Meditation Experiences According the Ashtanga Yoga Tradition: Commentary on Patanjali's Yoga Sutra
by Sarasvati Buhrman PhD.
This article is Part II from The
Yoga International Magazine, Jan/00.
Sometime after 350 B.C. a great yogi sage wrote the "Yoga Sutra".
This brief translation should wet your appetite. This describes the transformation of mind that
will unfold over a course of sadhana (spiritual practice), focusing on the
relationship between the mind and the object of meditation.
In (Part I) we discussed mediation experiences as they are
described from from the perspectives of bhakti yoga, hatha yoga, and
tantra. Here we will examine meditation experiences from the perspectives
of ashtanga (raja) yoga, but it is necessary to understand that the
Patanjali system does not actually describe mediation experiences
directly. Rather, it describes the transformations of mind that unfold
over the course of what for most of us is years of sadhana
(spiritual practice), and it does so by focusing on the relationship
between the mind and the object of meditation.
experiences can be attributed to specific stages of samadhi when, and only
when, they seem to meet all the criteria for that stage. The gap between
mind and experiences by providing what are appropriate examples of
There are three basic points , first
that samadhi is not something that only celibate yogis living in caves in
India can experience. In my 20 years of teaching yoga I have often been
struck by the number of people in North America who practice their
asanas's diligently, but do not practice pranayama and meditation because
they believe that they cannot progress in meditation while living a
householder's life. But the Upanishads, the Puranas, and the
Yoga vasishtha all contain stories of great yogis and yoginis who
were householders and parents. Other yoga practitioners, and even many
asana teachers, do not meditate because they do not understand the value
in doing so or because they have not taken the deeper teaching of yoga to
heart. Some also erroneously believe that they cannot begin pranayama and
meditation until they have perfected asana practice, a fatal misconception
which can indefinitely delay starting one of life's most important
Actually the first level of samadhi,
savitarka, is simply a deepening of dhyana. According to my
teacher, Baba Hari Dass, most meditators who practice regularly for an
hour or two every day attain this stage within a few years if they are
given proper instruction. Attaining samadhi (higher consciousness) may not
be easy, but it is certainly possible.
Second, it is
important to understand that when we say that a person achieves samadhi
during meditation practice we do not necessarily mean that the mind always
goes into that state and maintains it uninterruptedly for a long period.
While this can happen, often meditators experience samadhi for a short
period of time, and then their mind goes outward again and drops to a
lower level of consciousness. This outward flowing of the mind is called
vyutthana, and it happens when thoughts, attachments, desires and
memories about the outside world (which are temporarily suppressed in
samadhi) become active again. If the mind is able to regain the same depth
of concentration, we may be able to reenter samadhi. In this way we may go
into and out of samadhi several times in one meditation session. Through
the process of samadhi and vyutthana the mind makes a comparison
between the two states and feels the greater subtlety and peacefulness of
the samadhi state. This encourages the meditator to try again to attain
the higher state.
Third, samadhi is not a single state, but
rather a series of stages that unfold in a progression. Every stage of
samadhi invariably yields two kinds of fruit: some type of directly
experienced "knowledge" and some degree of non-attachment. As the yogi
advances on the path of sadhana the knowledge gained is increasingly
profound, and the non-attachment has a more deep and lasting effect on the
mind. Each stage may take months or years to achieve and even more time to
stabilize. How long this will take can vary enormously, depending on the
intensity of the meditator's desire for liberation, the intensity and
regularity of the practice, and one's samskaras (mental impressions) from
meditation practice performed in past lives. And, as Patanjali reminds us,
samadhi is also achieved through surrender to God.In each stage of samadhi
the aspirant must first fully experience what that stage can reveal, and
then lose attraction for it before he or she can advance to the next
stage. Progression through the stages of samadhi is also a process of
purification. Each stage purifies the mind, making it subtler and thus
capable of penetrating deeper into the levels of cosmic existence in order
for the next stage to be achieved.
