Since I constantly refer to samadhi (meditative absorption) as the goal of meditation – in fact the goal of spiritual practice, I thought it would be useful to take a closer look at how samadhi is defined across various traditions. A solid grasp of the mechanics of samadhi is vital to conceptualize an end point to our meditative journey, otherwise how will we know where we are supposed to be heading? For this post, the primary framework is taken from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. I’m drawing on the explanations provided by I.K. Taimni in his excellent book “The Science of Yoga”.
As we read the scriptures, we come across the following terms: samprajnata, asamprajnata, nirvikapla, savikalpa, sabija, nirbija, sahaja, unmilana samadhi, etc. What do they all mean?
Prior to exploring samadhi, let’s quickly look at what dharana and dhyana (limbs 6 and 7 of Patanjali’s 8 limbs of yoga) signify (note: dharana and dhyana indicate very different things from a Kashmir Shaivism perspective, but here we are looking at Sri Patanjali’s definitions).
In essence, dharana refers to the act of willfully concentrating on a single thought. When we sit down to meditate, our minds are flooded with all kinds of thoughts, and our effort is aimed at keeping only one thought at the center of our attention (usually our mantra or the image of our Guru). We gently let go of all other thoughts and try to stay focused on repeating our mantra. This continuous effort to concentrate on a single thought is called dharana.
Eventually, when we succeed at holding onto one continuous thought, so that it flows in our mind like an unbroken stream of oil, we enter into what is termed dhyana or meditation proper. It’s important to note that at this stage, we are still aware of ourselves and of the one thought before our mind, so there is still a clear duality present: that of the thinker and of the thought before him.
Taking it to the next level, samadhi, in its most general sense, manifests when the single thought/object in focus becomes so strong that all awareness of the thinker vanishes, leaving only the object of thought in awareness. In other words, the mind loses awareness of itself when it enters into samadhi. Yet, it’s important to point out that these and subsequent states of samadhi (see below) are impermanent in nature, meaning that when the yogin comes out of meditation and back into the waking state, the mind’s awareness of itself as a separate “I” (the ego, in other words), returns immediately. That is why the initial stages of samadhi, exalted and difficult as they may be to reach, are not tantamount to Self-realization or liberation.
As an aside, the above is the reason why we should be very careful before accepting someone as fully liberated just because they appear to have attained a high level of awareness or spiritual power. Although samadhi quickly leads to the development of supernatural powers, the impure ego of such a yogin is still very much alive, which explains the moral downfall of many a guru who seemed to be so powerful and enlightened. That’s why I say again and again that one should fully surrender only to a Janma Guru (born enlightened) as an insurance policy of sorts. Great siddhas such as Bhagawan Nityananda, Ramana Maharshi and Anandamayi Ma are clear examples of Janma Gurus (I include as Janma Gurus those who achieve spontaneous liberation after reaching puberty, as Ramana Maharshi and Anandamayi Ma did).
Returning to our study of samadhi, Patanjali sets out four levels and sub-levels of samadhi as follows:
- Samprajnata Samadhi (all four sub-levels are Sabija [with seed])
- Savitarka (gross)
- Savichara (subtle)
- Sananda (plane of bliss)
- Sasmita (plane of pure I-ness);
- Asamprajnata Samadhi (also is Sabija);
- Nirbija (without seed) Samadhi;
- Dharma-Megha Samadhi (Cloud of Virtue).
Samprajnata Samadhi – Savitarka (gross)
Samprajnata means Sa (with) prajnata (consciousness). This is the entry level samadhi where the trinity of knower, knowing and known collapse and only the object remains in the field of awareness (the known), and whereby the mind loses awareness of itself as an observer. In this samadhi, the various layers of consciousness that make up the mind are still intact, though in a latent state. There is clearly an object before the mind, only that the mind has become so focused and fused with the object that it seemingly disappears, leaving only the object in the mental field of awareness.
Regarding the objects themselves, they are broken down into four types: savitarka (gross), savichara (subtle), sananda (plane of bliss) and sasmita (plane of pure I-ness). Let’s examine each briefly. These four levels of objects are found in the same corresponding four levels of consciousness.
