Sometime after 350 B.C. a great yogi whom history knows as the sage Patanjali wrote an exposition on yoga, now regarded as the defining text for the traditions that have become known as classical yoga. This text, the Yoga Sutras, is one of the most detailed maps of higher consciousness ever produced on this planet; it deals primarily with the nature of mind, and with how mind is transformed through different stages of samadhi (higher consciousness) until the liberated state, or kaivalya, finally appears.
It is also extraordinary in its integration of theory and practice. Patanjali mentions two systems of yoga in the Yoga Sutra: kriya yoga (comprising austerity, self-inquiry, and surrender to God), and ashtanga yoga, the well-known eightfold path. Together they systematize and explain yoga practice in a manner that makes both the goal of yoga practices and the way in which the practices lead to the goal exceptionally clear.
Here we will examine meditation experiences from the perspectives of ashtanga (raja) yoga, but it is necessary to understand that the Patanjali system does not actually describe meditation experiences directly. Rather, it describes the transformations of mind that unfold over the course of what for most of us is years of sadhana (spiritual practice), and it does so by focusing on the relationship between the mind and the object of meditation.
Most of the experiences that occur in the lowest stages of samprajñata samadhi (samadhi with higher knowledge) contain many personal and cultural elements (for example, one’s religion). Further, they are related to the particular object the meditator has chosen. In the higher stages of samprajñata samadhi there are many more universal elements because all objects have the same source, but, even then, the experiences of those who attain these levels are not always identical in every feature.
To understand the explanations of samadhi that follow, it is helpful to understand three basic points at the outset. The first is that samadhi is not something that only celibate yogis living in caves in India can experience. In my 20 years of teaching yoga I have often been struck by the number of people in North America who practice asanas diligently, but do not practice pranayama and meditation because they believe that people cannot progress in meditation while living a householder’s life.
But the Upanishads, the Puranas, and the Yoga Vasishtha all contain stories of great yogis and yoginis who were householders and parents. Other yoga practitioners, and even many asana teachers, do not meditate because they do not understand the value in doing so or because they have not taken the deeper teachings of yoga to heart. Some also erroneously believe that they cannot begin pranayama and meditation until they have perfected asana practice, a fatal misconception which can indefinitely delay starting one of life’s most important activities.
Actually, the first level of samadhi, savitarka, is simply a deepening of dhyana. According to my teacher, Baba Hari Dass, most meditators who practice regularly for an hour or two every day attain this stage within a few years if they are given proper instruction.
Second, it is important to understand that when we say that a person achieves samadhi during meditation practice we do not necessarily mean that the mind always goes into that state and maintains it uninterruptedly for a long period. While this can happen, often meditators experience samadhi for a short period of time, and then their mind goes outward again and drops to a lower level of consciousness. This outward flowing of the mind is called vyutthana, and it happens when our thoughts, attachments, desires, and memories about the outside world (which are temporarily suppressed in samadhi) become active again.
If the mind is able to regain the same depth of concentration, we may be able to reenter samadhi. In this way we may go into and out of samadhi several times in one meditation session. Through the process of samadhi and vyutthana the mind makes a comparison between the two states and feels the greater subtlety and peacefulness of the samadhi state. This encourages the meditator to try again to attain the higher state.
Third, samadhi is not a single state, but rather a series of stages that unfold in a progression. Every stage of samadhi invariably yields two kinds of fruit: some type of directly experienced “knowledge” and some degree of non-attachment. As the yogi advances on the path of sadhana the knowledge gained is increasingly profound, and the non-attachment has a more deep and lasting effect on the mind.
Each stage may take months or years to achieve and even more time to stabilize. How long this will take can vary enormously, depending on the intensity of the meditator’s desire for liberation, the intensity and regularity of the practice, and one’s samskaras (mental impressions) from meditation practice performed in past lives.
And, as Patanjali reminds us, samadhi is also achieved through surrender to God. In each stage of samadhi the aspirant must first fully experience what that stage can reveal, and then lose attraction for it before he or she can advance to the next stage. Progression through the stages of samadhi is also a process of purification. Each stage purifies the mind, making it subtler and thus capable of penetrating deeper into the levels of cosmic existence in order for the next stage to be achieved.
