Here is a summary of my keynote lecture at this years British Wheel of Yoga Congress in Coventry/ UK, which was published in the summer edition of Spectrum. It explains how the concepts of samadhi and bhakti interdigitate and in the process sums up the the main elements of yoga’s transformatory process. You will also find information on the key obstacles to samadhi and their relationship to the biological and spiritual evolution of life on Earth. The article completes with a description of the eight classical samadhis according to Patanjali:
Krishnamacharya was once asked what the relationship was between Patanjali’s eight-limbed yoga and bhakti. “The eight limbs are the eight limbs of bhakti”, he said.
In the Yoga Sutra the eight-limbed path is set out in a highly systematised form, we could say a scientific form. We are not surprised, then, to see that the octave of the eight limbs repeats itself in the fact that there are eight different samadhis not just one – more on that later. About 50 per cent of the sutras deal with samadhi in its many aspects. On the other hand, about five to eight per cent of Patanjali’s stanzas deal with the subject of bhakti. On first glance the text seems to primarily deal with samadhi, or what we today often call Raja Yoga. But as T Krishnamacharya pointed out, the term ishvara pranidhana is the one term that does actually occur four times in the Yoga Sutra. And this is obviously because Patanjali deemed it necessary that on the path of samadhi, at each turn and twist, we need to put ourselves into the service of a higher intelligence.
However, before we can tackle that let’s first put some legs under the subject so that we can understand where we are going and how we got into the present situation. We need to first understand:
- the obstacles to samadhi in the form of conditioning, subconscious imprint, karma and their relation to our evolutionary past
- the way to remove the obstacles, which we can learn through applying the panchakosha doctrine of the Taittiriya Upanishad
- the way to progress through the eight samadhis enabling us to live a life in service to a higher intelligence or poetically, living life as Divine Love.
Obstacles to samadhi
When we think of ourselves we often, quite mistakenly, believe ourselves to be individuals whose history started a few decades ago with our birth. We also believe that we are the doers, despite the fact that Krishna says in the Gita: “All actions are performed by my prakriti, only a fool believes to be the doer.” Think for a moment! You go to bed and in the morning, you wake up with your heart still beating and your lungs still breathing although you were unconscious. Look at the fruit in your hand! Can you honestly say that you can convert its thousands of phytonutrients, most of which still have not been named and researched, into tissues of your body and actions such as locomotion? If we were to take the world’s 1,000 greatest biologists and tell them to build a machine that can turn food into the incredible variety of actions that humans can perform, they would be stumped.
How about thought! Can you honestly say that you are producing all your thoughts? Are they not happening to you anyway and you actually find it difficult to stop them, even if you wanted to? So, something else is breathing you, making your heart beat, thinking you, living, expressing and experiencing itself through you. What is it? In the Gita Krishna calls it his prakriti, which is another word for prana, the life force. For the purpose of this article I will call it evolution. It was actually Sri Aurobindo who beautifully linked both terms in his A Synthesis of Yoga by saying, “The billion-year-long evolution of life on earth is one giant act of yoga by the prakriti to lift all matter up to Divine Consciousness.” That is much more than just a beautiful thought. I would call it a political programm for our evolutionary future.
So, let’s have a look at a few important facts of evolution and see how they impact our yoga. The whole process of evolution of life is seemingly miraculous, but one fact really sticks out. About 750 million years ago an archaeon (original form of single-cell organism) fused with a bacterium and they formed, via bio-symbiosis, the base for complex, multi-cellular organisms. From this moment evolution never turned back and a race to complexity began.
Bio-symbiosis means that life-forms co-exist for mutual benefit. An important thought for the samadhi yogi as samadhi ultimately is not a quest to sit high and aloof on a mountain-top but to find ways in how they can be of service to others. It is this that the evolutionary force has always done. Notice the next time you cooperate with colleagues at work and understand that this is not something that humans have developed. It is part of our long evolutionary history and it’s a history that we all of us carry around in our bodies.
