Pratyahara (Abstraction of the Senses)
SRI SWAMI KRISHNANANDA
This article is an excerpt from the book “Sadhana-The Spiritual Way”.
You have the stages described in the Yoga Sastras dealing with your sense organs, which present before you a picture of the world, even of God Himself, quite different, of course, from what they really are. What is sense perception? What are the senses doing? And, where are they? You may think that the eyes that see, the ears that hear, etc., are the sense organs. They are only organs, but not sensations. You have sensations, without which the organs will not get animated. A dead body also has these organs. It has eyes and ears but it has no sensation, so the eyes may be open, but there will be no seeing in a corpse. The seer is not the physical eye, but a sensation of visualisation, a form taken by the mind itself.
What does the mind do in this condition? The one integrated mind that it really is ramifies itself into five different rays, – as sunlight, allowed to pass through the mouth of a pot with five apertures at the bottom, will be seen to project itself in five different channels. But, if the holes are fitted with certain lenses of a different structure and colour, the same sunlight which passes through the inside of the pot will project itself through these five apertures in five different manners. These five different manners of the projection of a single integrated mental process are called the sensations. So, we see colour through one sense, sound through another, etc.
Actually, the basic substance of colour, taste, sound, touch and smell is one and the same. There are not five different things here inside us. They look like five different things because of the different lenses through which the single light passes. Thus, they give a wrong picture of things. If these contorted light rays through the five apertures are allowed to project further upon things outside, then the seer inside, which is the mind, will see the world of five-fold perception in a totally different manner from what the world really is. This is what has happened to us. We cannot see things as they really are. We see, we hear, we touch, etc., through the senses which are already conditioned by the structure or the avenues of perception.
In order that you may not be tempted by these Disneyland-like presentations due to these distortions of sensations, you have to practise a process called pratyahara, which means the abstraction of the sensory operations, and centring the energy of these sensations in their source, which is the mind itself. Difficult is this process. The sensations are rebellious. Illustrations are given in the Bhagavad Gita, telling how difficult this method is,-though it is very simple to hear. Wild elephants, roaring lions, terrible tigers, bursting tornadoes and cyclones may be compared to the operations of the senses.
Vasishtha instructs Sri Rama in the Yoga-Vasishtha: “You can drink the whole ocean, you can shake the root of the mountain, you can drink fire, but you cannot control the mind.” Like binding air in a little bag is your attempt to control the sense organs.
Sensations are nothing but desires. They are not really connected with physical things. Wrongly do we feel that we love things, hate things, want things and do not want things, on account of the deceptive operations and the reports of the sense organs operating in this manner. Wild dogs are these sensations. They bark and may attack you, also.
What do you do? You should not be carried away by the appearance of this tornado of the desire process. Here again a kind of self-analysis is called for. Sensations, as told already, are, only desires manifesting themselves, in these five formations. We want five things in this world: we want beautiful things to see, melodious things to hear, fragrant things to smell, delicious things to taste, soft things to touch. You have no other desire in the world except these. Though you may think that you have millions of desires, they are only five, basically.
Now you have to instruct your own mind. Do you want delicious things, beautiful objects, melodious music, a soft bed? Many people in this world may have these facilities, but still they are most unhappy people. Beautiful presentations, tasty dishes, melodious music, soft beds of velvet have not made rich people happy. What the senses are telling you is indeed mischievous. Even if you have all these sensuous things, you will still be the same miserable person as you were before. The sensations are terribly deceptive and you cannot trust them for a minute. You cannot trust what you see or hear, cannot trust any sensation. They are here before you to pull the Atman (Self) out and make It appear like an anatman or a dead object. This living Atman then starts clinging to a dead Atman outside in the form of the visible things in the world. Here is the drama of life, the way in which we are living.
Tell yourself again and again by bringing before your mind the experiences that ancient sages and saints also had passed through. They had the same difficulty. They were the same small people as any one of us is; they became big because of the understanding they exercised and the success they achieved in the restraint of the sense organs. When you meditate you will see a totally contradictory thing just in front of you. You will see there physically present (not imaginarily conceived) things that you once loved. You will think that they are only visions, but at that time they will not be visions. They will materialise themselves into the form that you loved once upon a time, and the same person will be there in front of you, the same treasure placed before you: “Here it is. You have left all of us and come. Here we are.” Don’t say they are illusory visions. They are concrete forms of your own unfulfilled desires.
When Buddha was in deep meditation, he saw his wife in front of him sitting with a little child. He could not say that it was an illusory mental conception, because she was speaking: “My dear lord, I am here. You have left me and come. Here is your child. Don’t you have pity? Why are you torturing yourself? See this beautiful baby. Am I not your beloved? Have you no compassion? Please, please, listen to me.”
Buddha thought, “How is it that this lady has come here?” Then, “No, don’t tempt me!” he told himself. “I know very well what this presentation is. It is my own earlier pleasure of sense life that has condensed itself into the very desirable object which I loved once upon a time. Break to pieces, shatter yourself!” he told himself.
“My dear master, what are you doing on the hilltop? Here is the treasure of the whole world before you,-all the gold and silver,” somebody told Christ when he was doing tapasya (austerities) on a mountaintop.
There were ancient saints of Christianity who lived in the deserts of northern Africa. St. Anthony the Great is one example who struggled with his visions. He saw before him the arms of a beloved, and the treasures and the wealth of the Roman Empire. They were not visions; they were there in front of him. It took him to the point of death until he could realise that he had to overcome them.
These are not stories of somebody,-it is everybody’s story. You are the Buddha, you are Christ, you are St. Anthony, you are the ancient master, in your own self. All these beautiful grand presentations will come before you, as we hear in the scriptures that Indra will come with all his retinue. This Indra and the retinue are nothing but the mind and the sense organs concretising themselves before you, giving the picture of solidity. You have to guard yourself.
This is to tell you briefly some of the fundamentals of pratyahara, the restraint of the sense organs. Once you achieve success in this practice, you have achieved success ninety percent, truly. Until this is achieved, it is all arduous struggle. It is a determination to swim across the current of a river in spate. Later on, if you succeed in your attempt, the river will take an opposite turn, and the world, instead of opposing you, will flow with you. A great unthought-of joy will take possession of you. Struggle will cease, enemies will become friends, the material objects will change their colour and contour, and all shall be well with you, provided this awful, very painful process of the withdrawal of the sensations (not merely the closing of the sense organs) is achieved, and the mind is charged abundantly with these energies which went out earlier and sucked the soul of the mind, making it fickle and uncontrollable.
The mind will be yourself later on. Instead of your feeling that it is “your” mind, you will feel that you are “yourself” the mind, a medium of the expression of the Atman Itself.