Samadhi Pada

Through yoga let one concentrate on study.
By perfection in study and in yoga
The Supreme Soul shines forth clearly.


The classic text of Patanjali opens with the simplest statement: "atha yoganushasanam", "Now begins instruction in yoga." The typical reader today might well expect this terse announcement to be followed by a full explanation of the term yoga and its diverse meanings, perhaps a polemical digression on different schools of thought and some methodological guidance concerning the best way to use the text. None of this occurs. Rather, Patanjali set down his most famous words: "yogash chitta-vritti-nirodhah": "Yoga is the restraint of the modifications of the mind." He stated the essential meaning of yoga without any argument or illustration, as if he were providing a basic axiom. He thus showed at the very start that he was concerned with practical instruction rather than theoretical exposition. He thereby took for granted that the user of the text already had some understanding of the task of yoga and was ready to undergo a demanding daily discipline.

Yoga psychology differs radically from more recent, and especially post-Freudian, schools of thought in its stress on self-emancipation rather than on self-acceptance in relation to social norms or psychic tensions. Most modern varieties of psychology, including even the recent humanistic preoccupation with self-actualization as propounded by Abraham Maslow and elaborated in different directions by Carl Rogers and Rollo May, essentially aim at an integration and harmonizing of otherwise disparate and conflicting elements in a person in contemporary society. For Patanjali, all these identifiable elements – thoughts, feelings, intentions, motives and desires (conscious and unconscious) – are chittavrittis, mental modifications which must be seen as hindrances to contemplative calm. Even if they are deftly balanced and fully integrated, the individual would at best be a mature person marked by thoughtful and creative responses in a world of suffering and ignorance. Conquering, not coping, transcending, not reconciling, were Patanjali"s chief concerns. For him, the latter were by-products of the former, and never the reverse. The psychology of self-emancipation means the deliberate and self-conscious restraint of everything that is productive of mental confusion, weakness and pain.

Patanjali"s stipulative definition of yoga might seem dogmatic, but this reaction springs from ignorance of his central purpose and unstated presuppositions. Patanjali wrote not from the standpoint of revealed scripture, academic scholarship or of theoretical clarification, but from the standpoint of concrete experience through controlled experiment. If truth is ontologically bound up and intimately fused with self-transcendence, then what from the standpoint of self-emancipation is a stark description is, from the standpoint of the unenlightened, an arbitrary prescription. What would be the naturalistic fallacy on a single plane of manifested Nature becomes a necessary line of thought when multiple planes of unmanifested Nature are taken into account. The ability to alter states of consciousness presupposes the capacity to emulate the architectonics of a higher and less differentiated plane on a lower and more fragmented plane of percepts and concepts. In other words, yoga is that science in which the descriptions of reality necessarily function as prescriptions for those who have not experienced it. The analogy would be closer to music or mathematics than to the visual arts or the empirical sciences as normally understood.

Skilful methods are those which provide apt descriptions, giving the instructional guidance needed. Hence, in the hands of a spiritual master, the actual method to be pursued varies with each aspirant, for it is the vital and original link between the adept"s transcendent (taraka) wisdom and the disciple"s mental temperament and devotion (bhakti). There is a reciprocal interaction between the readiness to receive and the mode of giving – of disciple and master. For Patanjali, the true nature of chitta, the mind, can be known only when it is not modified by external influences and their internal impresses. For as long as modifications persist without being deliberately chosen for a purpose, the mind unwittingly identifies with them, falling into passivity, habitude, and the pain which results from a state of fragmentation and self-alienation.

