What does it take?
by Swami Ambikananda
with the permission of Swami Ambikananda
What Does It Take?
The culmination of all our Yoga practices ~ our asana-s, pranayama-s, our chanting and meditations ~ is samādhi, that illusive altered state of consciousness.
What is it? Every sage worth their salt will tell you it’s impossible to describe ~ and then each one will set about trying to put it into words. Maybe, it’s a bit like falling in love. We’re not quite sure where it will lead, but we never feel more fulfilled than when we are in love. We speak of ‘losing ourselves’ in another. Our thoughts ~ previously so occupied with ourselves ~ become thoughts of the beloved. And as these thoughts crowd us, we lose ourselves in them, a getting lost that does not diminish ~ it fulfils and completes us.
Maybe samādhi is something like that. Samādhi means ‘putting together’ or ‘joining’: literally, the ‘I’ getting lost in something bigger than itself. Samādhi is two words joined, one getting lost in the other to become something much bigger: sam = together, and adhi = putting into. Like falling in love, it is the process of losing what we know about ourselves to deeper and deeper levels until the idea we have of ‘I’ disappears into a vast ‘other’, like a wave sinking back into the ocean and discovering its vastness, its depth. Like lovingly surrendering to our beloved.
And perhaps it is our basic reality that we get only glimpses of through each day.
taṁ durdarśaṁ gūḍham anupraviṣṭaṁ guhāhitaṁ gahvareṣṭhaṁ purāṇaṁ |
adhyātma yogādhigamena devaṁ matvā dhīto harṣa śokau jahāti || 12 ||
That Self which you wish to know, which is subtle and difficult to reveal,
Is there: deep within the deepest part of you.
Fix all your thinking and all your enquiry on that ancient, radiant Self.
This practice is called Adhyatma Yoga; through it you will rise above joy and sorrow.
~ Katha Upanishad (2:12)
In the Katha Upanishad we find the very first, the most ancient, teaching of Yoga as a practice. The teacher is the Ruler of Death ~ Yama, who though immortal, sacrificed himself to death in order to make a pathway into it for us all. Yoga, Yama says, is an inner pathway: we live on the periphery of our being and Yoga calls us to its centre.
As we lie sleepless at night, piercing the dark comes the sound of the Blackbird’s song, and, for a few seconds, we are no longer trapped in our restlessness, there is an inner stillness that loses itself in the birdsong. Or perhaps on a busy morning, rushing past the windowsill as we have done many mornings before, we are suddenly stopped in our tracks by the stunning beauty of the orchid on the sill and on this morning its beauty stops everything and we stand entranced.
Are these glimpses of the altered state called Samādhi?
The next question is: what does it take to enter that state which the great Sage Patañjali presented as a possibility for all of us. Well, he gives us an idea in the very first chapter of his Sūtra-s:
śraddhā-vīrya-smṛti-samādhi-prajñā-pūrvaka itareṣām ||1:20||
Therefore those living beings who wish to attain samādhi must proceed with faith, determination, energy and awareness of past teachings.
~ The Patañjali Yoga Sūtra; 1:20
The first thing he mentions is śrāddhā ~ faith. The English word faith comes from the old Latin fides, meaning to trust or have confidence in. The truth is, even while in our modern world we dismiss faith, we all have it. We put our faith in something: our partnerships, our family, our health programmes, even our consumerism.
Walking this path of Yoga begins with faith ~ śraddhā (pronounced śhraddhā).
Śraddhā is also more than faith ~ more than ‘having confidence in’. It is derived from two words : śrat and dha; śrat is truth, and dha is ‘to hold’. What ‘truth’ is it I ‘hold’? What is it I align myself with? These are the questions we need to be asking ourselves as we walk into a New Year.
Perhaps the first step is for each of us to ask ourselves, ‘What is it I have faith in?’ What it is that we wish to lose ourselves in? Because, as the old Sage pointed out, it is what we have trust in, faith in, that we will put our determination, our energy and our commitment into.
Of course, our Sage goes on to point out that faith alone won’t hack it. Action and attention count too. The problem is, when we are unaware of our faith, we scatter our actions and our attention, we multi-task ~ that game we play when we’re thinking of one thing while we do another. We need to reveal our faith to ourselves for action and thought to join hands and both go in the same direction. So we go to another great sage, the great Vāsiṣṭha, teacher of the first human avatar, Rama, for help:
ubhābhyām eva pakṣābhyāṁ yathā khe pakṣinaḥ gatiḥ |
tathai ‘va jñāna karmābhyaṁ jāyate paramaṁ padaṁ || 1:1:7 ||
Just as the bird flies through the air by the beating of both wings, just so
do we achieve our highest: by both action and knowledge.
~ The Yoga Vāsiṣṭha 1:1:7
Part of how we discover what it is we have faith in, is by looking at where we put most of our thought, most of our effort, most of our search for that illusive state of happiness. We do not then only reveal our faith, we begin to unmask so much more of ourselves. And in that unmasking we discover that our life consists of more than all we possess ~ it is also what we are. On this journey which requires both action and knowledge, we are stripped bare of all we thought we are, and we are revealed to ourselves. This is Yoga: the committed act of unmasking ourselves to reveal a deeper level of Self. And it all begins with śraddhā ~ faith.
In this way faith in is not merely a matter of intellectual assent ~ it is also our orientation in our lived life, it is the key to the doorway into Samādhi.