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The Empty Headedness of It All

PYS 1.39 yathā-abhimata-dhyānāt-vā


The sadhaka (practitioner) should meditate on what is appropriate for them. [The object will differ from sadhaka to sadhaka, depending on the mind’s projections onto the object.] – Translation, Austin Sanderson

PYS 1.46 tāḥ eva sabījaḥ samādhiḥ


The sadhaka can meditate on gross or subtle objects; this is the integration of a seed or bijah. [A seed in meditation can be anything from the mantra Om (subtle) to a mental image of a flower (gross). Focusing on a seed in meditation cultivates a single-pointed samadhi – in this case, Om samadhi or flower samadhi.] – Translation, Austin Sanderson

PYS 1.51 tasya-api nirodhe sarva-nirodhāt-nirbījaḥ samādhiḥ


In meditation, when all gross or subtle objects are canceled and there is no seed [object attachment] all merges with Infinity, which is samadhi, happiness, bliss, and ecstasy. [For Patanjali, the lack of a seed, or object, during meditation allows for access into the highest form of samadhi, which is Self-realization, reunification or yoga.]

When I was growing up I had a great aunt who was a little spacy, and she talked nonstop; she would jump from one subject to the other, without taking a breath. Much of what she talked about was gossip and useless information. My mom used to say she was “empty headed”; I didn’t know how that could be the case because my great aunt was always talking. I always thought if she were truly “empty headed” she would stop all the excessive chatter.

After I became a yoga teacher, over and over again students would tell me after I had taught meditation that they could not empty out their minds for meditation. Their minds, like my great aunt’s, were chattering nonstop. Often a tone of failure is heard in these students’ voices as they express the inability to achieve an empty Zen-like state of mind – a state of being “empty headed.” As their guide in the meditation practice, I often reply to them, “Who told you that you had to have an empty mind? I didn’t tell you that. I asked you to focus your mind on the mantra, so not to get caught up in the chatter of the mind.” Like my great aunt, their minds were filled with excessive chatter and like her they found it easy to be swept away by it.

In Patanjali’s first chapter, he distinguishes between two types of meditation (samadhi). The first type is with seed, by which he means focusing on a form or object (sabija samadhi) to sustain the mind and weaken its tendencies to wander into mindless chatter. The second type is letting the mind rest in the infinite, nirbija or seedless samadhi. But most yogis only are aware of the second type, the empty-headed approach to meditation. Why? The concept of the yogi in padmasana (lotus seat), with an empty, blank mind emanates from pop culture’s fascination with Zen Buddhism and its clean, sparse aesthetics. Patanjali makes it clear that meditation can be achieved with seed or without seed, but in both cases, dharana (focused attention or concentration) is needed to achieve the state of dhyana (effortless meditation).

In meditation with seed, the focus of the mind is on a single object. If the mind is darting about from one thought to the next, the mind is not in a state of focused attention. In reality, this mind is more like my great aunt’s mind – it is untrained and unfocused. A seed or object can help the mind to focus. A seed can be anything: a mantra or the symbol of Om is considered a suitable object. If Om is the seed, the mind should stay focused only on Om and its internal sound, its anahata nada (in Sanskrit anahata means “un-struck”); the body or the mind can focus on the sacred symbol of Om in the mind’s eye. This allows the yogi to calm the mind and focus only on the vibration of Om and the symbol of Om within. Other subtle objects for meditation could be unconditional love, joy, or peace.

Another seed meditation that is less esoteric is simply to take a daisy flower, sit and look at and study the daisy, then close your eyes and see the flower in your mind’s eye; focus on the flower internally and go more deeply into the flower, keep your focus on the flower and become one with the flower. A flower as the seed is meditation on a gross object because the flower is an object in the material world. Other gross objects for meditation could be the sun, snowcapped mountains, or other beings we share this realm with.

In both cases, Om or flower meditation, the mind is not empty, but instead it is concentrating on a single object or seed. Patanjali explains that samadhi (union) with the object is a state of meditative absorption, attained by the practice of dharana (focused attention or concentration) and dhyana (effortless meditation). Eventually the true essence of the object is known, without distortions or projection of the mind upon the object; in other words, the mind is not projecting that the sound of Om is “relaxing” or that the daisy is “pretty.” Samadhi dawns when your mind becomes completely absorbed in the object occupying the space to which you have confined it. In samadhi, the process of concentration, the object of concentration, and the mind that is trying to concentrate or meditate have all become one. There is no more effort. In samadhi, you are aware only of the essence and not of the details.

By knowing the essence, you can merge with the seed object. Patanjali defines two broad categories of samadhi: the first is samprajñata samadhi, samadhi with higher knowledge, which occurs through the absorption of the mind into an object; the second (and higher) level is asamprajñata samadhi, “beyond higher knowledge.” This second category is a very high state of consciousness in which there is no object (nirbija) of concentration; only the yogi’s pure consciousness is contained in the space. This is the “empty mind” so many seek. Nirbija samadhi allows the practitioner to move away from prakriti (nature) both subtle and gross. This also allows the yogi to move away from identifying themselves with the body, the mind, the thoughts, and the feelings and instead move toward identification with the True Self, Higher Consciousness, or God realization.

This emptiness and detachment from prakriti (nature) is an advanced practice. This is why in the Urban Sadhu Yoga method we suggest mantra or physical visualization for meditation. Nirbija samadhi (seedless union) is like passing through the eye of a needle, and if the mind falsely identifies with the body and mind – as it does with most of us – it will be impossible to enter this realm of pure, empty consciousness. This does not mean it cannot be done; once a yogi understands the difference between meditation with seed and without seed, they can attempt nirbija (no seed) meditation even if true emptiness may seem out of reach. Just don’t be discouraged if you can’t empty the mind at this stage in your yogic journey. True empty-headedness will require much greater effort and time to achieve.

Austin Sanderson – Urban Sadhu Yoga


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