The four material absorption states (see this article for more information) signify varying levels of meditative absorption, known in the Pali as “jhana” and in Sanskrit as “samadhi.”
Depending on how long we’ve been meditating (and especially whether or not we’ve experienced a good meditation retreat or two) — and how long our meditation sessions last — we can expect to encounter one or all of the jhana states described by the Buddha and others. Giving rise to jhana/samadhi is one of those things that may take time and perseverance, so if we are interested in living the holy life of a dedicated contemplative, we will NOT give up if things don’t start popping right off the bat. It will happen.
The second jhana is, among other things, marked by a stilling of the mind. In practice, there is a letting-go of conscious effort in applying and sustaining attention with regard to the object of meditation (i.e., the breath). This letting go is accompanied by the arising of “bliss and joy born of tranquility,” which have begun to manifest in the first jhana (i.e., “bliss and joy born of withdrawal”).
As the “bliss and joy born of tranquility” intensify, the mind actually becomes distracted from the distractions of discursive thought.
In other words, as samadhi increases (which it inevitably does the longer we sit), it literally displaces the thoughts, images, feelings and other assorted “junk” that the mind wants to generate when not “being meditated.”
My message to those just beginning their meditation practice is to put in as much time on the cushion as you can, regardless of the hit-and-miss nature of relative “success” that comes along. Begin by focusing on the breath, but as things settle in — say, ten or fifteen minutes into your sit, knowing that this time will decrease as you become more adept — allow your awareness to acknowledge any pleasant sensation that may visit you. For most, these pleasant sensations are subtle and fleeting, as body discomfort and the racing contents of the mind tend to dominate the beginner’s efforts. This is okay — at some point, you will notice a pleasant sensation, and you’ll want to immediately shift your attention from the breath to this sensation.
The pleasant sensation will, once it’s drawn your awareness, begin to expand and deepen, often moving into different bodily places and/or levels of intensity. Allow this new object of meditation (“bliss and joy born of tranquility”) to guide you.
As the bliss and joy inevitably intensify, you will notice that your mind automatically begins to still.
If mind-activity reasserts itself, simply go back into the pleasant sensation(s), and notice that the mind regains its stillness that much quicker.
As your meditation sessions increase in length — especially over the magic one-hour mark — you’ll notice that the level of samadhi increases to such intensity that the mind no longer lapses back into aimless activity.
When this happens, you are at the point of transitioning into the third jhana… which is the topic for another article. Just know, however, that the transition between second and third jhana is symbolized by the Dark Night of the Soul.
What this means is, the intensifying levels of jhana/samadhi (meditative absorption) begin to dig, dig, dig into the deeper parts of your being, exposing those aspects of your life that have gone unexamined and are likely fueling negative manifestations in your daily life.
Many contemplatives are so frightened and/or otherwise turned-off by these experiences that they give up on meditation altogether, convinced that it has made life worse than ever.
The wisdom at this point, of course, is to continue forward — and, in fact, to increase your commitment to the contemplative life.
No turning back; march straight ahead, all systems go.
Trust in the Divine Energy to guide you aright, to transform and heal you at the deepest levels, and to (ultimately) sever the “fetters” that bind you to suffering in this world.
This is salvation, this is enlightenment.