Today we’ll discuss the final, or 8th limb, of Patanjali’s 8 Limbs of Yoga, Samadhi! What a journey we’ve been on. And thank you for sticking with it! Again, as a recap, we’ve looked at the yamas and niyamas, as guidelines for healthy thought patterns, habits, and behaviors, relating both to how we interact with the world around us and with ourselves. We then traveled through the physical practice of asana, which gets our bodies in good health, trains our bodies and minds to be resilient and adaptable, and reinforces many of the things that we learned in the yamas and niyamas. We then explored pranayama, or breath control practices, which also heal and then maintain the health of the body, trigger the relaxation response, and give us tools to calm ourselves easily when we are challenged. Pratyahara helps us begin to be able to focus our awareness inward, rather than on the people and things going on around us. Dharana trains us to focus and concentrate, giving us the ability to shift our awareness to the object of our choice (and we can choose healthier objects of focus rather than those old dysfunctional things we might have focused on before). And in Dhyana, the effort to focus and meditate falls away, and instead we ease into meditative awareness as a state of being. This brings us to the 8th limb, samadhi.
Like many things in yoga philosophy, samadhi can be variably explained. It is often described as meaning “bliss” or “enlightenment”. But these words themselves can carry different meanings, from one person to the next. So I love this quote from Eckhart Tolle, “The word enlightenment conjures up the idea of some superhuman accomplishment, but it is simply your natural state of felt oneness with Being”. Eckhart commonly uses the word “Being”, with a capital B, referring to an alert state of presence, of complete immersion in the present moment, where we are free of thought and the burdens of the thinking mind, emotions, and judgements, where we are at one with the very power of life itself. He describes this state of Being as our true essence, our true nature, which is always there, but is just often buried by a thousand thoughts and our obsession with the past or the future. But when we are able to go deeper than (or transcend, however you like to look at it) this distracting activity of our minds, we can truly realize this underlying state of alert presence, of divine consciousness, of Being. And this feels peaceful, blissful, relaxed, and free.
Another quote that I love on the topic is from Thich Nhat Hanh, who says “Awakening is not changing who you are, but discarding who you are not”, meaning a letting go of all of the things that are not a part of our true selves and our deeper essence, allowing us to drop everything that clouds us from full self-realization. There are so many things that we think of as part of us: our careers, our experiences, our families, our beliefs, and our traumas. But those things do not truly define us in this deeper sense. I may be a doctor, or a yoga teacher, a daughter, a wife, an American, or a cancer survivor, and those are important parts of my lived experience. But do those things really define me?! As cancer survivors, this is one that we really struggle with sometimes, because we can allow this particular experience to really take over our consciousness and our lives if we aren’t careful. Of course it is an important, life-changing, and extremely challenging part of our experience, and it may affect us deeply and teach us things that no other experience can. However, underneath all of that, lies our true essence, our Being. And getting in tune with this place is what samadhi is about.
Importantly, samadhi isn’t a concrete finish line, like once you reach it you are done and there in a blissful paradise forever. This is something that we must continue our practice for, because it is easy to fall back into old patterns of destructive thinking, maladaptive habits, and routines that can again obscure our connection with ourselves. The thinking mind, with all of its regrets for the past or worries about the future, is sneaky, and without ongoing practice, can knock us off of our path to enlightenment, or bliss, or true self-realization. We continue to practice the 8 Limbs of Yoga to stay on the path.
Just as importantly, we must remember that getting in tune with samadhi does not mean there will be no more challenges in life, nor that every single moment will be perfect and without suffering. Samadhi means that we are in touch with a place where we are able to traverse life’s ups and downs without attaching or averting, without the judgements of our minds and our likes and dislikes, maintaining a state of equanimity from which we can remain blissful regardless of our surroundings.
It is easy to see how the 8 Limbs of yoga, and glimpses of samadhi, might be of particular use to us as cancer survivors. As I’ve discussed in other posts, cancer imposes many challenges that make normal life and everyday experiences a little more difficult. Cancer adds just another layer of clouds that can cast an obscuring shadow over our blissful Being. But with a little practice, we can uncover our true selves and see them shine with clarity again.
The most important thing to remember about samadhi, or bliss, or enlightenment, or self-realization, or whatever you want to call it, is that is isn’t as far away as you might think. You don’t have to run off to the Himalayas or to a year long meditation retreat. It is truly right here, in our everyday lives, if we can just learn to tune in to it. And it doesn’t have to be super complicated, or fancy, or sophisticated. Probably fireworks will not go off, nor will you see light emerging from the crown of your head. But if you notice that you are having more and more moments when you feel truly present, peaceful, at ease, blissfully and richly experiencing the simplest joys in your day, if you navigate a stressor with more grace, you know you are having success on the path, and you are in tune with your true self. Just keep practicing, and you will feel it.