The yogic process of meditation as discussed by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras can very simply be understood as a progressive shift of attention through different layers of awareness. Whether there is a "goal" in mind with this is up to the individual. The "results" of this meditative work are myriad. I believe that to hold to one view in an effort to achieve "final liberation" is a bit misguided. It is the difference between seeking and creating. Do we want to be seekers or do we want to be creators? If we take the perspective that we are already creators, then why would be confuse ourselves by creating a 'seeker'?
When one looks at the sutras themselves, there is a certain purity in how they relay the process of meditation to us. The commentaries and culture that have come down to us however, oftentimes interpret the information in a way that might have us think that somehow the separation of Spirit and Matter is a good thing. This paradigm encourages us to seek our true nature, Spirit, and simultaneously separate ourselves from relative reality, or 'Matter'. Although times have changed and evolved, this old paradigm still exists even in our subconscious somehow, which gives rise to judgment, spiritual elitism and other problems.
These different layers of awareness are sometimes interpreted from these limited perspectives as being like obstacles to be overcome in favor of Consciousness/Awareness resting in itself. This paradigm follows from a dualistic separation of Consciousness and Matter handed down to us by traditional Samkhya thought. This kind of paradigm has subtly infected not only Eastern but also Western modes of perception, philosophy, and spiritual culture, leading many in the tradition of the sutras to even condemn or to consider the third chapter of the Yoga Sutras on powers/manifestation as somehow less than the more pure 4th chapter of liberation or kaivalya.
I don't hold these views.
It is possible to take a different perspective, one that allows for the expressive creativity of Consciousness. From this different perspective, a more tantric perspective, one not explicitly stated by Patanjali, these different layers can be seen as the ornamental display and infinite potentiality of Consciousness to play and create, to shape reality around us.
In tantra, one of the most beautiful expressions of this display of Consciousness is the Sri Yantra, the geometrical form body of Lalitha Tripurasundari, the Goddess. Each of the many triangles, petals, corners, and shapes signifies one of the holographic manifestations of Consciousness itself. We might be tempted to cut the display, to only focus on the center, the bindu. But this is like cutting a beautiful tree at its stump. The yantra comes to us as a whole, with all of its "separate" parts equally important.
Lets explore the process of yogic meditation from several different perspectives.
From the perspective of the dualistic paradigm, in yogic meditation we are attempting to separate Consciousness progressively from its contents. In classical Samkhya philosophy, which goes hand in hand with this paradigm, Spirit or Purusha is considered to be eternally separated yet somehow also intertwined with Matter or Prakriti. The goal of yogic meditation here is to somehow disconnect the spirit from matter and let it rest in itself. This is like separating the sediment out from pure water. The sediment and the water, although interrelating, are not the same thing and must be separated from each other. From my personal perspective in practice, this paradigm can be useful in a limited way in the sense that learning to separate pure awareness from the contents of awareness can be a valuable learning practice. Ultimately though, there is a limitation here. The world is somehow separate from us.
Lets try another perspective. Lets say instead of water and sediment, we considered Matter or Prakriti as somehow not separate from Spirit. Even if we do this, there is still something which might need to be addressed. Something is still constant (awareness) and something is still shifting (contents, thoughts, forms, names). Confusion and frustration can still result when we somehow relate these two as equivalent. Nevertheless, lets just say that instead of water and sediment, we had a large field of clay and within that field, many elaborate sculptures of different shapes existed. So we have one field of clay (or many, depending on your take) and many possible shapes that the clay can take.
From this second perspective, the "goal" of meditation would be to progressively take our attention from the shapes of the clay into the substance of the clay. The substance is constant and the shapes are varying and shifting. From this perspective, in discovering the substance, we do not need to change the shapes. We do not need to forcibly separate or strain out the sediment from the water. One could argue from the first perspective that one could theoretically realize the water in the midst of the sediment, but the problem with this first perspective is that the water is still separate from the sediment.
Hopefully you are following me here. This may seems like a crazy philosophical exercise but it actually has deep roots in practice and direct experience. The words are just pointers to something important.
In the Yoga Sutras, two major processes of meditation or samadhi are described, Samprajnata and Asamprajnata. I'll try to keep technical discussions to a minimum here. Traditionally, from the first perspective given above, these processes are linear and follow the progressive descent from objective (thought, name, form), through instrumental (sensory awareness), down through subjective (the pure "I"), until awareness itself is separated from matter.