Since mental modifications ramify in myriad directions, their root causes need to be grasped clearly if they are to be firmly removed. The essential principle to be understood is central to the second and third of Gautama Buddha"s Four Noble Truths. Those persistent misconceptions which, directly or indirectly, produce discontent and suffering have a distinctive set of causes which, if eliminated, inevitably ensure the cessation of their concomitant effects. Patanjali pointed to five chittavrittis which are distinct and yet share the common tendency to be pleasurable or painful. Whilst yoga psychology fully acknowledges the strength of the pleasure principle – the propensity to be drawn towards pleasurable sensations as if by a magnet and to be repelled by painful ones – it denies its relevance to real individuation as a moral agent, a Manushya, whose name comes from manas, "mind", the root of which is man, "to think". Self- emancipation, the culmination in yoga of self-transcendence, requires the complete subordination of the pleasure-pain principle to the reality principle. Reality, in this view, has nothing to do with involuntary change, the inherent propensity of prakriti, matter, and not purusha, spirit, whilst pleasure and pain are necessarily bound up with conditioning and change. This is why the most attractive states of mind seem so readily and recurrently to alter into the most repugnant states. In general, mental modifications obscure and obstruct the intrinsically blissful nature of pure consciousness, the serene state of mind of the "spectator without a spectacle."

The five types of mental modifications are: correct cognition, based on direct perception, valid inference and verbal testimony; misconception, based upon something other than itself, namely the five kleshas or sources of sorrow – ignorance, egoism, attachment, hate and the fear of death, according to the Yogabhashya; fantasy, engendered by words and concepts, when and to the degree that they do not refer to reality; sleep, which occurs when other modifications cease and the mind is emptied of mental contents; and memory, which is the result of clinging to, or at least not letting go of, objects or images of subjective experiences. The chittavrittis can be diagrammatically depicted as follows:

[Mental Modifications Diagram]
Although this array of mental modifications is easy to outline, its implications are extensive and radical. When Patanjali included correct cognition amongst the mental modifications, he was adhering to strict theoretical and practical consistency. He was concerned to deny that mundane insight, discursive thought and even scriptural authority can free the mind from bondage to delusion and suffering. Yet without a preliminary apprehension of yoga philosophy, how could one adopt its methods and hope to achieve its aims? In part the answer lies in a proper grasp of the pervasiveness of maya or illusion. If everything that conceals the changeless Real is maya, then the human being who seeks to know the Real by conventional methods is trapped in some sort of metaphysical split or even schizophrenia. Philosophers from the pre-Socratics and Platonists to Descartes and Spinoza recognized that a substance cannot become what it is not. To say that human beings are intrinsically capable of attaining kaivalya, self-emancipation or transcendence of maya, is to affirm that they are quintessentially what they seek. Their inmost nature is one with the Real. On the other hand, to say that they have to strive in earnest to realize fully what they essentially are implies that they have allowed themselves to become captive to maya through persistent self-limitation.

Given this delusive condition, the mere temporary cessation of modifications, such as occurs in sleep, will not help to liberate man"s immortal spirit. As maya is pervasive illusion, humanity as it knows itself is a part of it. Ignorant or involuntary withdrawal from its action only makes it unconscious, and this is why sleep is classed as one of the chittavrittis. Rather, one has to master the rules of maya and learn how to extricate oneself gradually from it. Otherwise, one only makes random moves, embedding oneself in deeper ignorance and greater suffering. Patanjali taught that deliverance can only come through abhyasa, assiduous practice, and vairagya, dispassionate detachment. Abhyasa is the active opposite of passive sleep, and vairagya frees one from all attachments, including the kleshas, which induce misconceptions. Together, these two mirror in the world of change that which is changeless beyond it. In the language of the Isha Upanishad, one has to find the transcendent in the immanent, and for Patanjali, abhyasa and vairagya constitute exactly that mode of awareness.

For Patanjali, however, abhyasa is not just striving to do something; it is rather the effort to be something. "Abhyasa is the continuous effort to abide in a steady state." According to the Yogabhashya, abhyasa is the attempt to preserve prashantavahita, continuity of mind or consciousness which is both fully awake and without fluctuations. Like all such spiritual exercises, abhyasa becomes richer, more refined and more relaxed with persistence that comes from repeated effort, moral earnestness and joyous devotion. Abhyasa is the constant criterion for all effort, and the indispensable tool, whenever and however taken up.