PREPARING THE MIND
It is sometimes said that the first stages of the meditation process are the most difficult, but each of the prior limbs of ashtanga yoga contributes to the attainment of samadhi. The yamas and niyamas purify the mind; asana makes it possible to sit comfortably for long periods of time; pranayama provides energy to drive concentration deeper.
But Patanjali actually defines yoga as the cessation of the thought-waves in the mind (1:2), and the first steps toward this goal (2:54 and 3:1) are to learn to withdraw one’s attention from externals (pratyahara) and to control the expression of the thought-waves by concentrating the mind on an object (dharana).
The term “object” does not refer exclusively to a physical object—it can be anything which is spiritually meaningful to the meditator, like a particular chakra, an image of a deity, the breath, the image of an enlightened being, inner light, inner sound, mantra, etc. Ultimately it is the concentration itself which produces samadhi, not the object. And the source of all objects, which appears spontaneously in the mind when higher stages are attained, is the same. But it is a hard austerity to teach the mind to concentrate on one principle exclusively, and we can make it easier for ourselves by choosing an object of meditation for which we feel a personal affinity.
Dharana (the repeated effort to return the mind to one’s meditation object during meditation practice) eventually develops into dhyana (the comparatively effortless flow of awareness from the mind to the object), and dhyana in time develops into samadhi. When dhyana is repeatedly attained, the peaceful or euphoric feelings produced begin to balance the mind’s resentment toward the discipline of concentration.
Samadhi starts when the relationship between mind and object deepens to the point at which the mind’s awareness of itself concentrating diminishes, and awareness of the object dominates the mind.
STAGES OF SAMPRAJÑATA SAMADHI
In book 1 of the Yoga Sutras, “Samadhi Pada,” Patanjali introduces the concept of samadhi and its stages in verses 17–23, and defines it more completely in sutras 42–51. Patanjali defines two broad categories of samadhi: samprajñata samadhi, or samadhi with higher knowledge, which occurs through the absorption of the mind into an object; and asamprajñata samadhi, “beyond higher knowledge,” a very high stage in which there is no object of concentration; rather, the yogi’s consciousness is merged into absolute consciousness, Purusha.
Because only asamprajñata samadhi destroys the seeds of all samskaras remaining in the chitta (the mind-field) and thus gives ultimate freedom, or kaivalya, it is the only state that brings about an alteration of consciousness which is completely permanent. Asamprajñata samadhi is extremely difficult to attain because of the high degree of mental purity, desirelessness, and non-attachment which is required to achieve it.
Because it is non-dual in nature—and thus there is no sense of an experiencer and an object of experience in asamprajñata samadhi—“meditation experiences” cannot be properly discussed in relation to this samadhi. Thus, experiences that we read about or hear described reflect states of dhyana or different stages of samprajñata samadhi.
These stages of samprajñata samadhi unfold gradually, and repeated samadhi experiences act to purify the mind. Over the long term the everyday mind also exhibits a general progression toward greater clarity, understanding, peace, and non-attachment because the positive samskaras which are laid down in the chitta as the result of samadhi help to overpower our negative samskaras.
However, as the Buddha pointed out, samprajñata samadhi states are impermanent, and thus ego, attachment, desires, fears, etc. can all reappear in the waking state. So it is wise to remember that the stages of samprajñata samadhi constitute important way stations whose realizations profoundly shape the way we view the universe, but they are not the final goal of practice.
The yogi may begin to develop an understanding of the true nature of time and space and may also gain knowledge of certain aspects of the mahat, or cosmic mind (objects up to Prakriti). In the words of one practitioner: “[It is like] seeing in the light-field the origin of thoughts, of form, of different energies, and of how it manifests outward in the waves of prana emanating from one undifferentiated source and ending with condensed differentiated objects.”
The perceptual limitations of time and space are transcended; the mind ceases to fluctuate between time, space, and causality, and becomes situated in the causality of the tanmatric energies in mind and subtle objects, the undifferentiated energy in the mahat and the principle of individuation (ahankara) and tamas guna which cause the five tanmatras (subtle element/energies) to be formed. So the realization of this samadhi, which transcends any sort of differentiation, is explained variously as the origin of thought itself, the unreality of objectification, or the ahankara.
