This is the state where even the syllables seem to carry weight, a depth beyond the ordinary.
Most likely you’ve heard this word before if you’ve spent any time practicing yoga or in a spiritual environment. But what exactly does it mean? Is it just a spaced-out trance or an altered state like you might have on some kind of drug trip? An exotic mystical vision achieved by great yogis in the Himalayas?
Not exactly: let’s look deeper and closer to home!
While any perception of non-conceptual reality is essentially impossible to describe with language, we can still come to some understanding through the way samadhi and related states are presented in the yogic tradition, and by examining our own lived experience.
The Eighth Limb of Yoga
Samadhi is the final stage in the classical system of yoga presented by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras.
This ancient ashtanga yoga (quite distinct from the purely physical style of yoga introduced under the same name by K. Pattabhi Jois in the 20th century) comprises of eight stages or “limbs,” progressing from the most external to the most internal.
With a foundation of yama and niyama, guidelines for ethical behavior around others and attitudes to develop within oneself, an aspiring yogi practices asanas and pranayama, and cultivates pratyahara (interiorization). The practice refines through dharana (concentration), which deepens into dhyana (meditation), and finally, samadhi.
This experience is the culmination of the yogic path, its goal and coronation.
It is a taste of the sublime, an immersion in our true nature which is not different from Reality itself, the Absolute which is beyond any description or conceptualization.
This is no exaggeration—yet to wrap it in such lofty terms may obscure the fact that states of samadhi are not so far from experiences we may find in ordinary life.
Truth is our nature. It is always present, always the same and always available. So it makes sense that you can stumble on it at any point in your life. Most likely you have already, and so have most people. The question is less about accessing the state but more about recognizing it, honoring it for what it is, and stabilizing the experience in your being.
From Concentration to Meditation to Realization
So what exactly is a state of samadhi?
Let’s go back to those eight limbs of Patanjali’s yoga: specifically, the last three.
There’s dharana, concentration, in which you place the mind on a single object of your choice. The flame of a candle, for example. Whenever your mind wanders, you catch yourself and put your attention back on the object. It takes some effort and constant vigilance.
With persistence, something else happens. Your mind starts to rest on the object of its own accord, in love and fascination for that candle. You have entered into dhyana, the flow of meditation.
In dhyana, still, there is an underlying sense of duality: you looking at that candle. But when you become very quiet, very open, and there is a touch of grace, even this can melt away. No more “me,” no more looking. The object shines in its purity.
This is samadhi. Direct perception, an intimacy with reality beyond the filters of the mind. (In this case a samadhi “with form,” just the entry point into the world of samadhi experiences, yet one which is relatively easy to access and that already brings profound transformation.)
Mystical Experiences in Ordinary Life
So you see, it is not so abstract. Without a doubt, you have already had similar experiences, just without realizing its significance.
Listening to beautiful music or watching a sunset, when time itself seems to stop and you melt into that beauty.
A moment of intense emotion, shock or joy or fear.
The liminal point between sleeping and waking, the space between dreams, the luminous void of deep sleep.
The bliss of making love…
There are countless possibilities. Abhinavagupta, the greatest master of Kashmir Shaivism, said that art and sex are the closest relatives to mystical experiences that we can encounter in ordinary life, so if you want to examine your own past for examples you might start there.
Look for that taste of the ineffable, a feeling of truth, that unshakeable sense that you have tasted reality that persists even after returning to normal consciousness. It is unlike anything else in this world, something of a different quality than everything else along the vast spectrum of experiences available within this human life, and yet as intimate and close to you as your own heart. This is how you can explore samadhi…