Vairagya cannot be merely passive disinterest in the content of experience any more than sleep can substitute for wakeful serenity. It is true detachment whilst being fully aware of the relative significance of objects, and this element of self-conscious maintenance of calm detachment is exactly what makes it real vairagya. Through vairagya, one comes to know the world for what it is because one recognizes that every object of sense, whether seen or unseen, is an assemblage of evanescent attributes or qualities (gunas) of prakriti, whereas the enduring reality, from the standpoint of the seeker for emancipation, is purusha, the Self of all. Shankaracharya stated: "The seer of purusha becomes one who is freed from rejecting or accepting anything.... Detachment is extreme clarity of cognition."

Abhyasa and vairagya are fused in the intense yet serene mental absorption known as samadhi. Patanjali characterized samadhi (which means "concentration", "contemplation" and "meditation", depending on the context) in relation to a succession of stages, for if samadhi signifies a specific state, the contemplative seeker would either abide in it or fail to do so. But Patanjali knew that no one can suddenly bridge the gap between fragmented, distracted consciousness and wholly unified meditation. Rather, concentration (samadhi) proceeds by degrees for one who persists in the effort, because one progressively overcomes everything that hinders it. In the arduous ascent from greater degrees of relative maya towards greater degrees of reality, the transformation of consciousness requires a calm apprehension of those higher states. The conscious descent from exalted planes of being requires the capacity to bring down a clearer awareness of reality into the grosser regions of maya. Continuous self-transformation on the ascent must be converted into confident self-transmutation on the descent.

Patanjali saw in the evolving process of meditation several broad but distinct levels of samadhi. The first is sanprajnata samadhi, cognitive contemplation, in which the meditator is aware of a distinction between himself and the thought he entertains. This form of meditation is also called sabija samadhi, or meditation with a seed (bija), wherein some object or specific theme serves as a focal point on which to settle the mind in a steady state. Since such a point is extrinsic to pure consciousness, the basic distinction between thinker and thought persists. In its least abstracted form, sanprajnata samadhi involves vitarka (reasoning), vichara (deliberation), ananda (bliss) and asmita (the sense of "I"). Meditation is some sort of bhavana, or becoming that upon which one ponders, for consciousness identifies with, takes on and virtually becomes what it contemplates. Meditation on a seed passes through stages in which these types of conditioning recede and vanish as the focal point of consciousness passes beyond every kind of deliberation and even bliss itself, until only asmita or the pure sense of "I" remains. Even this, however, is a limiting focus which can be transcended.

Asanprajnata samadhi arises out of meditation on a seed though it is itself seedless. Here supreme detachment frees one from even the subtlest cognition and one enters nirbija samadhi, meditation without a seed, which is self-sustaining because free of any supporting focalization on an object. From the standpoint of the succession of objects of thought – the type of consciousness all human beings experience in a chaotic or fragmentary way and a few encounter even in meditation on a seed – nirbija samadhi is nonexistence or emptiness, for it is absolutely quiescent consciousness. Nonetheless, it is not the highest consciousness attainable, for it is the retreat of mind to a neutral (laya) centre from which it can begin to operate on a wholly different plane of being. This elevated form of pure consciousness is similar to a state experienced in a disembodied condition between death and rebirth, when consciousness is free of the involvement with vestures needed for manifestation in differentiated matter. Just as an individual becomes unconscious when falling into deep dreamless sleep, because consciousness fails to remain alert except in conditions of differentiation, so too consciousness in a body becomes unconscious and forgetful of its intrinsic nature on higher planes. Samadhi aims to restore that essential awareness self-consciously, making the alert meditator capable of altering planes of consciousness without any loss of awareness.

For earnest practitioners, Patanjali taught, samadhi is attained in several distinct but interrelated ways – through shraddha (faith), virya (energy), smriti (retentiveness) and prajna (intellectual insight) – which are vital prerequisites for the metapsychological yoga of samadhi. Shraddha is the calm and confident conviction that yoga is efficacious, coupled with the wholehearted orientation of one"s psychic, moral and mental nature towards experiential confirmation. Undistracted shraddha of this sort leads naturally to virya, energy which releases the resolve to reach the goal and the resourceful courage needed to persist in seeking it. In The Voice of the Silence, an ancient text of spiritual discipline, virya is viewed as the fifth of seven keys required to unlock seven portals on the path to wisdom. In this text, virya follows upon dana, shila, kshanti and viraga (vairagya) – charity, harmony in conduct, patience, and detachment in regard to the fruits of action – all suggesting the hidden depths of shraddha which can release dauntless energy in the pursuit of Truth.

