What I want to teach is the Jhanas as a meditation technique and how that technique fits into the broader spectrum of sila, samadhi, pannya: morality, concentration, wisdom.
When I say "do" the Jhanas, it's more of how you don't get in their way since the Jhanas are naturally arising mental phenomena. The doing of the Jhanas consists of not blocking them from arising. It's setting up the conditions and just sitting there watching them arise.
My favorite way of thinking about the Jhanas is thinking of Manjushri, who is the Tibetan's Bodhisattva of Wisdom. He is always pictured with a sword in his hand. The sword is used to cut through the bonds of ignorance. Doing the Jhanas is sharpening the sword.
If I give you a two-by-four and a butter knife and tell you to cut your way through it, you're going to have long, hard work. If you take that butter knife and put an edge on it first, it's still going to be a lot of long, hard work, but it'll go a lot faster. That's what the Jhanas are all about. Doing the Jhanas enables you to get your ego quiet and leaves you with a mind that can much more clearly see things as they are. Then, when you begin doing your insight practice, you can do it much more efficiently. Just because you've got a sharp sword doesn't mean you're going to wield it correctly. It's very necessary to learn at least one effective insight practice.
I prefer people to have done at least two one-week or longer meditation retreats before attending this one, and to have a close-to-daily sitting practice. Other than that, and a willingness to learn, there is probably no other requirement. I also want people who come on this retreat to realize that probably less than half the people will get into the Jhanas.
If you want to practice for the retreat, I would say sit at least for 45 minutes six days a week and be in that mode for more than a few days before you come on retreat. If you've had metta experience, you should brush that up. If you want to go in through pure concentration on the breath, you want to watch the breath in the most subtle way you can. Ven. Ayya Khema always suggests that people watch it in the nose. If you've been watching the breath in a place other than the inside the nose, it would probably be beneficial to switch to watching in the nose simply because it's going to require more concentration.
The key to getting into the first Jhana is not trying to make it happen. There's a beautiful insight that comes when you see that the first Jhana arises when you manage not to grasp, when you just let it ride.
Ayya Khema talks about the Jhanas and how they're becoming a lost art. This knowledge needs to be passed on. She thinks I have enough knowledge to pass it on. I don't know the way to the top of the mountain. I don't know how to tell people to get enlightened. I do know eight altered states of consciousness, each of which produces more concentration than the previous one. A concentrated mind is much more useful in gaining insight than an unconcentrated mind. This is all I really know. Hopefully, somebody can take their concentrated mind and gain a lot more insight than me and show me the way.
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