People often joke that writing about samadhi, the eighth and final limb of yoga, is an exercise in futility – since words can’t convey the experience in any meaningful way, you might as well just leave a blank white page. To experience samadhi, which is sometimes called enlightenment, it’s often said that you lose your sense of self as separate from the other. The observer and the observed blend into one.
Sri Swami Satchidananda writes that even he finds it hard to express adequately – to him, though, it’s a state that takes over after you’ve done the work (the preceding limbs) to get there. “There is not much I can say about this one… Nobody can practice samadhi. Our effort is there only up to meditation. You put all your effort in dharana. It becomes effortless in dhyana, and you are just there, knowing that you are in meditation. But in samadhi, you don’t even know that. You are not there to know it because you are that… In samadhi there is neither the object or the meditator.”
It sounds like in samadhi you lose the “you” perspective, but you don’t lose consciousness (although that can happen, too, but that’s another story!). Figuring it might be less effective for me to write about samadhi, I thought it would be interesting to turn to the people who have commented along the way, and ask them to explain what samadhi is to them. Here’s what they said.
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Beryl Bender Birch really emphasizes that the feeling of separateness between you (the observer) and what you’re observing disappears. “Samadhi isn’t something you can talk about, write about, or for that matter, even think about… Samadhi is an experience, and as such, can only be experienced…. It is the experience of yoga, that ‘ahah’ boundless, infinite moment when one answers the question, ko-aham, or ‘Who am I?’ Almost any book you can think of that attempts to explain the experience of enlightenment, doesn’t really explain it at all and ends up being a road map with directions on how to reach the destination… I think the best we can say about the experience is that it is a loss of individuality, of separateness, which is replaced by a boundlessness that goes beyond anything the mind is capable of understanding. It’s silly to even try to explain it. Just pay attention. Breathe in, breathe out. That’s all. If even for only a nanosecond, you’ll know it when you meet it.”
Reverend Jaganath Carrera urges us to remember that we’re actually already enlightened – and it’s just a matter of peeling back the layers to realize it. “Samadhi is yoga’s technical term for higher states of consciousness,” he says. “Although there are several levels of samadhi, when we use the word alone, it usually refers to the highest samadhi, the state of enlightenment. We are already enlightened. It is our true nature to be so. We don’t really have to attain enlightenment, just realize it. But, what is enlightenment? To be enlightened means to be fully awake, to experience life and self without the filter of any conceptions, biases, or beliefs. To be awake is to experience our inmost nature, the core and source of our being – all being. It means to know our purpose and to be in tune with the flow of the divine will. When all the limitations of limited, ego-centered consciousness dissolve, when all barriers that separate us from each other and from nature, we experience oneness, the unity behind all diversity. It is pure love.”
Linda Sparrowe expands on this point that the merging of perspectives doesn’t have to be you and the object of your meditation – it can be you and another being. “It all sounds so lofty and so impossible to attain, but we all experience precious moments of samadhi when we are fully present to and completely absorbed in whatever is happening. I had a wonderful experience years ago that illustrates this concept perfectly. In a Qigong class at the Chopra Center, I partnered with an older man who was dying of throat cancer. The assignment was to move to music together with our eyes closed. The teacher asked us to bring our hands close enough to each other that we could feel the energy, but not close enough that they touched. The music started to play, we closed our eyes, and we began to move, tentatively at first–hyper-aware of each other’s movements and needs. By the time the music ended and we opened our eyes, we both realized there was no separation between us–we were one entity. The music itself wasn’t separate; we had embodied it. We were the dance and the dance was us. Nothing in the universe existed outside of that experience. I can still feel that tender moment of true integration and bliss.”
For Elena Brower, it’s even simpler. She finds Samadhi in the quiet moments, like ones with her son. “Just before bedtime, there is this moment with my son when the book is over, he puts his head down on my shoulder, takes a huge breath and says, ‘I love you, Mama.’ There is nothing else between us or around us aside from that connection, and that empty/full space for me is Samadhi.”
Judith Hanson Lasater, PhD, PT says she feels “a little presumptuous writing about samadhi,” but her feeling is that it’s about multiple, perhaps infinite, points of view all happening in concert. “Usually we just identify with our body and our particular ego’s point of view. But as one begins to experience life more often from the perspective of ‘the other’ through the arising of empathy and compassion, one is beginning to taste samadhi. As this process continues and grows in one’s consciousness, it is possible to experience the world from a wider and wide perspective. Maybe God is that consciousness which has all points of view from all aspects of the Universe at once. We have all had moments of an identification shift where we perceive the whole as one, and the one as the whole.”
Samadhi can indeed come in bits and pieces – it doesn’t always have to be a momentous single experience, says Dinabandhu Sarley, and it’s something you can encounter more and more with time and practice. He says that “for a yoga practitioner in the 21st century, the important thing to realize is that while this is often described as a stable, non-changing state of consciousness, the typical seeker can actually access this phenomenon on a intermittent basis through their practice of yoga. You can access this both in your daily life and in your meditation or yoga posture flow… For those of us on the path, these intermittent and time-limited experiences of integration point the way and give us a sampling of who we truly are and what we might move towards in our practice. Small tastes of Samadhi form the milestones marking the path.”
Ever the realist, Glenn Black cautions that though it may be magnificent to experience, even enlightenment won’t solve all your problems: “Samadhi, the eighth and last stage of Yoga, can never be explained. It is to be directly experienced after pratyahara, dharana and dhyana have been experienced, and they are not so easily attained either. In this age there are so many distractions that the same practices the sages did ages ago cannot possibly be as effective. I have taught and hung out with some people who have practiced seriously for decades and they still get angry. Ram Dass once said, ‘if you think you are enlightened spend a week with your family.’ There are some happy, peaceful and content people over there. Slap them upside the head and see what happens.”
Brad Waites brings up an interesting point to leave on. He asks simply, why do we do it? Samadhi might blow your mind, but he wonders whether there isn’t something at least as important to aim for. “Should samadhi as traditionally defined still be considered the ultimate expression of the practice? Does it matter that an individual consciousness enters into samadhi if the rest of the world is left just as it is? Really, what has been achieved in the big picture? Sri Aurobindo spoke eloquently to this with his integral yoga, teaching that universal transformation, not individual enlightenment, holds the true potential of the practice.”
Maybe it’s all just a matter of discovering the balance, where we can work on our own consciousness, but not forget that our relationship with others is at least as fundamental. It’s fitting then that the yamas, which are the guidelines for how we relate to others, are taught first, as the “roots” of yoga – and that samadhi, which teaches us that there’s not much, if any, separation between ourselves and others is the ultimate limb. There’s a lovely connection there, and the limbs of yoga truly come full circle.
Have you experienced samadhi? What, to you, is the central goal of yoga?
Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog. You can follow Alice on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.