Update: the article on Serenity Meditation on my website has been updated with information from this article and expanded with additional information so you should read that article before continuing here. This article has information about what the experience is like which is not included in that article.
It is possible to experience a deeply joyful state during meditation. Reaching this state and integrating it into daily life can help one to live a more spiritual life because it is easier to live according to spiritual values such as love, forgiveness, and tolerance when one is happy. Additionally, if you learn to enter this state, you can use it as use it as a stable starting point from which to reach even deeper meditative states.
To experience this state...
- The mind has to be still. Serenity meditation is one way to still the mind The article Why is it so hard to concentrate? Sources of distraction and obstacles to concentration during meditation should help you maintain good concentration during meditation. Another way to still the mind is by entering the beyond-the-hypnogogic state.
- When you feel your mind is still, you can try to enter the joyful state. Try forming a half-smile, and at the same time do something with your mind that does not involve thinking. One way to do this is to gaze at an object and pay close attention to your perception of it. Notice that when you first look at something to see what it is, your mind is totally focused and not thinking about anything else. Something else you can try is to close your eyes and focus your attention on the pleasant feeling of relaxation you get from breathing smoothly in and out from your diaphragm. It can also help to hold your hands with the palms upward as if you are receiving a gift from above. Notice if you detect a little feeling of joy, keep your mind focused, and wait for the feeling to build. Continue meditating this way if the feeling does not build immediately, it may form over a short time period.
- At this point you may enter the joyful state. If you do so, you will feel a joyful, blissful feeling and you may break out into a broad grin and feel like laughing. The joyful feeling should continue as long as your mind is still. The feeling is not something that you force yourself into, it is something that comes over you. A good analogy is drowsiness. You don't make yourself drowsy by an act of will, it just happens. The half-smile is not to force yourself to feel happy, it merely acts as a trigger to put you into a state where you are open to allowing the emotion to flow. The half-smile helps you to lower your resistance to the feeling of joy or showing emotion.
- If you notice the feeling fades, try step 2. If step 2 doesn't work go back to step 1.
- Once you have learned to enter the joyful state, you may find this meditation works very well when done lying down.
One of the interesting things about experiencing this joyful state during meditation is that you may find it hard to do because there are so many things in life you would rather do than be happy. It sounds crazy, but experiencing this state in meditation can show you that you are making choices all the time that separate you from happiness. There are things we want to do in life even though they cause us stress: trying to do to too many things (even fun things) in too little time, or we insist on arguing with people etc. etc. And we would rather do those things than sit calmly and cultivate tranquility and happiness. The ego wants this, the ego wants that, because we think those things will make us happy. But you may see that all those things we do because we think they will make us happy are the cause of our unhappiness. If you can learn to experience this joyful state during meditation and then face decisions on whether to meditate this way and experience happiness or do something else, you may see that this is true.
- Without forcing it, by using steps 1 and 2, you may be able to maintain the joyful state continuously during your meditation sessions and also during ordinary daily activities. (But don't do this while you are doing anything dangerous like driving or operating power tools.) If you live a quiet sedate life, entering and maintaining the state will be much easier than if you live a normal busy life. But with practice, when your mind is calm (step 1), you will be able to bring on this state (step 2) simply by looking intently at an object, or focusing your attention on your breathing. Everything you see, every breath, will bring you joy. Occasionally you might find yourself slipping back into the old way of thinking. But you can take a brief moment to still your mind, smile, and focus on the feeling of joy and you may see that you have a choice. You can choose happiness instead of the old way of thinking, and you may realize that all along the old way of thinking was also a choice. You will still have other emotions and they can influence your views and your actions. But, they are like little pictures hanging on a wall of happiness. You can look at them, understand them, feel them, use the information they provide, but the wall is still happiness.
When I first learned how to induce this state by stilling the mind with meditation and then smiling, it felt to me as if the process had broken through social conditioning to not show emotions. It was as if stilling the mind with meditation had weakened mechanisms of suppressing emotions and smiling triggered a natural ability to be happy that was now free to express itself. It seemed that while growing up, I had learned not to show emotions and in time that caused me to forget how to be happy. I remembered one particular incident from my childhood when I had learned that showing happiness over success was inappropriate because it was like gloating or boasting. I was in school and the teacher was announcing grades on a test. I noticed some of my classmates who did well maintained serious and sober expressions even though they got high marks. They were trying not to gloat, and also to show that they were confident and doing well was a small matter to them. Over a lifetime this attitude seemed to have an unfortunate influence. But many years later, smiling during meditation reminded me how natural and easy it is to be happy.