We need to now have a brief look at how our brain developed during the evolutionary process as it is the main-organ we will be using for our yoga. For the purpose of simplicity, we can look at our brain as three-storied – the so-called triune brain consisting of brainstem, limbic brain and the neocortex. These layers or structure developed during our evolutionary periods as reptiles, mammals and primates respectively and they impressively show that each of us still today has reptilian, mammalian and primate aspects to their behaviour. This is why sometimes it’s not just straight forward to be human. Neurological signals are wired through these three brains in an exceedingly complex way and determine our actions. Again, this shows us that we didn’t just start with our birth. We carry the entire evolutionary history of life on earth on our backs, between our ears and in our bodies.
The next thing I’d like you to look at is the evolution of a child, the learning and growing-up process. During childhood until we are about seven years old, the brain is predominantly in a theta brainwave pattern. This is a hypnotic pattern during which we emulate first our primary carers and later our peers and it enables us to assimilate and duplicate their programming. We could say we are downloading their brain software for faster and more efficient learning. It is a technique largely developed by mammals where parents pass on an enormous amount of behavioural pattern to their progeny to increase their ability to survive and benefit the community around them. You may know, for example, that if you speak to your child in four different languages they will be able to pick them all up gradually until about the age of 12, after which it becomes somewhat more difficult.
The reason for this hypnotic state exists for the infant or young mammal is because it enables us to learn so much faster, by emulating. However, it does come at a cost. We also download the brain-malware of those we duplicate. At around 12, or the onset of puberty, something entirely new happens. We develop a new way of being self-conscious, which enables us to critically think and to reject behavioural patterns of those around us. But for most of us, we only ever critically examine what is served to us from this age onwards. Most of us identify with the personality we are today. But a big part of this personality was created by us unconsciously downloading the mental software of those around us, including their thoughts, habits and beliefs. And often this software does not suit us. Often it is laden with superstition, tribal beliefs such as the superiority of one nation over another, self-depreciating and even self-sabotaging belief systems. How do those beliefs hold you back in your yoga?
When Paramahamsa Ramakrishna was once asked how he attained samadhi he said, “by totally accepting it”. Have you ever tried to “totally accept samadhi”? I’d like to invite you to do it. I did, and in my case, nothing happened. I then asked, “why not”? First there was no answer, but after simply persisting I heard, “because you are not good enough, you don’t deserve it”. It was only too inviting to stop there and I think most of us have heard this judgment pronounced about ourselves. But I persisted and asked, ”why?” By listening for a very long time I received a long list of reasons why I wasn’t good enough, going back through my whole life, including every single thing I had done wrong. But then going back further, including my parents and a long line of ancestors going far back to Cain and Abel and further back to non-human ancestors. Apparently, we always were and never will be good enough!
At this point, it became blatantly obvious that what blocked my process towards samadhi was what in modern psychology is called trauma. And not just personal trauma, but collective trauma, including family, tribal, national trauma and trauma related to whole species and the whole of life.
How then can we get rid of trauma, that is our negative past, that impinges on our development? How can we delete all the mental malware that we have picked up in our personal and evolutionary past? The basis of the process is first mentioned in the Taittiriya Upanishad. The Upanishad introduces the pancha kosha model according to which a human being has five layers and Patanjali’s deconditioning process is based on it. I will deal here with the first three layers which we will simply call body, breath and mind and the two deeper layers are treated later when dealing with the process of samadhi.