Preparing the Mind
It is sometimes said that the first stages of the meditation
process are the most difficult, but each of the prior limbs of ashtanga
yoga contributes to the attainment of samadhi. The yamas and
niyamas purify the mind: asana makes it possible to sit comfortably
for long periods of time; pranayama provides energy to drive
concentration deeper. But Patanjali actually defines yoga as the cessation
of the thought-waves in the mind, (1:2)and the first steps toward this
goal (2:54) and 3:1) are to learn to withdraw one's attention from
externals (pratyahara)and to control the expression of the
thought-waves by concentration the mind on an object (dharana). The
term "object" does not refer exclusively to a physical object--it can be
anything which is spiritually meaningful to the meditator, like a
particular chakra, an image of a deity, the breath, the image of an
enlightened being, inner light, inner sound, mantra, etc. Ultimately it is
the concentration itself which produces samadhi, not the object.And the
source of all objects,which appears spontaneously in the mind when higher
stages are attained, is the same. But it is a hard austerity to teach the
mind to concentrate on one principle exclusively, and we can make it
easier for ourselves by choosing an object of meditation for which we feel
a personal affinity.
Dharana (the repeated effort to return
the mind to one's meditation object during meditation practice) eventually
develops into dhyana (the comparatively effortless flow of awareness from
the mind to the object), and dhyana in time develops into samadhi. When
dhyana is repeatedly attained, the peaceful or euphoric feelings produced
begin to balance the mind's resentment toward the discipline of
concentration.These experiences can fascinate the mind and encourage the
meditator to continue. Samadhi starts when the relationship between mind
and object deepens to the point at which the mind's awareness of its
concentration diminishes, and awareness of the object dominates the mind.
Stages of Samprajnata Samadhi
In book 1
of the Yoga Sutra, "Samadhi Pada," Patanjali introduces the concept
of samadhi and its stages in verses 17-23, and defines it more completely
in sutras 42-51. Patanjali defines two broad categories of samadhi:
samprajnata samadhi, or samadhi with higher knowledge, which occurs
through the absorption of the mind into an object; and asamprajnata
samadhi, "beyond higher knowledge," a very high stage in which there
is no object of concentration; rather, the yogi's consciousness is merged
into absolute consciousness, Purusha Because only asamprajnata
samadhi destroys the seeds of all samskaras remaining in the chitta
(the mind field) and thus gives ultimate freedom, or kaivalya, it is the
only state that brings about an alternation of consciousness which is
completely permanent. Asamprajnata samadhi is extremely difficult to
attain because of the high degree of mental purity, desirelessness, and
non-attachment which is required to achieve it.
Because it is non-dual in nature - and thus there is no sense of an
experiencer and an object of experience in asamprajnata samadhi -
"meditation experiences" cannot be properly discussed in relation to this
samadhi. Thus, experiences that we read about or hear described reflect
states of dhyana or different stages of samprajnata samadhi. These stages
of samprajnata samadhi unfold gradually, and repeated samadhi experiences
act to purify the mind. Over the long term the everyday mind also exhibits
a general progression toward greater clarity, understanding, peace, and
non-attachment because the positive samskaras which are laid down in the
chitta as the result of samadhi help to overpower our negative samskaras.
However, as the Buddha pointed out, samprajnata samadhi states are
impermanent, and thus ego, attachment, desires, fears, etc, can all
reappear in the waking state. So it is wise to remember that the stages of
samprajnata samadhi constitute important way stations whose realizations
profoundly shape the way we view the universe, but they are not the final
goal of practice.
