On 20 December 2022, Shambhala Publications released Jhana Consciousness: Buddhist Meditation in the Age of Neuroscience by Paul Dennison.
British-born Dennison has trained, worked, taught, and researched globally, from universities in Cambridge to Australia, Japan, and Thailand. His travels have been as varied as his studies: from physicist to establishing the Samatha Trust as his interest in meditation grew; from adviser on interplanetary radio-astronomy to gem-dealer and goldsmith; from Buddhist monk in a rural Thai monastery to consultant psychotherapist in London with a focus on trauma and personality disorders; and to groundbreaking research in neuroscience with a paper published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. This has resulted in Dennison’s unique assimilation of specialized information. For more than 50 years, Dennison has practiced and taught meditation. For more than 20 years, his deep dive has been in his independent academic exploration and practice of jhana meditation and brain science.
Dennison’s research, coupled with his years of meditation practice, has provided invaluable insights into what is typically a highly subjective experience. It also offers access to historical materials that may have otherwise remained obscure, adding verifiable historical validity to his empirical findings. As such, Jhana Consciousness is heralded as exceptionally insightful, with its peer-reviewed discoveries into Southeast Asia’s pre-19th–20th century reforms of Theravada Buddhism, the practices of jhana meditation, and the science of its neurological effects.
Do I agree? Resoundingly so.
There is a possibility that I am biased, of course: I am equally as fascinated by the chemical processes of the human brain as I am by the enigmatic, if not ineffable mind beyond the body, so much of what Dennison puts forward here resonated with me. Those of us with insatiably curious minds will appreciate that there is such measurable neurological data to quantify the “reality” of higher states and heightened awareness of meditative consciousness. Jhana consciousness.
Jhana meditation itself is a form of deep concentration and mindfulness practice rooted in Buddhist traditions. Jhana meditation, also known as dhyana in Sanskrit, emerged within the context of early Buddhism in ancient India, with practices initially recorded in early texts, such as the Pali Canon, dating to around the fourth century BCE.
Jhana are progressive stages of absorption, in which the meditator’s awareness becomes temporarily suspended from ordinary consciousness, and ordinary thoughts and sensations. During jhana meditation, practitioners focus their attention on a single object, such as the breath or a visualized image, gradually withdrawing attention from all external stimuli. As one progresses through the stages of jhana, one experiences increased levels of absorption and tranquility. The mind becomes more focused, calm, and detached from distractions, and able to attain profound states of meditative absorption and mental clarity.
This practice is often characterized by intense joy, tranquility, and equanimity.
Jhana meditation is not easy and requires consistent practice and guidance from experienced practitioners or teachers. The number of stages can vary in different interpretations of the Buddhist teachings, but generally there are eight or nine described in traditional Theravada Buddhism, each characterized by specific qualities of concentration and experience. The Pali scriptures describe four progressive states called rupa jhanas (with form), and four meditative attainments called arupa (formless).
The jhanas are considered a path to developing mindfulness, insight, and a means to cultivate deep states of concentration that can lead to profound insights into the impermanent, unsatisfactory, and selfless nature of existence, with deep discernment into the nature of the mind and of reality itself.
The book is replete with traditional practices, mantras—and the biological effects of mantras in the brain’s measurable response to the spoken word—and Pali terms, along with English meanings volunteered each time. So, while some of the original texts may appear daunting for those unfamiliar, Dennison keeps us fully informed, and they also act as the historical backing to contemporary findings.
Returning my earlier point, this book delves into the historical backdrop that influenced the evolving concepts surrounding meditation. This prompted me to ponder the recurring thread of human arrogance woven throughout the annals of history. Across generations, there has been a tendency to inherit and reshape the legacies of those who came before, often with a select few wielding authority to enforce their ideas, sometimes at the expense of others. Arguably, this phenomenon continues in our contemporary era. I can’t help but wonder how much time and wisdom might have teetered on the brink of being lost due to religious reforms. Yet, thanks to invaluable resources such as Dennison’s research, we have the chance to draw on this wealth of knowledge.
Another personal reflection that this book inspired in me revolves around individuals who practice meditation, especially those who claim to be accomplished practitioners. Dennison introduces the concept of “facsimile” experiences, a term that will resonate with many who have witnessed or undergone such moments. This idea prompted me to draw a parallel with first-time mothers entering their third trimester, eagerly or anxiously anticipating labor. Often, these mothers mistake late-stage Braxton-Hicks contractions or the discomfort of carrying another life within their abdomen for actual labor, which is entirely understandable given the impatience to give birth—a feeling that I liken to the eagerness to attain jhana states of consciousness. However, experienced mothers invariably recognize the unmistakable signs of active labor. There is no room for doubt at that point. There is no more thinking that you might be. There is no more ambiguity. I believe that this analogy also holds true for realizing deep meditative states. If you think you’ve attained them, chances are you have not. This perspective gains further credibility from the neurological data Dennison shares and explains.
Buddhist literature often features authors who employ elaborate and ornate language, however Dennison takes a different approach. He utilizes his scientific perspective to convey information in a clear and pragmatic manner without sacrificing the spiritual essence. While this might be a subjective preference, I appreciate it. I actually prefer it. It doesn’t try to be anything other than a presentation of the facts, which, in itself, is a valuable treasure.
In conclusion, Jhana Consciousness is a remarkable and insightful work that bridges the worlds of meditation and neuroscience. It offers a pragmatic yet spiritually rich perspective, making it an invaluable resource for those interested in the profound states of meditative consciousness and the science behind them.
Dennison, Paul. 2022. Jhana Consciousness: Buddhist Meditation in the Age of Neuroscience. Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications.
Jhana Consciousness (Shambhala Publications)
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