When you strive to experience it, it can be come source of stress. Or if you are attached to it, it can produce a sense of loss in its absence. This can mess up your meditation practice. But if you just let it come as it will, and remain unattached, it is pleasant. It is not unlike other feelings you experience in life except it can be very intense for as long as you care to remain undistracted.
When you first experience that you can produce it, and experience the intensity, it is astonishing. But, too much of anything and it can lose its mystique, especially if you have to work for it. The feeling doesn't diminish but the value you place on it can diminish as it becomes something you experience frequently. You discover that happiness is not all it's cracked up to be. If you have things you like to do you might prefer to be doing them than sitting making yourself happy. This is a fundamental characteristic of the human condition, we want to do things rather than be happy.
Because it is pleasant you will like to meditate so it helps you meditate more. And I don't agree that it will prevent you from reaching deeper states. Just don't strive to produce it or be attached to it. It makes the path more pleasant on the road to nirvana. This is how Buddha taught meditation in the anapanasatti suta.
My experience is that you can learn to do this during daily activities making your life happier. I have wonderful experiences out walking feeling love for and connectedness to the birds and trees and people and other living things and all things. It's even nicer experiencing the world through it, than it is sitting alone with it doing nothing.
But this type of serenity meditation creates a feedback loop causing the brain to release endorphins, serotonin and dopamine.
It really is like a drug trip, maybe not a psychedelic trip but it's not normal meditation. Every breath you take is like a hit from a bong, but there's no bong. And it is hugely spiritual. It doesn't require super intense concentration so I think most people could learn to do it. I had to stop the other day because it was so intense I was getting nervous. How many people do you know who were feeling so happy, and connected to all things and feeling such intense metta that they were worried they might never get back to normal? And I felt the presence of non-physical entities too.
It also creates a kind of synesthesia where everything I see and hear I also feel in my body as if they are part of me. There is an effect like the brain is a virtual reality machine and what I see is really a movie inside my head projected on the unchanging screen of pure awareness, like my mind contains the whole universe including me walking around inside it. Other times I feel like my self and its boundaries are dissolving and I am expanding to merge into infinite space. It's not scary, it's like coming home.
This meditation changes the "energy" of your surroundings too. You could go to the filthiest shack in the poorest slum in the most miserable godforsaken corner of nowhere and meditating this way would make it a place of beauty and joy. These effects are not gross like a psychedelic trip they are subtle like a change in understanding. And these experiences are not restricted to sitting meditation, you can have them walking around town or out in nature. When you do this, you see it transforms reality because when you walk around smiling, people smile back. In that way, it doesn't just change you, it changes the people around you. It doesn't just make you happy, it makes the world friendly.
It's not nirvana, I still experience some worries, annoyances, and emotional ups and downs, but it showed me that happiness is a choice.
The best thing about this type of meditation is not the intense experiences, the best thing is that between meditation sessions I'm happier and I worry less.
And it doesn't cause vomiting or diarrhea like Ayahuasca does. It's 100% free. And as far as I know it's legal everywhere.
Leigh Brasington described a more advanced state on a youtube video. At 42:47 he says, "It was my birthday. ... That was about the best birthday present I ever had. ... I never saw anything this good on acid. ... It was just like wow! This was amazing."
Some people may question whether this form of meditation produces genuine spiritual experiences or if it is just inducing certain brain states. One must understand that the correlation between brain states and mental states does not prove the brain produces mental states. It is much more likely that the brain is a filter of non-physical consciousness. Experiences such as happiness, unconditional love, connectedness to all things, and an awareness of God, are experiences of aspects of our true nature.
Author and Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh suggests smiling when meditating. It may sound odd but it has a profound effect. I had been re-reading a book by Thich Nhat Hanh and tried smiling and experienced this state. That led me to search the internet for an explanation of what happened which is how I found the links above. I'd experienced this state many times previously without knowing what it was and I've been in deeper states without going through it first ... but I think understanding and recognizing this state can be helpful as it is a good way of identifying when your mind is calm, and it can provide a stable base from which to go into deeper states.
I have enjoyed the following books by Thich Nhat Hanh:
- Breathe You are Alive
- The Miracle of Mindfulness
- Transformation & Healing
If you are able to enter this joyful state during meditation, you might wonder what you should try next. Here are a couple of suggestions:
You can find more information on traditional practices to enter similar states and deeper states at these links by Leigh Brasington:
- Instruction for Entering Jhana
- SHARPENING MANJUSHRI'S SWORD The Jhanas in Theravadan Buddhist Meditation
- Meditation Lists (Scroll down to the section titled: Essence of entering each of the 8 Jhanas)