Yoga says that whatever we think, feel, say or do will place a subconscious imprint (that’s quite obvious, psychology says exactly the same). If similar subconscious imprints are placed, they eventually coalesce to become conditioning (vasana) and eventually robotic behaviour. Importantly, Patanjali picks up the Upanishadic concept of the three outer layers in Yoga Sutra II.31, where he says that the obstacles to yoga surface as mental disorder, physical problems and an unsteady breathing pattern. Let’s not get too bogged down exactly how he names the three distortions but the important thing is he says they surface in body, breath and mind! This means that in order to get rid of them we can’t just work on the body or the mind, but must work on all three. Yoga therefore uses asana to release trauma from the body, pranayama to release it from the breathing pattern and meditation to release it from the mind. It seems blatantly obvious, but if we are to succeed with undoing painful conditioning of the ages and if we are to get better with simply “accepting samadhi” then a concerted approach of asana, pranayama and meditation is necessary. And to be complete I should mention that all three methods should consist of a similar, each supporting the other architecture and shouldn’t be higgledy-piggledy, mixed together.
The eight samadhis
Now, that we have understood how to delete past conditioning and trauma, for the purpose of this article I will now fast forward and show what happens after we have enacted a conditioning-deleting course of asana, pranayama and yogic meditation. We are now ready to practice the eight samadhis. The first four of them are didactic samadhis. I will cover them briefly:
- Savitarka samapatti (deliberative identity): here the mind successfully duplicates a simple, gross object. Gross means perceptible to the senses. All yogic meditation objects need to be sattvic, that is make the mind inclined to the sacred. So, for example, the OM symbol is sattvic, however the dollar symbol is not as it makes the mind rajasic, in effect inclined to acquisition. Ideal gross objects to start with would, for example, include a rose (symbol for divine love), a lotus flower (symbol for divine purity) or a frangipani flowers (symbol for divine perfection and eternity). I’ve also successfully worked with clear crystals and they are even mentioned in Yoga Sutra I.41, but I’m always a bit sheepish to admit that as they are associated with looking into the future. Believe me, the present rocks much more!The important part of this samapatti is that in order for it to be accepted as a samapatti and not just dharana (concentration) or dhyana (meditation), the object in the mind must be an identical duplicate of the object contemplated. Or to reverse paraphrase the Polish mathematician Alfred Korzybski, the map is now the territory!
- Nirvitarka samapatti (super-deliberative identity): same as before with one important difference. In the savitarka variety a part of the mind holds an identical duplicate of the object, while another part may deliberate on it (but not on something else). In the nirvitarka variety such deliberation has ceased and as Patanjali has it, “only the object shines forth”. That raises the bar considerably.
- Savichara samapatti (reflective identity): same as the first samapatti but with an important difference. The object is now not a gross object, but a subtle one, in effect one that is not perceptible to the senses. The most important subtle objects that yogis meditate on are the chakras. Chakras are not some bugaboo-mumbo-jumbo-claptrap but they are yogic speak for evolutionary brain circuitry. The lower three chakras are representations of our reptilian, mammalian and primate brain functions and the upper chakras representations of our future possible evolution. I have described this in detail in my book Yoga Meditation: Through Mantra, Chakras and Kundalini to Spiritual Freedom. Of course, to hold an identical duplicate of a subtle object in mind again raises the bar considerably.
- Nirvichara samapatti (super-reflective identity): same as before but here without any other movement going on in the mind. When this is attained the mind becomes like a clear crystal revealing the true nature of everything that it is directed at (sutra I.41) and memory and intelligence are purified of their past (sutra I.43 and 47).
I will now go on to briefly describe the four higher samadhis, which seem stupendous at first, but they must be seen against the backdrop of what has been said so far.
- Ananda samadhi (ecstatic revelation): the key to this samadhi is conveniently hidden in plain sight in sutra I.40, that is “mastery of it is gained from focusing on the smallest to the greatest”. To enter it, the so-called ego (mental software identifying the mind with the body) and the so-called mind (word processor or mental software that assigns word symbols to sensations perceived) need to temporarily be suspended. Don’t let anybody tell you that you have to permanently suspend them. You’d actually be a vegetable if you did that. Freud said so and he was right. Once “ego” and “mind” are temporarily suspended the sense of self starts to expand until it eventually encompasses the whole biosphere or even the whole cosmos, hence the popular term cosmic consciousness. This samadhi will give the yogi a visceral experience of the fact that the whole biosphere acts as one super-intelligent super-organism in which all life symbiotically works together to create more life. It also reveals to the yogi that there is no such thing as dumb or dead matter. That in fact all matter, the whole cosmos is the crystallised body of a super-intelligence that we are just beginning to fathom. An intelligence that is thinking, breathing and acting through us as the next samadhi will show.
