Meditative Layers of Consciousness in Jain Meditation

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Meditative Layers of Consciousness in Jain Meditation
By Cogen Bohanec, MA, PhD

In the Yoga-śāstra of Hemacandra (roughly in the 11th century CE) Jain yoga is described as a meditative process that operates as a dialectic between “active engagement” (pravṛtti) with the external world and aspects of our psychology that are external to our soul, and the gradual “withdrawn disengagement” (nivṛtti) from these outer layers of experience and comparatively externally directed layers of consciousness. In Hemacandra’s system, one achieves mental stability (susthiratā) through a single-pointed focus (ekāgratā) that is an “engagement” with (pravṛtti) increasingly internal degrees of conscious focus while with this increasing internalization of consciousness, one also “withdraws” (nivṛtti) from previous layers of relatively externalized conscious directedness until one realizes a “cessation” (nirodha) of mental content that is external to the soul. Here the mind gains a similarity with the purity of the soul itself.  Thus, the process of Jain Yoga in the Yoga-śāstra involves an increasing movement through external layers of the directed consciousness with increasing interiority. 


Five States of Mind

In a future blog post I will discuss Hemacandra’s system in more detail, but first it will be helpful to examine what is perhaps the broadest framing of the layered contemplative practices of Jain Yoga as articulated by Ācārya Suśīl Kumār, and reiterated by Dr. Parveen Jain. This layering of consciousness is articulated as the five states of mind that one can operate in based on the degree to which one’s consciousness is directed through mental attention on the external material world, and the degree to which the result of being so directed occludes our consciousness with the influx and buildup of karma upon our self (An Introduction to Jain Philosophy, AIJP, by Parveen Jain, 163-164). 


The first of these is a state of abject foolishness (mūḍha) which is without the benefit of our higher faculties of discernment present in human life, and is rather more like our animalistic urges. It is characterized by “darkness and ignorance where the living being is lethargic and devoid of wisdom” (AIJP 2019, 163). 


If the state of mūḍha is too passive and dull, the next state, kṣipta, as “scattered” attention, seems to suffer from being too active and instable. It is characterized by the inability of “focus on anything, even for a moment,” and is related to our passions or desires for external, sensory pleasure (AIJP 2019, 163).


The third state of “agitation” (vikṣipta) is also more active, as a state of general confusion. It still has some degree of the dullness of mūḍha and the sensory urges of kṣipta, but in this case there is some presence of “positive features that help begin spiritual progression,” in the sense of movement towards dharma or righteousness, non-attachment, and renunciation that begin to operate to lessen the force of the passions. While these are elements of yoga practice, it is difficult at this initial stage of yoga to sustain the practices (AIJP 2019, 163-164). 

The next two states are frequently mentioned as the meditative states that define Jain Yoga practice (sādhana). The first of these, single-pointed focus (ekāgratā or ekāgra) is characterized by the use of a meditation object that one is “actively engaged” (pravṛtti) with to the point that the mind is no longer wandering, although this object may still be external to the soul itself (AIJP 2019, 164) and one has not reached the full spiritual state (sādhya). We will see how this operates in more detail in a future blog post.  


The final state is the state of “cessation” (niruddha/nirodha) of mental content that is external to the nature of the soul, called vṛttis. Here, the mind eventually attains an increasing likeness with the purity of the soul, through yoga practice (sādhana). The fuller manifestations of the state of nirodha involves the “deep state of meditation,” samādhi, that is definitive of the spiritual goal (sādhya) towards which Jain Yoga is ever directed (AIJP 2019, 164). 


A Personal Anecdote

As someone who has practiced daily meditation intensively for over two decades based on this basic framework of yoga, I think it is important to recognize that these “layers” either of the self or contemplative awareness in the form of ekāgratā and nirodha are not clear demarcations, and there is significant overlap and gradation between them. 

For example, one may be completely single-pointed in one’s concentration, either during meditation or during life, on some object of meditation, and one will get a sense that one’s mind is clear and empty. In this sense, even though one may be in an externally positioned state, one’s concentration can have moments of complete clarity, nirodha, before it moves back to the more active states of ekāgratā or worldly life in general. 

My experience suggests that with continued practiced on single-pointed meditation, ekāgratā, the duration and intensity of the clarity of nirodha will become more propound with repeated, regular, and if possible, daily practice. 


It is very important also that one’s daily meditative practice is enjoyable. If one is struggling too much while meditating—perhaps because one is tired or otherwise in a bad state— I believe, one should stop immediately. If we create associations between our difficult moods and our meditative practice, soon meditative practice will just become a symbol that invokes our own frustration, anxiety, tiredness, etc. But, on the other hand, if we meditate when we feel good, when we are happy, when we are in a sacred or special place, then our meditative practice will become a symbol that invokes those states. With enough of that type of conditioning, we may soon find that it cheers us up to meditate, and that we are even most happy when meditating. 

Further, I think it is problematic to use the nuanced articulations of yoga practice that we find in yoga scriptures as diagnostic tools for one’s progression. If one over assesses one’s attainment, arrogance is the result, which countermands spiritual progress. If one under assesses one’s ability, one may create misunderstanding of the process, and one might become disillusioned or frustrated when one does not adequately account for one’s own progress. Rather, these types of articulations are mostly heuristic in the sense that they are best used to articulate spiritual ideals towards which one can then direct oneself, while accounting for one’s current inability to understand the full ramifications of such articulations. It is most important that the aspiring yoga practitioner continues a regular, discipline—and most importantly, enjoyable—daily practice largely unattached to one’s progression. After many years of this, retrospectively, one’s progress will become apparent, but it must not become a source of egotistical pride which is the danger that progress in any field of life contains.




Cogen Bohanec, MA, PhD currently holds the position of Assistant Professor in Sanskrit and Jain Studies at Arihanta Institute where he teaches various courses on Jain philosophy and its applications.  He received his doctorate in Historical and Cultural Studies of Religion from the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) in Berkeley, California where his research emphasized comparative dharmic traditions and the philosophy of religion. He teaches several foundational self-paced, online courses based in Jain philosophy, yoga, ecology, languages, and interfaith peacebuilding, including: