Understanding the philosophy of samadhi and its relevance to modern life

In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, samadhi describes the final cultivation of consciousness, having been engaged in yogic practices consistently for a long period of time. It’s best to call this a state of freedom within oneself and a kind of liberation from the mind, rather than some of the more lofty descriptions that can make these states seem unattainable. With the right method applied consistently for years, samadhi can certainly be reached with the persevering practitioner holding the key. In this article, I speak about samadhi as an ongoing student of yoga with a passion for understanding this philosophy and its relevance to modern life. I have no illusions of my own “enlightenment”, and having practised for 12 years, I feel even more a beginner than when I began! I only hope that my commentary on these sutras will contribute to what you already know about yoga and add more colours to this voluminous subject.

PYS 1.16: The highest consciousness reflects indifference to even the most subtle qualities.

The various ways we misunderstand our true identity can be divided into gross and subtle.

The grosser misidentifications we cling to come in the form of job titles, relationships, our fiscal wealth, the subculture we belong to and even the yoga method we hold dear. All of these things are important, of course, but if you were to remove any of them from your life, however painful it might be, you are still you. Each is simply an aspect of how we project ourselves into the world. But they aren’t the true self.

The subtle qualities (gunas) are a step closer to the source but still not the true self. They appear as our senses, body, mind, ego, intellect and the subconscious imprints we may not even be aware of. A practice of yoga doesn’t eliminate these phenomena forever. (As far as I’m aware, this isn’t possible.) But it is possible to have an experience of the consciousness beneath the gunas through deep states of meditation.

One method of experiencing that consciousness is by creating a witness. Sit comfortably with your spine straight and close your eyes. What do you hear? Try to listen carefully with full presence to each sound. What do you feel? Cold/warm sensations, for example. Comfortable/uncomfortable sensations, for example. What do you think? Let your mind wander, but just watch it. Just like you were watching a movie, but not being in it. Watch how the thoughts can just come and go, without you getting attached to them. With time, practice and patience, you’ll find that those thoughts become less and less frequent. You start viewing them with a dispassionate wonder. And then that space between the thoughts starts to have more appeal, and you find yourself resting in that peaceful state before thought, ego and senses more and more frequently.\

This is knowing consciousness — your underlying self as it is. This is the beginning of cultivating that deep, loving peace we all hold at our centre. And the more we can go to that place, the more we can bring it into every other part of our lives. We become kinder, less reactive, more appreciative and even start to see everything as another wonderful manifestation of that same consciousness you touch on in meditation. From there, the yoga journey really starts getting interesting.

PYS 1.17: Objective samadhi (samprajnata) consists of reasoning, contemplation, bliss and I-am-ness.

There are two types of samadhi (enlightenment) described by Patanjali: objective and objectless samadhi. In this sutra, he describes the first, consisting of four layers. Although this state, much like love, is always a part of our hearts, we can’t always see it straight away. This is due to the multitude of subconscious imprints that cause us to doubt the incredible truth inside us. And so we go through these steps which create the conviction to take us back to who we truly are.

The object we use can be anything, really — a rock, a star, a symbol or something more subtle such as a chakra. In this example, we’ll use the body since this is where Ashtanga,vinyasa and most modern forms of yoga start. Practice is essential for maturity in this samadhi.

In the reasoning stage, we observe the body and its functions through asana and kriya. We get absorbed in the movements, sensations and the range of experience available when fully concentrated on what the body is doing. Eventually, a realisation comes that although we have this amazing flesh and bone vehicle, it is not all of who we are, and then we go to the next stage.

Contemplation becomes more apparent in our pranayama and meditation practice, where more lease is given to watch our thoughts — that internal part of us more subtle than the body. We witness how they come and go, just by our observation of them. Eventually, the realisation comes that although we have thoughts, those thoughts are also not who we truly are.

Bliss is what arises next on the realisation that the joy of life doesn’t arise from the thoughts and sensations of the body, but that the experience of simply having a consciousness from which to experience all phenomenon is the fountainhead of ecstasy — a place that we can go to any time we rest our disciplined mind there. The key here is knowing that this bliss is independent of external stimulus and felt when in a meditative state.

The final stage is I-am-ness — resting the awareness on the point of consciousness underlying all physical, mental and emotional faculties. But this is no easy task! The undisciplined mind will attach itself to any thought, feeling or sensation and become identified with that, rather than consciousness itself. The ability to reach this state, again, will take practice. And staying in that state, even more practice. Then there’s the objectless samadhi state, which is covered in the next sutra.

PYS 1.18: Objectless samadhi (asamprajnata) is attained by practising the cessation of all mental activity. This will lead us beyond the residual cognitive imprints.

Objectless samadhi is the state of ultimate freedom. Words aren’t able to accurately convey what this feels like — they can only allude to it, much like the Buddha pointing to the moon. His finger is not the moon, but those of us caught up in intellectualism will spend a lifetime inspecting his finger.

All preceding limbs need to be galvanised in the aspirant’s sadhana to truly experience what this samadhi is. Where it differs from the previous sutra is that the meditation object becomes the mind itself. There is no longer a subject/object duality, but a mind looking at itself with the complete cessation of thoughts. Through intense concentration and the non-allowing of thought to enter, the mind becomes a vacuum in complete surrender to the source of all consciousness.

What is this source of consciousness?

Is objectless samadhi yoga’s contribution to what other traditions have described? Lao Tzu speaks of the Tao, and how connection with it allows the sage to live life in effortless effort, knowing without going out, seeing without looking and achieving without doing. The theistic traditions talk about surrender to God and to see all manifestation of your life as the divine working through you to the degree
you can allow your thinking mind to get out of the way. Perhaps they are all talking about different things, but I prefer to think that to an esteemed practitioner of a contemplative practice, what seems to be different or even opposite is actually serving the same thing — the boundless love erupting from an apparent emptiness where words lose meaning and only the awe of experiencing it can explain.

Photography ~ Christian and Shani Vetter;

IG: @beherebenow_photosfilms; W:

Ryan Pedley

Ryan Pedley

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