What an everyday spiritual experience can feel like
Or: On everyday glimpses of samadhi and their potential to transform our lives
Today, I am going to write about a topic which is a frequent source of debate amongst yoga teachers: What is samadhi and how can it be attained?
The Sanskrit term “samadhi” refers to the deepest stage of meditation in which the observer, the object of observation and the process of observation all become one. If this sounds a bit too technical, you can also just think of samadhi as a deep stage of meditative consciousness in which you get fully absorbed into the present moment and you are no longer aware of yourself as a separated human being. Further to this, one of the main characteristics of a samadhi state is a complete stillness of the mind that allows us to finally perceive the world in a different, more objective and primordial way, since all our subjective projections are gone.
For the sake of clarity it is important to know that the term “samadhi” is used not only in yoga but also in Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism and Jainism.
In this text, I will be talking about samadhi in the context of Patanjali’s yoga sutra, one of the best-known texts on yoga philosophy and practice, which dates back about 2000 years.
The yoga sutra prominently discusses samadhi and its different stages. Especially in its first chapter, which is even called “samadhi pada”, as well in the context of the widely known ashtanga marga, the eightfold path of yoga practice, in the third chapter. It is here that samadhi rounds off the meditative process of samyama (= holding together, tying up, binding, integration), which progresses from dharana (concentration) towards dhyana (meditation) and finally reaches samadhi (oneness).
The term samadhi can be translated in many different ways but all possible translations ultimately fail to properly describe this highest stage of consciousness, which lies beyond the rational mind and therefore also beyond words. This also makes clear why talking about samadhi is inherently difficult, as the only way of proving a statement about samadhi right or wrong is through our own direct experience.
When studying the yoga sutra, dealing with samadhi and its manifold stages can have a rather daunting effect on the reader. The impression may occur that samadhi can only be reached after years and years of practice or maybe not even in this lifetime. As far as my knowledge goes, there are only two verses in the yoga sutra that talk about alternative ways of reaching samadhi, which do not require so much effort – at least not in the current lifetime. Sutra I.19 and III.1 both mention that it is possible to spontaneously experience samadhi if there has been an intense yoga/meditation practice in previous lifetimes.
However, without going into further details here, I am fully convinced that we all repeatedly experience “samadhi moments” in our lives. I would argue that – in modern terms – you could also think of samadhi as a kind of flow state in which you completely lose yourself, where time becomes irrelevant and whatever you are doing becomes effortless.
As mentioned above, “samadhi” is actually a very broad term that encompasses many different stages. When I talk about “samadhi moments”, I do not mean that these are in the realm of the higher stages of samadhi but I am quite sure that they would definitely qualify for some of the lower samadhi stages.
Let me now illustrate this point with a personal glimpse of samadhi, I was lucky to experience just a few days ago:
The experience I want to tell you about wasn’t very spectacular at all but rather quiet and yet profound. I was working all-day long on the latest version of my yoga manual and only took a short break after lunchtime to buy a few groceries at a nearby petrol station. Already there I noticed that I was communicating in a different, much more easy-going and “from the heart” way with a shop employee. I also noticed that involuntarily my lips turned into smiles and I walked much more lightly than usual. At the time, I didn’t think too much about it but just went back home and continued working.
In the evening, a good friend came by and we went for a barefoot walk up to Konsipark (one of my favourite spots in Luzern). Once we got there, we were lucky to find the bench with the nicest view underneath the ancient lime tree free. After sitting down, we talked for a bit and all of a sudden, my ears began hearing in a different way than ever before. My hearing capacity just kind of expanded – I really felt like I was hearing three-dimensionally and simultaneously all the rich sounds of nature around me, drinking in the multi-facetted song of birds, the faint background humming of crickets, the rustling of the wind in the leaves above, faint piano notes from the nearby music academy…
It was as if my ears had been unblocked and I was finally able to really hear for the first time in my life. I can’t recall having had a similar experience ever before. It lasted for quite a while and then slowly, my hearing capacity went back to its everyday state.
We began walking back home and even there, my friend noticed that I was walking and just generally moving/acting in a different, much lighter and more playful way than usual. I didn’t really notice it myself until he pointed it out to me. A little while later we met a couple who was walking their dog (a Golden Retriever) and we briefly stopped, as they had a question about an ownerless dog, we had just seen as well. While we were talking to them, my hand just started stroking their dog – something I would never normally do, as I am always a bit watchful around dogs, having been bitten more than once in my childhood. All of a sudden, my consciousness rushed back into my mind and when I realized what I had just been doing, I felt quite perplexed but also pleasantly surprised.
I think this is what it means to be, act and move truly in and from the body – to be fully “embodied” – guided by intuition (buddhi), without the tainting of the mind (manas) and ego (ahamkara). (Don’t worry if you don’t know these Sanskrit terms – I have just thrown them in for those who might be familiar.)
Once back home, it didn’t seem necessary to spend many more thoughts on this experience, as it spoke for itself, and so I went to bed not much later. However, the night that followed was a night of intense dreaming. In the morning, I remembered several dreams but one of them was especially profound – probably one of the most intense dreams I’ve had since my winter expedition to Poland in December 2017 (which triggered intense dreaming as well).
Now, that you have read about my recent glimpse of samadhi, I would like to invite you to take a moment and reflect on the following questions to find out if and when you might have had samadhi experiences yourself:
- When was I able to be fully present in the current moment?
- When did I feel a deep sense of clarity / calm / understanding within myself?
- When did I feel a deep sense of connection (with myself / with the world around me / with nature / with another person / with a group of people / with an animal / … )?
- When did I feel a deep sense of joy / fulfilment / gratitude within myself?
The answers you are finding to these questions might be pointing you towards those activities, situations or surroundings in your life that can give you a deep sense of purpose, joy and fulfilment, for samadhi is also known to be a blissful state. And maybe you feel after reflecting on these questions that you would like to create a bit more space in your life for such “samadhi promoting activities”.
For even though these samadhi moments may be brief for the most part, they nevertheless can have a tremendous transformative potential and subtly shift the way we view, feel and interact with the world and the people around us, allowing us to feel more connected, less fearful and just generally lighter and more “whole”.
As for myself, when it comes to my understanding of samadhi, the main challenge is not to reach it but to stay in it – not only for a brief few seconds but for extended periods of time. And this of course points us towards the ultimate stage of samadhi which would be a mind that is able to continuously reside in this highest stage of consciousness. Resting permanently in samadhi, is what yogis would call “enlightenment”.
While this may still seem a long way away (at least for me), I am already deeply grateful for these precious little glimpses of samadhi I get to experience from time to time, most often while I least expect it.
For although I have experienced samadhi moments also during “formal” meditation, even then, most often they didn’t necessarily occur as a consequence of dharana and dhyana. For me, samadhi from time to time just seems to come over me all of a sudden and often through the sensory organs such as hearing or touch. In the third chapter of the yoga sutra there are a few verses that speak about extraordinary sensory capacities, for example III.37 or III.42 but in order to find explanations or even methods for developing samadhi through the sensory organs, I most often turn to the Vijnana Bhairava, my most favourite book of yoga philosophy, which describes 112 methods of concentration that all may lead into samadhi.