I am indebted to my guru, Baba Hari Dass, for many of the ideas
presented in this article and to my guru brothers and sisters for their
In sutra 1:17 Patanjali tells us that
samprajnata samadhi comprises four stages: "Complete high
consciousness(samprajnata samadhi) is that which is accompanied by
vitarka (reasoning), vichara (reflection), sananda
(ecstasy), and sasmita (a sense of 'I'-ness)." In sutras 1:42-44
vitarka is subdivided into savitarka and nirvitarka, and vichara
into savichara and nirvichara; thus, in this understanding
of the division, there are six stages within the category of samprajnata
"Savitarka," according to Baba Hari Dass, means
"thought transformation on an object with the help of words." Perhaps it
is because so much of the everyday mind's processes, including words,
remain intact in this level of samadhi that many meditators do not
recognize that they have in fact experienced samadhi. In ordinary
consciousness the mind goes outward and thinks about many things, shifting
from one object/idea to another with great rapidity and fluidity. In
dharana and dhyana the thought-waves are slowed down and directed in a
continuous flow toward a single object rather than toward many objects. In
savitarka( reasoning with words) the ordinary mental functions still go
on, but identification with the object deepens so that the mind is less
aware! The mind is glued to the meditation object and cannot think about
any other object until the samadhi is broken.
in yogic terms, always carries a sense of distinguishing the real from the
unreal. When we see or remember objects in the external world our
perception triggers a combined cognition of artha, the physical
form or its recalled image; shabda, the sound or name with which we
communicate the object's identity to others; and jnana, personal or
cultural information about th e nature, purpose or function of that
object. For example, we all instantly know the meaning of the sound "cat"
when we hear it in English, but when speaking another language we would
use a different sound to identify a member of the same species. Similarly,
when we think about the function of a domestic cat we might think of cats'
historical roles as mouse-catchers in human habitations, or as companions,
or as predators with a particular role in the food chain. Wile all of
these are correct associations and represent correct knowledge, they are
also human projections - they tell us little about the true essence of
what it is to live and experience "catness," to experience an overwhelming
compulsion to chase moving objects, for example, or to lick the snow off
your paws in winter. Thus shabda and jnana are considered less real that
In savitarka samadhi all three of these components
are part of the process of contemplating the object of meditation, just as
they are part of our cognition of any object we choose to pay close
attention to in ordinary consciousness. Words are used as a support for
concentrating on and obtaining knowledge about our meditation object.
Thoughts about the object seem to flow spontaneously into the mind;
sometimes these thoughts represent correct and newly revealed knowledge
about the nature of the object that was not previously known to the
meditator; sometimes they are products of what was already known or
thought about in everyday awareness. For example, one of my guru sisters
once commented that when she meditated on the sound of OM thoughts would
spontaneously arise about the nature of OM, and that these thoughts seemed
to deepen her meditation rather than to distract her. Another person,
describing an experience of this same stage, lost awareness of body and
breath while meditating on a specific mantra. while the awareness of the
mantra repeating itself remained in the mind (shabda), as did her
understanding of the mantra's purposes for healing and liberation (jnana),
she experienced the artha, or essence of the mantra, as the healing
energies of light and peace permeating different subtle body centers.
Through repeated experiences of savitarka samadhi the mind
becomes capable of understanding the mahabhutas (the five states of
matter in Sankhya philosophy) and their functioning in the physical
universe. Baba Hari Dass wrote: "With the attainment of vitarka, or
reasoning samadhi, the aspirant realizes the bhutas to be the ultimate
basis for all visible phenomena. All gross knowables are directly
understood to be nothing but combinations of the five elements." Bodies of
knowledge that could be inferred to have arisen from the vitarka levels of
human consciousness are those that relate physical, mental, physiological,
and emotional expressions and tendencies of individual beings to universal
energy patterns of the physical cosmos (such as Ayurvedic medicine,
astrology, the practice of yoga asanas, and the relationship of sacred
language to form and object). Repeated experiences of savitarka samadhi
prepare the mind for the next stage, nirvitarka samadhi.