- Asmita samadhi (individuation revelation): Is it possible to go even higher than this? Yes, it is! In Asmita samadhi the sense of personality, the sense that we are selfish-gene powered flesh-robots designed to maximise our self-interest to outcompete others, is completely surrendered to feel the super-intelligence seen in ananda samadhi now consciously enacting itself through us. In popular parlance glimpses of this state are called “being-in-the-zone”. There is a passage in the Shrimad Bhagavatam where Krishna says, “If the devotee turns towards me and recognises me I cannot but rush there and embrace the devotee. There is no greater thrill to me than that”. And there is also no greater thrill for the individual, too. Because as we turn towards the Divine and realise what it wants to become as us we do nothing but realise our own svadharma (own-duty), which culminates in a life in-the-zone of living divine will. Evolution up to this point was an unconscious process and a one-way street. Cosmic intelligence was evolving in matter as life, as Aurobindo would have it. At the level of this samadhi for the first time we recognise that the Divine, Cosmic Intelligence, is a process that processes itself through us. The fact that the Divine is not static but a process was thoroughly realised and expressed by British mathematician Alfred North Whitehead in Process and Reality. Expect to find great yogis in unexpected places. At this point we realise that the Cosmos can enact itself only ever on the cosmic level. In order to experience and enact itself on the individual level it must do so through us, through life. For this reason, I render the term Asmita Samadhi as “individuation revelation” because it reveals that we, you, I, all of us are nothing but individuations of the Divine or Cosmic Intelligence. With this experience we cease to be limited by our personal experience and for the first time can place ourselves in the service of this higher intelligence and all it expresses itself through. And there is nothing through which it does not express itself. This is the true purpose of samadhi: it is the way for the Divine to embody itself through us as Divine Love.
I will describe the remaining two samadhis only briefly as for our current evolutionary state the ananda and asmita varieties are the two most important ones.
- Samyama (super-concentration or science-founder samadhi). Only once one has surrendered all egotistical self-interest to the Divine and the good of all should this samadhi be tackled. Its purpose is to bring new branches of knowledge, new sciences into our perception. In our current state scientific breakthroughs are often only used for the monetary benefit of a selected elite. That shows that we are not yet ready to handle the powers we have unleashed.
- Asamprajnata samadhi (super-cognitive samadhi) or samadhi-beyond-cognition-of-object. This is the highest, final and classical objectless samadhi. The problem is that it is projected as the one and only goal of yoga. Asamprajnata’s purpose is to reunite the individual with the transcendental godhead, a process that the Buddha called Mahaparinirvana (final dissolution). This is something that will surely come but we need not make haste. Before dissolving in the transcendental godhead like a drop that falls into the ocean losing its individuality, we need to do something very important and that is to find out, each and every one for themselves, what is our divine duty (svadharma)? In ananda and asmita samadhi we experience that there is only one self that we all share. And not only we humans share this one self but we share it with animals, plants, rivers, geological formations, etc (experienced in ananda samadhi). The question is then, what is our purpose here? The answer is to be keepers of this garden of Eden, each and every one of us in our own way! And not its destroyers. This is a knowledge that was handed down by all indigenous cultures and unfortunately it has been lost in all cultures emerging from the so-called sky religions.
Samadhi teaches us again that all matter is divine and all life and all sites are sacred. It teaches us that all beings are embodiments of the divine. To live life then is to serve the Divine by providing it with a conduit to express itself as Divine Love towards all beings and all creation. It is to be in love with life in all its forms. This is the true meaning of bhakti.
You can also view the article in Spectrum here