Have you ever felt life was going so fast, with you running behind, never reaching your destination? Have you ever wished you could stop the events of life in order to recollect yourself and life’s meaning. Did some deeper part of you knows that if you could slow down and centre yourself everything would be in order and you could handle all challenge more efficiently, with more poise?
In Yoga, Pratyahara is a means to give you access to a pause button that can stop the movie of your life when you need it most. It offers a break that creates the opportunity to shift our attention and hence our energy inwards, away from the outside world to where it is usually focused. You could also see Pratyahara as a volume control that can reduce the influence of the external world on your nervous system, especially when the outside stimuli leave you overwhelmed.
Many who take the practices of yoga seriously enough to practice sense withdrawal may be inclined to believe that the world outside is the adversary, the foe that we must challenge with our might in order not be tempted or led astray. In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with the world and satisfying the senses per se. Many pleasures including spiritual bliss can be gained by employing the senses, such as looking at beautiful scenery or listening to soulful music. The problem arises where we become so entangled by what the senses perceive, that we lose touch with what gives life to them – the blissful power that allows us to see, hear, touch and experience life.
As human beings we have the capacity to move in both directions, in and out. Our initial tendency is to move out. Since the moment we were born, our energy moves externally and the world hypnotises us through our senses. We start defining ourselves in relation to what happens outside of us. What the senses pass to the brain superimpose upon the core, becoming the defining factor for our ability to gain satisfaction from life. In other words, we become solely dependent and enslaved by our senses. This is because we have only learnt to stay out, in the world that we perceive through them. No wonder we feel at times that life (which is what we see out there) becomes overwhelmingly too fast or too loud. We are like a child that continuously plays outside, not knowing where home is or how to rest. The result is inevitable chaos and confusion. The good news is there is an inner world patiently waiting for us to find the way back to. It is all inclusive, unbound by time and space and it has the capacity to offer us the rest we so deserve and hence a pleasure unattainable from any other source.
Through yoga and especially the practice of Prathyahara our journey inwards begins and we learn to manage the focus of our attention between what the senses perceive and the source of bliss which lies underneath.
Prathyahara needs to be practised because in the beginning the mind that has not known any other world, resists the invitation to go in. I don’t blame it, it has known pleasure and excitement from the outer realm and is now being invited to go somewhere it has never been before, or when it has, it hasn’t experienced the joy it expected. Just like a child that would resist going back home after spending time with friends or foe, the mind resists going back home in case it loses what is at hand. With more practice, with patience, it all falls into place. When one relaxes inside and is willing to go to the place of no stimulation, the jewel within one’s being become apparent.
We start seeing the mistake we have made all our life: Thinking that what gives us our experience is out there. This person, that animal, this object, that music, this book, that view etc. etc. We gain pleasure when they are present and the moment they move away from our senses we may start to suffer. Our suffering is the result of the senses superimposing information upon our core and our inability to discriminate ‘who we are’ from this passing traffic. Suffering also results by misinterpreting this information, which we see as absolute, when in fact it is only relative.
The more we practice, the more we realise that the pleasure we gain in the sensory world is only possible because of our ‘ability’ to perceive and not ‘what’ we perceive and that suffering occurs when we lose ourselves to what the senses perceive.
We all tend to believe that experience is caused by the outside world which determines the state of our being. This results in living with fear of loss or angst to gain; thankfully with practice this false belief starts fading away. The more we practice, the less we attach pleasure and pain to objects of the senses and instead perception itself becomes the ground of our experience.
Sometimes I used to feel very sad for blind and deaf people who were unable to see a breath taking view or listen to soulful music. I was scared of experiencing what they do purely because I gave far more credit to the object of perception and far less to perception itself, to awareness of life regardless of the senses. There is more to seeing and hearing than the eyes and ears, when the gaze is inwards. As a master once said:
Close your eyes and you will see clearly, cease to listen and you will hear the truth.
An extreme Prathyahara practice involves experiencing what the blind or deaf person does. Going into a dark cube where nothing can be seen or heard in order to experience the bliss present in the perception, in the awareness within. There are other practices such as san mukhi mudra, which are more accessible, where you use your fingers to close the eyes and ears, remaining aware of the breath. Pranayama itself is a form of Pratyahara: As you focus the attention to the breath the senses start lessening their grip to the outside stimuli.
One of my favourite times to practice Pratyahara is just before going to sleep. It came to me one night when I realized that when my senses were less involved, the memory of them or the anticipation of them was still running in my head and my nervous system mirrored that stimulation. I noticed that I was habitually either fantasizing or imagining pleasure I could gain in different scenarios or how I could run away from pain. All of this was happening as I was lying supposedly calm in bed. So, I took the opportunity to use this perfect time to let go of the sensory world – ‘the waves of the ocean’ – and dive into the depth where peace always awaits. Before sleep is ideal if lack of time is what stops you from practising Pratyahara. Use it to practise moving your attention away from the scenes or events in your mind, or outside and, let awareness do the rest!
Whatever practice we choose, if done regularly and with earnestness, a pathway within is created. Anytime we feel lost, overwhelmed or ungrounded, we can find our way back to ourselves.