Nir means "without": niritarka samadhi refers to the
state in which mental alternations of shabda, artha, and jnana are
suspended. The less-real components, shabda and jnana, fall away
completely, while the mind is absorbed in only artha, or form, and loses
its awareness of being the knower. Thus the memory of personal and
cultural projections about the nature of the object of concentration (its
identifying sound or word in the meditator's language, and the accumulated
cultural knowledge and personal insights derived from this knowledge) are
temporarily transcended during nirvitarka samadhi. the mind becomes
immersed in artha alone, which is actually not only the image of the
physical form but also the feeling, function, and essence of it, revealed
through the mind's one-pointed absorption in its form. As the mind goes
deeper into the artha of the object the gross form is transcended and the
subtle underlay of the object is revealed.
As one yogini
recounted: "When I did my sitting practice just now, it seemed too noisy
outside to do my usual practice of nada yoga (concentration on the inner
sound), so I meditated on the guru instead. first I felt Babaji's energy
and his lovingness helping my meditation so that my brain became charged
with energy. Then I felt as if my body were his body: My legs are his
legs; I see inside his body and it is his body, and I can feel the shakti
of his body in my body. It is so blissful. Then the guru turned into
light; there was nothing but light."
If we look at what
happened in this experience, we can see that this yogini's mind first
merged into the physical form of the object of meditation (the subtle for
of the teacher), and then the resulting subtle for (light) was revealed as
her mind went deeper. The kind of knowledge obtained in this experience is
an example of pratyaksha (direct experience), one of the means to
pramana (right knowledge). The example also illustrates the way in
which nirvitarka saadhi acts as a bridge between the physical and subtle
Vichara samadhi (savichara and nirvichara) is
described by Patanjali in sutras 1:44 and 45: "Savichara and nirvichara
samadhis, in which the object is subtle, are also explained by the
foregoing (two sutras on savitarka and nirvitarka)," and "The state of
samadhi concerned with subtle objects extends up to Prakriti, the
source of all manifestation." In the nirvitarka example (meditation on the
guru), the yogini's mind penetrated to the subtle or tanmatric level of
her object of meditation. But when the mind begins to more fully explore
that subtle object (as in the nada yoga example), this is savichara
Notice, however, that the verbal thinking process
(our main tool for cognition in both ordinary consciousness and in
savitarka samadhi) was suppressed at the nirvitarka level. Therefore only
a subtle and largely non-verbal perceptual process is possible in
savichara. The words the yogi uses to describe the experience in these
samadhis come later, when the yogi recollects the experience. Nor is the
object of meditation still perceptible in its original form at this more
refined level of consciousness. Now the mind (buddhi) experiences
and explores the subtler level of the object through an alternation of
awareness between its spatial, temporal, and causal aspects.
As Baba Hari Dass explained: "In desh (space), kal (time),
nimita (cause) there is no way to think. The object is subtle, but it
takes place by itself. The more the concentration deepens, the more the
mind gets sharp and penetrates." Because of the experiential knowledge
gained in this samadhi, the yogi practicing at this level comes to view
the universe as one of subtle energies and subtle forms. Nirvitarka and
savichara samadhis can also make the mind more receptive to various
tanmatric experiences, such as the darshan (sight) of deities or other
subtle entities, the inner sounds (nada), the divine taste, the divine
smell, or the inner feeling of divine touch (see commentaries to sutra
1.35). Because of the fascinating nature of this stage it can create
strong attachment; therefore some meditators find it difficult to go
beyond savichara to attain the next stage, nirvichara, which requires
relinquishing all subtle differentiation.
samadhi deepens, the yogi may begin to develop an understanding of the
true nature of time and space and may also gain knowledge of certain
aspects of the mahat, or cosmic mind (objects up to Prakriti). In the
words of one practitioner: "[It is like] seeing in the light-field the
origin of thoughts, of form, of different energies, and of how it
manifests outward in the waves of prana emanating from one
undifferentiated source and ending with condensed differentiated objects."
In nirvichara samadhi sattva guna alone is active.
Tamas guna is suppressed, resulting in the inactivation of memory
and any cognition of'subtle form; and rajas guna is also
suppressed, which stops the fluctuations in the mind's cognitive process.
