-moment awareness is the very first stage of this method of meditation. It should have been established at the beginning, but in practice, as the meditation progresses and one pays attention to other things, the present-moment awareness can become a little sloppy. It may be that one’s mindfulness has become smeared around the present moment instead of being precisely focused. By noticing this as a problem, it is very easy to adjust the focus of mindfulness to be knife-edged in the centre of now. Like adjusting the lens of a telescope, the slightly blurred image becomes very sharp. When the attention is sharply focused in the present moment it experiences more power. Pītisukha comes with the sharpening of focus and the nimitta soon follows as well.
Continued next week: 25th March 2022