As the mind becomes more concentrated and refined, it can hold different types of objects before it, from the most gross to the most subtle. Savitarka objects include gross thoughts, the gross breath, the gross sound of the mantra, the image of the Guru, thought streams, visualizations of the chakras, and even emotions and attitudes such as trying to feel compassion or devotion. All these are accessible to the beginner and can be placed before the mind during meditation. These are savitarka objects. The savitarka level of samprajnata samadhi also refers to the power of the mind that differentiates objects from one another, so that you know that this is a chair and that is a flower vase. Or you can distinguish one specific flower vase from another. It’s this power of the mind that is said to lead into the savitarka level of samprajnata samadhi.
After the mind becomes steady in the gross level of samprajnata samadhi, it experiences the true nature of the object before it. On this point Patanjali states that the memory of any object is purified of two lesser types of knowledge: knowledge based on the meaning of words (also known as the matrika shakti) and ordinary knowledge based on the input of the five senses as it relates to any object. When these two types of knowledge are eliminated by mental fusing into the object through samadhi, then the true innate nature of the object begins to shine. In other words, pure and direct knowledge of any object is attained at the culmination of the savitarka level of samprajnata samadhi. This knowledge is not based on the input of the senses or on the meaning of words used to describe the object. It’s a pure knowledge that arises when the mind directly fuses through concentration into an object. It’s direct cognition without the use of the senses.
Once the object is experienced directly and fully known or realized, the mind experiences a short-lived slip into the state of asamprajnata samadhi, or samadhi without prajnata (the letter “a” as a prefix in Sanskrit denotes absence). In this state, the gross object that was consuming the field of awareness is transcended and vanishes, and the mind enters a kind of void or dissolution (laya) where there is no object before it. It then emerges into a higher and more subtle plane of consciousness and a new object once again occupies the field of awareness, only that this time the object is of a savichara (subtle) nature.
I.K. Taimni makes a few interesting points on the nature of asamprajnata samadhi. He states that even though there is no object in this type of samadhi, entry into it still depends on the force of the yogin’s willpower. It’s a continuation of the pressure built up to enter into the first level of samadhi. This means that it’s not in any way an effortless state. Second, he points out that in all levels of samprajnata samadhi the mind as an organ is still intact and that consciousness can only illumine objects placed before it, but not itself. So when the object disappears as one enters asamprajnata samadhi, there results a kind of void because no objects are being illumined by consciousness but consciousness in turn cannot illumine itself at this point.
Why can’t consciousness illumine itself? The answer is due to the presence of latent mental impressions (samskaras) and their seeds (bijas) that are lodged within the mind. That is why if you look at the list above, all of the four levels of samprajnata samadhi and asamprajnata samadhi are sabija (with seed), meaning they are not capable of destroying the latent mental impressions that obscure awareness from itself and bind the soul to the wheel of karma. It’s only when the yogin reaches the state of nirbija (without seed) samadhi that awareness becomes aware of itself, the samskaras are destroyed and Self-realization follows.
So once a yogin enters into the temporary state of asamprajnata samadhi, he experiences a very refined void of sorts until he emerges into the second level of samprajnata samadhi. Once he achieves direct cognition of the next object before him, he moves on, until all four levels of objects and consciousness are transcended. Accordingly, each time he moves from one level to another, he experiences a temporary entry into the void or cloud state of asamprajnata samadhi, which is nothing more than a transitional state of samadhi.
Samprajnata Samadhi – Savichara (subtle)
Once the yogin emerges into the second level of samprajnata samadhi, savichara, he’s able to access the subtle aspect of objects and the very instruments of cognition, which become objects themselves. For example, the subtle energy behind the breath, the prana or life energy, can become an object of awareness. Or the subtle powers of seeing, hearing, tasting and smelling become objects. The subtle vibration of mantra, beyond the gross sound of the syllables, also becomes a clear object of awareness (all these examples are speculative in nature and based on the commentary of others. We should accept them with a grain of salt and wait until our own inner experience either confirms or refutes them). The subtle objects that appear in meditation may also be of the nature of divine sounds, smells, vision of the Gods and other phenomena that pertain to the level of the subtle body. These experiences may also be fearsome in nature, with howling sounds, demonic faces, and other visions that yogins mention as mandatory rights of passage for an ego that is being purified.
