A Seeker’s Guide to Samadhi
For many meditators, samadhi can seem an abstract and elusive goal. But three time-tested steps bring this heightened state of awareness within reach.
Samadhi is a hot topic in yoga circles. Some practitioners believe samadhi and enlightenment are synonymous. Others think samadhi leads to enlightenment, while yet another group is convinced samadhi makes the mind go blank. Some of those seeking samadhi hope it will fall into their hands if they pray hard enough, and others believe the techniques of yoga and meditation will push them toward samadhi or pull samadhi toward them. In the 30 years of my career as a teacher, I have encountered many students and seekers from different walks of life. I have found them to be good people, very sincere. All of them have an essential qualification in common—a burning desire to have a direct experience of samadhi.
Just as mastery in any field—surgery, physics, music—requires prolonged, systematic preparation, so does attaining the highest goal of yoga.
Trying to attain samadhi without having a clear idea of what it is, without adopting a systematic approach, and without completing the preparatory steps is like trying to build a skyscraper when you have never seen one, do not have a blueprint, and do not know how to lay a foundation. You will waste your time and energy and reach nowhere. Just as mastery in any field—surgery, physics, music—requires prolonged, systematic preparation, so does attaining the highest goal of yoga. This goal is attainable only for those who follow a system.
The Bhagavad Gita, one of the most acclaimed texts of yoga, delineates the key prerequisites. It holds that the practice of yoga is painless for those who adopt a balanced diet, balanced exercise, balanced thinking, balanced sleep, and who perform their actions with balanced understanding. These five elements are essential in laying the foundation for a meditation practice. Those who overeat or indulge in fasting suffer from various diseases. Those who exercise too much or too little suffer from exhaustion or sloth. Those who think too much or who fail to use their mind properly become the victims of anxiety or stupor. Those who sleep too much or too little suffer from inertia or hallucinations. Those who act without a balanced understanding of their actions and the consequences of their actions suffer from doubt and fear. When we design our practice against the backdrop of these five elements, our vitality, endurance, comprehension, freshness, and spontaneity expand. As these qualities expand, so does our capacity to concentrate. It is on this solid foundation that you place the formal threefold practice of yoga sadhana: dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (spiritual absorption).
These three are like the three stages of a pilgrimage. Let’s say you decide to enhance your understanding of spirituality by making a pilgrimage to Mount Kailash. For several weeks before you set out, your entire focus is on preparing for your journey—gathering the necessary clothes and equipment, packing, and then taking the long flight to Nepal. Once in Nepal, you shift into survival mode for the six-day jeep ride along bumpy dirt roads to Mount Kailash. You can hardly breathe because of the high altitude and the thick dust; the sun is blinding and the shocks on the jeep are so bad you feel like your spinal cord is being shattered. You feel hot all day, cold all night, and weak and tired most of the time. Then comes the slow, arduous climb up around Mount Kailash and back down again. During this three-day hike, you can take only one step, one breath at a time.
At first it takes all your effort, then you find your inner rhythm, and once you do, it’s as if the mountain itself lifts you up and carries you. Upon reaching the summit, you find yourself filled with great delight and a sense of fulfillment. When you return home, it takes almost a month to recuperate. But you remember the exquisite joy you felt when you reached the peak. That sublime feeling stays with you like a sweet whisper calling you to return to your inner Self. That’s what this progressive threefold practice entails: first comes concentrated effort, known as dharana; second, the effortless flow of being there with full awareness of yourself and your entire surroundings, known as dhyana; and third, becoming one with that state of experience brought about by this effortless flow. This is known as samadhi.
The Yoga Sutra, the central text of yoga philosophy and practice, calls these three steps samyama. By stringing dharana, dhyana, and samadhi together, the technical term samyama tells us that there is a natural process of starting our practice and reaching the goal of the practice. Most aspirants must follow this process. There is a rare exception—one that flows from complete surrender to God, which is not easy to come by. The grace of God has its own selection process. When it comes, it comes. And when it does not come, it does not come. Therefore let us focus on the three elements that depend on our human effort: dharana, dhyana, and samadhi.
