This week we explore the eighth and final limb of Ashtanga yoga, Samadhi.
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. 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. Once you arrive, you shift into survival mode for the six-day jeep ride along bumpy dirt roads to your final destination. 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 to the summit 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 a higher being, which is not easy to come by.
The grace of a higher being has its own selection process. When it comes, it comes. And when it does not come, it does not come.
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.