Smriti implies the refinement of memory which helps to extract the essential lesson of each experience without the needless elaboration of irrelevancies. It requires the perception of significant connections and the summoning of full recollection, the soulmemory stressed by Plato wherein one awakens powers and potentialities transcending the experiences of a lifetime. Prajna, released by such inner awakenings, enables consciousness to turn within and cognize the deeper layers of oneself. Seen and strengthened in this manner, one"s innate soul-wisdom becomes the basis of one"s progressive understanding of the integral connection between freedom and necessity. In time, the "is" of external facticity becomes a vital pointer to the "ought" of the spiritual Path and the "can" of one"s true self-hood.

Supreme meditation, the most complete samadhi, is possible for those who can bring clarity, control and imaginative intensity to daily practice. Yet Patanjali"s instructions, like those of an athletic coach who guides the gifted but also aids those who show lesser promise, apply to every seeker who sincerely strives to make a modest beginning in the direction of the highest samadhi as well as to those able to make its attainment the constant target of their contemplations. He spoke explicitly of those whose progress is rapid but also of those whose efforts are mild or moderate. An individual"s strivings are stimulated to the degree they recognize that they are ever reaching beyond themselves as they have come to think of themselves through habit, convention, weakness and every form of ignorance. Rather than naively thinking that one is suddenly going to surmount every obstacle and obscuration in one"s own nature, one can sedulously foster bhakti, total devotion and willing surrender to Ishvara, the Supreme Spirit immanent in all souls, even if one has hardly begun to grasp one"s true self- hood. Such sustained devotion is ishvarapranidhana, the potent invocation of the Supreme Self through persistent surrender to It, isomorphic on the plane of consciousness with abnegation of the fruits of all acts to Krishna on the plane of conduct, as taught in the Bhagavad Gita.

Ishvara is saguna brahman, the supreme repository of all resplendent qualities, in contrast to nirguna brahman, the attributeless Absolute. Ishvara is purusha, "untouched by troubles, actions and their results" (I.24), immanent in all prakriti. Cherishing the one source of all is the means by which one moves through degrees of samadhi, culminating in the complete union of the individual and the cosmic, the state of kaivalya or isolation. Like Kether, the crown in the Kabbalah, Ishvara is at once the single motivating force behind the cosmic activity of prakriti and the utterly transcendent (nirguna) purusha or pure spirit. What exists in each human soul as the latent bud of omniscience is awakened and it expands into the realm of infinitude in Ishvara itself. Untouched by time and therefore untrammelled by ordinary consciousness which is time-bound, Ishvara is the supreme Initiator of all, from the ancient Rishis to the humble disciple sitting in meditation. Ishvara is OM, the primal sound, the basic keynote of all being, the source of the music of the spheres, mirrored in the myriad manifestations of prakriti. Surrender to Ishvara is aided by the silent repetition of the sacred OM and by deep meditation upon its mystery and meaning. When bhakti flows freely in this rapturous rhythm, consciousness readily turns inward and removes all hindrances to progress in samadhi.

Surrender to the luminous core of one"s consciousness, which is more powerful than one"s strongest proclivities, initiates a mighty countervailing force against the cumulative momentum generated by the chittavrittis. As the mind has grown accustomed to indulge, identify with and even cherish ceaseless modifications, any attempt to check those modifications runs against the self-reproducing tenacity of longestablished habits, impressions and tendencies. The chittavrittis are virtually infinite in their discrete manifestations and yet are amenable to broad classification on the basis of essential traits. The hindrances which aggravate mental distraction, fragmented consciousness and continual modification are disease, dullness, doubt, heedlessness, indolence, addiction to objects of sense, distorted perception, and failure to stabilize the mind in any particular state. Though distinct from each other, these distractions are all accompanied by sorrow (duhkha), depression, bodily agitation and irregular breathing. They can, however, be most effectively eliminated through abhyasa, or constant practice of a single truth or principle. Whilst any profound truth which deeply moves one can be chosen, to the degree that it is true – and so to the degree that it is efficacious over time – it is ekatattva, the one principle, which in Sankhya philosophy is purusha or pure spirit.

