in Meditation, Mystical Experiences

Contradictions with Samadhi

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Flickr, CC 2.0

Samadhi are human speculations about a variety of experiences attained through meditation.

The Hindu and Buddhist yoga and meditation texts and traditions, when compared side-by-side, reveal many contradictions about so-called samadhi.

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, the classical texts, and oral traditions of yoga and meditation, are as much characterized by doctrine and ritual as by contemplation or meditation.1

Stuart Ray Sarbacker in Samadhi: The Numinous and Cessative in Indo-Tibetan Yoga (2005) gives a useful model for understanding the many interpretations of samadhi. He explores two dimensions of samadhi and contrasts meditative perceptions that leads to the attainment of divine, or numinous, power, and to the complete escape, or cessation, from worldly  existence.

Sarbacker’s Numinous and Cessative dimensions of samadhi and meditative experience:

Numinous, embodied divine power

  • The numinous, or experiential or “going” dimension of samadhi, supposedly embodies the power of divinity in this world.
  • This-worldly attainments (samapattis) of Patanjalian, Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu traditions, as well as the “supernatural enjoyments” (rddhis) or “omnipresencings” (vibhutis), and the visionary ascent and enhanced powers of perception.2
  • Classical yoga traditions, and traditional yogis such as those described in Autobiography of a Yogi (1945) by Paramahansa Yogananda, emphasize the numinous.

Cessative, escape from worldly existence

  • The cessative, or speculative or “knowing” dimension of meditative experience, purports liberation from world-encompassing existence.
  • Cessative refers directly to the concept of nirodha in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 1.2 (“Yoga is the cessation [nirodha] of the changing states of mind”), as well as to the allied Buddhist and Jain meditation traditions.3
  • The bulk of modern day yoga meditation teachers and scholars emphasize the cessative aspect, that is, the suppression of the mind and the senses as a means to an end of one’s this-worldly existence and suffering.4
meditative sketch

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In a nutshell: The cessative emphasizes separation from phenomenal experience and attempts to end this-world existence. Whereas the numinous dimension is embodiment of divinity and supernatural experiences in this-world.

Numinous versus Cessative meditative perception in Hindu-Buddhist Yoga

The Hindu-Buddhist yoga and meditation texts and traditions, when examined using Sarbacker’s numinous and cessative types, and compared side-by-side, reveal a variety of interpretations, contradictions, and speculations about samadhi.

Here’s a table contrasting and comparing Hindu-Budddhist samadhi and meditative perception using Sarbacker’s numinous and cessative dimensions:

Numinous Cessative
Experiential, “going” Speculative, “knowing”
embodiment detachment
siddhas (supernatural powers or enjoyments) renunciation
visualization liberation
mantras emptiness
self-affirming self-denying
self-experiencing self-destruction (Buddhist), self-transcendence (HIndu)
inward discovery nirodha (cessation of thought)
soul- or self-realization (Hindu) nirvana (Buddhist)
Flickr, CC 2.0

Flickr, CC 2.0

Present-day, Western meditation advocates de-emphasize the numinous, or embodied divine power, and instead emphasize the cessative, the escape from worldly existence.

Conclusion: Samadhi apparently is a product of the imagination of the believer

Samadhi is a term used for human speculations of a variety of meditative experiences. The Yoga Sutra’s of Patanjali, the text and oral traditions of yoga and meditation, are shaped as much by doctrine and rituals as they are by contemplation or meditation. Classical yoga traditions and texts have emphasized the numinous: the this-world attainment of powers and supernatural enjoyments. But, modern day yoga advocates have shifted the focus to the cessative: the detachment from this-world for the attainment of other-world, devoid of a self.

Questions for readers: Do you have any evidence that Samadhi is an actual, objective human experience? Or, anything that contradicts the fact that samadhi is human speculation (eg. made up interpretations or adopted doctrines within the imaginations of the believers)?


1 Stuart Ray Sarbacker, Samadhi: The Numinous and Cessative in Indo-Tibetan Yoga, State University of New York Press, 2005. Paperback. p2

2 David Gordon White, Sinister Yogis,  University of Chicago Press. 2009. Paperback. p45

3 ibid

4 ibid

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  1. I think the Old Testament sums up the perspective that there’s no distinction to be made between the truly numinous and the truly cessative:

    “Be still and know that I am God.”

