Liberation comes in stages!
Earnest devotion to meditation and the eight-limbed path of yoga leads to progressive stages of samadhi, or realization.
In Sutra 1.17, Patanjali names four distinct tiers of samadhi, or self realization.
These are experienced generally in order, the final stage being the deepest of the samprajnata samadhi stages, which are supported by the mind.
These states, though marking an impressive accomplishment for the dedicated seeker, happen prior to the stage of asamprajnata samadhi, meaning without use of support.
I think it’s fun to develop a meditation practice designed around progressing through these stages, so I’ve offered meditation suggestions for each stage of samadhi — though in truth the prerequisite for all of these is that one has succeeded in becoming established in tranquility of the mind.
With that tall order in mind, I offer these in a spirit of humility, with the knowledge that I and most of us mere mortals, probably need to do a good bit of prerequisite work in the “mind-field” before attaining any of these states for a lengthy period of time. Nonetheless, it’s good to know where we’re headed if we stick to the path of yoga!
These first four levels of freedom are as follows:
Read about the goal of yoga here.
Table of Contents
STAGE 1 - Vitarka
Absorption with Physical Awareness
The steady meditator can first reach samadhi, which is a pleasant state of absorption on the way to ultimate freedom, by resting in awareness that is still quite conscious of material reality.
The prerequisite here is that all extraneous thought has ceased (see: chitta vrtti nirodhah) but awareness remains.
Although the Sanskrit terms are notoriously challenging to translate succinctly, we can presume that this stage is marked by an outflow of awareness into the external reality.
(The practitioner’s focus is not yet as deeply inward as it can eventually progress.)
Although vitarka samadhi is a preliminary stage, as Edwin Bryant points out, it is still representative of “altered states of consciousness far beyond those of conventional awareness,” so it should not be dismissed as facilely achieved.
Meditation Suggestion - Level 1
Choose a singular object on which to focus, like a candle, an ascended master, or another object of spiritual significance. Concentrate upon it until the turnings of mind converge upon the singularity of the object.
Patanjali would warn against being fickle, instead dedicating yourself to this meditation object for as long as it takes to sustain your state of mental focus throughout your day, even if that means months or years.
Did you miss the explanation of helpful and unhelpful thoughts? Click here to read.
STAGE 2 - Vicara
Absorption with Subtle Awareness
At this stage of samadhi, the mind is still intensely fixed on an object of support. It just so happens that the object of support is subtler than the kind of gross object described above.
This stage represents a peeling back of the outer layer of the onion, so to speak, or a movement deeper inward.
One possibility is to focus, for instance, on a characteristic of the objects named in the meditation suggestion for stage 1, as follows:
Meditation Suggestion - Level 2
Meditate on a quality of your chosen object. Examples could include:
- the destructive power of a flame;
- the loving nature of an ascended master;
- or the devotional mood brought on by a set of mala beads.
STAGE 3 - Ananda
Absorption with Bliss
As illustrated by the koshas, or sheaths of the soul, the center of being is cloaked only by a layer of bliss.
The state of absorption in bliss is a state quite close to ultimate realization — but this state is still grosser than what is possible on the path.
One description of this state is that the mind becomes fixed not on an external object but on the very powers of cognition themselves.
The teachings of Ramana Maharshi come to mind, which are centered on asking the question, “Who am I?” By continuing to inquire into who it is who is perceiving, one moves closer and closer to the naked awareness of “I,” described in the next stage.
One contemplates in this stage the qualities of awareness, cognition, and the senses themselves without being drawn into external absorption into the object(s) being perceived.
Happily, one finds in this stage that the ego-mind can drop away more and more. The practitioner starts to notice that he or she is not the doer, but a conduit of life force.
Another way to think of this stage is that the practitioner becomes absorbed in the sattvic (pure, lucid, light, blissful, whole) quality of the object of concentration. Patanjali’s implied caveat is to not get stuck here, mistaking this stage for the final goal.
Meditation Suggestion - Level 3
Option 1 – In meditation, keep inquiring into some variation of: Who is it who observes? Who is it who is aware? What is the nature of that which perceives? What is the power animating this sense (of sight, hearing, etc.)?
Option 2 – Using your object of meditation from stages 1 and 2, can your awareness so absorb itself in the purest nature of the object that it almost becomes that sattvic quality? Examples:
- become the renewing power of fire;
- become the love personified by ascended masters;
- become devotion embodied, as signified by mala beads
STAGE 4 - Asmita
Absorption with the sense of "I" ness.
As above, the beloved non-duality master Ramana Maharshi’s signature teaching points to this state of awareness by encouraging inquiry into the “I.”
In this most inward stage of samadhi-with-support, the yoga practitioner identifies most closely with buddhi (perception), leaving only one thin layer between the self and the Soul Self (known variously as the seer, the knower, purusha, etc.).
By resting awareness at the layer of buddhi (perception), the practitioner catches a glimpse or a clear reflection of the true Self. He or she is not quite all the way to the goal, but s/he has made great strides.
Instead of becoming absorbed in bliss, as in stage three, the awareness in stage four operates as the knower of bliss and so — being farther inward than the aforementioned states — is closer to divine consciousness.
Meditation Suggestion - Level 4
Is it possible to rest as awareness with no content layered upon it? For how long can you be “I” with nothing added? Who is the source of “I”?
Concentration + Meditation:
Find a singular object or concept that can support you from gross, to subtle, to blissful and then to deeply internal awareness. Try to select a support that can sustain you for many years, theoretically, of devoted practice.
Have an object already? What helps you focus and quiet the mind? Do share in the comments below as your sharing could be an assist for others.
8 of the Most Powerful Sutras
Getting to the NEXT stage of samadhi, asamprajnata.
Sutras Recap So Far...
1.2 Yoga is cessation of the thought waves of the mind.
1.3 When we succeed in bringing the mind to stillness, the soul abides in its true nature.
1.4 When the mind is not still, the perceiver becomes erroneously identified with the turnings of the mind.
1.5 There are five basic turnings of the mind.
1.6 They are: right knowledge, wrong knowledge (error), sleep, imagination, and memory.
1.7 Right knowledge consists of sense perception (direct knowing), logic, and verbal or scriptural testimony.
1.8 Error is false knowledge stemming from incorrect apprehension.
1.9 Imagination refers to a word or phrase that has no true referent.
1.10 Deep sleep is a state of mind that is devoid of content.
1.11 Memory is the retention of imprints from past sense impressions.
1.12 The changing states of mind are stilled by practice and dispassion/detachment.
1.13 Of these, practice is the effort to remain concentrated on quieting the mind.
1.14 Practice becomes firmly established when it has been cultivated uninterruptedly and with devotion over a long period of time.
1.15 Dispassion refers to the controlled consciousness of one who does not crave sense objects either experienced or heard of.
1.16 Higher than renunciation is indifference to the gunas (the subtle aspects) themselves. This stems from perception of purusha, the soul.
1.17 Samprajnata samadhi consists of the consecutive mental stages of absorption with physical awareness, absorption with bliss, and absorption with the sense of I-ness.