Step by Step
The first step, dharana, is loosely translated as “concentration.” The Yoga Sutra gives a specific definition of this word: “to confine the mind or fix it in a well-defined space.” Space is infinite. Because it does not have shape, color, or form, identifying space is very difficult. Therefore, to confine the mind to a space, you have to first separate it from the rest of infinite space by putting a border around it. In discussing concentration, Vyasa, the foremost commentator on the Yoga Sutra, advises bringing the mind to a space that is well defined, such as the area around your navel center, the heart center, the center between the eyebrows, or to a particular external point, such as a flame or a particular image.
The first step, dharana, is loosely translated as “concentration.” The Yoga Sutra gives a specific definition of this word: “to confine the mind or fix it in a well-defined space.”
Once you have decided to bring your mind to the center of your forehead or your heart center, for example, you must then select an object to occupy that space. The object you select—the cross, the Star of David, an image of Ganesha, a yantra, or a mantra—facilitates the mind’s ability to stabilize itself in the confines of that space. Yet when you focus your mind on that object, you’ll soon notice that it is also contacting many other objects in addition to the one you have chosen. In other words, the mind is distracted.
Distraction is the mind’s tendency to contact various objects at a fast speed and forget both the main object it was supposed to be aware of and the space in which it was supposed to be confined. Rather than giving in to the habit of distraction, bring your mind back to the chosen object and allow your mind to focus on that. By repeatedly practicing this process of bringing the mind back, you will develop a habit of maintaining that object in your mind field for a longer period. If the object of concentration stays in your mind for a longer period of time than the objects that distract you, you have achieved a state of concentration. Concentration and distraction flow side by side. The only difference is that one stream—the stream of concentration—is stronger, heavier, fuller than the other. That defines concentration. It’s not that your mind is no longer becoming distracted, but that the object of concentration stays in your mind longer than the distracting objects do.
As concentration matures, it turns into meditation, or dhyana. This is the second step. Meditation begins when the process of focusing your mind on the object occupying that space is not interrupted by any other thoughts, or the mind stays on that object for a long period of time without much interruption. So dhyana is a continuation of dharana; your meditation is a more mature state of your concentration.
Students often wonder at what point the process of concentration turns into meditation. Many saints and yogis say that if your mind remains concentrated on one object for at least 12 breaths, you have achieved a state of meditation. If within that 12-breath period, your mind shifts from one object to another object, you are still at the stage of concentration. Think of oil pouring from one container to another container. Oil is thick and viscous so it pours out in an unbroken stream. The unbroken flow of your stream of awareness is meditation. And when this process of unbroken awareness lengthens further, it matures into the third step, samadhi.
Samadhi dawns when your mind becomes completely absorbed in the object occupying the space to which you have confined it. In samadhi, the process of concentration, the object of concentration, and the mind that is trying to concentrate or meditate all have become one. The mind is no longer focusing on the object in an objective manner. All that remains in awareness is the content, the essence, of that object. In other words, in samadhi you are aware only of the essence and not of the details. For example, if you have been meditating on the cross, you are no longer aware that it is made of the finest ebony or is covered with gold. All that remains is awareness that it is an object laden with a great sense of sanctity and divinity, that it indicates your relationship with that higher divinity. That feeling is there—that is all. And in that feeling it appears as if the object does not have any form of its own. It is totally devoid of any form. All that remains is pure awareness. That’s called samadhi.
Let’s examine the difference between meditation and samadhi. In meditation you are fully one-pointed, but that one-pointedness simply refers to the fact that your mind is focused on one object. When you analyze it, you see that deep down, the mind is not perfectly one-pointed. In meditation you are still aware of yourself as a meditator and at the same time you are aware of the object of meditation and of the process of meditation. So three things are going on continuously in your mind: (1) you know you are meditating, (2) you know on what you are meditating, and (3) you know you are the meditator. However, you have only one mind and that mind cannot be broken into pieces. It’s not that one part of your mind is on yourself, and another part is on the meditative objective. It’s a matter of intensity. When you are meditating you are more intensely aware of the object of your meditation, for example, than you are of either yourself or the process of meditating. So one stream is the major stream flowing in your mind field and the other two streams are secondary.
In samadhi, the process of concentration, the object of concentration, and the mind that is trying to concentrate or meditate all have become one.