Samprajnata Samadhi – Sananda (plane of bliss)
After attaining and mastering the savichara level of samprajnata samadhi, the yogin passes again through the void of asamprajnata samadhi and emerges into the third level of sananda (plane of bliss) of samprajnata samadhi. It’s interesting to note that only after the yogin transcends the savichara level of samadhi does Patanjali state that dawn of spiritual light takes place and that prior to that the yogin is quite out of touch with pure awareness.
In this level, both the gross and subtle forms of objects give way to a plane of bliss that lies beyond time and space and the subtle mind. But since all levels of samprajnata samadhi require an object before the mind, we can assume that the bliss experienced here is of a grosser form of consciousness that remains a subtle object of experience. In other words, it must be something less than the highest bliss of Paramashiva.
Samprajnata Samadhi – Sasmita (plane of pure I-ness)
The final stage of object-based samadhi according to this model is encountered when the yogin emerges beyond the plane of bliss into the plane of pure I-ness. At this exalted level the yogin moves beyond all objects and directly cognizes his own sense of being, the innate sense of awareness that is the target of all meditation and centering practices. But even at this high level Patanjali does not allow for a declaration of Self-realization or liberation from bondage because the samskara bijas, the seeds of past mental impressions, have not yet been destroyed.
In terms of how these latent impressions that veil the mind from pure awareness are destroyed, every time the yogin passes through samadhi, a new impression is formed that counteracts and weakens the vast storehouse of mundane body-mind based impressions. This is akin to using a thorn to remove a thorn. In other words, as the yogin gains proficiency in penetrating into a state of samadhi through repeated practice, when he comes out of it he brings with him a new mental impression of utter bliss and stillness of mind that begins to fill the mind during his ordinary waking state. This impression is full of the light of God, which creates an intense craving for the yogin to return to that state of awareness. As a result of these new impressions, the yogin’s exercise of his powers of discrimination (viveka) and detachment (vairagya) become extremely forceful, and his mind becomes completely non-attached from all of his old desires, attitudes, opinions and other movements. This lack of clinging to old mental impressions, while at the same time holding onto the growing awareness of being the pure Self, is the dual mechanism that works in tandem to destroy the old storehouse of impressions. In other words, it’s the repeated “dipping” into the state of samadhi during formal meditation that finally begins to kill the individual identification with thoughts, the body, the personality and the mind. In addition, the act of concentrating the mind in meditation also brings into focus many of the impressions previously buried within the subconscious. When the yogin becomes conscious of a lingering impression, it greatly weakens the latter’s ability to colour and influence his mind.
It should also be noted that once the yogin reaches the high state of sasmita samadhi, the limit of human willpower is reached, and from that point forward it’s the direct power of the Self that propels the yogin into the last stages of samadhi where all the remaining seeds of mind are finally destroyed.
Nirbija (without seed) Samadhi
After transcending, through the force of the Self, the sasmita level of samprajnata samadhi, the divine yogin emerges into nirbija samadhi. This samadhi is exactly the same as the asamprajnata samadhi that had no object to illumine, but unlike the latter, which was constrained by the presence of mental impressions, here the consciousness is able to illumine itself so that instead of a void, the overflowing bliss of pure awareness is experienced. In this way, nirbija samadhi is essentially Self-Realization, though Patanjali still makes room for one final level of samadhi. Although in nirbija samadhi the remaining mental impressions are destroyed by the power of awareness on their own accord, Patanjali states that final liberation only occurs when the yogin gives up any attachment to even remaining in this highest state of consciousness-bliss. In other words, the yogin must still exercise detachment toward this high state of enlightenment. It’s only then that the yogin passes into the final state of dharma-megha samadhi and finally emerges into Reality proper.
Dharma-Megha Samadhi (Cloud of Virtue)
Not much can be written about this mysterious level except to say that it’s supposed to represent final and complete liberation from any taint of duality, however subtle, and from the mechanisms (like mental impressions and the gunas [qualities of creation]) that allow duality to assert itself in the first place.