For the first time true one-pointed concentration, the sattvic state of
ekagara chitta, becomes possible. Even subtle thoughts do not
occur. The perceptual limitations of time and space are transcended; the
mind ceases to fluctuate between time, space, and causality, and becomes
situated in the causality of the tanmatric energies in mind and subtle
objects, the undifferentiated energy in the mahat and the principle of
individuation (ahankara) and tamas guna which cause the five
tanmatras (subtle element/energies) to be formed. So the
realization of this samadhi, which transcends any sort of differentiation,
is explained variously as the origin of thought itself, the unreality of
objectification, or the ahankara.
As one of Tasha Abelar's
teachers explained to her, holding up a leaf: "Perhaps this leaf will help
clarify things...Its texture is dry and brittle; its shape is flat and
round, its color is brown with a touch of crimson. We can recognize it as
a leaf because of our senses, our instruments of perception, and our
thought that gives things names. Without them, the leaf is abstract, pure
undifferentiated energy. The same unreal, ethereal energy that flows
through this leaf flows through and sustains everything. We, like
everything else, are real on the one hand, and only appearances on the
Here are two examples, which my guru brothers and
sisters were kind enough to share with me. In both cases their
descriptions begin with savichara, and then progress to nirvichara: "There
was the usual cognition of inner light and inner sound, but the most
important parts of the sadhana are the parts I can't describe, where
breath and mind just stop." "The kriyas felt very deep this morning
and just after I finished, I saw the brahmarandhra; it was
beautiful, made of light, and there was this incredible feeling of
sweetness. Then, after some time, it was almost as if my mind vanished. I
was aware, but there were no thoughts, only this deep silence. It felt
The next two stages of samprajnata
samadhi-sananda and sasmita - are also considered nirvichara, in that they
also are without reflection, but they represent a more advanced
development of the nirvichara process. Babaji once explained that when
people feel blissful sensations during sadhana, on a gross level the
breath is equal in both nostrils, and on the subtle level pranic flow in
ida and pingala nadis is balanced. This is called the
sushumna breath because the residual prana of the sushuma, the
kundalini, flows in sushumna nadi, causing sattva guna to dominate.
"It creates a feeling of peace. That peace is ananda." In sananda samadhi
the experience of that ananda, that sattvic flow, is untainted by
any other vrittis, or thoughts, save the awareness of the pleasure of
receiving that bliss. Sananda means "with ecstasy."
In nirvichara samadhi the mind's awareness of, and
involvement with, the world of objects (both gross and subtle) and their
tanmatric origins is cut off. The ahankara, the sense of individuality or
"l-am," stops creating its world; it turns inward, and the happiness which
flows from the experience of non-identification is felt. Thus the most
immediate cause of our pleasure and pain - the identification of the
ahankara with the external universe, and with the mind's thoughts about it
is stopped. In sananda samadhi the yogi experiences a state of rapture or
ecstasy, and the only thought in the mind is the wordless awareness of the
feeling of "I am in pleasure, I am happy." A close friend told of her
experience with her guru:
"My deepest states actually
happened a few years ago, not now, when I would meditate for eight hours
at a time with no awareness of time passing. The focus of my meditation is
self-surrender to this greater consciousness which I access through the
person of my guru. My mind is only a tiny speck within that immensity, and
I try to surrender my small 'I' into that immensity. When I go as deep as
I can my thoughts stop, my mind goes away. What I see is effulgence; there
is ecstasy: what I am, my whole being, is ecstasy."
