The idea of samadhi, or reaching a state of pure consciousness, can be seen throughout Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist traditions. It was outlined in Buddhism’s eightfold path, as well as in Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga.
In both philosophies, it represents the final stage of a spiritual path where one may become enlightened. But what does that really mean, and how do you actually achieve it? Here’s an overview.
The 8 limbs of yoga.
Though the idea of samadhi is present in many different texts, it is most notably associated with ashtanga yoga, or the eight limbs of yoga outlined in the yoga sutras, which were written by the ancient Indian sage Patanjali around 400 C.E. The eight limbs are thought of as the steps to enlightenment, with Samadhi being the final step, where one reaches a state of bliss or oneness.
As assistant professor of Hindu studies at the University of Denver Dheepa Sundaram, Ph.D., explains to mbg, “Patanjali’s system was really also about bringing together a synchronized vision of yoga that would be nonsectarian and not necessarily linked to one particular religious tradition.”
Some argue that the eight limbs aren’t necessarily a path, Sundaram notes, but rather eight “auxiliaries” that can help you reach enlightenment. On a very basic level, they look like this:
- Yamas: external disciplines, like universal values
- Niyama: internal disciplines, like personal observation
- Asana: poses or postures
- Pranayama: breath control
- Pratyahara: withdrawal of the senses
- Dharana: concentration
- Dhyana: meditation
- Samadhi: bliss, or union
As Sundaram notes, the earlier stages of the eight limbs are based on external control and controlling the body. “And then dharana, dhyana, and samadhi,” she adds, “were focused on internal control; once you have control of the external, you can move to the internal.”
What is samadhi?
Samadhi is attaining bliss and oneness, and the stage in which one “stops the turning wheel of thoughts.” The first line in the yoga sutras is “Chitta vritti nirodha,” which means “the stopping, or aggregation of, the turning wheel of thoughts,” according to Sundaram. This is the goal of the yogic path.
It’s also about eliminating separation, or what Sundaram describes as “the distinction between subject and object.” Patanjali’s vision of samadhi, she notes, “is an awareness of the subject-object distinction being eliminated. There’s only consciousness.”
As certified ashtanga teacher Daniel Scott previously explained to mbg, “Samadhi is described as a state of ‘non-duality’ where the self and the world around it are (finally) perceived as one and the same. Effectively transcending the limits of the body, mind, and identity, the aspiring yogi becomes one with everything.”
How to attain samadhi:
If there were a simple answer to this, everyone would be walking around as enlightened beings.
But the truth is, attaining samadhi—or at least getting closer to it—will look different for everyone. With the eight limbs in mind, all of those associated practices and disciplines can help you train your body, mind, and spirit to be in a state of calm oneness, but it takes dedication.
Many believe samadhi can only be attained through the mental discipline of yoga, Sundaram notes (as in, the eight limbs, not just the physical poses or asanas), but that’s not to say it isn’t accessible to anyone. In theory, the potential is within all of us, and the eight limbs are the most straightforward “steps” to reaching it.
Sundaram notes mantras like “Om” are very helpful as well because they train the mind to be focusing on just one thing. “You get to the point where you can control what kind of intake of sensory information you’re taking in,” she adds.
In the stages of enlightenment, which we’ll outline next, we understand that the basis of enlightenment is the ability to detach from the ego and otherworldly attachments, to the point where there is only consciousness and a feeling of “being one with permanence,” Sundaram says.
Stages of enlightenment.
Depending on who you ask, there could be two, four, or more stages of enlightenment. According to Sundaram, Patanjali describes two main levels of getting to that space, which are as follows:
Sabija concentration can be translated as “with seeds,” and it represents the idea that, at first, we must recognize our concentration is “seeded” with links to our own ego and our understanding of our place in this world and even in previous lives.
We all carry markings and memories on our soul, and we have to acknowledge that. “We cannot get to Samadhi without having an ability to erase these memories, the miseries of the world and what feeds our ego, our attachments,” Sundaram explains.
Once you are able to detach from those miseries and memories, “you get to that elimination of the subject-object distinction,” she notes. Nir means “without,” and so Nirbija means “without seed.” “You get to that point of what they call ‘onliness’—not loneliness,” she adds. “It’s a state of eternal bliss and being one with permanence.”
Overall, “it’s about getting through that first stage of recognizing those connections,” Sundaram says, “and then the second stage is erasing those connections such that you start to see what Patanjali calls the object in and of itself.”
How to know you’ve achieved samadhi.
Keeping Chitta vritti nirodha in mind, the telltale sign of samadhi is the ability to stop the turning wheel of thoughts. For anyone who’s tried their hand at meditating, you likely know this doesn’t exactly come easily.
“When you start to see people, or yourself, being able to focus on one thought,” Sundaram says, “a thought that doesn’t lead to another thought,” that is a sign of getting closer to or achieving samadhi. Other signs include:
- a resounding stillness as you go about your day
- a transcendence of basic senses
- a lasting feeling of connection to all
- calm concentration
- the ability to control your sensory intake
The bottom line.
Samadhi may not come easy, but anyone can participate in the path toward it. Like any practice, it requires patience, determination, and a degree of detachment from the outcome. Even if someone doesn’t reach Samadhi in this lifetime, the pursuit of enlightenment can still deepen your spiritual life and help you reach a new level of peace and understanding.
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