    And of course, there’s a large body of literature within the TM organization that has examined samadhi from many different perspectives. In addition to those essays, faculty and students at Maharishi University of Management are expected to construct “Unified Field Charts” that connect their own field of interest or study to the properties of Self that Maharishi identified as emerging from the unmanifest/undifferentiated universal field of consciousness:

    The entire educational system is based on this perspective, as you can see in this segment of Oprah Winfrey’s show, where she visits the Maharishi School for K-12:

    Maharishi published 30+ books, and gave many thousands of hours of lectures based on a principle that can be boiled down to “Seek you first the Kingdom of Heaven and all else will be added unto you” with the assumption that “the Kingdom of Heaven” is samadhi. He made it very clear that every lecture he ever made was merely reiterating this theme, which was the only message he had to give, and that he “never grew tired of repeating myself [about it].”

    From Maharishi’s perspective TM (dhyan) leads towards and then away from samadhi on a physiological level and so the properties that emerge from pure consciousness are found to one degree or another at any part of TM practice, and start to stabilize outside of TM practice over time, as certain of the physiological correlates of samadhi become traits outside of TM practice.

    From his perspective, ALL the [valid] discussions of samadhi are merely attempts to describe this physiological process of maturation, generally without the understanding that it is a physiological process in the first place!

  2. @Lawson: Thanks for your comments. As I read them they strike me as written by a person who is content with the human authority and speculations from the Bible, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and his devotee-followers.

    The Bible verse, “Be still and know that I am god”, was quoted by Parmahansa Yogananda and his follower-ministers to argue for the efficacy of yoga meditation as a way to “know” god.

    You said in a previous post that there’s no supernatural claims made by TM. Are you not claiming there’s a god in your quoting of scriptures and Maharishi–that there is “god” is a supernatural claim?

    It seems to me to be a mistake, a misconstruction, to take these religious authorities and texts at face value. There may or may not be a god. There may or many not be many gods. There may be ghosts. I don’t know. Metaphysics are beyond human knowledge.

    Seems to me we need to first see these human “constructions” as human speculation masquerading as knowledge or revelation. The failure to do that is a failure of critical judgement. If we only reproduce the human “constructions”, the misrepresentations of knowledge, we won’t discover truth if it is to be found anywhere. The only chance we have of understanding meditative perceptions is to say “it is human construction”.

  3. You misunderstood the point of the quote in the context i was using it. I was pointing out that, in the right context, “numinous” and “cessation” reference the same “thing,” and not making claims about the existence of God.

    I’m a hardcore agnostic. Even if one’s internal perception of reality leads, via some fundamental shift in physiology, to the perception of God or brahma or whatever, that doesn’t mean that it really IS what the philosophers claim.

    It might just be an artifact.

    Even if, as Maharishi claimed, the highest degree of Unity requires that one be able to perform any and all sidhis on demand in such a way that James Randi will award you the million dollar prize for proof of paranormal, that doesn’t mean that you are really “one with the universe” or that there is a universal self to be “one with.”

    The manifestation of such powers in conjuction with such a perception of oneness might merely be an artifact of the brain.

    Even if it turns out that siddhis are real, and that the ONLY way to reproduce them is to create a human-like consciousness that is enlightened ala Unity, that doesn’t mean the sages are correct.

    We might all be living in a computer simulation which is designed to work that way.

    We can never be genuinely certain about anything.

    It’s agnostic turtles all the way down.

  4. @Lawson: Gotcha. It wasn’t clear from your comments your were “hardcore” agnostic on the god hypothesis. Since you quoted the Bible “Be still and know that I am God” to make your argument, I assumed you were a theist–at least soft-core.

    I’m wondering what “hardcore” agnostic means to you. Happy to hear you concede we can never be certain about anything, especially not the extraordinary claims made by yogis and meditators.

    Your agnostic turtles. I like the sound of that.

    Thanks for your comments.

  5. We can certainly be certain about hardcore claims if they are demonstrated…

    As certain as we can be about anything, that is. However, THE most hardcore claim about meditation isn’t about things like levitation or something, but about the fundamental nature of reality itself and that somehow we can appreciate its fundamental nature via the results of meditation.

    THAT is what we can never be certain about, in the long run.

    We can conceivably demonstrate floating or walking through walls or whatever, but that still won’t prove Self is Brahman.

    Likewise, the Buddhist perspective can’t be proven either. It’s still a matter of faith at some level: an assumption that our ability to perceive the real world really is The Real World

  6. @Lawson: Agree. “Faith”-based claims, subjective “reality”, personal experiences, are likely never going to be proved by hard, objective sciences. All the more reason to be skeptical, while granting that there is subjective value for many individuals who have or believe in subjective experiences.

