For this week's Thought Bite, we are pleased to present, with permission, this lovely piece titled "Practicing Pratyahara,” by Radhika Shah-Grouven, which provides an interestingly different perspective on Pratyahara. Radhika is a Teacher of the Samaya Srividya Tradition and the Himalayan Lineage. If you'd like to read more of her essays, go to her website https://THAT-first.com
Raja, the royal path of Yoga comprises of 8 limbs. One of the most enigmatic limbs Pratyahara is explained here.
When we meditate upon our breath in the classic meditative postures of Sukhasana, Swastikasana or Siddhasana, we do so with the intention of making our minds one-pointed and going inward. But instead of a steady, quiet mind, all we get is a mind that distracted and frustrated. This is because between the breath and the mind lies the untamed domain of the senses.
Pratyahara is often translated as "Withdrawal of the senses". Many modern seekers find themselves unable to grasp this idea. Is this the real meaning or just an inadequate translation?
Food for Thought
The word Pratyahara is a combination of two words prati and ahara. Prati means "opposed to, against". It can be compared to the English prefix "anti". Ahara means "food". Thus Pratyahara means that "which is against food". What is this food, that the yogis oppose? It is food for thought!
The senses provide the mind with stimuli that fuel the thought process. The sense of smell, for example, is a powerful emotional stimulant. The smell of wet earth brings with it a range of feelings, while the smell of garbage brings aversion and other negative thoughts. Just a whiff of perfume may flood the mind with memories of an old friend. The senses have their own habits, developed over the years, that pull the mind outward. With knowledge and practice we can help the senses to break those old habits. We can do this by first, studying the subtle aspects of the senses, then gradually guiding them.
Indriyas: The 5 Cognitive Senses and the 5 Organs of Action
The Indriyas are the five cognitive senses as well as the five organs of action. Through the 5 cognitive senses we receive data from the world and using the organs of action we communicate with it.
The 5 Cognitive Senses are:
The 5 Organs of Action are:
How the 10 Indriyas interact
The sense of touch is one of the most subtle yet most dominant Indriya. The sense of touch can be experienced in the mind as feelings. We are "touched" when someone gives us a gift. Touch also keeps us identified with the body. At another level the habits of the sense of touch stimulate the organ of procreation. And while it is primarily a cognitive sense, it sometimes functions as an organ of action, when we express ourselves using body language.
Two important indriyas are those of speech and hearing, these complement each other. Here the organs of action and cognitive senses meet; we cannot speak clearly if we cannot hear. These two in particular should be studied if we wish to take the journey into the mind, for our thoughts are spoken by the most subtle aspect of the speech organ and these are then "heard" by the inner ears. Our effort in making our mind one-pointed is really to quieten the mental speech and listen to the silence within.
In Yoga, stillness is silence. A person with a strong impression of locomotion may be restless and fidgety. Locomotion here does not mean only the action of walking. We move our hands, our eyes search, tongue talks, the lips smile, the eyebrows frown, even our attention and mind move constantly. Thus any movement is an expression of the senses; it is, in fact, a form of speech. To smile is to communicate. Eye contact is acknowledgement. Thought is action and action is thought. Observe all movements, within and without.
The hands are symbolic of the manual organs. What do the hands do? They hold and grasp. We even grasp with our eyes when we see a loved object. Grasping is a mental state. When we hold on to a thought or feeling, then we are grasping. It may also be called attachment. An interesting insight is the connection between the manual organ and the organ of elimination. Only if we stop grasping mentally can we eliminate the toxins i.e. the painful thoughts and feelings from our minds. The Indriya of grasping clearly manifests itself in stiff and tense muscles. This study will eventually lead us to realize that the body is mind, only more gross.
The organ of procreation expresses itself in different ways. The impelling to create a perfect meal or write a novel comes from this organ. In fact any impelling to express is a form of speech and springs forth from this primitive organ. Desire, thought and feelings are all creative acts and this brings us to the realization that all the senses are interconnected and interrelated.
With this insight we can observe how a cognitive sense adds to our personality and ultimately creates a behaviour pattern resulting in action.
Indriyas and Manas
As we begin to appreciate the finer aspects of the Indriyas, it becomes obvious that there is a strong connection between the mind and the senses as well. Manas, the lower mind directly controls the senses. Manas, that should ideally co-ordinate the 5 cognitive senses and the 5 organs of action, is instead dragged around by the ten Indriyas.
Let's see, how this happens. For instance, the sense of sight spots a piece of cake. This information enters the mind and the tongue demands the food. The tongue we refer to here is not the physical organ, but its source in the mind itself. An untrained Manas, at the mercy of the senses, instructs the organs of action to acquire that food. So the organ of locomotion centred within the mind moves the legs, the hands pick up a large piece of cake, and the mouth swallows it. We just saw how the sense of sight is interconnected with the sense of taste, organs of motion and the lower mind Manas.
Buddhi: The Higher Mind and Wellspring of Intuitive
This example leaves us with a feeling of powerlessness, of a lack of control and direction. There were no carefully weighed decisions: "Am I hungry? Do I need to eat cake? Should I eat it now? Can it wait?"
Who discriminates, judges and decides? Who is it that must guide Manas? It is Buddhi, the higher mind.
What we call thoughtless actions or impulsive actions are the result of an undisciplined Manas. Such a person is led by the habits of the senses. In the famous metaphor, found in the Kathopanishad, the 5 horses are the 5 cognitive senses, the reins of the horses are Manas and the charioteer is Buddhi. In the Bhagvad-Gita Sri Krishna, the charioteer, symbolises Buddhi, the inner voice of wisdom. Pratyahara, therefore also involves the sharpening of Buddhi.
Pratyahara: Training Manas to follow the Inner voice of Wisdom
Thus study of the senses brings us progressively higher levels of insights into the nature of the mind and the senses, it also makes us aware of their habits. When we observe ourselves we will discover much about our sensory habits. You may learn that you have a sensual nature or that you talk too much. It is important that you be gentle with yourself. Do not condemn yourself, do not hurt yourself with guilt and other self-deprecatory emotions; they are not useful. Having determined the habits of the Manas and the senses, discipline them gently with understanding and convince them to follow Buddhi.
Pratyahara is not then about shutting our eyes, plugging the ears with cotton wool and forcing ourselves to be still. It is not a rigid, uncompromising and unpleasant task. The process leading to Pratyahara requires your to pay attention to your thoughts and actions, watch the senses and observe their interplay. It allows for intelligent decisions based on observations, it helps sharpen Buddhi. It makes us vigilant against the negative thought patterns. This is self-study. When we gently work with the habits of the Indriyas we are practising Ahimsa and Tapas. It is only when the cognitive senses, the organs of action and Manas have been trained to follow Buddhi that we are truly practising Pratyahara and are ready to penetrate the deepest levels of spiritual awareness.