Some have speculated that it may represent what others have called sahaja samadhi, or natural opened-eyed samadhi. The distinction between closed-eyed samadhi and opened-eyed samadhi is stressed within the Kashmir Shaivism tradition, and many of the antinomian practices within the Kaula tradition of Kashmir Shaivism are aimed at allowing the yogin to stabilize his samadhi even when not sitting in formal meditation.
In studying all of Patanjali’s levels of samadhi, nowhere does he explicitly state that the yogin’s samadhi occurs outside of his closed-eyed meditation practice. But since the final dharma-megha samadhi leads to absolute liberation which is permanent and irreversible, logic dictates that it also applies to the waking state, otherwise it cannot be called an absolute state.
Other Names for Samadhi
So what about the other names for samadhi? They are names that appear within different traditions. Patanjali belonged to the Samkhya Yoga tradition.
In Advaita Vedanta the terms nirvikalpa and savikalpa samadhi are used. Nir (without) and sa (with) vikalpa (conceptualization). Nirvikalpa samadhi is often identified with the nirbija samadhi of Patanjali, and savikalpa with all the levels of samprajnata samadhi.
Within Kashmir Shaivism, we hear of nimilana and unmilana samadhi. Nimilana samadhi covers all the phases of closed-eyed samadhi. When the yogin is able to extrovert his samadhi into opened-eyed samadhi, meaning that his state of pure-awareness persists even when viewing the objective world, that is termed unmilana samadhi (yes, both can occur simultaneously. You can observe the external world and be aware that it’s all pure consciousness. Ramana Maharshi used the analogy of a mirage in the desert. At first, you think the mirage is a pool of water. But after you realize it to be nothing but a mirage, you still continue to see the “water”. It does not disappear as in the analogy of mistaking a rope for a snake).
Unmilana samadhi, in turn, can be equated with sahaja samadhi, which may be the same as dharma-megha samadhi. The point is that different traditions use different names to denote the same inner states.
One final note on terminology. Ramana Maharshi categorized samadhi into three different types:
1. Sahaja Nirvikalpa Samadhi. This is the final state of opened-eyed samadhi that is unshakable and continuous.
2. Kevala Nirvikalpa Samadhi. In this state there is a temporary but effortless Self-awareness but the ego still persists. The yogin experiences samadhi in formal meditation. In this samadhi there is no body-consciousness and no ability to function in the world. But as soon as meditation session ends, the ego re-appears. This is the same as Patanjali’s asamprajnata samadhi.
3. Savikalpa Samadhi. Here samadhi is maintained by the application of constant effort. The moment Self-attention wavers, the yogin is thrown back into the ordinary state of mind where there is a perceiver, perceiving and an object perceived. This samadhi is commensurate with Patanjali’s samprajnata samadhi.
* Ramana’s categories are found in David Godman’s book: Be As You Are.
Some seekers might feel disillusioned at the prospect of having to cross all these levels of samadhi. They may feel it to be an impossible and endless task, so why even bother trying? But by the age of five or six, a child understands that he or she must spend years moving from grade school to middle school to high school and finally to college or university. It’s understood that its a natural progression. In fact, many kids greatly look forward to advancing to a new level of school. Each new phase is an exciting fresh start. Each new phase is full of promise and adventure.
This is of course how we should approach our meditation journey. Moreover, some phases of meditation can be traversed with relative speed. It all depends on our effort and the Guru’s grace. And right effort attracts grace.
I can report, happily, that even at the early dharana stage of practice, there’s a tangible bliss and peace that manage from time to time to filter through the layers of the mind. I can only imagine, with great anticipation, what those higher states of concentration must bring.
In addition, regardless of how many levels of samadhi we have to surmount, what choice do we ultimately have? The awful alternative would be to resign ourselves to remain prisoners of the nefarious mind that thrashes us again and again against the rocks. “Feeling of duality is hell”, Bhagawan said.
The practice of yoga is full of wonder and amazement and the effort to become Self-aware is the very goal of life. There’s nothing holier or more sacred than our attempts to still our minds.
By Andres Pelenur © All Rights Reserved