Weekly Food For Thought


(Directing the mind from the clutches of sense organs that are always pointed towards the world outside of us)

In great sage Patanjali’s Yoga sutra named “Ashtanga Yoga”, the eight-fold path for attaining the stage of complete absorption into the Self, the 5th step known as “Pratyahara” plays a very crucial and an important role. The first 4 steps namely Yama (observances), Niyama (disciplines), Asana (different postures to discipline the body to effortlessly follow subsequent steps) and Pranayama (technique for the regulation of the breath (Prana) to quell the mind) are steps to deal with all the influences that are outside of the body. The last 3 steps namely Dharana (concentration of or focusing the mind), Dhyana or Meditation (stopping all activities of the mind including thoughts) and finally Complete absorption into the Self or Samadhi are the steps that directs our attention within us away from the outside world. It is not possible for most of us to move directly from asana to meditation. To make this transition, the breath and senses, which link the body and mind, first need to be brought under control and developed properly. This is where Pranayama and Pratyahara come in. With Pranayama we control our vital energies and impulses, and with Pratyahara we gain mastery over the unruly senses—both prerequisites to successful meditation.

The term “Pratyahara” is composed of two Sanskrit words, prati and ahara. “Ahara” means “food,” or “anything we take into ourselves from the outside.” “Prati” is a preposition meaning “against” or “away.” “Pratyahara” means literally “control of ahara,” or “gaining mastery over external influences. The term is usually translated as “withdrawal from the senses,” but much more is implied. Pratyahara is twofold. It involves withdrawal from wrong food, wrong impressions, and wrong associations, while simultaneously opening up to right food, right impressions, and right associations. We cannot control our mental impressions without right diet and right relationships, but Pratyahara’s primary importance lies in withdrawal from or control of sensory impressions, which frees the mind to move within.

The control of inputs to our five senses of perception is called Indriya Pratyahara. Most of us suffer from sensory overload, the result of constant bombardment from television, radio, computers, newspapers, magazines, books—you name it. Our commercial society functions by stimulating our interest through the senses. We are constantly confronted with bright colors, loud noises, and dramatic sensations. We have been raised on every sort of sensory indulgence—it is the main form of entertainment in our society. The problem is that the senses, like untrained children, are largely instinctual in nature. They tell the mind what to do. If we don’t discipline them, they dominate and disturb us with their endless demands. We are so accustomed to ongoing sensory activity that we don’t know how to keep our minds quiet—we have become hostages of the world of the senses and its allurements. We run after what is appealing to the senses and forget the higher goals of life. For this reason, Pratyahara is probably the most important limb of yoga for us today. Perhaps the simplest way to control our senses is to cut them off, to spend some time apart from all sensory inputs. Just as the body benefits by fasting from food, so the mind benefits by fasting from the sensory inputs.

Our Beloved Swami has mentioned many a times that the “Mind is like a mad monkey”. This definition is very appropriate to the nature of our mind that always jumps from one thing to the other like a monkey jumping aimlessly from one branch to the other of a tree. Also, when a monkey grabs on to something it is very difficult to force it out of its hand. The only way to let the monkey go of the thing it is holding is to divert its attention to something more interesting to the monkey. Our mind also behaves in a similar manner. Since most of us are habituated to act on every little stimulus to the senses of perception from the outside world, one way to train the mind from responding to every little stimulus is to direct it towards something that is much more worth pursuing. The tool given to humans for this purpose is the faculty of discrimination. Every action taken by the mind to the sensory input from outside is always subject to the duality of providing happiness and sorrow in a cyclic manner. Also, the same objects that provide stimuli to the senses from outside are always bound by time and hence transitory. This is when the spiritual seeker, like a compass always pointing towards north, needs to engage buddhi or the spiritual intellect to discern both the dual and transitory nature of objects of sensory stimuli and be aware of the real purpose of having taken human birth. This must be done consistently without wavering from that truth.

To put it in a nutshell, we must discipline ourselves through the faculty of discrimination, and regulate the day-to-day influences of the myriad sensory inputs on our minds. That is the only way we could deprive our mind to look for stimulus outside of us.

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