As one of Tasha Abelar’s teachers explained to her, holding up a leaf: “Perhaps this leaf will help clarify things. . . . Its texture is dry and brittle; its shape is flat and round, its color is brown with a touch of crimson. We can recognize it as a leaf because of our senses, our instruments of perception, and our thought that gives things names. Without them, the leaf is abstract, pure undifferentiated energy. The same unreal, ethereal energy that flows through this leaf flows through and sustains everything. We, like everything else, are real on the one hand, and only appearances on the other.”
A close friend told of her experience with her guru: “My deepest states actually happened a few years ago, not now, when I would meditate for eight hours at a time with no awareness of time passing. The focus of my meditation is self-surrender to this greater consciousness which I access through the person of my guru. My mind is only a tiny speck within that immensity, and I try to surrender my small ‘I’ into that immensity. When I go as deep as I can my thoughts stop, my mind goes away. What I see is effulgence; there is ecstasy: what I am, my whole being, is ecstasy.”
When the yogi becomes established in the one-pointed state of consciousness achieved in sananda samadhi the mind becomes even more purified, and is able to penetrate deeper. Even the ahankara, or ego-sense—despite its power, its pervasive nature, and its seeming solidity—is only a vritti, a single thought of individualized existence. This vritti too can be suppressed, and when this happens the yogi can directly perceive the source of the ahankara: the mahat, or the cosmic mind, and the asmita vritti, the pure “I-sense” which shines within it.
This pure “I-ness” of the cosmic mind is universal, the same in all beings. From a bhakti yoga perspective we would say that the individual ego merges into the cosmic ego, and the person now worships God in everything. The feeling of this samadhi is one of deep and pure peace, free from thoughts and any awareness of individuality. The ecstasy experienced in the previous samadhi becomes subtler, and now clearly seems to emanate from within rather than from some external source.
When the meditator reaches this stage of samadhi the object of meditation automatically becomes the luminous reflection of the Divine Self pervading the cosmic mind, shining in the yogi’s heart. This asmita, or cosmic “I-sense,” is the only vritti present. The purified mind takes on the qualities of the object on which it meditates, and when this sasmita samadhi becomes stabilized and is further developed, the mind of the yogi who attains it begins to take on some of the omniscient and omnipotent qualities of the cosmic mahat, though it does not happen in the same way for all yogis.
The three gunas, necessary for the creation of the universe, are active in the cosmic mind, and they are not transcended at this level of samadhi, nor have the remaining samskaras in the yogi’s chitta been destroyed. Nor is the “Self” which is perceived at this stage the true, ultimate, non-dual Self, but its light is seen.
For the yogi who is able to navigate this stage, eventually attaining discriminative wisdom and perfect purity of mind and surrendering all attachments, the potential is there to attain the stage which leads to asamprajñata samadhi, and finally to kaivalya: complete, final, and eternal union with the real, eternal Purusha.
According to Patanjali human life has two purposes: bhoga (experience) and apavarga (liberation). The human vehicle, with its relatively sophisticated neurophysiological design and cognitive capacities, provides for a seemingly endless tapestry of experiences. And yet, after so many lives of experiencing the external world—so many lives of developing so many different capacities of body and intellect, so many lives of exploring the endless complexity and drama of human relationships—the feeling, often unconscious, arises inside of us that we have already been there, done that.
The feeling of seeking for something beyond propels us onto the spiritual path in order to achieve the fulfillment of human life: liberation. The caterpillar, so attached to his caterpillarness, must nevertheless some day become a butterfly, because that is the design plan of the universe. Patanjali, who was undoubtedly a butterfly, left careful instructions for us caterpillars so that we might some day join him.
I am indebted to my guru, Baba Hari Dass, for many of the ideas presented in this article and to my guru brothers and sisters for their invaluable contributions.
Sarasvati Buhrman, Ph.D., is an Ayurvedic medicine practitioner and Yoga Therapist who practices both in Boulder and in Allenspark, Co., and a long-time student of Yoga master Baba Hari Dass. http://www.ayurvedicsolutions.com
This is an abridged version of the article that was first published @ Yoga International used with permission of the author.