“What the hell is isolated samadhi?” you may ask. Currently we’re in a mindfulness meditation boom and samadhi is not emphasized as often in this practice. With mindfulness practice, we’re focusing on objects, such as breath, body, emotions and thoughts. We watch them arise and pass away, doing our best to see their impermanence moment to moment. This is a wonderful practice and helps us become more familiar with our minds, our habitual patterns and how we function in the relative world.
Samadhi is a state of meditative absorption where we access deep insights into the mind and heart and the nature of interconnection. In samadhi, our minds are calm, our meditation is effortless and often includes feelings of bliss, joy and equanimity. It has great appeal but I find many practitioners of mindfulness don’t reach this state often. Their concentration isn’t developed enough or the focus remains subject/object oriented. In samadhi, the subject/object separation disappears. That is, “self and other” cease to exist as a fixed experience. A strong mindfulness practice can lead to samadhi. But it takes commitment and adequate time devoted to meditation.
I began my practice in the Zen tradition, where samadhi was emphasized. Through rigorous practice, I quickly reached deep states of meditative absorption. I found it invaluable in helping me with intractable depression and grief; I was able to see thoughts and emotions as empty of any abiding reality. I found the courage to experience the grief and depression directly, which allowed them to finally pass through to their end.
But I also became aware that many accomplished teachers seemed lost outside of the meditation hall. They spoke eloquently of emptiness and seemed to have deep dharma insights. But their “everyday” behavior was puzzling and in some cases, inexcusable. Whatever clarity they gained through samadhi was lost as soon as they entered the everyday world. It was as if a barrier had been erected between the two, and no amount of practice penetrated the clouded mind of craving and addiction. I was on the receiving end of this craving with two Zen teachers and it shattered my trust in the path. I didn’t understand how such seemingly awakened men could be so blind in other parts of their lives.
I started to realize they had not developed their capacity to be mindful in daily life in a way that would bridge their insights and samadhi from the cushion. I knew didn’t want to follow that route, so I took up Vipassana mindfulness as a counterbalance to samadhi practice. I had to let go of my pride of accomplishment on the path and approach this practice as a beginner. With its emphasis on ethics and compassion, and de-emphasis’ on holding teachers up as gurus, Vipassana helped me find a way back to the practice and to the dharma. This doesn’t mean I think one practice is better than the other. Both have merit and both need to be approached in a balanced way.
Many newcomers do best when they begin with mindfulness. But at some point they may need more. Mindfulness and meditative absorption are both important practices. I would not abandon one for the other, nor emphasize one over the other for the mature and committed practitioner. They are not mutually exclusive. Just enter the way with a good dose of compassion and find the path to your heart. All practices are like a finger pointing to the moon, as one saying goes. We don’t want to mistake the finger for the moon, and become attached to any one practice. Knowing when to let go is as important as skillfully developing these practices. When I let go of samadhi, I didn’t lose it, but gained another doorway into compassion and insight, especially in my everyday life.