Tag Archives: zazen

Yoga sutras of Patanjali 1.35


Or the concentration on subtle sense perceptions can cause steadiness of mind.

The inner concentration on the process of sensory experiencing, done in a way that leads towards higher, subtle sense perception; this also leads to stability and tranquility of the mind.

In these sutras, Patanjali is giving some examples of meditation practices. The last sutra mentioned focusing on the breath, this one is simply focusing on the senses.

Again, this is in contrast to the Zen practice of zazen, or ‘just sitting’. We do not focus our attention on anything in particular, but are mindful of our breathing going on, the feeling of our body on the cushion on the floor, the sounds coming to our ears. We notice this coming and going without judgement, but without the specific focus that is being offered here.




Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 1.20


Others follow a five-fold systematic path of

  1. 1) faithful certainty in the path

  2. 2) directing energy towards the practices

  3. 3) repeated memory of the path and the process of stilling the mind

  4. 4) training in deep concentration

  5. 5) the pursuit of real knowledge, by which the higher samadhi (asamprajnata samadhi) is attained.

Those who have not yet freed themselves from attachment to body and mind will meet with success when they imbue their practice with five virtues.Others [those who are not born with the extraordinary abilities] too attain the highest level of samadhi, provided their practice is accompanied by conviction, inner strength, retentive power, all-consuming focus, and clear understanding.

For others,the path is faith, energy, mindfulness, meditation and wisdom.

Thankfully, for those who have not attained full detachment from body and mind, Patanjali sets out five ways in which we can still attain the higher samadhi (self realisation). The word ‘faith’ in one of the translations above makes me a bit twitchy – I personally am uncomfortable with ‘blind faith’, or believing in something you have no experience of. However, reassurance is found here:

it is suggested that one test the ideas in one’s own inner laboratory, with the “faith” of Yoga thus being based on direct experience.

‘Conviction’ is a good alternative to ‘faith’.

The ‘inner energy’ in step two is outlined here:

preserving the energy of your body, senses, and mind through all possible means— eat well, sleep well, exercise well, relax, and do not abuse your body and senses through overeating, oversleeping, and unwholesome sense pleasures.

Bit of a no-brainer – look after yourself and you will reap the benefits.

The third step is smriti, the power to recollect, or mindfulness of being on the yogic path, and also being mindful in the meditative sense (a bit of a current buzz-word).

The fourth step is focus or concentration, and can also be thought of as formal meditation. I wonder if steps three and four are similar to the Zen Buddhist practices of samu (mindfulness in the physical tasks of daily life) and zazen (formal sitting meditation).

The fifth step is given as ‘wisdom’, which is quite hard to attain. One commentary describes it as ‘clear understanding’, which feels more achievable –

knowing that everything in the world, including our own body and mind, are the means for gaining self-understanding .


Yoga sutras of Patanjali 1.17


Practice and detachment develop four types of samadhi: self-analysis,  synthesis, bliss and the experience of pure being.

Other translations:

The deep absorption of attention on an object is of four kinds, 1) gross (vitarka), 2) subtle (vichara), 3) bliss accompanied (ananda), and 4) with I-ness (asmita), and is called samprajnata samadhi.

Deep concentration on an object consists of 4 types:  1. Gross thought (vitarka)  2. Subtle thought (vichara)  3. Bliss (ananda)  4. I-am-ness (asmita) and is called samprajnatah samadhi (unity with object and Divine)

This sutra is actually about the final stage of the eight limbs of ashtanga yoga – samadhi, or the seer becoming one with what is seen (Iyengar describes this as ‘awareness’).

Incidentally, I think that in a book, my mind would prefer to work up to samadhi, beginning with the more achievable limbs of yoga, rather than jumping straight in with the ultimate goal. I wonder why Patanjali did it this way? I suppose if you start with the ‘prize’ / goal, then the purpose of the lower stages is more obvious. Perhaps by doing this, he is saying that this whole book is about samadhi or meditation / awareness, and that the other 7 limbs are steps you must follow to achieve this.

This translation / interpretation of the yoga sutras says it helps to think of this sutra (on the nature of samadhi) as being about attention or concentration, or meditation. This particular sutra is on samprajnata samadhi – unity, cognitive non-duality or lower samadhi (compared with the next sutra, which is on asamprajnata samadhi, meditation without content).

The sutra states that there are four types of meditation or attention:

1. Iyengar calls the first type ‘self-analysis’, but the other translations refer to it as ‘gross thought’ or ‘gross concentration’. This means meditation upon physical objects, mantras, breath, etc.

2. Subtle thought – after the gross thoughts have been left behind, the subtle nature of things

3. Bliss – freedom from the gross and subtle thoughts,

4. I-am-ness or the experience of pure being – consciousness of being with oneself.

It appears that these are just listed as the four types of ‘meditation with content’, not that they are supposed to be done in a particular order or that one is superior to any other. I notice that this appears to be in quite stark contrast to Zen Buddhism, but perhaps not to other forms of Buddhism. In the Zen practice of zazen, or shikantanza (sitting meditation), one jumps straight in with formless meditation – just sitting, and noticing what occurs, with no particular focus on the breath or anything else. I suppose that the 4 types of meditation here would still occur if one only practiced zazen. By just sitting, you would still gain the awaresness of the gross and the subtle, of the bliss (if it happened to occur), and the I-am-ness.

I suspect that Zen Buddhists would take issue with the ‘bliss’ aspect here – Suzuki in ‘Zen Mind, Beginners Mind’ implies that you may or may not find meditation enjoyable / blissful / peaceful. If you did, then great, but that is not the point. The point is that you noticed it.

Zazen and earworms



Image courtesy of Happyzine

I practice the Zen technique of zazen – wholehearted, just sitting meditation with no mantras or other focus than watching the thoughts come and go. Just observing the thoughts as an outsider might, without getting caught up in the content, is not as easy as it sounds. Zen teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn says on one of his CDs (great for beginners to the technique) that it can help to think of it as sitting on the bank of a river, watching the stream of thoughts pass by. If you get pulled into the water, as we all do from time to time, notice this and then get out and sit on the bank again. Another way you can think of it is by imagining you are lying looking up at the sky watching the clouds (your thoughts) blow past. Watch them come, and watch them go.

A recurring problem for me during meditation is earworms. I find I can watch the thoughts come and go, but songs keep popping up in my head and it’s really hard to let them go, that catchy tune, those repetitive rhythms. This is not just a problem during zazen, but much of the time. I can wake up in the morning singing Lou Reed or the Venga Boys for no discernible reason. Perhaps my finding the earworms irritating at all is what I should be noticing, rather than wishing they would go away so I can get on with the business of meditating. Perhaps they will go away on their own, eventually.