As you practice focusing the mind on the object of your meditation, eventually your awareness becomes so focused on that object that not the tiniest part is left to analyze, feel, and think that you are the meditator and this is the process of meditation. It requires an exclusive absorption in the object of your meditation for these three streams to merge. That is why in English samadhi is called “spiritual absorption.” No part of your mind is left to maintain the awareness of anything other than the object of your meditation.
Then neither internal nor external causes distract you. You are simply in a state of deep stillness, tranquility. And that state may last 30 seconds or two minutes (much longer when you become well practiced), and then suddenly you become aware of some external sound, or you think of checking your e-mail, or you remember you have to meet someone, and you slip from samadhi and become outwardly oriented. You realize you are sitting on your meditation cushion and you still have some practice time remaining, so then you start all over again, making an effort to go from concentration to meditation to samadhi.
If you have been practicing for a long time it does not take too long to get back to a heightened state. It may take just a fraction of a second for you to fall from samadhi to concentration, but you can also climb back up very quickly if you have gained maturity in your practice. If not, it may take some time, even though the memory of that joyful state of samadhi is still there, and the passage to reach there is also very fresh in your memory. Your daily practice reinforces the joyful experience of samadhi, making your memory stronger, clearer, and deeper, thus enabling you to retrieve that memory at will. The memory pertaining to the experience of samadhi empowers you to reach samadhi faster and more effortlessly. That is why consistent daily practice is the way to reach and retain the experience of samadhi.
Signs of Spiritual Progress
Before you enter a state of samadhi, there is a thrill of experiencing stillness. And there are experiences which go with stillness that may distract you, such as clairvoyance or extraordinary sensory experiences. These experiences are called siddhis—yogic accomplishments for those who have never experienced samadhi, and obstacles for those who have experienced it. These siddhis, regardless of how profound or shallow they are, how meaningful or meaningless, are signs that you are on your way to samadhi. As a practitioner, you should not be anxious about these signs nor should you have any fear if these signs appear. Simply keep your focus on your destination, your main goal, which is samadhi itself. Furthermore, anxiety regarding when you are going to reach there, doubt about whether or not you will reach there, fear of never reaching there, and worry about what will happen to you and your loved ones if you do reach there are the breeding grounds for distraction. Not making a big deal about samadhi and yet striving to reach it in the most natural manner is the way to protect the mind from all possible distractions. That is why yogis say, “Work hard but take it lightly. Achieve the highest but don’t make a fuss about it.” This attitude, called vairagya (dispassion or non-attachment), is necessary for protecting and nurturing your practice.
You have heard it said that practice makes perfect. But it is important to remember that it is only perfect practice that makes you perfect. Building a practice can be compared with building a house. A house can be small or big, simple or elaborate. A house can be fitted with lots of amenities or can lack even the most basic facilities. Such is the case with a practice. It can be profound or shallow. It can be designed to take us all the way to samadhi or simply conform to cultural expectations. The function of the practice determines the form. The loftier the form and the grander the goal and objective, the more detailed the architectural plan must be.
The most important aspect of this plan is building a foundation that is capable of supporting the structure you wish to erect. The fundamentals of any fruitful practice are those from the Bhagavad Gita delineated earlier: balanced diet, balanced exercise, balanced thinking, balanced sleep, and performing our actions with balanced understanding. Next comes cultivating a conducive posture. The posture most conducive to our practice is one in which the head, neck, and trunk are in a straight line, the shoulders are relaxed, and the breath serene. Then comes uniting our mind and breath with each other. Uniting the forces of our breath and mind allows us to concentrate with the fewest distractions, thus enabling us to concentrate for a longer period of time on our chosen object. Prolonged concentration matures into meditation, and meditation matures into samadhi. The repeated experience of dharana, dhyana, and samadhi deepens our memory of samadhi.
In subsequent practice sessions, this memory both pushes us toward samadhi and pulls samadhi toward us. There comes a time when this process becomes absolutely effortless. This effortless state of samadhi is called dharma megha samadhi, a samadhi laden with a cloud of virtues—spiritually uplifting and enlightening experiences. From this emerges an indescribable state of awareness devoid of all desires, including the desire for any benefit from samadhi other than samadhi itself. This is the state of nirbija samadhi—the highest samadhi, which sages like Patanjali and Buddha experienced. May we, their students, one day also attain this luminous experience.