Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Seeking Samadhi

Reclaim the wholeness that's your birthright with the final three limbs of Patanjali's classical yoga: dharana, dhyana, and samadhi.

By Judith Lasater

Each scorching afternoon during the summer I was 8 years old, I'd crawl into my favorite chocolate brown, fringe-bottomed easy chair and dive into a Nancy Drew novel. Completely mesmerized as I read about the daring exploits of my favorite heroine, I was transported to another time and place. I wouldn't notice anything around me until I surfaced to find my mother standing close by, repeatedly calling me to dinner.

Years later, this ability to focus completely on one thing proved surprisingly valuable as I tried to understand what the second-century philosopher/yogi Patanjali was writing about when he discussed dharana—the state of concentration—in his Yoga Sutra.

The most-revered ancient sourcebook for yoga practice, Patanjali's Yoga Sutra describes how the mind works and how we can integrate yoga into our lives. Patanjali's ashtanga yoga includes eight components of practice ("ashtanga" means "eight-limbed" in Sanskrit), and dharana or concentration is the sixth of these eight limbs. The seventh limb is dhyana, or meditation, and the eighth and final limb is samadhi, or enlightenment. These last three limbs are often studied together and are called antaratma sadhana, or the innermost quest.

In chapter III, verse one, Patanjali explains concentration as the "binding of consciousness to a [single] spot." I like to honor this state of absorption whenever and wherever I find it. Sometimes I see it in a musician who is focused on the music to the exclusion of all else, or in an athlete in a tense moment of a crucial game. Of course, yoga practitioners actively seek out this depth of concentration in the practices of asana (posture) and pranayama (breathing exercises), as well as in meditation itself. But I believe that dharana can be found whenever a person is fully present and focused on an activity or object.

By definition, this focus cures the inner conflicts we so commonly experience. When you're completely focused, you can't be of two minds about something.

Like many people, I've found that when there's a disparity between my actions and my thoughts I become more fatigued and feel less joy in my life. But I don't feel conflict—even though I may encounter difficulties—when I'm truly focused on and committed to the moment.

This ability to focus all the mind's attention toward one thing is the foundation of the next limb—dhyana or meditation—and is absolutely necessary if the practitioner is to reach the liberation of samadhi. One way to understand the distinction between concentration and meditation is by using rain as an analogy. When rain starts, the moisture of clouds and fog (everyday awareness) coalesces into concentrated moisture and becomes distinct raindrops. These raindrops represent dharana—intermittent moments of focused attention. When the rain falls to earth and creates a river, the merging of the individual raindrops into one stream is like dhyana or meditation. The separate raindrops merge into one continuous flow, just as individual moments of dharana merge into the uninterrupted focus of meditation. In English, we often use the word "meditate" to mean "to think," but in yoga, meditation is not thinking; instead, it is a deep sense of unity with an object or activity.

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