    On another note, I found this article below and thought of you. I’ve not read the full study they cite.
    Transcendental Meditation for the improvement of health and wellbeing in community-dwelling dementia caregivers [TRANSCENDENT]: a randomised wait-list controlled trial

  7. Words, like these. Characters..sounds…symbols…noise….silence….truth? beyond words….including words….but I can’t show you ultimately what you will have to experience for yourself…otherwise you simply have not experienced it….period….

  8. @Peace: Your “period” is telling. I used to believe what I think you are trying to say. And that is–

    You seem to me to be saying: “god works in mysterious ways”, therefore humans can not possibly understand unless they blindly trust the authority of the gurus. Our human mind is limited and we need to trust a guru who claims to have super access to super natural realms beyond the natural world.

    I no longer find those reasons wise and to say “period” as you do only seems to illustrate that you have stopped questioning the validity of extraordinary claims such as from your gurus.

    I mentioned in a comment above: It seems to me to be a mistake, a misconstruction, to take these religious authorities and texts at face value. There may or may not be a god. There may or may not be many gods. There may be samadhi experiences that are supernatural. I don’t know. The supernatural and samadhi then are beyond human knowledge.

  9. Scott,

    I decided to do a little research on Samadhi. I hit 2 sites then stopped at this:
    Read the Tara Mata entry

    Then read the Divine Life entry… (Written under Sivananda’s name)

    1) Are these organizations just passing around each other’s laundry?

    2) Also, the Tara Mata SRF description is not particularly impressive. It is impressive in the beginning of the narrative then ends up saying that the experience went away after 2 months. And it only “kinda” returned during Kriya Meditation.

  10. @Brent: The claims of Samadhi are vague and when it comes down to it, are unimpressive, if not immature. Magical thinking wrapped in mystical, spiritual language. There could be some magical samadhi state–but without a clear definition it’s a religious ecstasy–maybe not too different from girls that swoon and faint at the sight of rockstars.

    Have you seen the videos of Paramahansa Yogananda and Sri Chinmoy who demonstrate going into Samadhi? The videos are in one of my posts on Samadhi, claims of stopping heartbeat or breathlessness.

    What do you think about Samadhi? How could one person know that another person achieved samadhi, enlightenment, or mystical ecstatic state? Have you read God in a Seizure: Epilepsy and Mysticism?

  11. Hi Scott. You know you are right about Samadhi. We can’t look inside other peoples’ heads and see what they are experiencing. There really is no proof of it. I’ve never really considered that it might be a myth altogether.

    When I look at Sri Chinmoy’s video it looks like rapid eye movement to me. If you take Yogananda’s word for it, early stage Samadhi is a state of body, including eye, fixation.
    To be honest the non-official videos of Yogananda aren’t impressive. There is a newsreel of him conducting a wedding and some footage of him in NYC on the street with some Americans dressed up like East Indians with turbans and saris.

    As I think about it, Samadhi that is, not that many people claim to experience it. Paltry numbers actually. By far most people are seekers. One would expect a better showing. Also, on the topic of Gurus, the vast majority seem to be in it for the money…and in a lot of cases huge money. Of the ones that seem credible, some have never said that they are Gurus or experience Samadhi … in a some of these it’s just their followers who assign the Guru honorific and make claims of Samadhi.
    In the world of Samadhi, there is probably no one who is more associated with it than Ramakrishna. There is one case/event in “The gospel of Ramakrishna” that relates a “get together” at Ramakrishna’s crib one night where people are getting into the bhatkti spirit and seem to be having Samadhi like experiences. The guy relating the story asks Ramakrishna about it the next day and he says that “no” they were experiencing something different. These individuals DID think they were in Samadhi. Boy talk about a subjective concept.

    By coincidence, I was reading about the Apostle Paul a while back regarding his visions. Like your post, some neurologists today think that he had a seizure disorder. What makes it more credible that he was having a seizure is how it happened. “As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
    1) He fell to the ground. (So he wasn’t praying and meditating at the time. )
    2) Flash of light (this happens a lot in different types of seizure disorders)

    No way to know for certain, but i guess we should ask the basic question, “what is more likely, that God was speaking to him or he had a seizure disorder.” I’d go with seizure disorder.

    Cheers, Brent

  12. I agree, Brent. You point out some helpful comparisons of “mystical experiences” and other brain states, like seizures. The video demonstrations of the “expert” gurus in “Samadhi” are unimpressive. Their poetic descriptions are impressive. Harry Potter type fantasy books sell way more copies than any books that present life, brains, or our world as it actually is. We humans prefer escape into fantasy rather than into the wonders of reality.

    Thanks for your comments.