In the second perspective, the one I am proposing, the objective and what is perceived to be the subjective layers are released at the same time and one drops into the instrumental layer. Why do I say, "what is perceived to be the subjective layer?" Because the actual subjective layer cannot be perceived. It is the very locus of perception. In effect, the objective and what we perceive to be the subjective layers are both noun layers. They are things. The instrumental layer, while some would argue is a relationship between the subject and object, actually isn't. It is a verb. The sensory awareness layer is pure in and of itself. Seeing does not require an object to be seen. The expansive space through which feeling arises does not actually require some "thing" to be felt. I am proposing here that the instrumental layer is deeper than the "known subjective" and the objective layers.
The subjective layer I am referring to above is kind of a "false" subjective layer. It is the "I" masking itself as the objective. When we say, "I am this or I am that," in effect we are just playing around in the objective layer. What we think of as "I" is just identifying with the myriad names and forms of mind. The true subjective layer is more like a locus of awareness, like a whirl in a vast ocean. This whirl can only be understood directly, and through accessing the pureness of the instrumental field.
We run into an interesting question here. If pure Consciousness is like the fullness of the Ocean, and the subjective layer is like a whirl in the ocean, what is the difference if we just recognize the water?
In recognizing water, do we recognize the fullness of the Ocean? Perhaps not. There is a depth of understanding here that I admit, I am at a loss to fully comprehend. Nor do I think I have met any being on this planet that actually understands this. To be embodied is to inhabit a whirl. At least from what I can recognize from my limited perspective. Nevertheless, I can't stop inquiring. And it is here that I can't stop recognizing that the periphery of the Sri Yantra is just as important as the bindu...
Back to these two words, Samprajnata and Asamprajnata.
In Yoga, from the first perspective, holding the sediment in a fixed configuration gives us Samprajnata. Holding the sediment separate from the water, and not allowing it to agitate further gives Asamprajnata. Liberation comes when there is complete recognition of the water and separation or kaivalya of the water and the sediment. I'm not really into this perspective, regardless of its limited uses in practice.
From the second perspective, holding to a particular shape in the clay gives Samprajnata, holding the field of clay without shape (in other words, letting the shapes dissolve into the base field) gives Asamprajnata. In this perspective, neither of these practices can actually be done without recognizing the substance of the field itself. Why? Because the substance and the shape are one.
In plain English, through yogic meditation we can 1. steady form within the mind, we can 2. hold the mind empty of form, and we can also 3. recognize the nature of the mind.
It is important to recognize that 2 and 3 are not the same thing. In fact, I would claim that 3 is a natural requisite to establishing 1 and 2. In other words, if we understand intimately the nature of the mind, we can shape it or un-shape it. Ultimately finding success in 1 and 2, which can be done through sheer force of will (as per Yoga Sutra 1.15) is not nearly as powerful as finding the same success which results from understanding 3 (as per Yoga Sutra 1.16).
From the perspective of the clay, the nice thing that arises is that once the field substance is understood/recognized, the shaping of the field comes under control of the whirl in clay that is us. In this way, yogic meditation becomes not just some linear ascent or descent (however you like to think about it) to a fixed point, but rather becomes like the yantra, in that we can go outwards (from the bindu) and inwards (towards the bindu), we can shape the field or wipe it clean. Inward and outward are all arising from the same field. The clay is one, the shapes (or lack thereof) are many.
This brings up deeper questions about will and what drives the movement itself. Rather than engage that question at this time, I will just quote the words of my Guru to appease that for the moment,
"Do as you like, minimize harm."
From this perspective, there is divine play, Lila. The field of clay is allowed to manifest and can be done so with yogic discipline if we so desire particular forms to arise. Simultaneously, the substance is recognized. The only difficulty might come in if we attach too much to the shapes, not recognizing the field out of which they arise. Why is this a potential difficulty? Because our mind wants the shapes to be permanent, which they are not. It is only the substance which is permanent, the clay itself. But hey, new shapes are always possible...
I want to say more but I'll save it until next week.
The field of infinity is perfect, the play of the Divine throughout that field is radiant, just as it is.