Last week we learned about pratyahara and dharana, the fifth and sixth limbs of the Eight Limb Path of Yoga. Check it out here! Pratyahara and dharana are the last two steps that can be descried as practices; dhyana and samadhi are more like states of mind, resulting from work in the previous limbs.
In pratyahara, we turn inward and withdraw from our senses. With dharana, we use this inward focus to develop single-pointed attention, free from distractions of body and mind. These two steps are crucial for being able to move on to the true meditation of dhyana, and enlightenment of samadhi.
True meditation is as difficult to describe as it can be to do. Meditation is essentially the moments when we experience a break in the thinking process; it describes the gap between thoughts. When we’ve worked through the previous limbs, we’ve brought our mind to a state where it is in optimal condition to experience these gaps. Over time and with consistent meditation, these breaks in thinking can begin to get longer, and we experience the peaceful bliss that occupies this state.
Moments of dhyana can be fleeting, because the moment you realize you are free from thoughts, you have created a thought and are taken out of that space. This is not discouraging, however; it’s basically the way it works. The whole idea behind meditation is not that we try to force ourselves not to have thoughts. It’s that we notice when our thoughts have wandered and bring attention back to whatever our focus was, such as the breath.
Each time we do this, rather than be discouraged, we can appreciate the fact that we’re aware of our thoughts and chose to redirect our mind to our original point of focus.
What we experience in these gaps of thinking is unique to each of us. It’s common for people in deep meditation to describe feelings of serenity and peace, but it’s the way those feelings apply to one’s individual life that make meditation a deeply personal, spiritual practice.
When I meditate, I sometimes see scenes from my life, real or imagined. They don’t always make sense, but often I’ll see a particular person or event, and feel an overwhelming emotion, whether it be sadness, compassion, or anger. Whatever that emotion is, is related to the way I’m being guided to handle a certain situation or make a certain decision. From that place of peace and stillness, I can see things with more clarity than with all the usual distractions of the world and my mind.
Even in the deep meditation of dhyana, there is still an awareness of separation between ourselves and the object of meditation. In samadhi, that separation is gone, and we experience a feeling of oneness with the Divine. Like meditation, this experience is different for everyone. It can be described as enlightenment, where the practitioner feels as though they understand their purpose and place in the Universe.
Samadhi is about becoming one with our Source, that universal life energy that connects everyone and everything. It is when we see ourselves and our lives as part of a much bigger picture. Samadhi is not something you can really ‘do’; it’s more of a result of consistently practicing the seven previous limbs. In terms of meditation, samadhi is a state of effortless, thoughtless serenity. In daily life, samadhi is the ability to use our brains when we need them, and essentially shut them off when we don’t.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali do a much better job of explaining this abstract concept:
“Just as the naturally pure crystal assumes shapes and colors of objects placed near it, so the yogi’s mind, with its totally weakened modifications, becomes clear and balanced and attains the state devoid of differentiation between knower, knowable and knowledge. This culmination of meditation is samadhi.
“When the object of meditation engulfs the meditator, appearing as the subject, self-awareness is lost. This is samadhi.”
“For those who have an intense urge for Spirit and wisdom, it sits near them, waiting.”
“Nothing in all creation is so like God as silence.”
~ Yoga Sutras
In the yamas and niyamas we come to right relationship with ourselves and others, developing a sense of integrity that carries us through the remaining limbs. In asana and pranayama, we restore the connection between our minds and our sacred bodies and learn how our bodies and our breath hold ancient wisdom we can translate to daily life. In pratyahara, dharana and dhyana, we begin to turn inward into the complex maze that is our mind, and we work on retraining our minds to maintain a more peaceful state.
All of this work can bring us to a state of samadhi, and we can use the concept of samadhi in our daily lives. We can see with more clarity what’s important in life, and what might be a desire or aversion we’ve created in our minds. We can suffer less because we understand that suffering is part of life; we can even get over our fear of death.
Although experiencing samadhi is an amazing experience, we get payoffs along the entire Eight Limb Path of Yoga. The limbs were designed to build upon each other, and that is necessary to reach a state of samadhi, but each limb has its own benefits, and its own application to our lives. It’s the desire, effort, and dedication that allow us to progress on the path and truly enjoy our time along the way.
At Inspiring Actions, we know that many of the concepts in the Eight Limb Path of Yoga can be hard to grasp, and we welcome you regardless of your exposure to or understanding of them. When you come to a class, you will be met right where you are, and you will discover the path for yourself. We’d love to have you learn and grow with us at our studios in Hudson and River Falls, Wisconsin, as well as online! We hope you enjoyed this series on the Eight Limb Path of Yoga; if you missed any of our previous posts, visit our blog page to see the complete list!
(Music can often be helpful in transporting us to deeper levels of meditation. Check out this link for one that I like to use for both meditation and asana practice, or search for one that resonates with you!)