Indriya-pratyahara, or control of the senses, is the most important form of pratyahara, although this is not something that we like to hear in our mass media-oriented culture. 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, have their own will, 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.
The old saying “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” applies to those of us who have not learned how to properly control our senses. Indriya-pratyahara gives us the tools to strengthen the spirit and reduce its dependency on the body. Such control is not suppression (which causes eventual revolt), but proper coordination and motivation.
The Right Intake of Impressions
Pratyahara is about the right intake of impressions. Most of us are careful about the food we eat and the company we keep, but we may not exercise the same discrimination about the impressions we take in from the senses. We accept impressions via the mass media that we would never allow in our personal lives. We let people into our houses through television and movies that we would never allow into our homes in real life!
What kind of impressions do we take in every day? Can we expect that they will not have an effect on us? Strong sensations dull the mind, and a dull mind lets us act in ways that are insensitive, careless, or even violent.
According to ayurveda, sensory impressions are the main food for the mind. The background of our mental field consists of predominant sensory impressions. We see this when our mind reverts to the impressions of the last song we heard or the last movie we saw. Just as junk food makes the body toxic, junk impressions make the mind toxic. Junk food requires a lot of salt, sugar, or spices to make it palatable because it is largely dead food; similarly, junk impressions require powerful dramatic impressions—sex and violence—to make us feel that they are real, because they are actually just colors projected on a screen.
We cannot ignore the role sensory impressions play in making us who we are, for they build up the subconscious and strengthen the tendencies latent within it. Trying to meditate without controlling our impressions pits our subconscious against us and prevents the development of inner peace and clarity.
Fortunately we are not helpless before the barrage of sensory impressions. Pratyahara gives us many practical tools for managing them properly. Perhaps the simplest way to control our impressions 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 impressions. This can be as simple as sitting to meditate with our eyes closed or taking a retreat somewhere free from the normal sensory bombardments—like a mountain cabin.
Yoni mudra (also known as shanmukhi-mudra) is one of the most important pratyahara techniques for closing the senses. It involves using the fingers to block the sensory openings in the head—the eyes, ears, nostrils, and mouth—allowing the attention and energy to move within. It is done for short periods of time when our prana is energized, such as immediately after practicing pranayama. (Naturally we should avoid closing the mouth and nose to the point at which we starve ourselves of oxygen.)
Another method of sense withdrawal is to keep our sense organs open but withdraw our attention from them. In this way we cease taking in impressions without actually closing off our sense organs. The most common method, shambhavi mudra, consists of sitting with the eyes open while directing the attention within, a technique used in several Buddhist systems of meditation. This redirection of the senses inward can be done with the other senses as well, particularly with the sense of hearing. It helps us control our mind even when the senses are functioning, as they are in the normal course of the day.
1. Focusing on Uniform Impressions
Another way to cleanse the mind and control the senses is to put our attention on a source of uniform impressions, such as gazing at the ocean or the blue sky. Just as the digestive system gets short-circuited by irregular eating habits and contrary food qualities, our ability to digest impressions can be deranged by jarring or excessive impressions. And just as improving our digestion may require going on a fast, followed by a mono-diet, like the ayurvedic use of rice and mung beans (khichari), so our mental digestion may require a period of fasting from impressions, followed by a diet of natural but homogeneous impressions.
2. Creating Positive Impressions
Another means of controlling the senses is to create positive, natural impressions. There are a number of ways to do this: meditating upon aspects of nature such as trees, flowers, or rocks, as well as visiting temples or other places of pilgrimage, which are repositories of positive impressions and thoughts. Positive impressions can also be created by using incense, flowers, ghee lamps, altars, statues, and other artifacts of devotional worship.
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