Article – Samadhi unplugged – September 2013


 By Valerie Faneco –  

A cursory glance at the word “samadhi” in the online dictionary shows that it is defined as “a state of deep concentration on the object of meditation, a state of being totally aware of the present moment; one-pointedness of mind”.

A closer look at this definition reveals that it refers to the state of yoga. Samadhi is understood to be a state of complete absorption.

Since yoga is first and foremost a practice as well as a philosophy, we can ask ourselves the following question: is samadhi a practice, or is it a result (THE result) of our practice?

The first chapter of Patañjali’s Yogasûtra (circa 200 BC) is called “samadhi-pada”, the chapter about samadhi. It highlights samadhi as a state of complete absorption that is one of the highest goals in yoga and the stepping-stone towards final liberation.

Herein Patañjali defines several levels of samadhi, which may be focused on an object or not. When the attention is held on a object, it is called sabîja-samadhi (meaning “with a seed”, bîja). When there is no object to hold the meditator in focus, it is called nirbîja-samadhi (“seedless”).

The carrot for the donkey

Patañjali presents the fruits of yoga early in the first chapter. Right at the beginning he says (I.3) tada drashtuh svarûpe avasthanam. Drashta is “the Seer”. This witness (“that part of us which sees clearly”) is none other than the seeker’s deep Self restored to the place where it should be: when the fruits of yoga are ripe, the seeker is once again connected to his true Self who “drives the bus”, standing behind all actions, words and behaviours.

Another glimpse of the high states of samadhi comes in aphorism I.17 where he describes a state called samprajñata, a special kind of wisdom that is complete with regard to any object we choose, whether it is gross (material, vitarka) or abstract (vicara). In the next sûtra (I.18) he mentions “another state” (anyah) beyond anything we can comprehend, where the focus is also whole, but where the practitioner is not held by anything… We will come back to this later.

In these few aphorisms a “taste” of samadhi is given, a little preview of what will be developed later.

And now down to business

In the last aphorisms of chapter I (41 to 51) Patañjali becomes more eloquent on the subject. He starts by presenting various levels of sabîja-samadhi (with an object). In sabîja-samadhi there are several stages of refined focus where the yogin is completely absorbed in the chosen object of meditation, as though he has merged with it. According to Patañjali this is the result of a process, not an accidental event. He describes this process in the way he would describe a ladder: you can only walk up the ladder one step at a time, patiently working your way up. How? By the regular, sustained practice of the eight limbs of yoga. We step up from one rung of the ladder to the next as we advance on the path towards the ultimate goal, nirbîja-samadhi (I.51), which we may or may not reach.

Gradually, once all the previous steps have been mastered – that is, once the sensory faculties have been controlled, the attention refined, the focus maintained – at last the qualities of the object are understood in such a way that the yogin is no longer connected with the word referring to it (shabda), the information collected about it (jñana), the sensory stimuli that come with it (vikalpa). He understands the essence of this object in a way that cannot be expressed. He just KNOWS the object, and he knows that he knows. If the object of meditation is a flower, for example, his understanding of it goes beyond its name, its definition, its smell, its colour, or the associations and feelings that come with it. He IS the flower, because he has grasped its nature on the most intimate level. This knowledge is akin to a deep understanding reaching far above the intellectual domain.

But wait, there’s more!

No matter how blissful this state may seem when explained to us in this manner, it is still not “the big one”. The highest samadhi is a state that is beyond most people’s comprehension. Patañjali does not even try to describe it; he simply calls it anyah, “the other one” (I.18) because it is in “another league”. Later on at the end of chapter I he calls it nirbîja-samadhi (I.51), or “seedless complete absorption”: when one is able to repeat the same process of concentration leading to flawless focus and a complete unconditional understanding, but this time without an object to support the process, it is nirbîja-samadhi. This is complete bliss; there is no turning back.

Unlike the earlier mentioned situations where we were linked with an object (sabîja-samadhi), this ultimate stage stands alone, with no refinements, no levels, only the purest light shines… we are held by nothing (no seed, no object), and we hold nothing. A single sûtra at the end of chapter I mentions it, without any further attempt to describe it…

Which brings us to this question: can one describe something that is clearly beyond description? Maybe the answer is that you cannot. Or perhaps it is possible to get an idea of it up to a certain point, by making associations with situations that we have experienced and are familiar with, and by using our intellect. But in order to convey the essence of it we have to admit that words have their limitations, and therefore our perception will only ever be partial and intellectual.

What is the nature of this state? Some people say that in the highest state of meditation there is a void because the mind has been emptied of its content. Have you ever heard anyone say: “Meditate, relax, just empty your mind”?

I do not believe there can be such a thing as an empty mind. Patañjali gives us clear indications that samadhi is in fact an experience of fulfilment, either with the object of meditation (sabîja-samadhi) or with pure unadulterated light, in the absence of an object (nirbîja-samadhi).

Indeed the prerequisite is for the mind to be cleansed of its usual clutter and for the memory to be purged of its content (smrti parishuddhau I.43), but the space that has become available then becomes full again! This time it is filled by the object (or the light), which – alone – shines (artha matra nirbhasa I.43). So in fact samadhi is an experience of fullness, not of emptiness.

Can I have my cake and eat it?

Whether we consider the systematic manner in which Patañjali describes the eight limbs of yoga in chapter II, or the similar approach that makes one progress through the various levels of samadhi in chapter I, it is obvious that the fruit does not just fall from the tree, that samadhi does not happen randomly. It may occur, or it may not. If it does happen, it is the result of a careful process punctuated by appropriate practice. Being fixed on it as an immaterial goal we have heard of but never experienced (anushravika, I.15) is bound to create frustration, tension, and a sense of attachment that would in fact steer us away from it. If we can be engaged on the path of yoga with lightness rather than heaviness, or in other words with no attachment to the fruit of our practice, then the fruit may eventually grow and be ripe for picking.

To be liberated or – as some would say – enlightened, is to be totally released from all attachments and identifications. It would mean that we are completely detached not only from all material things in this world, but also from our relationships, the people we love, the joys and sorrows we come across. This detachment would also apply to all our desires, wishes, likes and dislikes. Everything that forms the fabric of life!

So in the end does samadhi really matter? At the end of chapter IV (sûtra IV.31), Patañjali makes it clear that for the yogin who is “almost there”, on the threshold of liberation, everything has become insignificant. Liberation is no longer a matter of concern for him, and whether or not he takes the last step is not relevant, since the pursuit of it also belongs to the domain of attachment.

There is no such thing as “collective samadhi”. You cannot reach it in the company of other people, even if they are like-minded seekers. To be in samadhi means to be alone. This “aloneness” is what makes liberation possible. Freedom from suffering also means freedom from all the things that make life enjoyable. Yet it takes a lot of work and a steady yoga practice to find balance in this life. So if being enlightened means that I need to give up on the life that I have come to love, do I really want it?  To be honest, I think I don’t.

©Valerie Faneco –

Valerie (Being in Yoga, Singapore) is a senior yoga teacher and teacher trainer certified in the tradition of Yogacarya T Krishnamacharya and his son TKV Desikachar. She has been studying and teaching the Yogasûtra and principles of yoga philosophy for many years; in 2012 she translated a commentary of the Yogasûtra into English, published in India. Her mentor and direct teacher is Frans Moors.