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.
Yoga students are often taught to meditate by focusing on a mantra, on the breath, or perhaps on the image of a guru or great teacher. These practices are extremely difficult because it is the nature of the mind to jump around from idea to idea, from sensation to sensation. In fact, Swami Vivekananda called the mind “a drunken monkey” when he introduced meditation to the United States at the end of the nineteenth century.
Once you’ve taken the first step of learning to still the body for meditation, you can’t help but notice how “un-still” the mind is. So instead of thinking of meditation as some dreamy state in which thoughts do not happen at all—instead of trying to quiet something that by nature is never quiet—I pay total attention to the agitations which are my thoughts. My thoughts may continue, but paying uninterrupted attention to my thoughts is itself the meditation.
The final limb in Patanjali’s ashtanga yoga is samadhi, or enlightenment. When I contemplated writing about this most indescribable of limbs, I first thought about just taking a Zen approach and leaving the page blank. In a way, writing about samadhi seems like giving a hungry person words about food instead of food itself. But discussing samadhi is worthwhile, because unless we’re made aware of the possibility of wholeness, we may find it virtually impossible to start our journey toward it.
Presence Without Ego
When I first began to study yoga I thought that samadhi was a trancelike state which would take the practitioner away from everyday consciousness to a better state of being. Over the years, my understanding has changed. Now I think of samadhi as exactly the opposite of a trance. Samadhi is a state of being intensely present without a point of view. In other words, in samadhi you perceive all points of view of reality at once, without focusing on any particular one.
To understand this better, imagine that each of us has a “grid” or filter in front of us. The mesh of this filter is constructed of all of our experiences and ideas; it is created by our gender, our particular personal history, our family and cultural values, and our education, to name only a few factors. This grid filters all our experience. For example, while we all have the need for food, our grid tells us whether hamburgers, raw fish, or organic tofu is food. The grid is the sum total of our beliefs—conscious and unconscious—about reality.Samadhi is the state in which we no longer experience reality through a grid; instead, we experience reality directly. Virtually all of us have had a taste of this state. Some people have this experience during worship, others during lovemaking, still others while alone in the woods. Samadhi is the state in which you are aware on a cellular level of the underlying oneness of the universe.
How does samadhi relate to daily life, a life filled with paying taxes, cleaning up the kitchen, practicing yoga poses, washing the car? Samadhi may seem to have nothing to do with our everyday activities. But on another level samadhi is the most important thing in our lives. The concept of samadhi brings with it the possibility of a deep hope about our growth as human beings. Patanjali teaches us that we are always capable of experiencing samadhi—that at any moment we can become whole and fully present. If we understand this, that understanding becomes a fundamental acknowledgment of our true nature. Paradoxically, it seems that we need the journey—the journey of yoga—to discover what was present inside us all along.