When the yogi becomes
established in the one-pointed state of consciousness achieved in sananda
samadhi the mind becomes even more purified, and is able to penetrate
deeper. Even the ahankara, or ego-sense-despite its power, its pervasive
nature, and its seeming solidity - is only a vritti, a single thought of
individualized existence. This vritti too can be suppressed, and
when this happens the yogi can directly perceive the source of the
ahankara: the mahat, or the cosmic mind, and the asmita veitti, the
pure "I-sense" which shines within it. This pure "I-ness" of the cosmic
mind is universal, the same in all beings. From a bhakti yoga perspective
we would say that the individual ego merges into the cosmic ego, and the
person now worships God in everything. The feeling of this samadhi is one
of deep and pure peace, free from thoughts and any awareness of
individuality. The ecstasy experienced in the previous samadhi becomes
subtler, and now clearly seems to emanate from within rather than from
some external source.
When the meditator reaches this stage
of samadhi the object of meditation automatically becomes the luminous
reflection of the Divine Self pervading the cosmic mind, shining in the
yogi's heart. This asmita, or cosmic "I-sense", is the only vritti
present. Here is a "first-glimpse" account:
believed in the instant illumination of the Vedas. I knew that sadhana
practice worked, I could get samadhi, but I was trapped. I could never be
free of my individual identity even for an instant. It was like
continually throwing myself against a wall and bouncing back. This went on
for years. One day we were studying the Gita and I was
contemplating with my eyes closed on the words of the commentaries as they
were being read. Somehow when I heard the words "the Self is actionless,
my mind accepted it, and there was this immense ocean of light in the
heart and simultaneously I felt the sense of individuality as a mere
thought-form, saw it suppressed as though it fell into that vast light and
disappeared. It had no reality, no existence. And there was nothing but an
infinite peace and this great light unlike anything I had ever
experienced. I saw that everything was external to the Self. I was in this
ocean of light for some minutes. I came back to ordinary awareness
entirely changed-I knew with absolute certainty that the Self exists, and
that it is within, and that that very same light radiates inside all
The purified mind takes on the qualities of the
object on which it meditates, and when this sasmita samadhi becomes
stabilized and is further developed, the mind of the yogi who attains it
begins to take on some of the omniscient and omnipotent qualities of the
cosmic mahat, though it does not happen in the same way for all yogis.
Siddhis, or latent special abilities of mind such as those
described by Patanjali in book3 of the Yoga Sutra, may become
active as this stage develops; they can become a serious obstacle to
further spiritual growth if the yogi becomes attached to them or if he or
she has not worked hard to strengthen the yamas and niyamas.
The three gunas, necessary for the creation of the universe,
are active in the cosmic mind, and they are not transcended at this level
of samadhi, nor have the remaining samskaras in the yogi's chitta been
destroyed. Nor is the "Self" which is perceived at this stage the true,
ultimate, non-dual Self, but its light is seen. For the yogi who is able
to navigate this stage, eventually attaining discriminative wisdom and
perfect purity of mind and surrendering all attachments, the potential is
there to attain the stage which leads to asamprajfiata samadhi, and
finally to kaivalya: complete, final, and eternal union with the real,
According to Patanjali human life has two
purposes: bhoga (experience) and apavarga (liberation). The
human vehicle, with its relatively sophisticated neurophysiological design
and cognitive capacities, provides for a seemingly endless tapestry of
experiences. And yet, after so many lives of experiencing the external
world-so many lives of developing so many different capacities of body and
intellect, so many lives of exploring the endless complexity and drama of
human relationships-the feeling, often unconscious, arises inside of us
that we have already been there, done that. The feeling of seeking for
something beyond propels us onto the spiritual path in order to achieve
the fulfillment of human life: liberation. The caterpillar, so attached to
his caterpillar-ness, must nevertheless some day become a butterfly,
because that is the design plan of the universe. Patanjali, who was
undoubtedly a butterfly, left careful instructions for us caterpillars so
that we might some day join him.
Ph.D. is a yogic nun in the Vairagi order and a student of the yoga
master Baba Hari Dass. She is co-director of the Rocky Mountain Institute
of Yoga and Ayurveda in Boulder Colorado, where she practices Ayurveda and
teaches pranayama, meditation, and yoga philosophy. She received her Ph.D.
in anthropology at the University of Colorado. (see Support
Services if you wish to contact her.)
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