Overcoming mental obstructions through abhyasa in respect to one principle requires the progressive purification of the mind, freeing it from the froth and dross of old patterns fostered by feeble and fickle attention. Most seekers typically find easiest and most effective a concerted effort to expand the feeling of friendliness towards all beings, compassion for every creature, inward gladness and a cool detachment in regard to pleasure and pain, virtue and vice. On the physical plane of human nature, one can learn to make one"s breathing calm and even, steady and rhythmical. Through intense concentration, one can begin to awaken subtler perceptions which are not subject to hindrances in the way the ordinary sense-organs are, to an almost grotesque extent. One may even activate a spark of buddhi, pure insight and deep penetration, sensing the vast ocean of supernal cosmic light which interpenetrates and encloses everything. Some seekers will find it more feasible to contemplate the lustrous splendour of a mythic, historical or living being who is a paragon of supreme self-mastery. Others may benefit by brooding on flashes of reminiscence that recur in dreams or come from deep dreamless sleep. Patanjali also pointed out that one could gain mental stability by meditating intently upon what one most ardently desired. In the words of Charles Johnston, "Love is a form of knowledge", when it is profound and sacrificial, constant and unconditional.

All such efforts to surmount the hindrances which distract the mind are aids to deep meditation, and when they have fully worked their benevolent magic, the becalmed mind becomes the effortless master of everything which comes into the horizon of consciousness, from the atomic to the infinite. When all the hindrances disappear, mental modifications cease and the mind "becomes like a transparent crystal, attaining the power of transformation, taking on the colour of what it rests on, whether it be the cognizer, the cognized or the act of cognition" (I.41). When the mind is distracted through discursive trains of thought, it tends to oscillate between passive disorientation and aggressive attempts to conceal its ignorance through contentious and partisan fixations. But when the memory is purged of external traces and encrusted conditionality, and the mind is withdrawn from all limiting conceptions – including even its abstract self-image, thus focussed solely on ekatattva, truth alone – it is free from obscuration, unclouded (nirvitarka), and sees each truth as a whole. It notices the subtle elements behind shifting appearances, including the noumenal, primordial and undifferentiated sources and causes of all mental modifications. This serene self-emancipation of consciousness is called sabija samadhi, meditation with a seed, the fulcrum for gaining all knowledge. In this sublime condition, the mind has become as pellucid as crystal and mirrors the spiritual light of purusha, whence dawns direct insight (prajna) into the ultimate Truth.

Unlike other methods of cognizing truth – which concern this or that and hence are involved with samvritti satya, relative truths, though truths nonetheless – prajna has but one single object for its focus, the Supreme Truth itself (paramartha satya). Its power displaces and transcends all lesser forms of truth, exiling them permanently from consciousness. Beyond this lies only that indescribable state called nirbija samadhi, meditation without a seed, wherein the mind lets go of even Truth itself as an object. When the mind ceases to function, the Yogabhashya teaches, purusha becomes isolated, pure and liberated. Mind has become the pure instrument that guides the soul ever closer to that threshold where, when reached, spirit steps from false finitude into inconceivable infinitude, leaving the mind behind, passing into kaivalya, total isolation or supreme freedom. The last psychic veil is drawn aside and the spiritual man stands with unveiled vision. As M.N. Dvivedi commented, "The mind thus having nothing to rest upon exhausts itself. . . and purusha alone shines in perfect bliss and peace." "The Light", I.K. Taimni remarked, "which was up to this stage illuminating other objects now illuminates Itself, for it has withdrawn beyond the realm of these objects. The Seer is now established in his own Self."

Having depicted the entire path leading from ignorance and bewilderment to beatific illumination, Patanjali saw only two tasks remaining: (1) to explain in detail the diverse means for attaining concentration and meditation, and (2) to elucidate the idea of kaivalya or isolation, insofar as it is possible to convey it through words.

Hermes, February 1989
by Raghavan Iyer